Josh O’Connor may best be known for this breakthrough role in 2017’s God’s Own Country but the Southampton-born actor has been cultivating a catalog of great film and television performances for years. From The Riot Club and The Program in film and Doctor Who, Peaky Blinders, Ripper Street and The Durrells on TV, O’Connor has built a resume that made him the perfect choice to play the most challenging role of his career, Prince Charles in season three of Netflix’s The Crown. O’Connor play the Prince of Wales at a turning point in the would be king’s life, from the early years of his relationship with Camilla Bowles (the Diana years will show up in season four) to the daunting task of figuring out how to lead the commonwealth when the time comes.
I caught up with two-time BIFA winning actor to talk about God’s Own Country, his role in The Crown, what he likes and doesn’t like about biopics and playing real people and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There.
I wanted to start by talking with you about God’s Own Country, which quickly became a cornerstone of queer cinema, and I think took off in a way most people weren’t expecting. Can you tell me a little bit the impact working on that film had for you?
It was a kind of monumental moment for me and I think a big moment for queer cinema and insofar as it was kind of a gay love story that we hadn’t seen before, you know, in terms of one that ended with hope and one that told a kind of positive story. It was something maybe we’d seen before, but, it’s rare and people were obviously hungry for that. And so it touched many people and I feel like it’s rare that your project gets to have that effect on people. So it was a kind of, it was a huge moment for me. In terms of kind of career wise also just as a creative, as an actor, I think it was a moment of realization about technique and how I want to work. It built a process, which I still use the basis of now. And so yeah, it was really impactful for me.
I love that. Earlier this year you had Emma., how was it stepping into Mr. Elton’s shoes?
(laughs) It was very different than anything I’ve done before. I’ve never done comedy before. Autumn de Wilde, who is an exceptionally talented director, came in and it was very clear she wanted a kind of Peter Cook-esque Mr Elton and we’ve talked about him having a sort of darker side, which we touch on in the film. I think it was real, I loved it, it was kind of getting to stretch my muscles, my comedic muscles I suppose. And yeah, it was a real treat and it’s a lovely, beautiful ensemble film.
Diving into The Crown, had you watched the first two seasons of the show to help inform you of the style or approach to the series?
Yes, I had. I’d seen the first two and I’m very good friends with Vanessa Kirby who played Margaret so, I initially watched it as a kind of support for my friends, but then absolutely, obviously got hooked and I think the first two series’ are exceptional. Claire Foy is kind of spellbinding, Matt Smith I think is extraordinary as Philip, and often sort of, it’s underplayed how brilliant he was. I absolutely loved it and then be a part of this group of actors who I totally adore and look up to, you know, the likes of Tobias Menzies, to go from Matthew is extraordinary, and Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter, you know, these are all people that I aspire to so it’s been a real treat.
What were the main sources and figuring out who Prince Charles is on a personal level?
Well, I think there were a few things to kind of brought out the personal, but initially when I started with Charles, I spent so much time watching footage of him, or hearing recordings of him from the period. After a while I got to the point where I was like, actually, I don’t know that this has helped. It certainly isn’t helping me get any closer to the character and certainly isn’t getting close to who Charles really is behind closed doors. And so I sort of threw all that out the window. The thing that got me there more than anything was something that Peter Morgan had written, which is I think episode eight of series three. Charles described his life as being like he as being like a character in Dangling Man. He says, the character is a working class blue collar guy from Chicago and he’s waiting to be drafted to go to war and he actually wants to be drafted because it’ll give his life meaning, even though it means that they’ll go to a certain death.
And the idea that Charles, Prince Charles is this young boy who’s actually waiting for his own mother to die in order for his life to take meaning, I just thought that was a kind of, it locked into a sort of tragic narrative of this young boy that is so rare and an extraordinary. So that was the kind of, that was the crux of it.
When you’re playing somebody that is so well known, how do you strike the balance between impression and interpretation and what do you think you brought to Prince Charles?
Yeah, that’s such a good question. It’s a question I don’t know the answer to, yet. The best way to, for me, in my personal view of it as an audience member, is that I never enjoy seeing in any kind of biopic or whenever I see an actor playing a real person, I find it very difficult to watch and actor to do something really exactly like the person.
I don’t know why. I think it becomes too much like an impression. And what I always loved is that there was a great film called I’m Not There, which is about Bob Dylan. And so it was like eight or nine actors playing Dylan at different stages in his life and not just different stages but playing different aspects of his personality. So Cate Blanchett, plays the kind of more recognizable Dylan, which is the sort of public eye Dylan, you had Heath Ledger playing the kind of rock and roll Dylan, you had a young actor [Marcus Carl Franklin] playing the Woody Guthrie influenced Bob Dylan. So you had all these different actors, all totally different and most of them looked nothing like and resembled him in no way. And I remember that was the most powerful representation of Dylan I’ve seen or of anyone I’ve seen and I thought when I’m playing Prince Charles there’s no point in me spending all this time trying to get his voice and trying to look like him and walk like him.
Those things will happen naturally. And I think, you know, it’s good to have little aspects and little notes that people feel safe and comfortable in the knowledge secure that you are playing Prince Charles. But as soon as you can get rid of those, the earlier you can get rid of those, the the more interesting and the more adaptive that character is, the more influential that character can be. And as I say, it’s more interesting seeing Josh play Prince Charles than it is seeing just seeing Prince Charles.
I love that example of I’m Not There. It’s a brilliant movie and it is such a great way to bring an audience into a character without feeling like you’re just watching video footage.
Exactly. Because there’s documentary. We also undersell the brilliant art form that is documentary, which I absolutely adore it. There’s nothing better than watching old footage of Charles. I love it. But it’s not the same. I want to see an actor play and Claire Foy is a great example. I should stop rambling but Claire Foy is a great example of an actress who plays the queen so stupendously everyone in the world sat up right when they watched Claire and Matt Smith in series one and two. And it wasn’t because there was, ‘Oh my God,’ she looked and speaks exactly like the queen at that age. Most of us don’t know what the queen looked like at that age and it sounded like at that age because there wasn’t very much TV. So actually all we’re looking at is an incredible performance of the character. And I think I remember watching Claire and Matt and thinking ‘let’s focus on that.’ Let’s not try and play Prince Charles, let’s try and play the character.
Again, that’s a perfect example that makes perfect sense. There’s a turning point in the series when Charles, as the Prince of Wales, has to learn to speak Welsh. Did you know any Welsh or was this something new for you as well?
I mean, I certainly knew no Welsh. I’d never spoken a word of Welsh in my life a lot. I’d heard the language. One of the most kind of influential or most magical moments from when I was in grammar school was I heard an old recording of Dylan Thomas reading Under Milk Wood and was a beautiful radio play that he wrote and it was and poetical and beautiful and Dylan speaks it in this kind of like raucous Welsh voice. It’s like, mind blowing, and it was a kind of really special moment. So that combined with the fact that I love Wales the country, I felt very great affinity for the Welsh language. But as I said, I had no idea. So it’s very much, it was very much kind of like Charles’ feelings about having to learn it. There were muffs the same as mine and we went through a long process of learning everything. And yeah, I mean it’s great. I still know the speech now, but I don’t know what it means.
Which brings us right to that monumental episode where you have to give the speech for his investiture. Tell me about that sequence, which I think is just extraordinary in this series.
It’s a beautifully written episode. It has so much significance because it’s about Charles stepping up and becoming an adult. To me it was the thing that convinced me to take the role in the first place. I suddenly realized this as a young man who is, in my in recent history, is kind of known as a bit of a wally [British slang for ineffectual or foolish]. He goes around and talks about the environment, which of course we all know he was right. In the 80s and 90s he was considered a bit of a buffoon. And then there’s the Diana years and the thing that got me and took and basically convinced me to take the role was I suddenly realized he’s a lost boy and the investiture episode is him taking that lost boy and going, ‘No, I’m going to own this and I’m going to become a man.’
Jumping off that a bit, what do you think was the most misunderstood thing about Charles from this period of his life?
I think sort of the misunderstood thing of most of the Royal families, is that they had some perfect childhood. I mean, in terms of financially, they probably had a pretty great childhood, but I think terms of relationships to parents, relationships to siblings, they’re just like anyone else. I mean, they’re difficult. They have their ups and their downs. He was a lost boy but a lost boy with the knowledge that he was going to have to at some point lead, be the king, the reign of England, of the Commonwealth of this huge empire and we now know, it’s taken an entire lifetime and he still isn’t the King.
I think that’s the biggest thing that hopefully people have taken. There’s been a great response within people calling out and saying they feel great sorrow for Charles now. So hopefully that’s what they’ll take.
In looking forward to the future of your career, do you have a dream role in mind that you’d like to play?
I don’t know actually. It’s one of these questions that so hard because I’m always surprised when I say something quick and then a script will come through with a totally original role and there’s nothing better than a new script and a role that you’ve never thought of. It grabs me. But I suppose there are plenty of performances I’ve always kind of aspired to like Daniel Day-Lewis has played and those kind of fully formed characters or Tom Hanks. Those are the kinds of roles that you dream of. In terms of theater it’s easy because everyone wants to play Richard II or Hamlet. I’ve always wanted to play Richard II, so one day hopefully I’ll be able to do that. But beyond that, certainly the dream is to keep getting to play new characters and work with great directors.
All seasons of The Crown, including S3 where Josh O’Connor appears, are streaming exclusively on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.