SAS Rogue Heroes – Jack O’Connell interview

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In the second of our series of BBC-led interviews with the cast of SAS: Rogue Heroes, we talk to Jack O’Connell, who plays the role of Paddy Mayne.

What is SAS Rogue Heroes about?

It’s Steven Knight’s telling of a piece of the Second World War that wasn’t made public knowledge for a long, long time.

You had a few central figures such as Jock Lewes and David Stirling who were founding fathers of the SAS unit. 

I guess third in line in the parental role would be Paddy. I give my perspective on Paddy’s story throughout this particular era of the war, the SAS and its origin.

Looking from Paddy’s angle, at the risk of sounding simplistic, this was a chance to finally utilise what made him unique as an officer of the British Army. 

After joining and forging the SAS, he was finally in an environment in which he could utilise his skills, his rebelliousness and his all-out want to progress and turn the fate of the war. 

Anything you read up until that point will tell you that Paddy was finding himself in hot water a lot of the time, with him locked up in military jail, not really fitting into the mould of what was expected of a soldier of his rank at the time.

I imagine that when he finds himself being headhunted by David Stirling to become part of this unit, that he is finally finding himself in a place where he is able to operate fully; without the restrictions of military discipline and having to take orders from men he would probably consider less able than him, and also just the bureaucracy of the British Army at the time.

What was exciting for you about the project?

I would have to go back to when I first heard about Paddy Mayne. For years there have been stories and scripts floating around about him, perhaps not so much focused on the unit as a whole. 

But Paddy Mayne’s story is so cinema-worthy, so TV-worthy, that I was already aware of him through being sent scripts and hearing rumours about certain projects that never came into fruition. 

When this one came along, I was already geared to wanting to be involved.

Then it was a case of reading Steven’s script, and he doesn’t write bad scripts so that made saying yes to this easy. 

I then met Tom Shankland, who you wouldn’t put down as an obvious choice to be directing a very machoistic-centric story. I suppose the obvious choice would be to lean into the war-type glorification of it all, but he is not about that. 

I don’t think he would mind me describing him as a bit of a hippy. 

I think he just wants to know what is at the centre of these characters, and what is going on? Who are these people? What is making them tick? How do they reconcile with the things that they do? 

I think within war you have real extreme versions of that and I get the impression that that’s what gets him going, focusing on the psychology of the sort of person it would take. 

In David Stirling’s case, to put two fingers up to the British military on the whole, forging himself a unit and go way behind the enemy lines. 

Tom seems to want to know why, what the story of the psychology behind it is. It just struck me as a perfect sort of appointment.

It was pretty obvious when speaking to him first off that was where his mindset was, and we talked a lot about not only Paddy’s exploits as a war hero but his interest in poetry, literature. 

There are accounts of him that say that he was humongously compassionate at times when it was needed. 

These aren’t the labels people are quick to peg onto someone of his military decorated past. So I was just like, yeah: sign me up, count me in!

And then we had to find David Stirling and I count myself quite fortunate that I was included in part of that process and was able to read with one or two actors for the role. 

When you saw Connor’s take there was no removing him from what you were hoping the project would end up being. 

Working with him has been one of the highlights of the job, just to see him step up to the mark and take it all in his stride. What he does when the cameras are on is spell-binding.

What preparation did you do for this role?

First and foremost he is written as being very articulate, profound in some of the things he says. Obviously he likes to recite copious amounts of poetry, which is an interesting detail on the page. 

It was just a case of doing it, doing it to a point where it feels comfortable, second nature. I think that goes for most of the roles you play, just get well acquainted with the words.

What about to prepare for the accent?

I had a great voice coach – Brendan Gunn – who I have worked with for a few years. He is from Northern Ireland.

There is no recorded footage of Paddy speaking, which is helpful for me. 

It just means I have got a bit of room for manoeuvre, instead of trying to hone into something that is famously known. I can sort of reimagine it a little bit.

Where you involved in any of the physical training?

We had a fortnight of bootcamp type training led by our military advisor, a fellow called Bags. He is an ex-serviceman and knows of what he speaks. 

It was good. He was a good training officer. We did a fair bit of physical type stuff and tried to feel a little fitter anyway. 

When we moved to Morocco we had another two weeks of warm weather training. We got up early and did various types of punishment. And some days we would have a morning off and played around together in the sand dunes. 

That was good for morale, team building, that type of thing.

And then we had to get good at drill. Even though we only touch on it a little bit in the series, it was nice to know and to try to regiment that collective way of thinking a bit. 

I used to be a cadette myself – I was in the 126 air training core city of Derby squadron from when I was 11 to 15. I was a good cadette. 

The cadette in me was doing cartwheels every day. By day two everyone knew about my cadette history, even the ex-military lads. 

They are like hardened battle folk and I’m chiming in, thinking that my cadette stories had any place alongside that calibre. 

They’d be reliving war tales and I’m talking about polishing my shoes and going on camps.