You’re creating a character with all of their flaws and all of their weaknesses intact, and then opening them up. That can be incredibly scary and a difficult thing for an actor.
Josh O’Connor first caught our eye in Jeppe Rønde’s Brigend (2015). From 2007 to 2012, there were 79 reported suicides in Wales’ titular county, and as the film’s epilogue indicates, “The suicides haven’t stopped.” God’s Own Country marks another melancholic role for the actor.
24-year-old Johnny’s (O’Connor) life on the Yorkshire Moors as a sheep farmer is endless toil, which is sketched quickly in Francis 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.
This is no coming-out, coming-of-age story. No more closets. Progress, at last: no one speaks of their “gayness.” In fact, very little is spoken at all. If we’re to consider the evolutionary timeline of “gay films” on their way to becoming just films, God’s Own Country is a step in the right direction.
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 O’Connor’s co-star Alec Secareanu.]
It took me a bit to figure out where I had seen you previously—it was Jeppe Rønde’s Bridgend. That was an extremely haunting film and very atmospheric. I read an interview with you where you compared Bridgend’s Jamie to your role in God’s Own Country.
It’s funny because I do remember talking about that, maybe in Interview magazine, but actually and strangely, I find myself now pinpointing all the differences. In hindsight, I think there are huge differences that more sets them apart. In Bridgend, we’re dealing with such haunting issues and it is tragic. It’s a different kind of tragedy in God’s Own Country. In the beginning, Johnny is struggling to open up. He’s struggling to engage emotionally. He’s finding it hard to be vulnerable, to love, and be loved. Then a character comes in and introduces him to a kind of new hope, I guess. In Bridgend, in some ways, Jamie almost introduces hope to Hannah Murray’s character and kind of works the opposite way. Certainly, my approach to the characters was completely different as well. There’s so much a journey with Johnny where we start to see a real change in him.
There are many things about God’s Own Country that I loved. I’m tired of coming-out stories. It’s like, “Are we still having that conversation?” Their sexuality is just one aspect of them and it’s not what they’re crucified for. Did you talk about that with Francis [Lee]?
It’s true. Maybe we were totally naive, but none of us at any point had thought about the comparisons to Brokeback Mountain. It was only when we were at Sundance when someone just kind of mentioned it. Of course, you can see the similarities in some themes and it’s a huge honor. All of us love that film and love Ang Lee. It’s a really powerful story, I think, with two strong, central performances. I’d say the distance between them is greater. That film is teeming with suppressed sexuality, whereas God’s Own Country isn’t. We’re dealing with suppressed emotions, or the inarticulacy of emotions. The sexuality is there, but there’s no issue there for Johnny. He is what he is and I think Gheorghe is similar. So while the comparisons between the two films are there and we certainly welcome it, I think it’s different. The way I approached Johnny was exactly the same as I would any other character. His sexuality is just one of many, many aspects of him as a person. The focus, really, was on how this person who’s so closed off and doesn’t engage with the world around him gradually changes. That was our aim, really.
Do you find a definite closure with your character in the final frame of the film, or do you investigate further and imagine how things might be different for him later in life?
I love the idea that we follow these characters in such an intimate way. The way this film is shot—the camera is hauntingly on Johnny’s shoulder and we’re right in there with him. The audience has this unbelievably fortunate look into this meaningful relationship. And what I love about the door closing is that, after we go on this journey, we can say “Thank you” to Francis, and it’s up to Johnny and Gheorghe to say “Goodbye.” Having said that, of course, you invest so much in the characters. I lived as Johnny for a long time, so there will always be a part of me that will have an idea or a thought about where they end up, whether that’s together or not. But I think that’s personal. I think that’s for the audience to think about for themselves and have their own ideas. I really cherish that. When we do Q&As up and down the UK, across Europe, and now in the States, it’s always so lovely to hear people ask that question. The very concept of someone actually caring about what happens to Johnny after that closing door is really touching.
You got very method with this film. You spent weeks on a farm leading up to the shoot—fixing fences, riding tractors, delivering lambs—to really get into it. You were hospitalized at one point and lost a ton of weight just living that lifestyle. It’s a routine that’s starkly different from what we imagine an actor’s life is. Were you happy that it’s temporary?
Getting method for this role, to me, was completely necessary. What’s brilliant when you’re able to engage with a character on this level is that your ultimate job is to find empathy and ways of understanding why someone is the way they are. The biggest thing I learned is that—and I really do believe this whenever someone will ask me—every single person must know, has been in a relationship with, or knows somebody who’s been in a relationship with a Johnny. By a Johnny, I mean: someone who’s unable to open up, and because of that, can be quite damaging to the other person. We see that in the film. I personally have been in relationships with Johnnys where you see all of their insecurities and all of their vulnerabilities locked away—it’s like a prison. There’s no way you can chip away and open them up—it has to be them. I always like to think of myself as a Gheorghe who comes in and tries to coax that out of a person, but it doesn’t always work. What’s so lovely about Johnny and the story we worked on is that, at the end of the film, we see a change in him. We start to see Johnny reflecting and understanding that, if he opens himself up a little bit, he gets love back. And it’s not even just with Gheorghe. When Johnny is bathing his father—a hugely vulnerable moment—and his father turns back to him and says “Thank you,” that’s the most powerful line in the film to me. What I took out of that exchange is the feeling of hope. No matter how closed off you are, for whatever reason people are unable to engage emotionally, there is hope. There is a way of realizing that vulnerability can be extremely powerful. As far as the method technique goes, it was brutal. But I would do it again a million times because you just know what you’re going to receive, which is the authenticity you get in the film. It’s invaluable.
I’m curious about this book of sensory information that you kept during filming, similar to the one I believe Francis had. Can you tell me about it and what you kept on those pages?
Basically, for every character that I’ve done pretty much in film and theater—and I’ve only been acting for six years—I will have a little book. It used to be just notes on the character, like where they grew up, to include every single piece of information from the day the character was born to the day we meet them at the beginning of a story. When I met Francis, we spoke about how we like to work and he presented me with this book. It was a very similar idea because he had done it with Johnny and for the world of the film. It had not just information, but imagery from magazines that you cut out or bits of hay. It was materials and textures and colors and smells—everything was there. So I started to do that myself. I draw a lot, so I included a lot of that. I wrote in total detail. My books, which I still keep, are like scrapbooks. They’re thick books now. It’s, again, full of imagery, textures, smells, colors—everything you can get to build up a character—so when Johnny is cleaning up muck in the cowshed, those smells are familiar to him. We know where to link back to. It’s building a memory bank, but I guess in an artistic and creative way.
Can you recall the very first time you did that for a project?
I think when I first really got it down was for Bridgend. I’d done a lot of it before, but it was just more ideas. It’s about authenticity. Not every project you do is aiming for that kind of authenticity and God’s Own Country certainly aimed for that. In order to give that kind of performance, it was necessary to have all the information there. In terms of what I now do, God’s Own Country is the fully formed expression of that.
I saw that Francis gave you this ceramic sheep after filming. What’s the story behind that?
That’s amazing that you know about the ceramic sheep. Honestly, it was just very funny. He said, “I got a gift for you,” and I knew it was going to be really sweet and interesting and academic, like a book. But no, it was this ceramic sheep. I remember laughing my head off when I saw it. There was this really funny moment because this farm that we shot on—I worked on that farm in the lead up to the film. The farmer who owns that farm remains a very good friend of mine. There was this really interesting thing because Francis asked the art department to production design that farmhouse to match this vision that he had that was so clear in his head. One of those things was this British idea of having these craft things that aren’t brilliantly well done—and I’ve seen them growing up, like my grandmother would have them—and they look kind of like a sheep, but they could also look like a dog? It could be a dragon—it could be anything, really. But it’s white so it is a sheep. For me, it was partly funny and held such emotion because it was so of the world that Johnny inhabited. It was the kind of thing that I think Johnny would have that maybe his grandparents had given him. Maybe he’s like, “That’s shit, but maybe I’ll keep it.” Now, for me, it holds so much significance because this journey has been so wonderful for me and for all of us. I can gratefully say that it’s on my shelf above my bed in my London flat. So that’s good.
Going back to Bridgend for a moment, you once said in an interview, “Jeppe Rønde is fucking crazy.” Would you care to elaborate? I mean, it’s clear that he’s a tremendously talented guy.
[Laughs] Ummm, I’m not sure what I meant by that. It wouldn’t have been in a negative way, that’s for sure. He was a maverick. He does things like you’ve never seen before. He’s a Danish filmmaker and I’d worked with Lone Scherfig who’s also a brilliant Danish filmmaker. When I met Jeppe, he was kind of fascinating, really. He directs with incredible intensity. He has a different way of expressing the way the characters are. He was hard tasking and we all worked very hard on that film. I guess the difference is that, with something like God’s Own Country, you’re putting yourself on the line. You’re creating a character with all of their flaws and all of their weaknesses intact, and then opening them up. That can be incredibly scary and a difficult thing for an actor. What Francis did incredibly well was creating a support network. We always felt supported. You never felt like you were taking such a leap of faith without a support system that’s below you. Bridgend was similar, but things worked in a very different way. I guess there were no similarities between Francis and Jeppe. But they were brilliant for different reasons.
You once described yourself as a “super film buff.” What are your earliest influences?
When I was growing up, I guess my film knowledge wasn’t significant. I didn’t grow up in a family of actors. My mum was a midwife and my dad was an English teacher. I grew up more with theater. My dad would take me to Shakespeare plays all the time. In my early development, I loved watching characters like Hamlet on stage. I think the reason I particularly liked Hamlet was because there was this troubled young man dealing with, essentially, mental illness, and trying to understand the complexities of human emotions. Obviously, I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but now in hindsight, I can see I had a particular interest in that kind of world.
Then when I would’ve been 16 or 17, I watched There Will Be Blood. The opening sequence with Daniel Day-Lewis standing in that pit just chiseling away—I watched and I watched and I watched. At the end of that scene, I would pause and rewind, and I would watch that whole sequence over again. It took me a good hour-and-a-half before I actually proceeded from the first half-hour of the film. I was totally fascinated with the idea of the audience watching a human just live. There’s no dialogue. There’s no interaction with another human. It’s just a human doing their job. It was the most intriguing, fascinating thing that I’d ever seen. From there on in, Daniel Day-Lewis was a huge inspiration for me because I could watch him do anything. Then I found someone like Joaquin Phoenix—I love watching him in films. He has a similar intensity. And then I got introduced to arthouse films. I’ve been in love with Derek Jarman and his work, which is totally on the opposite end of the scale. But I just remember specifically the opening of There Will Be Blood totally opening me up and seeing film in a different way. It was purely by accident that I was watching that film. Then from there on in, I found people like Pete Postlethwaite and David Thewlis—big British actors who are the unsung heroes.
Are you currently shooting Harry Wootliff’s Only You?
We wrapped on that film just three days ago. I came straight from that out to New York. It’s a love story, but it’s dealing with a couple trying to conceive. It’s myself and Laia Costa—I think you know her from a film called Victoria, which was filmed all in one shot. Only You was really special. It’s very different from God’s Own Country and a very different character for me.
Where did you shoot that?
That was in Scotland, in Glasgow. Again, it’s miserable weather a lot of the time. [Laughs] But it was a metropolitan world, I guess, and a stark contrast to the rough moors of Yorkshire.