We take an in-depth look at the career of rising star Josh O’Connor who plays Johnny Saxby in God’s Own Country, his performance in the film, and talk to the actor about both. Seventh Row also dubs him one of our Bright Young Things. This piece is an excerpt from our ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue, which is available for purchase here.
“My goal is to transform and to play a role,” reflected Josh O’Connor, the breakout star of God’s Own Country. Ever since the film premiered at Sundance in January, O’Connor has been earning plaudits for his transformative performance as Johnny Saxby, the emotionally closed-off young farmer who learns to love himself and others through intimacy with a farmhand named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). “I think it’s very important not to box yourself and be that serious actor who does serious dramas or that comedy actor who does comedy dramas. I want to try new experiences.”
When I met Josh O’Connor at Sundance, one thing was immediately clear: he’s nothing like his character Johnny. Where Johnny is combative and inarticulate, O’Connor is warm, open, and chatty. While Johnny speaks with a working-class Yorkshire accent, O’Connor’s natural accent is southern and comparatively polished. He also has an endearing tendency to gesticulate wildly, using his hands to emphasize his points. “Francis claims that one of the main reasons he cast me was because of my big hands… although I’m not sure I’m happy about that.”
Since graduating from the Bristol Old Vic drama school six years ago, O’Connor has given one impressive performance after another in a wide variety of styles and accents. At the RSC, he starred in a 16th century comedy. In the World War I comedy The Wipers Times, he performed vaudevillian sketches. He played a moody teenager in Bridgend, a British drama by a Scandinavian filmmaker. In an early guest appearance on London Irish, as an upper-class English twit who can’t stop saying “literally”, he gets enormous comic mileage out of nodding and tilting his head, and varying the pace of his delivery — the kind of text work he learned to do at the RSC.'I think God’s Own Country was the moment where it all pulled together.' -Josh O'ConnorClick To Tweet
“I think God’s Own Country was the moment where it all pulled together,” said O’Connor. “When I came to God’s Own Country, I’d tried various things. But I’d never found a technique that really hit the mark. And then [director] Francis [Lee] came along. Now, I’ve got a fairly good way of working, and I know what I need to do to achieve what I want as an actor.”
Most British actors cut their teeth in theatre before branching out to film and television. Josh O’Connor briefly followed this route with a couple of roles in London — Farragut North at the Southwark Playhouse and Versailles at the Donmar — where critics made a point of singling out his compelling performances for their authenticity. Then he spent a year at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).
“For me, and for most young actors, the RSC is like the pinnacle. All my idols went to the RSC.” O’Connor reminisced, still seeming a little awed. “Just to get in the company was a big deal. On top of that, I was offered the lead role in The Shoemaker’s Holiday so there was just no way I could not do it. It was a really difficult play. It was a Thomas Thacker play, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. The thing I learned from that was how to handle quite difficult, wordy language, and hold a play together essentially on your own.“'For me, and for most young actors, the RSC is like the pinnacle. All my idols went to the RSC.'Click To Tweet
Although O’Connor hasn’t been back to the theatre since, his screen roles have mostly been in ensemble films or shows, which he agrees is similar to that initial theatre experience: “One of the best things about working as an actor is having that kind of ensemble and creative feeling.” As a supporting character in Magnificent Eleven, The Wipers Times, and Ripper Street, he may not have much screen time, but he was on set every day, working with seasoned actors like Ben Chaplin and Matthew MacFadyen.
A seminal moment came in Lone Scherfig’s magnetic film The Riot Club, where O’Connor co-starred as one of a clique of creepy, over-privileged young men. “It was the golden film,” O’Connor marvelled. “Just to be involved in The Riot Club was a huge step up for me .At the time, it was like every young actor wanted to be in The Riot Club.” Many of his co-stars have since broken out, including Sam Claflin (Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games), Douglas Booth, Sam Reid (’71 and Belle), Jack Farthing (Poldark), and Ben Schnetzer (Goat, Journey is The Destination).
O’Connor credits his theatre background for helping him build a rapport with other actors on set. “Interestingly, a lot of the boys in that film hadn’t done much theatre, and I had done some. When you’re a lead in a play, or if you’re in a play full stop, it’s all about connecting with other actors and having that company feel, that ensemble feel, and supporting each other.”'It was the golden film. Just to be involved in THE RIOT CLUB was a huge step up for me.' -Josh O'ConnorClick To Tweet
After The Riot Club marked him as an actor to watch, O’Connor’s first major mainstream role came on The Durrells, an ITV comedy about a British family living in Corfu in the 1930s. He plays Larry, a curmudgeonly, garrulous, and socially-inept writer. O’Connor modestly undersells his work on the show: ”The Durrells for me is a lovely job. It’s been an amazing three years. The Durrells is a beautiful book I grew up with that is not striving for authenticity, but for telling these really beautiful and very funny British stories.“ The plots may be absurdly heightened, but the actors keep their characters grounded in reality. The heart of the show is Larry’s tender relationship with his mother (Keeley Hawes), which veers between a friendship of equals and a boy who just needs his mother. There’s a constant give and take of banter between them, buoyed by unspoken love and respect.
From comedy to drama, what Josh O’Connor brings to his characters is emotional warmth and palpable vulnerability. In Bridgend, O’Connor’s character, Jamie, was part of a close-knit group of boys he cared about so deeply he would die for them. But Jamie’s budding relationship with his girlfriend allowed him to escape this toxic group. O’Connor’s 2014 film Hide and Seek (Amorous) was another story about a group of friends who get lost in that group mentality — this time, a quartet who decide to live out their own sociological experiment with free love. O’Connor’s Max was fearful that he needed the group too much, constantly putting on masks to protect himself. But Max was also the first to make a genuine connection outside the circle because he was most willing to give himself fully.From comedy to drama, what O’Connor brings to his characters is emotional warmth and palpable vulnerability.Click To Tweet
This emotional openness is what makes his two best-known characters similar, even though their circumstances are so different. “I think Larry is a really interesting parallel [to Johnny],” O’Connor opined. “The way he hides it isn’t like Johnny, where Johnny just closes himself off entirely. Larry hides it with abuse and anger. I think there are a lot of similarities between Larry and Johnny, emotionally.”
Josh O’Connor described preparing to play Johnny Saxby as “going method”, though his approach was much more British than that may sound: the key was trying to immerse himself in the environment that was so key to shaping Johnny. Before starting the shoot, he worked on a farm for two weeks. That’s how he worked out Johnny’s physicality. “When it rains in Yorkshire, it doesn’t rain down. It rains sideways from both directions. It seems to rain up. It comes from everywhere. Immediately, as Josh, when I was working on the farm, I’d have my hood up. But my back would be arched over, and I’d be looking down. I wouldn’t be looking up and taking in the landscape. You’re down, and you’re focused on the land.”'When it rains in Yorkshire, it doesn’t rain down. It rains sideways from both directions. It seems to rain up.'Click To Tweet
During the shoot, he stayed in accent 24/7 and ate Johnny’s horrible diet (“Let’s just say, it wasn’t good. I was glad to go back to my couscous and quinoa when I finished the film.”), which he credits as crucial to finding the sound of Johnny’s voice. “You’ve got a character that smokes all the time. He abuses alcohol all the time. His diet is bad. He just eats bacon butties all the time. I thought about how did that affect someone’s voice? It’s down. It’s low. It’s croaky.“
Johnny’s sullen silence was a new challenge for the unreserved O’Connor. “To go from the RSC where I’m doing the deep, complicated, poetical text, to Larry, where it’s poetical and so academic, to then Johnny — to be honest, it’s the best thing. I loved the fact that I didn’t have that to rely on. It was like, let’s take that away from Josh. Let’s not give him the words. I really enjoyed watching Johnny stripped down. He can’t talk his way out of a situation. He just lives it. I love watching that on screen, as an audience member, and I also love doing it as an actor. Removing the ability to explain your way out of stuff is really nice. He’s inarticulate. He can’t talk his way out of anything. He’s so easy to read for that reason. It was a new way of telling a story. I really liked being physical with him and taking him on a different journey that way.”'To go from the RSC doing the deep, complicated text, to Johnny—I loved that I didn't have words to rely on.'Click To Tweet
After so many ensemble roles, O’Connor relished playing a character just living and working on screen, without interacting with others. “I remember watching There Will Be Blood whenever it came out. I was a teenager. I remember that opening sequence with Daniel Day Lewis down a pit, and he’s just working away in the early stages of oil. I remember watching that, and it’s just watching a human at work. It’s something that excites me as an audience member: watching someone authentically live. That doesn’t need interaction with other people.“
“The most exciting thing, as an actor, is responding to what the other actor gives you,” O’Connor opined. “Equally, as an actor, the study of human condition is fascinating. I loved all the scenes where it’s just me and the animals, like the opening scene with the cow and my hands are going down his back. I loved all of that. I loved the fact that Johnny is isolated in this film and that someone comes in. Actually, the interaction with humans is the thing that he finds difficult. So I really relished the chance to investigate that.”
Maintaining a protective mask and then dropping it in an instant to become completely exposed is O’Connor’s specialty. It’s disarming and brave. There’s a scene early in God’s Own Country when Johnny tries in vain to stand up to his father (Ian Hart) with a simple request: he wants one night out in Bradford after slogging every day on the farm because his father is too sick to work. Johnny is whiny and rebellious, throwing his father’s illness in his face. His father responds in kind, castigating him for his selfish immaturity. Instead of getting his back up, O’Connor’s face immediately softens and he stops arguing. Johnny’s instinct isn’t to push for what he wants; it’s guilt for making his father feel bad. In that moment, O’Connor silently conveys all the warmth lying behind Johnny’s surly exterior, waiting to grow.
With God’s Own Country, Josh O’Connor has shot from a virtual unknown to a critical darling. He was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit and nominated for Best Actor at the BIFAs, and he’s been on list after list of actors to watch. As for what’s next, O’Connor said “I think I’ve always been attracted to drama and filmmaking, in particular, and essentially, really good and authentic stories.” He just wrapped shooting on a drama called Only You. More leading parts seem likely to follow, although he seems to want to carve out a career as a character actor rather than as a star. He’d probably be the last person to consider that his good looks could shoot him into franchises and leading man roles, if he were so inclined.
“There are all these movie stars like Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix, who I adored when I was growing up. I used to love watching their performances, everything about them. Ralph Fiennes is another one. They were just living it. And I loved watching that. But actually, they were also all very beautiful. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, that’s all well and good that they’re fucking amazing. But they’re also really beautiful. I wonder if there are any actors out there who were really amazing and not actually that beautiful.’”'I wonder if there are any actors out there who were really amazing and not actually that beautiful.’Click To Tweet
“I remember watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and seeing Pete Postlethwaite. I was like, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy with this huge nose and weird skin? And he’s amazing!’ Then, I went back through everything that Pete Postlethwaite has done. I was obsessed.”
“David Thewlis, this kind of weird looking guy, is unbelievable and so exceptional as an actor. I remember seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in a film and being like, ‘Who is this guy? This is so cool. Who are these not as attractive as Daniel Day Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix actors and as good?’ Actors that can just embody a role and transform and shape-shift, they’re the actors that I really admire.”
Though O’Connor has learned to transform on screen in turn, it’s his empathy for his characters that makes them feel real.“There’s so much I rely on my own experience,” O’Connor told me. “I have a side of me which is very vulnerable. I’ve been in relationships myself where I could recognize Johnny in people that I’d been with in the past, where they were unable to be vulnerable. I could also recognize moments where I had let myself be vulnerable in a relationship, and that had been knocked down.”'That’s something that I’ve recognized in my own life: how crazy and terrifying it is to let your guard down.'Click To Tweet
“The moments, in the early part in the film, where Johnny does engage with his father, and he is knocked down, are huge. That just reiterates for Johnny that to be vulnerable and engaged is not going to work. It’s only Gheorghe coming in and showing him that actually there’s another way, where you are vulnerable, and the response is love and kindness and progress. I think that’s something that I’ve recognized in my own life, and it’s kind of easier to play. Just how crazy and terrifying it is to let your guard down.“
Own this article about Josh O’Connor to keep alongside a collection of interviews and essays on Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country with our ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue, available here.