I had to take a moment because I found myself starting to cry. That’s a huge responsibility. I had two lives in my hands.
“A British Brokeback Mountain,” says IndieWire. “Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain,” adds The Independent. “A Brokeback Mountain for the Yorkshire Moors,” echoes The Telegraph. “Dales answer to Brokeback that’s a very British love story,” chimes in The Guardian. Good grief.
A litany of critics have drawn lazy comparisons between Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and Ang Lee’s perennial 2005 “gay film.” While not entirely off-base in talking about two men who fall in love with each other on the pastoral countryside, that’s where the similarities end, frankly.
24-year-old Johnny’s (Josh O’Connor) life on the Yorkshire Moors as a sheep farmer is endless toil, which is sketched quickly in this Lee’s debut feature as our protagonist rattles through basic functions he strings together. He throws up last night’s alcohol, he gulps down whatever’s there at the breakfast table, he engages in wordless sex with strangers at livestock auctions, he’s knee-deep in shit doing sheep things on the farm, he gets obliterated alone at his neighborhood pub, and then he passes out again. Repeat ad nauseum—it’s barely an existence. The agent of change is Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian farmhand who comes to help out during lambing season. Again, Johnny attempts a rough seduction, but Gheorghe challenges him to broaden his horizons for once.
God’s Own Country opens in New York City on October 25 and Los Angeles on October 27.
[Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to our Q&A with Alec’s co-star Josh O’Connor.]
How often do you have to field questions about Brokeback Mountain?
[Laughs] I mean, Brokeback Mountain is an amazing film. It’s a very beautiful film. We’re very honored to be compared to that film. I think it changed the cinema landscape. But I think these are two different stories—totally different stories. The characters in Brokeback Mountain were married to women. They were afraid of what society would say about their relationship. This is not the case in God’s Own Country, which is about opening yourself up and letting yourself love and be loved in return. Both of the characters in God’s Own Country are very comfortable in their sexuality. These are very different stories. But, again, it’s a honor to be compared to that film.
God’s Own Country has been on the festival circuit for quite some time now, after world premiering at Sundance earlier this year. What has this journey been like for you?
It’s been surprising, to be perfectly honest. We didn’t expect for this movie to get this much attention. When we filmed it at the beginning of last year, we were only thinking about the process of making it and being truthful to the story and all of that. Then Sundance happened and there was a huge momentum. Then we went to Berlin and Edinburgh and a lot of other festivals. The film has been incredibly well-received so far in every territory that it has screened at. So it’s a bit surreal.
What’s been the most common question that you’re asked?
There are those same questions that people keep asking, yes. People ask a lot about the farming stuff and a lot about the process of creating this character. I find that really, really nice because people seem to understand and connect with the character. Then you get the questions about their relationship and how we built the story and about the chemistry between me and Josh [O’Connor].
You can’t help but warm up to Gheorghe immediately because, in many ways, Johnny is unapproachable, at least in the beginning. Gheorghe is mild-mannered, polite, and nurturing in the way he lives his life. Is that perhaps what you connect with, first and foremost?
When I first read the script, this was one of the most detailed scripts that I’d ever read. It didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but every single detail that you can see on screen—every single gesture—was written down. I really connected with the story because it’s not only a gay story, but a love story. It’s about opening yourself up and allowing yourself to love and be loved in return. It’s a very beautiful story. It was a privilege to be a part of it. And I’m a city boy. I was born and raised in the city. I was unfamiliar with farming—not at all. I mean, my grandparents used to have a home on the countryside and I spent the summer holidays with them, but every time I had to do work around the house, I ran as far as I could. [Laughs] It was very interesting to discover this new world that I didn’t know anything about. The environment in Yorkshire and what it’s like to work in that environment—it was really harsh and cold and damp and wet. I was used to the spring in Romania where it’s warmer and sunnier and greener. That was not the case in Yorkshire at all. It was very, very cold. To prepare this character, Josh and I had to work for two weeks on the farm.
There’s no immediate attraction between Gheorghe and Johnny that you can discern when they first meet, at least on the surface of things. It almost feels like playground games with Johnny’s name-calling and Gheorghe hiding the biscuits at the dinner table. I actually wanted to ask you about the biscuits. It’s very subtle. What does that tell us about Gheorghe?
Well, Gheorghe has traveled a lot. He has been on his own for a long time. He learned to survive on his own, so he has these survival skills. We don’t know much about his history, but I think for a lot of Romanians who go to another country to work, they go to earn money because they have to support their families back home. And he doesn’t have a proper diet because he travels a lot. He doesn’t have a lot of money. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that he’s stealing the biscuits, but he certainly pockets them. You know when you’re very tired and you need some sweets to get a sugar rush to keep you going? I think he’s keeping those biscuits for later because he doesn’t know when will be the next time he will have a proper meal. By that scene, he’s been traveling for some time on just one bacon sandwich. It’s just his instinct of survival that he developed over time.
It’s certainly a slight, but potent detail. We see that echoed around the campfire when he sneaks packets of sugar into his instant rice cups, right? I thought it was drugs at first.
Yes, it’s sugar packets. That’s what keeps him going.
Did you think you would get so close to sheep in your lifetime before taking on this movie?
[Laughs] All the animal scenes were pretty explicit in the script, so I kind of expected that. But the two weeks that we had to work on the farm—that really, really helped. It gave us the authenticity. Francis [Lee] knew from the beginning that he didn’t want to use any hand doubles or stunt doubles or anything like that. He wanted to keep things as authentic as possible. And I knew from the beginning that I would have to birth a lamb and skin a lamb. In those two weeks, we had very long shifts from very early in the mornings into the evenings. We learned how to make injections into the animals, how to feed them vitamins, how to care for their hoofs, and how to make cheese with their milk—all of that stuff. That helped us a lot because it gave us the physicality as well. I thought that maybe when Gheorghe first came to the UK, he could have gone through the same things and that the environment would have really affected him, even in the way he walks and the way he talks. That environment really, really affects you. Those two weeks really affected us as people, not only as actors for our characters. You use that to build the characters. We also started working on the characters individually, three months before the shooting. After Francis told me that I got the part, we did Skype together and he started to ask me a lot of questions about Gheorghe: about where he’s from, about his family, and about his other relationships. Basically, we built Gheorghe’s life from scratch from the moment he was born until the first moment we see him on screen. The film doesn’t give you a lot of information about Gheorghe’s background, but it’s there. In every moment, we put in all of the information that we developed with Francis.
I don’t know how many lambs you ended up working with, but in the context of the story, there’s one in particular that you’re very close to. Do you then name that lamb?
I didn’t name the lamb. [Laughs] Thank you and that’s a very sweet question, but no, no, no. I mean, it was very present. I did get close to two lambs: one to practice with and one to film. For example, when we filmed the lamb being birthed and I’m there with my hands, that was one take. When they shot it, I did it like Gheorghe would’ve done it—very pragmatically and professionally. It was tough. Gheorghe would’ve done this thousands of times, but that was my first time. So we filmed the thing and it was very nice and went well and Francis shouted “Cut!” or whatever he said, and after that, I had to take a moment because it was very emotional for me. I had to take a moment because I found myself starting to cry. That’s a huge responsibility. I had two lives in my hands and they were dependent on what I did and, of course, it affected me as a person, too.
Just going back to creating an in-depth backstory for Gheorghe, I sensed a lot of sadness in him, although this is ultimately an uplifting story. What was the foundation for you?
That’s interesting because I don’t think it’s sadness. Maybe it’s melancholy. I mean, he doesn’t come from a great background. There’s a big problem in Romania where—in the past 10 or 15 years, I think—a lot of people are leaving Romania for different countries in Europe to be able to sustain their families back home. When I started working on the character, I talked to a lot of people that went outside the country to work and they told me about the conditions that they had to go through, the employers they had to meet, and the way they were treated—in ways that are really not okay. I think Gheorghe at some point decided to make it on his own. Working with a lot of other people in this kind of sad situation, I don’t think Gheorghe was that comfortable. At some point, he just wanted to be on his own. This is why he’s traveling through England going from town to town, to find work. At some point, he ends up working with Johnny’s family.
I remember Francis saying that he doesn’t look past what’s shown in the film, so when Gheorghe and Johnny shuts the door at the end, that’s where the narrative ends for him. Do you feel the same way, or do you fantasize more about your character’s future with Johnny?
Yes, the film ends in a hopeful way, but it is open-ended. It ends with a hopeful beginning, I should say. I don’t know what happens after they close the door in the end, but they really fought for their story and their love. I don’t know—maybe they will start making a lot of cheese and sell it at the local farmer’s market and live happily ever after. I don’t know what happens. [Laughs] I think it’s more important to keep the end open. Maybe Francis will change his mind at some point in the next ten years and think about God’s Own Country 2. I don’t think so, but it could happen.
Then I have to ask: Are you open to doing a sequel?
[Laughs] I don’t think that’s the case. I mean, I would love to work with Francis again because the kind of process we went through in approaching these characters is not very common in filmmaking. He’s a special director. The kind of attention that he gave us during the shooting—Josh and I really had to get out of our comfort zones for a lot of it. But Francis was very generous to create a very safe environment in which we could do all of those things. Again, as I told you at the beginning of our conversation, I feel so privileged to be a part of this kind of project.
I do like the countryside. I do like taking long walks. I do enjoy hiking. I like making fires. I do know all of that, but this was the first time I approached farming in this way because we were just thrown into it. I got into Yorkshire and the next day, I went to the farm. I woke up at 5 AM and started cleaning the shit of the animals. It was very, very intense. As I told you, the weather really affected me. It was the kind of cold that enters your bones. To be honest, I think I got a bit depressed in the beginning of the prep period. But Gheorghe would have gone through the same thing. I tried to use that in approaching the character. I don’t know if you know this, but for the first week, Francis kept me and Josh as far away from each other as he could. We worked on different farms and stayed in different places. We only met briefly to read a couple of scenes and that was all. When we started filming, I moved in with Josh and we stayed in the same cottage, so our relationship as friends was developing at the same time that our relationship came together on screen. That of course helped us because we gained each other’s trust—as actors and as people. We developed this story step by step and we filmed it chronologically.
Did being in such close quarters ever feel too invasive?
Oh no, no, no. Not at all. Josh and I really, really had the best time together. Josh is a lovely person. He’s an incredible actor. He’s a very close friend of mine, also. Josh and Francis and I developed the most beautiful friendship. It was a pleasure living with him. Every single night, when we would finish filming, we went home, watched a movie, cooked dinner, spent time together, listened to music, and really connected. Now, as I told you, we’re really great friends. This is the thing that doesn’t happen a lot. You meet a lot of people on sets. You meet a lot of actors. You have to become kind of friends because you have to work together, but this became a very close friendship.
You’re splitting time between Bucharest and London. You have an agent in London now. You come from a big theater background. What are you most excited about going forward?
In the past year, a lot of things have happened. I do have an agent in London and I have a manager in L.A. If someone had told me three years ago that this would happen, I would have said, “Okay, fuck off.” [Laughs] Now I’m reading scripts and trying to choose wisely my next project. Yes, theater is my first love. I did a lot of theater. I did some shorts and features in Romania, but this was my first English-speaking part as a lead, so it’s quite big for me. I would love to do theater again, but unfortunately, right now I don’t have the time. With all the traveling, I don’t have the time to get involved in theater. Hopefully, I’ll have time next year or something. But why I act and why I do this job is to create characters and tell a story. I don’t think it’s about fame. I think it’s about creating characters and being truthful to the story that you’re telling. I just want to concentrate on that. This is what I prepared for: rehearsing and acting. Nobody prepares you for what happens after that. Interviews and fashion and stuff like that—it’s a totally different story. You have to manage that in some other way. Nobody teaches you how to manage that.