Health & Fitness

Jack O’Connell on changing into a naked knuckle boxer for ‘Jungleland’

Jack O’Connell has boxed since his early teens and he largely credits the sport for shaping him into the man he is today. So it’s no wonder he was excited about the opportunity to play a bang in the indie drama Jungleland. The story revolves around two Roughneck brothers who drive across the country for an underground competition without borders. When it came time to prepare for filming in Boston, O’Connell decided to treat his preproduction time like a training camp.

“I trained like I was preparing for a real boxing match,” O’Connell told Men’s Journal. Work began at his Westside Boxing gym in west London and then moved to Brighton’s Boston Boxing and Fitness. “I trained alongside competitors from Golden Gloves and I really bonded with some of these guys. We even included some of them in the film.”

The results of O’Connell’s work can be seen on screen, showing his lean physique in the film’s crucial fight scenes. We spoke to the Derby born actor about how to get in the ring for Jungleland and train 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 did you love about the Jungleland script?

Jack O’Connell: Jungleland was an opportunity to bring stories and lessons from the gym – from boxing. The script revolves around fighting the knuckles, which is its own whole universe. There’s a scene out here that I’m from too, so it was interesting for me to try and come up with a story about two brothers in that subculture. The story itself stands on its own two feet, but the fact that it was in the world of bareknuckle boxing really attracted me.

How long have you been boxing?

I started kickboxing when I was 11, which I think is a good age to start with. It may be a little late by the time you’re ready to compete, but you are still flexible and malleable. The movements can get a little easier when you have that youth on your side. From then on, I focused more on boxing and fast hitting. I really believe in the science of boxing. I don’t think it’s a brutal sport. There are brutal consequences, but at the core it is pure competition between two people. It all starts at this gym, and that’s where many 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 is much more to studying boxing than learning to punch. So much more. A slap in the face can be a great lesson. I just think it’s a very humbling experience and it’s the result of learning your limits like you do in the ring. You can feel the consequence if you don’t put yourself 100 percent in something.

What are you looking for in a boxing hall experience?

I’m drawn to the attitudes of the people I hang out with in the boxing hall. 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 part of my role models and people I look up to are people I met in the boxing hall.

Which gym are you currently training in?

I usually practice Westside Boxing in West London. You have great talent there. They’re pretty well known in the amateur boxing scene. There’s a guy called John Holland who is old fashioned and traditional. I learned so much from him. He’s a fatherly figure in my life, no question about it. I usually go three or four times a week and try to save twice a week.

Jack O’Connell as the tough thug Lion Kaminski in ‘Jungleland’ against James Perella Courtesy Image

What do you like about boxing as a training?

I can’t really cope with traditional workouts like much weight lifting. I have to hit something or kick a soccer ball. Otherwise, it may just feel a little pointless. Maybe that’s more of a mindset for me, but I just don’t get the point. I think the combination of boxing and playing soccer, 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 have to dress it up. The physique I ended up with when we started filming was what I had after just focusing on my boxing. After a reasonable training period. I didn’t go in there and tried to look extra pumped or jump out of my shirt. I wanted to go into this movie and I wanted to look like a fighter.

How do you usually eat when you exercise?

I still eat pretty clean. I don’t like being overly regulated about what I can eat as long as I do it wisely. I was strict about other things, like no sauce. I also try to get my food locally as often as possible. Fresh is always best. I find a local butcher and a local fishmonger. This is how you know your food isn’t going too far. I throw in fraudulent food here and there – like a good damn burger and some damn wings. Have a beer too. Fuck it all.

Did you train with someone who led to ‘Jungleland’?

I’ve worked with some great Massachusetts folks at the Boston Boxing and Fitness gym in Brighton. Ed, the owner, worked on the film in a way. I box to get better and to help others get better. Sometimes I go to a gym and don’t feel that energy and I go out. But they had that in Boston. It felt like home. I felt like there were a lot of similarities with the scenes in Boston and at home in the places I spend time. I also met this James Perella when I was training and just trying to get better. We actually cast him in the movie because I worked there and James was a regular. He’s like a real guy in gold gloves. I told Max he had to include him in the film if he could because he had a lot of natural talent. Max was good enough to take my advice and I’m glad he did.

Speaking of which, did you ask someone for advice?

At home in Derby there is a kind of boxing scene. I reached out to this female Olympic boxer named Sandy Ryan. I sent her videos of me boxing and looked for advice on how to fine-tune the movements. She was kind enough to tip me a little here and there. That was helpful.

During the fight scene at the end of ‘Jungleland’, you and James Perella really argue. How close did these blows come?

[Laughs]. I caught him and I wasn’t too surprised when he caught me after that. I started with it. We were pretty good at selling them without contacting us, but then I had to catch it and I cut it. I was very sorry, but he repaid the favor. He’s a tough asshole.

How was it working with Charlie Hunnam?

Charlie is a great employee. When playing a brother, it’s always best when you feel like you have an open channel with the other person. I don’t have a brother so I had to guess, but I really wanted to feel like nothing was forbidden between us. Charlie and I did. I was really glad he was the one I got to do it with.

Did you train together at all?

I think you have to spend time together if you want to [the chemistry] look good on camera. We made sure we had a good time together. Charlie is a jiu-jitsu guy. Every time we went to the gym he would immediately roll off and try to hold me. But I had to ask him to at least take responsibility for the beginning. [Laughs]. I don’t mind bringing it to the ground, but I don’t want to step into its realm right away.

Jungleland hits select theaters on November 6th and is available on request on November 10th

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