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TV Interview

Jack O'Connell ('The Runaway')

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'The Runaway' actor Jack O'Connell

© Sky

Sky One have lined up an all-star cast for their upcoming adaptation of the Martina Cole novel, The Runaway. Keith Allen, Ken Stott and Alan Cumming all star in the six-part mini-series, which follows the epic love story of childhood sweethearts Cathy and Eamonn. As the pair are drawn together and torn apart over the course of two decades, Cathy (newcomer Joanna Vanderham) is taken in by a flamboyant transvestite, while Eamonn is tragically drawn into a life of crime. We recently caught up with former Skins star Jack O'Connell, who plays Eamonn, to chat about his new role and the long shadow cast by James Cook!

What can you tell us about your character Eamonn?
"Eamonn is half Irish, born in Ireland. I'm half-Irish, so his heritage was part of what interested me. I was wondering about his accent, because he was brought up in London, so I guess all of his mates would've influenced him mainly, but his Dad's a Dubliner. I was wondering if there would be any [Irish] twang in his accent, and I tried to work some in, but it might just register as a bad attempt at cockney! He's a 17-year-old lad that's been brought up in East London, from the '60s onwards. It wasn't easy back in those days. The sense of community was interesting to me as well, and whether Eamonn would be influenced by that. But he has definitely got an inherited temperamental flair, which instigates his downfall."

What was it that attracted you to the role?
"The era that he grew up in was interesting to me, because I was about his age where we start off with him, around 16 or 17. By the time it got to Eamonn being older than me, I just learnt a s**t-load off of him. I played him till he was about 27 or 28. He was more mature than me, so I learnt from his mistakes and whatnot. It's weird, because I'm living my own life at the same time as playing someone's growth over 10 years. I like to think of all of my characters as realistically as I can. That way there's more hope that the audience is going to believe my portrayal of him. I hope I mapped out Eamonn's journey and his growth. That was really interesting to me, to know that he would start as 16 and youthful, and end up as 27 and more sure of himself. You matured quicker back then as well, it seems to me."

Do you think Eamonn is a good man at heart?
"I think that the whole time he does overall have good intentions. He just sees that the people that he steps on as obstacles who have put themselves in between him and who he wants to be with, who he visualises his happiness with, and that's Cathy. The time he spent with Cathy was the most consistent part of his whole life. Any time that he's spent apart from her, he's just been yearning for her, whether he knows it or not. He's obviously concentrating on his own life, trying to keep it on track enough to guarantee that he'll see her again. But in terms of the people that cross him, you never see him step on anyone who is innocent. Any time it gets violent with him, it isn't unjust. There's one case where people might beg to differ whether it's justifiable or not. Personally I don't think so, in terms of his actions, but then you only have to look at his upbringing to begin to understand it. Once you understand it, you can start to sympathise. Whether or not you condone it, that's another matter. Even though there are times when Eamonn should be an enemy, I still felt for him and wanted him to achieve what he set out to do."

How close is your version of Eamonn to the character in the novel?
"You'd have to ask someone who's neutral, but from my perspective, Martina Cole's version of Eamonn is a lot rougher, grittier and brutal than I was. That's probably got something to do with the fact that it's going on television. Eamonn's violence will be shocking [in our version] but it's not out of the blue and it's not in there just for shock value. It's what everyone, from the writers to the actors, considered a genuine portrayal of life in London back then. Hopefully it's educational as well. But I don't think people should be ignorant towards it, because that [level of violence] and worse occurs nowadays."

'The Runaway' actor Jack O'Connell
Did you read the book when you were cast?
"Not initially. I wish I'd read it before. I sort of read it after we'd filmed. Well, my Mum did! Mums give accounts, don't they, and detailed ones at that! I went off her account. But if I'd read the book during filming, it would have been distracting. That was a note from the director as well, because our series does differ from the exact storyline of the book. We were trying to achieve everything in six episodes, and we only had three months to do that. That's just because of financial issues that were beyond the control of anyone who was on the set. We had to make it a decent enough series and still keep it a poignant story, but not try to recreate or re-enact the book."

Was it a challenge playing a character from a different era?
"It was properly challenging. None of my mannerisms would have existed back then. The fact that I was born in 1990 means that we're decades apart. It was really important to me to just try and acknowledge how people held themselves back then. You'd have to ask someone from the era whether or not I nailed it, but I definitely surrounded myself with as many influences as I could. I looked into the Kray Twins, for example, and just the older generation. The etiquette was different as well. Even boxing was a different trade back then. With the modern-day boxer, you'll probably see more attitude and swagger, whereas back then it was a lot more formal. Things were just more formal in general, so yeah, it was definitely challenging. But that's what I'm in it for really. It was all good playing Cook, or characters similar to me, but ideally I'd like to play the opposite of myself. I want to be able to prove to people watching or to casting directors that I can play characters who are older than me, or different to me."

Are you worried about being typecast as Cook and similar characters?
"Even when I first set off, I was always aware that there were only a certain number of characters that I can play that are close to myself. But you only get the jobs that you're given and I audition for whatever I can. I don't really go around turning scripts down, unless they're just a variation of the same thing. What I've always found most inspiring about any actor is when they are able to just delve in and become another human. David Threlfall is one example, he's awesome at that. But with the likes of Cook, I knew at the beginning that it was a risk, because I'd be doing two series as one definite character. It's just something that I've been conscious of from the beginning. It's been no surprise to me, because I saw it coming years ago. There's only so much you can do to avoid it and sometimes casting directors play to your strengths, but It is frustrating when you get tagged as 'Skins actor'."

How was it working with newcomer Joanna Vanderham on The Runaway?
"Well, it's only been a couple of years since I felt like the most inexperienced person on the set. It's good to have the opportunity to teach, because you learn from it as well. But I didn't want to be too intrusive. I only shared an opinion when it was needed and let Joanna come and ask me."

And how did you find the other cast members?
"With Keith Allen, you see how he conducts himself on a set and it's refreshing to know that you're quite similar in a way. We both approach our work in a similar way and that reassures you that you're doing your job right. When you're doing scenes with someone like him or Alan Cumming, they don't even need to say anything [because] you can sort of tell by their body language if they're satisfied. If they're satisfied with how a scene has gone, you know that you've done your job. One time in particular, Keith Allen was watching me work. I remember thinking that him watching was just as valuable as someone coming up and directly complimenting me. It was only for a brief moment, but I caught him! He probably won't admit it, because that's what he's like! But I did catch him, and I'm willing to argue with him!"

The Runaway begins this Thursday on Sky One.

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