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Josh O’Connor has a theory.
Had the lockdown not happened, had so many people not seen season four of The Crown while he, like the majority of other Brits, were mostly stuck inside, he thinks he would have noticed a gradual increase in people spotting him on the streets. “But because of COVID, we’re suddenly all out of lockdown and … it’s a real shock to the system,” he explains. “Before I wasn’t recognized at all, and now I am. It’s so weird!”
The reason this theory has been raised is because the waitress in the pub where we’re meeting (around the corner from the North London flat he used to share with his partner — more on that later) has just let out a loud “Oh my God” (complete with finger point) on seeing whom she was serving a beer to. It’s almost too perfect a reaction during an interview — O’Connor readily admits it sounded like he’d “called ahead” to set it up — but it’s clearly becoming a regular occurrence for the 30-year-old.
A newly minted Golden Globe winner for his portrayal of a burdened, sullen and often unlikable Prince Charles (mostly for his treatment of Emma Corrin’s Princess Diana), and now heavily tipped for Emmy recognition (also possibly for his Romeo & Juliet filmed stage play adaptation for PBS alongside Jessie Buckley) — O’Connor is about to hit another career milestone: Cannes debutante. That is, assuming he doesn’t chicken out.
While he’s had the all-important quarantine-dodging two vaccine jabs (Pfizer), he says he’s slightly worried about the Croisette’s notorious press.
“I’m excited, as I haven’t been before, but films go to Cannes and get … panned,” he says. “I’ve heard they can be brutal.”
Not that he should have anything to fear. Playing in the Cannes Premiere section, Mothering Sunday — a British drama based on Graham Swift’s novella and set over the course of a single day in 1923 — boasts one of the festival’s most enviable ensembles of new and established talent. Eva Husson (Girls of the Sun) directs from a script by Alice Birch (Normal People, Succession), with prestige tastemakers Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley (Carol) producing and O’Connor appearing alongside rising Australian star Odessa Young (Shirley) and acting royalty Colin Firth, Olivia Colman (reuniting straight after bidding farewell to The Crown) and Glenda Jackson.
Over in the market, O’Connor has another hugely buzzy title, Aisha, delving into Ireland’s controversial asylum system, from writer-director Frank Berry, that he recently wrapped filming with Black Panther star Letitia Wright.
Interestingly, O’Connor’s first projects coming out of his triumphant two-season reign as Charles (Dominic West takes over for the final outings) take him straight back to the indie film world, where he was making a name for himself before The Crown creator Peter Morgan dragged him into big-budget television (almost literally — he “said no” at first). Whereas another royal breakout, Vanessa Kirby, made the leap from Buckingham Palace to blockbuster franchises (Mission: Impossible and Fast and Furious), O’Connor — who admits there was a definite “dynamic shift,” with filmmakers now pitching their projects to him (“also very weird!”) — is very happy to return to the pre-Crown path he previously was charting.
“In some ways, The Crown has really been a sort of deviation for me,” he says. “I was doing the indie film thing before and having some success.”
The successes he’s referring to are his flawless performances as an angry, unhappy young farmer in the hugely acclaimed LGBT drama God’s Own Country, the feature debut of Ammonite director and now close friend Francis Lee (“as soon as we met, I knew like we had a connection,” says O’Connor), and then as one half of a childless couple in Harry Wootliff’s critically lauded modern romance Only You. Both landed him British Independent Film Awards for best actor (one he has on display, the other is with his mother, while the Golden Globe statuette — which O’Connor admits he isn’t entirely aesthetically enamoured by — is “still in its box”).
“That was where I was heading, and these were the kind of films I wanted to make,” he says. “The Crown wasn’t. But I’m so glad I did it — I loved it. But now I just feel like I’m carrying on as I was before, trying to find stuff that feels really challenging and interesting.”
Although not something he claims to seek out and more a “reflection of our times,” an overriding theme linking the majority of his roles — particular those career-defining turns in God’s Own Country and The Crown — is one of sadness, loneliness, and, as he puts it, “the fragility of masculinity.” And this theme appears to be continuing, especially in Mothering Sunday, where he plays a young man saddled with grief and survivor’s guilt after his brothers were killed fighting in WWI.
“As men, I think we’re all having to question ourselves a little bit and ask, where do we sit in this world?,” he says of this more introspective moment for on-screen male performances. “We’ve been existing with an awful lot of privilege and are now having to reassess that, see where we place ourselves and how we can be better, softer and kinder.”
O’Connor points to Normal People star Paul Mescal (with whom he say he’s “recently become mates”) as an actor who also is becoming the cinematic face of XY sensitivity. “Normal People — especially that that therapy scene — just blew my mind. I remember thinking: that’s what I want to be doing.”
Like Mescal, O’Connor’s major global breakout — the reason for the increased volume of waitresses now breezing past our table to catch a glimpse — occurred almost entirely in lockdown. However, he acknowledges that his new friend’s rise to fame was slightly more dramatic.
“For him, it was overnight — in the space of two weeks he had like one million Instagram followers,” he says (adding that he was one of the many who signed up to a page dedicated to Mescal’s silver chain). “I’m really pleased for him, because he seems so grounded, but I feel like it doesn’t matter how grounded you are — success like that has got to be so intense.”
O’Connor’s streetside recognition may well ease off slightly during his next chapter as a New York resident. Once his Cannes duties are over, he’s planning on decamping to the Lower East Side to reunite with his girlfriend, marketing exec Margot Hauer-King, who’s been living there for the past six months.
With this American spell in mind, he’s booked up all of next year and 2023 with back-to-back projects, mostly film and mostly in the U.S. “It’s going to be a really crazy couple of years, but I’m very fortunate to know what that schedule is,” he says, adding that he’s also writing a feature film, being developed with producer Mary Burke (God’s Own Country, Saint Maud), which he may — eventually — direct.
But having gone from The Crown, to Mothering Sunday, to The Crown publicity work, to Romeo & Juliet, to Aisha, to The Crown’s Emmy campaign and now Cannes, O’Connor’s main aim is to take the rest of 2021 off.
“Basically, between now and Christmas,” he says. “I’m really trying to protect some time so I can take stock.”
A version of story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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