When I sit down to talk to Josh O’Connor, I’m taken aback by the fact he’s worlds away from the person I last saw – on-screen as spiralling gay farmer Johnny Saxby in Francis Lee’s latest flick, God’s Own Country. His demeanour, accent and even appearance all drastically differ from his on-screen persona, which is a testament to his acting prowess, and undoubtedly one of the reasons that the indie film has gained major hype and is being hailed as “the British Brokeback Mountain” already (it doesn’t drop till Friday).
Documenting the blossoming romance between a farmer and a Romanian migrant worker and set amongst Yorkshire’s desolate moors, God’s Own Country is another string to O’Connor’s eclectic bow: for three seasons he’s starred in ITV’s period comedy-drama The Durrells as well as stints in Peaky Blinders and Ripper Street. Elsewhere he also starred alongside Meryl Streep in the Oscar-nominated biographical drama, Florence Foster Jenkins. Despite a varied CV, God’s Own Country is undeniably O’Connor’s most daring and intimate offering to date.
Following the film’s premiere at Sundance (and subsequent selection to open Edinburgh Film Festival), we sat down with the acor to find out more about his turn as Johnny Saxby.
(LEFT) Cardigan MARGARET HOWELL
(RIGHT) Shirt MARGARET HOWELL, trousers CORNELLANI
So firstly, what attracted you to the role?
I read the script and I liked the idea. I kind of liked the fact that it would require total transformation. There’s bits of Johnny that I can relate to and I see in other people and I think everyone knows a Johnny in their world but I think, as a person, we’re polar opposites and so the idea of playing that, having that transformation, was really exciting to me. And then meeting Francis, I was like this is a director that I feel as though I need to work with and we’d work really well together, so it was a combination of the story and him.
I saw that people have are already describing it as the “British Brokeback Mountain“. What do you think of that?
Yeah, it’s obviously an honour to be tarred with the same brush as that film. I think it is a beautiful film; I love Ang Lee! I think the central performances are brilliant. Actually it’s dealing with totally different issues, you know, that’s a relationship that can’t happen and with two characters that are, on varying levels, unable to express their sexuality whereas I feel like Jonny and Gheorghe are fairly comfortable. Johnny’s dealing with his masculinity and what that means and emotional inarticulacy and a lack of emotional vulnerability as well, so we’re dealing with different things. But it’s an honour, because I love that film.
In terms of preparation for the role, did you explore much other LGBT cinema?
I watched a few. Francis had this list of films for varying reasons [which] were kind of references, whether they were directly referenced or maybe there was a similar theme. Some were totally different from our film but were just interesting to watch and some weren’t LGBT films, but many of which I had seen, like Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s film, I’m already a huge fan of.
Did you watch Looking, Andrew Haigh’s TV show?
I didn’t see that. Is that good?
Yeah, it’s really good!
Is Russell Tovey in that?
Yeah, I’ve heard about it but I’ve never watched it. I don’t think that was on the list but then there was Happy Together, which is a great film, I really liked that. I think Brokeback was on there. There was like an A4 page!
So talk me through the rest of your prep?
Well, I lost a lot of weight for the role. I think Francis and I talked about the physicality of Johnny and we wanted him to be kind of slight and his diet would have been shit. You know, he gets up early, like he has a bap and a brew and it would just be a bacon sandwich, ketchup and some white bread and margarine. He hasn’t got time to indulge and we liked the idea that he doesn’t have time to enjoy pleasure, there’s no pleasure. Even his binge drinking is self-abuse, his casual sex is something that he’s like, filling a need, there’s no pleasure as such. I think we talked about that and so getting into the physicality of Johnny was vital; I lost about three stone by the end of the film, and I worked very closely with a dialect coach. I worked on a farm for two weeks before starting the film every day!
What was that like?
It was insane, full on, every single day, six in the morning till like eight in the evening non-stop. We worked on the farm that we shot on and the farmer who owns the farm, John, is now a very good mate of mine. I wrote backstories to Johnny, like where he’s come from, his relationship with his father, I made up a character about his mother [and] what happened there, his relationship to his grandmother, all this stuff in such detail so that [on] day one I knew exactly what I was doing on the farm and the accent sorted, the backstory and his physicality was all ready to go. It [was] a good two months of prep.
Coat KENT AND CURWEN, vest DIOR HOMME, trousers TOPMAN DESIGN, socks FALKE, shoes WOOYOUNGMI
The rural landscape kind of sets the tone for the whole film, what was it like filming there?
It was intense. As you probably know, the moors are unforgiving, that landscape is totally unforgiving and rain doesn’t just rain, it rains sideways and up, you’re just wet all the time! You’re muddy all the time, you’re exhausted and it’s proper hard work. We didn’t have any of the kind of usual actor niceties like a trailer or hot flannels or any of that, it was full on and I think that shows – I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. It was all about 100% entering into that world from beginning to end and I pretty much stayed in character the whole way through.
There’s an exploration of Johnny’s sex life within the film. What was it like filming those scenes?
Yeah, it was alright! Basically, the way I explain it is that I think if you were to remove those scenes from the film, it would be really bizarre. Because of the way it’s shot, and the way Francis wrote this film, the audience are like the third member of this relationship. They’re in it throughout, and actually the sex, I mean sex is such a large part of any relationship but they punctuate Johnny’s changes, like Gheorghe introduces himself to kissing, he doesn’t kiss prior to Gheorghe and this idea of pleasure and shared intimacy, he doesn’t have that, he takes what he needs and then fucks off! For me, [with} the sex scenes, Francis created an environment where we felt so safe, I felt very comfortable. We planned them down to like, a breath – a 20 point plan of like “you grab my arm”, “you do this”, “we kiss here”, so by the time we got there is was like performing a dance.
What was it like to work with Francis?
Really, really incredible. He really, and I don’t use this word lightly, he really is a genius. From the first time I met him, I could tell this is like a project, I’m sure every project will be like this, but he works in such unbelievable, meticulous detail from the very first day of meeting him to the end of the shoot, and even beyond actually. It’s just exactly as he wants it and he’s warm and kind, and so he’s going to go on and do incredible things. I think it was the best environment in which to make a film and I think that’s why it has had such a great response, and why it’s a brilliant end product.
I read that the film was going to be released in Romania at the end of the year?
Well, I think it’s only a good thing.
Were you surprised?
I didn’t really know much about how Romania would respond apart from what Alec had told me, and I think [he] was really excited that a film like this was going to be shown. It went to the Transylvania Film Festival and I couldn’t go, Francis and Alec went and the response was universally positive. So that can only be a great thing and the fact that it’s actually going to be released means that people can now start to see stuff like this in the mainstream and hopefully change views. I’m obviously very proud.
(LEFT) Coat GUCCI and top ORLEBAR BROWN
(RIGHT) Jumper BELSTAFF and trousers RIVER ISLAND
You were part of a short film exploring the decriminalisation of homosexual relations too, right? Would you say you’re more attracted to the kind of hard hitting roles?
Yeah, I think that all art should be political to a certain extent. I think all art is political actually, it’s not whether it should or not, I think it’s impossible to avoid anything being political. I find it more attractive if there is some sort of slant!
It must be interesting for you, as an actor, to be able to get your teeth into a role with a bit more emotional depth.
I think so. Like, I think it’s always more exciting, a journey from beginning to end and a good quality arc. You know, Johnny’s the best arc of a character I’ve read for years, it’s such a transformation and I think that always attracts me.
I read also, that you were interested in directing your own short films in the future?
Yeah, I’d love to direct but at the moment I think you need a lot of time to be able to fully commit. Watching how Francis has done it makes me realise that you really do need to do that, really take out a long time. I haven’t, at the moment, got the time, and I love acting – I love what I’m doing – the kind of work that I’m doing, so my focus is on that. You know, I’ve written a feature film and that’s in the process of being made, so that’s cool, but the directing thing might have to come a little bit later.
And so the long term. Hopes, goals, dreams?
To be honest, these kinds of films, good stories that have a message or that have some sort of effect in a very simple form, is what I’m interested in. I love doing comedy but I love authenticity, I love creating a character that is authentic and is believable so I guess I’ll continue to strive to find those projects, but they’re few and far between I think!