Jack O’Connell had never read or seen “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” before he signed on for the West End revival. He didn’t even know that the play was written by Tennessee Williams. But his bruising portrait as the alcoholic Brick is one for the ages — and not just because O’Donnell enters the stage fully nude, taking a shower.
The London production, directed by Benedict Andrews and co-starring Sienna Miller, is receiving rave reviews during its limited run at the Apollo Theater. That’s made “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” one of the most sought after tickets on the other side of the pond. In a phone interview, O’Connell (the 26-year-old actor from “Skins” and “Unbroken”) spoke to Variety about preparing for the role and why he’d like to come to Broadway.
Have you read the reviews?
Yes, curiosity got the better of me. And I wish I hadn’t. I think a more disciplined actor would avoid reviews. The negativity is what sticks.
Had you been a fan of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”?
No. I’m guilty of not really being aware of Mr. Williams’ work, as is the case with a lot of great writers. I’m still educating myself on the job. As the role was acquired, I familiarized myself with some of his stuff. I was more aware of Marlon Brando’s involvement with “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I’d seen a production of “The Glass Menagerie” once I knew this role was in the bag. I got to familiarize myself with the kind of world he sets his plays in.
Did you watch the movie starring Paul Newman?
No. I’m going to treat myself at the end of this run. Just because he’s so iconic, I wouldn’t want to end up copying him.
How else did you prepare?
One very useful film I watched recently was “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which isn’t on the nose in terms of region but it’s thereabouts. I found that very beneficial. I was doing a lot of dialect work. I tried to familiarize myself with the text as much as possible. The preparation was quite extensive.
What was director Benedict Andrews’ pitch to you?
When I took the meeting, it was over Skype. He wasn’t offering it to me. I was pitching myself to him. He made me aware that we were going to try to modernize it, or at least offer a more contemporary version to a modern audience. That took my interest. I like Benedict’s style. He’s well renowned theatrically. He has great taste when it comes to casting; I don’t want to promote myself there.
Did you know you’d have to shower onstage?
In the writing, the shower is offstage. Brick’s first few lines of dialogue would traditionally be offstage. Look, it was a bit of a curve ball. You have to try to get your head around it. I just went with it. I was given the option to wear swimwear, to keep my modesty intact. That’s the easy way out. You think, “When does anyone really shower with underwear on?” I find that more distracting.
Were you nervous?
Not really. I guess I was nervous when I started going nude in rehearsals. I thought: we’re getting close to previews, I might as well start realizing what this is, or how this feels, while I was naked. So yeah, the clothes came off in the rehearsal room. I was grateful for that. By the time the previews were happening, a lot of people in the production had seen what it is like to start the play naked.
Is the water cold?
It is to begin with, actually. They don’t have the opportunity to heat it when it first runs. Eventually, it warms up. But that doesn’t really help me. Obviously, scientifically, any male will know that you tend to shrivel in cold water. That was a concern.
This is one of the more brutal adaptations of a Tennessee Williams play that I’ve seen. Does that weigh on you?
There is a lot of tragedy that takes place in the story, and for the characters to work, you just have to go there. We had two plays yesterday. Today, I’ve spent the entire day in bed with Bob the dog. You just got to keep your mind set, and you’re contemplating it for most of the day, representing something authentic within the character, within the story. That’s helped along by the company. There’s not a weak link.
How did you and Sienna Miller find your rhythm?
It was as early as the read through. There is a cadence in the writing that’s initially obvious. What’s difficult is in the first act Brick is very withdrawn. Not only that, he’s hungover from the night before. He’s not entertaining Maggie at all. He’s almost monosyllabic in his responses to her, so in a sense in the first act, it’s a question of being comfortable doing very little, which is quite hard.
Did you do any research into alcoholism?
Yeah, on dependency, whether it be booze or whatever. I guess the most important thing is to educate yourself on why this particular person is withdrawing. Brick’s tortured, and we learn that through the writing. There are different kinds of substance dependency. I don’t think in Brick’s case it’s a cry for help. He’s genuinely quite happy to drink himself to death.
You’re playing Alexander McQueen next in a biopic?
No. I don’t know if that’s going to go ahead anymore, sadly. I think the movie might happen, but perhaps not with myself involved. [Director Andrew Haigh wrote in an email to Variety: “I’m not actually attached to the project anymore.”]
Would you like to do Broadway?
For sure. I love what you gain from doing theater. Who knows, maybe a musical.
Can you sing?
Sometimes I can. Sometimes I can’t. It depends on who’s there.