Jack O’Connell gravitates towards “guerilla-style” filmmaking. It’s why most of his on-screen work comes courtesy of critically acclaimed indies and festival standouts. Even when he does option into a bigger budget blockbuster — like the sequel to Zack Snyder’s 300 and Angelina Jolie’s World War II epic, Unbroken — he channels the same grit and relentless worth ethic that he most likely was surrounded by as a lad from Derby, England. He likes to be put through his paces a bit, to test the limits of what his body can do, which might be why he signed up for AMC ’s sprawling period drama, The North Water.
Because, along with the chance to act opposite talent like Colin Farrell and Stephen Graham as a member of a doomed whaling crew, whose expedition is fraught with murder, deception, and betrayal, the show also asked O’Connell to travel to the frozen seas north of the Svalbard Archipelago. In layman’s terms: the Arctic.
The cast lived on a boat for over a month, far removed from civilization, filming the furthest north any series is believed to have been filmed. They navigated the same kind of dangers that the characters they play on-screen would’ve faced: unpredictable ice sheets, curious polar bears, subfreezing temps, and a rogue walrus or two. But it all adds an element of realism to the show that feels tangible on-screen.
We chatted with O’Connell about surviving the shoot, getting in touch with his darker nature, and his most terrifying day on set.
You’ve taken on some physically demanding roles in the past. How does this shoot compare?
It was quite a blissful experience. I mean, yeah, it got cold. But just to be out there, only you, and only focusing on the work with no distractions? Complete bliss.
Your director, Andrew Haigh, said a good historical drama reflects something about the present. Do you think that’s true for this show?
That would definitely be like a higher level of consciousness than the one that I perhaps watch things on but yeah, I think there is definitely something dark within my character, Sumner, and he wants to understand what that is and explore that. I think that’s why Sumner has this level of intrigue about Drax [Farrell]. You have this man who is all beast and doesn’t have the burden of being a man, having a conscience, guilt, and all these things that keep us human. Obviously, Sumner is an intellect. I think, onboard the ship, we see where that slows him down.
Did you ever have a moment during filming when you thought, “Man, I’ve made a terrible mistake taking this job.”?
F*cking every day. [Laughs] [You] just wake up in a pure state of terror. I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to do it again, to be honest.
Did you pick up any survival tricks out there?
Nah, I was totally exposed out there. We were there with polar expedition experts. They are tough, tough people. These are real adventurers. That’s what they do. They’re at their happiest being out there. So, that was infectious, their enthusiasm, and then we had the opportunity to work with members of the Inuit community and lads from Greenland who spend their time basically… I want to say “surviving,” but that’s the wrong word because they’re so good at it. The risk factor is nullified by how gifted they are at what’s required of them in hunting, wintering, navigation — just all these really impressive skills that if you grow up in a city like Derby, there’s no need to f*cking be good at any of that.
Obviously, every day filming in the Arctic is a little dangerous but did you have any close calls?
There was one day I really thought we were actually f*cked. It was when myself and Stephen weren’t needed for a shot. So we thought we’d take a stroll to the ship, be out of the way basically. It was a hundred yards away. We ended up far away from the crew and as we were walking, the piece of ice we were walking on, broke loose from the rest of the path to the ship. And then the gap started getting wider and wider, and we’re on just this humongous ice float. Just me and Stephen Graham. Neither of us had provisions or anything. So, it genuinely was a bit unnerving.
There’s a scene late in the series involving a polar bear. Was it as disgusting to film as it came across on screen?
[Laughs] No, no, no. It was all these f*cking bits of plastic and rubber and blood, which tastes nice because it’s, just mixed it with sugar.
I was half-expecting you to tell me it was real.
No, that would upset me. We’ve got no business f*cking up polar bears and all.
Colin [Farrell] turns in a really intense performance in this series, and a lot of that intensity on screen is focused on your character. What was it like working with him in this kind of environment?
He’s really, really attentive. It’s not just what he’s asked to do, it’s what you’re asked to do and how he can help that. Obviously, for me, looking at Colin as an actor that’s been around for a lot longer than myself, it’s educational. His portrayal of that character has sort of lived with me in a way that’s a bit haunting. It left a mark on me a little bit, in a really good, kind of intriguing way. I massively benefited from being on set with him, for sure.
What was more challenging: the cold, or the lack of internet access up there?
The internet access thing is actually quite nice, to be honest., I didn’t mind that at all. In hindsight, we were all completely looked after and in real safe hands, but you didn’t always know that. That was the toughest thing. In hindsight, we know that. At the time you’re like, ‘This is f*cking insane.’ Polar bears could just jump out of nowhere and start f*cking with everyone, ruining the whole thing. A walrus just popped out of the water one day, right where we were shooting, and they’re supposed to be deadly. But the most difficult thing is being so remote for quite a long length of time. You have to kind of dig a bit deeper. You don’t have the luxury of going home or checking in with your mom or these types of things.
Did you come away with anything profound after filming this thing?
Just the usual type of sh*t you come away from a job thinking. It was an experience. You come away from something with a bit more mutual respect for the people that you work with.
And you survived. That’s not nothing.
I’d say that is quite profound.
‘The North Water’ is currently streaming on AMC