Jack O’Connell: Spying on Seberg

February 15, 2020
The English actor portrays a conflicted FBI agent spying on Jean Seberg in Benedict Andrews’ Seberg.

Is your character based on a real person?

I think he’s a bit of an imagined version of what might have happened. I’m quite glad that it was imagined in such a way where he wasn’t totally unemotional and pragmatic in invading this woman’s life. I was quite grateful that I got to portray somebody who was also affected by it, in his case, probably more so by guilt and remorse for making her feel a level of paranoia to a degree where she was defenseless.

Do you know whether somebody like that was actually at the FBI?

The trouble is with the FBI; they can be pretty secretive. Trying to weed information out of them like that; I just didn’t even bother trying. We were lucky that we had a couple of consultants who we spoke to throughout the making of the film, and they were ready to answer those sort of questions. I didn’t really feel I had the opportunity to base him on somebody that existed. What was useful to me was more trying to study the period at the time. I identified people of that era and just tried to marry that into the role.

Was it challenging to get under the skin of this man?

No, I think he’s quite quintessential. I think he served in the army, he’s progressed into the FBI. Me and him are very different, so there’s a challenge. I think it’s quite easy portraying roles that are similar to yourself. It’s difficult to try and portray somebody very different. And I think, for want of a better description, the kind of circles that hung around him would probably be called square. And so that was a bit of a key for me. He follows the rules. He’s a good man. Probably to the extent where he’s very impressionable and he’s forgotten how to distinguish what is right for him, morally; and what’s right for his superiors on a professional scale.

You and Jean Seberg share the same profession. Did you reflect on the fact that she puts herself on the line so much for a cause, for something that she really believes in? Can you imagine that there will be something that you believe in so much that you’ll be able to expose yourself like that?

I’d be reluctant to compare myself to Jean Seberg in any regard. I think the timing is very different. I think she was a huge star by the age of 17 and it was probably a very different culture back then to filmmaking and stardom and the relationship between stardom and an audience. If I ever felt anything in common with her story, it was loosely regarding wanting to make a difference politically. I find it a very admirable trait of hers that she felt energised in wanting to make the political changes she considered the right ones and being able to use her platform to do so. I think the sad nature of this story is it does highlight – does freedom of speech exist? Do you have a right to protest without persecution? And in a lot of ways it’s almost as if Jean herself was a bit of a catalyst for that argument. I think what I’m trying to say is her example sort of reinforces the point that sadly you’ve got to be careful with the things you say and the causes that you support. Are we comfortable living in that society while under the guise of a democracy? Because if she’s getting taken down for political beliefs that don’t correspond with the government’s; then is that a democracy? It sounds more like a dictatorship to me.

Do you feel that the judgment and persecution can come from other, not only government, sources, nowadays?

Yeah, I guess so. It’s so easy to sound off to a lot of people sometimes about your inner most. We have the opportunity to do that, sitting in our pocket at all times. And I also think that there’s a lot of white noise now because of it; just because of the quantity. Does it have the same level of traction these days? I don’t know. I think that there is obviously sometimes a need to… Only 50 years ago, we were watching people getting executed publicly. So, I don’t know if there’s a hangover from that seed, it’s public damning of people, just because they don’t believe in the same views. And I worry how manipulable the whole thing has become as well. We’re told one thing about social media and I really think, well the actual facts, we’re still discovering them… The implications and the side effects…

What’s next?

The North Water, a series with writer/director Andrew Haigh, Colin Farrell, Peter Mullan, Stephen Graham. It’s set on a whaling ship, basically voyaging through the Arctic in the eighteen hundreds. I play a surgeon. It’s been very interesting to try and understand the medical practice of the 19th century.

Seberg is in cinemas now.

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