Jack O’Connell has been boxing since his early teens, and he largely credits the sport for molding him into the man he is today. So it’s no surprise he was enthusiastic about the opportunity to play a bareknuckle brawler in the indie drama Jungleland. The story centers on two roughneck brothers who road trip cross-country for an underground no-holds-barred competition. When it came time to prepare for the film’s shoot in Boston, O’Connell decided his best way to get into character would be to treat his pre-production time like a training camp.
“I trained like I was preparing for a real boxing fight,” O’Connell tells Men’s Journal. The work started at his home gym, Westside Boxing in West London, then moved to Brighton’s Boston Boxing and Fitness. “I was working out next to Golden Gloves competitors, and really connected with some of these guys, we even brought some of them into the movie.”
The results of O’Connell’s work can be seen onscreen, showcasing his lean physique in the film’s pivotal fight scenes. We spoke with the Derby-born actor about getting in the ring for Jungleland, training with his co-star Charlie Hunnam, and his favorite fighters.
Jack O’Connell on Becoming a Bare-Knuckle Boxer for Jungleland
Men’s Journal: What excited you about the Jungleland script?
Jack O’Connell: Jungleland was an opportunity to bring stories and lessons from the gym—from boxing. The script centers around bareknuckle fighting, which is its own whole universe. There’s a scene out here where I’m from, too, so it was interesting for me to try to present a story about two brothers within this subculture. The story itself stands on its own legs, but the fact it was in the world of bareknuckle boxing is what really drew me to it.
How long have you been boxing?
I started kickboxing when I was 11 years old, which I feel like is a good age to start. It may be a little late if you want to compete, but you’re still flexible and moldable. The movements can come a little easier when you have that youth on your side. From there, I started focusing more on boxing and striking quickly. I really believe in the science of boxing. I don’t find it to be a brutal sport. There are brutal consequences, sure, but at its core it’s the purest of contests between two individuals. It all starts in that gym, and that’s where a lot of those fights are won. That fascinates me. What I learn from boxing is much more than just what I learn in the ring.
What other elements of boxing do you find constructive?
There’s so much more that comes with studying boxing besides learning how to throw a punch. So much more. Getting punched in the face can be a great lesson. I just think it’s a very humbling experience, and it comes as the result of learning your limits, like you do in the ring. You can feel the consequence of not putting yourself into something 100 percent.
What do you look for in a boxing gym experience?
I’m drawn to the attitude of people that I hang out with in the boxing gym. The places I go are the opposite of aggressive and the opposite of macho. I don’t want to hang out in a gym that’s too macho. A good share of my role models, and people I look up to, are people I’ve met in the boxing gym.
What gym do you work out at now?
I usually train at Westside Boxing in West London. They have some great talent coming through there. They’re pretty well known in the amateur boxing scene. There’s a guy called John Holland, who’s old school and traditional. I’ve learned so much from him. He’s a paternal figure in my life, no question. I am usually there three or four times a week, and I try to spare twice a week.
What do you like about boxing as a workout?
I can’t really get down with traditional workouts, like a lot of weightlifting. I have to be punching something or kicking a football. Otherwise, it can just feel a little pointless. Perhaps that’s more of a mindset thing on my end, but I just don’t see the point of it. I find the combination of boxing and playing football, or soccer as you call it, is a great combination for me. It keeps my mind fit. It keeps my body fit. I fucking hate cardio, so I need to have it disguised. The physique I ended up with by the time we started filming was the one I had after focusing purely on my boxing. After a proper training period. I wasn’t going in there trying to look particularly pumped or busting out of my shirt. I was going into this movie wanting to look like a fighter.
How do you usually eat when you’re training?
I eat pretty clean regardless. I don’t like being too regimented when it comes to what I can eat, as long as I’m doing it smart. I was strict on other things though, like no sauce. I also try to get my food sourced locally as often as possible. Fresh is always best. I find a local butcher and a local fishmonger. That’s how you know your food isn’t traveling too far. I throw a cheat meal in here and there—like a good fucking burger and some fucking wings. Have a beer, too. Fuck it.
Did you train with anyone leading up to ‘Jungleland’?
I worked with some great guys out of Massachusetts, out of the gym Boston Boxing and Fitness in Brighton. Ed, the owner, worked on the movie in a capacity. I box to get better, and to help others get better. Sometimes I’ll walk into a gym and I won’t feel that kind of energy, and I’ll walk out. But they had that in Boston. It felt like home. I felt like there are a lot of similarities to the scenes in Boston and back home in the places I spend time in. I also met this guy James Perella when I was training, and just trying to get better. We actually got him cast in the movie, because I was working out of there, and James was a regular. He’s like a proper Golden Gloves type. I told Max he needed to get him in the movie if he could, because he brought a lot of natural-born talent. Max was good enough to take my advice, and I’m glad he did.
Speaking of, did you reach out to anyone for advice?
There’s a bit of a boxing scene back home in Derby. I reached out to this female Olympic boxer named Sandy Ryan. I would send her videos of me boxing looking for advice on how to fine-tune any of the movements. She was nice enough to shoot me a little tip here and there. That was helpful.
During the fight scene at the end of ‘Jungleland,’ you and James Perella are really brawling. How close did those punches get?
[Laughs]. I caught him. And I wasn’t too surprised when he caught me after. I started it. We were pretty good at selling them without making contact, but then I had to catch him and I cut him. I was very sorry, but he repaid the favor. He’s a tough motherfucker.
What was it like working with Charlie Hunnam?
Charlie is a great collaborator. When you’re playing a brother, it’s always best to feel like you have an open channel with the other person. I don’t have a brother, so I had to guess at it, but I really wanted that feeling that there was nothing off-limits between us. That’s what Charlie and I had. I was really glad he was the one I got to do it with.
Did you guys train together at all?
I believe you have to spend time together off set if you want [the chemistry] to look good on the camera. We made sure to spend some good time together. Charlie is a jiu-jitsu guy, so every time we would walk into the gym, he would start rolling immediately, trying to get some holds on me. But I had to ask him to stand up for starters at least. [Laughs]. I don’t mind taking it to the ground, but I don’t want to step into his realm right off the bat.
Jungleland hits select theaters November 6 and is available on demand November 10