Unbroken: Angelina Jolie’s Inspirational Biopic—Part Two

Please read Part One

The book was so beloved that it afforded director Jolie the opportunity to cast whomever she wanted. But it was a tough challenge. “He had to be the appropriate age, because he was a young man,” she notes. “It had to be somebody who had the strength and masculinity of that era — a real man’s man, a physical man. And at the same time, it had to be a skilled actor who can be deeply emotional and make people root for him.”

Casting Jack O’Connell

Jack O’Connell, 24, is a British actor best known in the U.S. for the popular series “Skins” and in the thriller “Eden Lake.” When asked to submit an audition tape, O’Connell enlisted the help of his former drama teacher, Ian Smith. “We have a creative, rocky relationship, and he grilled me,” says the actor. “He told me what was sh-t about it, what was good. And by the time it was ready to send, I felt polished.”

O’Connell’s audition stood out for many reasons, but one that turned the tide. “It’s a scene in which he’s in confinement and being attacked by a guard,” Garris notes. “Jack was the only actor who fought back. I think that was a deciding factor for Angelina.”

Jolie went to London to meet O’Connell. That night, Baer says, “She emailed me, simply saying, ‘I found Lou.’ ” He still had to screen test for Universal, and in a gesture for which he says he’s profoundly grateful, Jolie brought in O’Connell’s cousin to read with him. “He had done my taped audition with me, and I mentioned this to Angie,” O’Connell says.

Even after O’Connell got the part, he wanted Zamperini’s blessing. Their initial meeting was in a group, surrounded by cameras, but the second time they were alone. “We sat in his dining room, and he showed me his memorabilia and I got really emotional,” O’Connell admits. “He and his family welcomed me in, so I could go to Australia feeling I was championed by his people.”

The first time O’Connell and Zamperini met, the latter showed off his original bomber jacket from the war. “Jack said, ‘Hey, can I try that on?’ And it fit perfectly,” Baer says. Garris adds, “Whenever I see Jack now, I call him Dad. He’s about as close as you can get to Louis onscreen, and we all adore him. We made him an honorary Zamperini for the rest of his life.”

O’Connell says he was humbled by the experience–and responsibility: “You learn not to think of your own problems. That’s something you can attribute to Louis and Angie (Jolie)–they both strive to be selfless every day.”

Beautifully Crafted Monster

While finding her Louis was difficult, casting the Bird seemed, in Jolie’s words, “impossible.” Watanabe was described in the book as “a beautifully crafted monster,” and Jolie was determined to find someone who was “striking, educated and intense”–not a Hollywood stereotype of a Japanese. Early on, she thought of casting a rock star. “There’s a confidence that comes from someone who’s a frontman,” she says. “It’s a very unusual thing to be able to be in front of thousands of people and have your presence affect a room.”

Jolie enlisted Japanese casting director and acting coach Yoko Narahashi, who reached out to Miyavi (born Takamasa Ishihara), a guitarist and singer — but didn’t tell him what their meeting was about. “She came to my office in Tokyo and kept asking me questions like, ‘What kind of movies do you like? Who are your favorite actors and actresses?’ ” Miyavi recalls. “I said, ‘I really like Angelina Jolie.’ She just smiled.”

Jolie wanted Narahashi to meet with Miyavi before auditioning him, to find out what kind of person he was. “It’s important the soul of this person be a great man to play someone this complicated. He has to be somebody who’s in a healthy place in his life to be able to go to these places,” Jolie says.

Though he had never considered an acting career, Miyavi was thrilled at the prospect. Still, he hesitated playing such a sadistic character, worried it would reflect badly on the Japanese people. But after meeting Jolie in Tokyo, he was confident to be a part of this story: “We can all learn many things from this film, from the theme of forgiveness.”

It was a tough role for the 33-year-old father of two. “Once or twice when Jolie called cut, he ran off and vomit,” Garris says. “It made him violently ill to have to inflict so much anger and damage.”

To play the life raft and prison camp scenes, O’Connell says he lost around 30 pounds. He then had to bulk back up for scenes of Zamperini as an Olympic runner. “We wrapped the prison camp scenes, and five days later, I was shooting a running sequence,” O’Connell notes. “Thinking about the example of endurance Louis set was invaluable. Because I was never going to suffer as much as Louis did.”

Strong Rapport

Though they play adversaries onscreen, O’Connell and Miyavi developed a strong rapport. “I actually thought I would keep my distance at first and try to stay separate,” O’Connell admits. “But the more we’d engage, the deeper our respect developed. In the end, his support of me and my support of him was important.”

Much of the shoot was grueling, but there was also time for some fun.  One night, O’Connell formed an impromptu band with producer Baer and co-stars Garrett Hedlund (who plays a fellow prisoner) and Miyavi.  Their music included the tunes “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, and, of course, the Kingsmen classic “Louie Louie.”

There have been reports that Jolie, currently the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, is thinking of retiring from acting. “I’ll do a few more,” she says slyly. “I’m about to direct something with Brad and myself.” That film, “By the Sea,” is currently being shot in Malta, and little is known about the plot other than it features Jolie and Pitt as a married couple. She admits that directing is her first love. “I’m happier when I get to put a camera on another actor and watch them do great work.”

Jolie has already received one review that matters. The day before Zamperini went into ICU for the last time, Jolie brought her computer to the hospital, climbed onto his bed and screened a rough cut of the film. “We were able to show him his life just in time to let him see all that he had accomplished and reflect on all the people he’s loved and was about to reunite with in heaven.”