Prince Charles Actor Josh O'Connor Opens Up About 'The Crown' and Playing for Laughs in 'Emma'

Josh O’Connor - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

The budding British star talks about his "sexy priest" part in the new 'Emma' and what helped get him cast as 'The Crown's' future king: "My ears."

Josh O'Connor has spent the better part of the past decade pitted against actors like Eddie Redmayne and Sam Claflin for lead roles. Says O'Connor, "Most of the time my reaction [to a script] is 'Oh my God, how good would it be if Andrew Garfield played this role?' And then my agent has to go, 'Josh, how good would it be if you got to play it?' " One role that O'Connor knew he had a good chance at winning: Prince Charles on seasons three and four of the international phenom The Crown. He explains, "At the time I thought that they may well come to me because of my ears."

The self-effacing actor, 29, grew up in Cheltenham, England. “It was not massively exciting but I liked it,” he says of his hometown — known for its horses and mineral springs, less so for its performance scene. Having a sculptor for a grandfather and a ceramicist grandmother, O'Connor at first believed that he would pursue a career in the fine arts. "My parents probably were delighted when I chose acting, because if there is one job in the world that is less financially reliable than acting, it is art."

He first considered acting as a career after seeing Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot — "Watching him was like having an out-of-body experience," he says — and Pete Postlethwaite in the comedy Brassed Off! "That was the first time I saw someone on film that looked like someone I might know as opposed to a Hollywood actor," says O'Connor.

With a new ambition set, O’Connor auditioned famed drama school at Bristol Old Vic (only 14 students are admitted annually; Lewis and Olivia Colman are alumni), which was then taught out of an old Victorian home. "What would have been an old bedroom is where you would do voice lessons," he explains. His most formative experience came in his second year, when the class went on tour in a minibus, staging spontaneous performances in towns across the country, six days a week. "It was like a traveling circus. When I left school, all I wanted was to buy a van."

Instead, O'Connor got a flat in London with 10 roommates, a job in a pub and his first agent (whom he is still with today). One of his first professional auditions was for Universal's 2012 hit Les Misérables, making it to the final round for the coveted role of Marius. It was as he was walking to the final meeting with director Tom Hooper that he bumped into a friend from drama school on a London street. The friend was doing a stage play with a then-relatively unknown Redmayne, who had just been informed that he'd won the role of Marius. “I think there was some confusion, and they had cast Eddie and I didn’t know that. So I had to do this audition knowing that I did not have the part. It was a steep learning curve,” laughs O’Connor, before taking a beat and realizing: “I now know Eddie and I have never told him that.”

While he would later play Marius in a splashy BBC miniseries opposite David Oyelowo and Lily Collins, O'Connor's breakout came from the 2017 gay love story God's Own Country. A little more than a year later, when he was approached about Netflix's The Crown, he admits to being generally indifferent toward the royal family and thinking, "What's interesting about Prince Charles?" After taking the role, he prepared for months, with the aid of the show's dedicated research team. "Now, I think he is incredible."

In the few short months between work on the drama's season three and the upcoming season four (which will focus on Charles' marriage to Princess Diana), O'Connor filmed a Focus Features adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma. (out Feb. 21) from director Autumn de Wilde. "I had never done comedy," explains O'Connor, who plays the movie's vicar, Mr. Elton. "He is a messed-up sexy priest, so it was kind of a no-brainer."

With an older actor likely to play Prince Charles on the time-hopped season five of The Crown, O'Connor is thinking about what's next. "Ultimately, I want a career where I get to try as many things out as I can," he says. There is also a contingency plan in place: "I can always get a van. I've got the van to fall back on."

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.