Jack O'Connell, the star of Angelina Jolie's World War II drama Unbroken, will not be crowned on the Oscar red carpet on Sunday. He wasn't even nominated. In the brutal free-for-all of the Best Actor category, Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch superseded O'Connell as the primary reps of Hollywood's “new” acting generation. But the charismatic up-and-comer is poised to take the industry by storm. This is at least in part because he's got something that has quietly become a rarity among leading men: youth.
Consider Redmayne and Cumberbatch, 2014's anointed breakout stars: They're 33 and 38, respectively, and both earned their Oscar nominations by playing characters who significantly age on-screen. Perhaps that's not so surprising: The Academy has a long track record of waiting to reward male actors (Adrien Brody remains the only person under 30 to ever actually win Best Actor). But it's not just on the awards circuit that actors are skewing older. According to Forbes, only one of the ten highest-paid actors in the business is under 40, and none are under 30. (The industry's attitude toward and evaluation of the age of women is, of course, an entirely different story.) This hasn't always been the case.
Historically, Hollywood has valorized youth in its leading men. James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marlon Brando were the most famous people on the planet while still in their twenties, and it wasn't so long ago that Leonardo DiCaprio was a teen idol who also commanded Titanic-fueled box office clout. But something has shifted recently. Suddenly, Robert Downey, Jr. (49) and Liam Neeson (62) are the most popular action stars in the world, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a blockbuster casting rumor that didn't feature the Two Toms (Hardy and Hiddleston), Marvel's triumvirate of Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, and Pratt), or any of the other over-30 actors who have hit the big time in the past few years: Cumberbatch, Channing Tatum, Chadwick Boseman, Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, Chris Pine.
That alone makes O'Connell and the over-$100 million domestic gross for Unbroken something of a curiosity. Chalk it up to the star power of his director, Universal Pictures' aggressive marketing campaign, or inflated holiday numbers, but O'Connell—at the tender age of 24—made money. More importantly, he did it outside the YA-adaptation ghetto, where Hollywood has more or less banished its youngest faces (and which has, of late, been overwhelmingly driven by female stars, anyway). That's a clear violation of the new Hollywood order, where young men are supposed to sit and wait patiently for a minor superhero role.
What put Hollywood in a hurry for its heroes to grow up? Perhaps it's a side effect of the industry's increasing reliance on franchises and known properties. Just as producers seek out sequels and adaptations for their proven success, they can rely on older, experienced actors as safer bets than new names: audiences already know them, may have even already imagined that actor as the character in question. With more and more investment sunk into fewer and fewer tentpole projects, studios can't afford a work-in-progress: They want actors to spring forth fully-formed.
Alternatively, the aging of our leading men also fits into a broader thematic trend. Last September, A.O. Scott kicked off a critical debate regarding the gradual encroachment of emotional adolescence in American culture. Despite (or perhaps because of) the advanced age of our leading men, there's been much hand-wringing over the existential toll of perpetual immaturity. But the rise of the man-child protagonist (i.e. the Judd Apatow School of Filmmaking) has concrete implications for movie casting as well: What need is there for real children when the adults are acting like ones? That's what makes O'Connell rare and unnerving: He's an actor who both looks and acts his age. He doesn't have to play at adolescence—he's still in it.
That's not meant as a slight to his compelling on-screen presence: Unbroken almost sinks under the weight of its uneven pacing and half-baked script, but O'Connell keeps it afloat in a Herculean display of intensity. Whether he's trying to buck up the spirits of his fellow castaways or lifting a railroad tie in equal parts defiance and petulance, O'Connell firmly holds the film's sympathetic center, as a young man thrust too soon into horrific circumstances.
One could chalk up O'Connell's magnetism to his striking appearance. With a stocky, strapping figure and boyish blue eyes, he plays like a deadly combination of Tom Hardy and Elijah Wood, physically imposing but with underlying currents of innocence and naiveté. But more precisely, it's his command of that physicality that strikes you, in both Unbroken and Starred Up, the 2014 British prison drama in which he also excels. O'Connell doesn't say much, but communicates much about his character's state of mind through gesture, posture, and a precise timing of his movements. If there is a defining image that captures what O'Connell is about at this early point of his career, it appears in the opening scenes of Starred Up, as the juvenile offender strides for the first time into the cell block of the adult prison where he's been transferred for violent behavior. His steps are smooth and assured, a conscious attempt to radiate confidence; but his shoulders hunch just a little too far forward, his eyes dart sideways just a little too furtively.
It's this subtle intrusion of fear that sets Jack O'Connell apart. All those older, more monolithic leading men are allowed to show doubt—even our superheroes have to be “complex” now—but fear ruins the illusion that they've got this “acting” business figured out. O'Connell is refreshingly unguarded. His bashful, repentant take on his own past indiscretions have turned him into a relatable embodiment of young adulthood: talented, hungry, a little unsure of himself. A December interview on The Nerdist podcast almost turned into an impromptu therapy session as O'Connell expressed weariness and (unwarranted) skepticism about his own abilities. Conscious or not, the translation of those insecurities to the screen is giving us an image of youth—unpretentious, unpolished, unabashed—that's no longer easy to find in Hollywood.
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