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. 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.
To read the rest of the profile of rising star Josh O’Connor, purchase a copy of the ebook God’s Own Country: A Special Issue here.