Josh O’Connor: ‘I had to advocate for Prince Charles on set. He’s always told: shut up’

Tom Lamont
·15 min read

When we meet at 4.15pm on a Saturday in late October, Josh O’Connor is in the middle of one of those hot streaks that British actors occasionally enjoy when everything comes good at once. A new series of The Crown, in which the 30-year-old plays Prince Charles just flawlessly, is due out on Netflix. A day ago, he finished production on Mothering Sunday, an awardsy adaptation of Graham Swift’s novel that should reach cinemas next year. And first thing Monday morning, O’Connor is meant to clock in at the National Theatre to begin rehearsals on a filmed, big-ticket Romeo & Juliet opposite Jessie Buckley. As hot streaks go it’s sizzling, with no obvious end in sight.

At 4.16pm, O’Connor checks his phone and discovers the streak is over. “Hmph,” he says, hunching low over the screen and reading out the government’s announcement of an imminent winter lockdown. “Starting next week. So who knows what will happen now.” He looks up, neutrally – then the freckled face opens into a wide, goofy smile, the expression of somebody essentially good-humoured and easy-going taking life as it comes.

We’ve come together for a meal in a burger diner in north London, not far from the home O’Connor shares with his partner, Margot, who works in advertising. He pops a can of beer that’s been brought over and drinks some, ruminating on an up-and-down year. He turned 30 during the spring lockdown. His partner faced the difficult task (now familiar to so many of us) of marking a landmark occasion without really being able to leave the sitting room. “It was tricky territory for her. We had a written rota. Wake up 8am. Breakfast on Zoom with my family back in Cheltenham. Cup of tea through the window with my best mate… It went on like that all day. I was exhausted. It was nice.”

It was as if a switch flipped on my 30th birthday and I realised I don’t actually like clubbing or pretending to be cool

To chat to, he is a little different from other actors I’ve met, without guard or guile. A huncher, a ready smiler who has dyslexia and finds reading difficult but who still loves to read, he has the boyish and engaging energy of a primary schoolteacher that most of the parents half-fancy. Anything that sounds too much like self-pity he’ll undercut with an incongruous aside (of a chronic back problem: “Joaquin Phoenix has the same thing, so that’ll be something to talk about if we ever meet”). And I mean it as a compliment to note that O’Connor comes dressed as if popping down to Tesco Metro for a carton of milk. Flappy hoodie. Dad cap.

“All part of turning 30,” he says. “I’d been feeling this for a few years. But it was as if a switch flipped on my birthday and I realised that I don’t actually like clubbing, or hanging out in groups, or pretending to be cool. And overnight I decided I don’t have to like it. If I’m 30, I can be an adult and I can admit that I like one-to-one dynamics, and staying in and reading, and that’s who I am. It was a moment of permission. It has been my curse for such a long time, desperately pretending to be fun.”

We order burgers and chat about the royal family, a group in which O’Connor had precisely no investment before he was cast to play Prince Charles in The Crown last year. What makes Netflix’s long-running drama so moreish and effective is the way it both sexes-up and intellectualises the largely humdrum activities of the Windsors. Most of the show’s revolving cast have kept their remarks about the real, nonfictional royals quite diplomatic. But O’Connor, who will not return as Prince Charles after this coming series, loosens the leash a little.

He’s a lefty. He campaigned hard for Jeremy Corbyn in the last election. The fact that The Crown valorises and validates the monarchy does not sit especially comfortably with his own political views. “I’m a republican,” he says. “Although, I should add, not in any kind of fist-waving, campaigning way. I was always mostly uninterested in them. They existed. They were there. And I wasn’t overly bothered. In some ways I respect them for the way they’ve balanced things. Because they exist, and we can forget about them if we want to, and maybe that’s a tactical thing. Like, maybe the Queen knows, if she made a bit more out of it all, then maybe we’d start abolishing them.”

It took some persuading before O’Connor would agree to audition for the part. “I think a bit of me felt that, beyond Prince Charles being a very rich and posh man, what’s the get-in? Where’s the juice to him? Where’s the stuff?” The actor started to become interested only when he was encouraged by the programme’s writers to think about the essential aimlessness and purposelessness of Charles’s life as heir to the throne. It’s a job in which the only job is not to die.

“I didn’t want to do the audition. It didn’t excite me. But eventually they gave me this scene to read.” It was a moment in which Charles compares himself to the central character in Saul Bellow’s novel Dangling Man. “That book is about a guy waiting to be drafted to go to war. And he wants to be drafted because it will give his life meaning. This was Charles’s conundrum, too. And I thought, shit, yeah, that’s the juice.”

Later in the same episode there is a moment when Charles realises that, in order for his life to have any meaning at all, his mother must die. “And whatever you think of the royal family,” O’Connor says, “it’s hard not to feel sympathy for someone in that situation. Because it’s insane.”

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O’Connor is the middle of three brothers, sandwiched between an older artist and a younger PhD researcher. His dad, John (a teacher), and mum, Emily (a midwife), raised the family in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. O’Connor attended a private co-ed school during the week and at weekends spent a lot of time at a local arts centre called the Axiom. “It was an old red brick building, little library and cafe on the ground floor, gig venue upstairs, art classes on the top floor. All the local kids went there, from all different backgrounds. We did painting, ceramics. It closed in the early noughties when I was 11.”

He grew up in a Labour-supporting household, but traces his political awakening to this moment. “Looking back, I can identify a huge loss there. In my generation there were suicides, lots of awful things that happened in Cheltenham, and I’m convinced I could sense this loss of community that happened after the arts centre closed. It sat there, empty. Eventually there was a community group who came together and took a proposal to the council. But by then it had been sold. Somebody bought the building and found a loophole, and they knocked it down. It’s expensive flats now.”

He feels proud to have grown up outside of London, in a town that (at least before the turmoil of lockdown) had a strong tradition of regional theatre. A place like Cheltenham is compact enough, he says, “that an arts space can have an effect on the whole town. The regions are where things start. They’re where things happen.” He says he felt like a wide-eyed rube, aged 18, when he left school and got a place on the undergraduate acting course at Bristol Old Vic theatre school. “Bristol felt like this massive, metropolitan crazy place. And then London… I’m not sure I’ve ever really got to grips with London.”

He moved to the capital after he graduated, taking bit parts in TV staples such as Lewis (2012) and Doctor Who (2013), and doing theatre work. In 2014, he strung together a run of guest appearances in Peaky Blinders and that year was part of a cast of 13 in the Peter Gill play Versailles at the Donmar Warehouse in London. He had reasonably consistent employment, but there was nothing meaty. He got film parts, but these were the sort where your character is called “Ballroom Palace Guard” and gets listed in the credits just before “Pretty fishmonger’s wife” (Cinderella, 2015).

O’Connor enjoyed himself in the ITV dramedy The Durrells, which ran for four series and in which he played the oldest son in a family of gallivanting eccentrics in the 1930s. He was on the Durrells set in 2016 when he recorded a short audition piece on his smartphone for the British director Francis Lee, who was looking for an actor to star in his debut feature. Lee had written a script about an unhappy, borderline-alcoholic farm worker who lives in rural isolation with his disabled father and eventually finds relief from his loneliness when he begins a taciturn love affair with a Romanian cattlehand.

He was desperate to land the part. Lee has since told stories in interviews about the audition video O’Connor submitted being so tremulous and intense, there was a legitimate worry this actor might be too emotionally disturbed to rely on. After he was cast, O’Connor worked on a farm for a month to prepare for the shoot and determinedly lost weight; too much, doctors confirmed, when he was briefly hospitalised and put on a drip (he’d shed two stone).

Peter Morgan was quite clear with me: I’m playing Prince Charles as Walter White from Breaking Bad

The result was one of the standout screen performances of 2017. Though O’Connor has minimal dialogue in God’s Own Country, and begins his arc as a grump and a fairly repellent racist, you cannot take your eyes off him from start to finish. The movie was a Sundance hit, securing Lee a major prize and earning immediate and favourable comparisons to Brokeback Mountain. O’Connor remembers sitting in that Sundance screening, “watching with people who had no agenda, no bias. And it was heaven.”

He explains: “There’s a change in atmosphere in a room, very slight, when you know you’ve got everyone on board.” It’s what makes him so gutted about the current locked-down plight of cinemas, he says. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing to replace that sense [in a cinema or theatre] of a group experience. A bunch of strangers in a room, hanging on every word, experiencing sadness and joy and hope all at the same time – in my head it’s the closest thing to faith I’ve experienced.”

God’s Own Country won him an award for best actor at the British Independent Film awards 2017, and confirmed his place on the casting agents’ scouting map as one of those subtle, humble chameleons who can disappear into parts and who tend to get referred to as “actor’s actors”. Peter Morgan, who created The Crown, has likened O’Connor to the former Barcelona midfielder Andrés Iniesta, a footballer’s footballer of massive but unobtrusive skill. Lee, more teasingly, has said it was O’Connor’s slightly protruding ears that first caught his attention.

The talent and the ears combined made O’Connor an absolute shoo-in for Prince Charles. “Oh, God, immediately,” he says, when I ask how early in the process he wondered whether his ears were a factor in his casting. The actor Vanessa Kirby, who played Princess Margaret in seasons one and two of The Crown, is a mate of his. When she told O’Connor they were looking for a young Charles, he remembers that his fingers went instinctively to the side of his head. “I thought, I wonder if they’ll be coming for these.”

In the most recent seasons of The Crown, the showrunners have been careful to install established and watchable actors in the dowdier middle-aged parts (Olivia Colman is steady Elizabeth and Helena Bonham Carter is the irritable Margaret). But it is the charm of the younger, lesser-known cast that really drives them. O’Connor and Emerald Fennell, who plays Camilla, have palpable chemistry. When, in the new season, the newcomer Emma Corrin appears as Diana, the dynamics of this famous and doomed love triangle are established and explored without any hint of Spitting Image-like caricature.

Helena Bonham Carter, Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty pose with the trophy for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series for “The Crown” in the press room during the 26th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California
With Helena Bonham Carter and Erin Doherty at the Screen Actors Guild awards in January. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

O’Connor, who initially played Charles as a sympathetic and mummy-suppressed naif, slowly develops into a moody (still mummy-suppressed) rake. It’s a cool, sidelong move by everybody involved, to present the Charles story in the mode of Breaking Bad. “Right, totally,” the actor says, “it’s Prince Charles as Walter White. Peter Morgan was quite clear with me. In season three our job was to make people feel sorry for him, so that in season four, when he turns into this at times monstrous character, we understand how he got there.”

It sounds as though O’Connor (who has described himself as “a pain in the arse” at drama school, an undergrad who was always trying to sway the tutors away from musicals and towards more serious plays) pushed against some of the limitations of the character. “It was hard at times. There were days on set when I would say, ‘Can we do a scene where Charles does express himself to the Queen?’ He’s always told: shut up, shut up, shut up. I felt I had to advocate for him, a bit, and give him a voice. And always [when I made that case] the answer came back, ‘No. This is the point, he doesn’t have a voice, not yet.’”

O’Connor came to end of the shoot, he says, “a bit unsatisfied. Charles never really had a chance to explain in his own words why his marriage to Diana was a mess. It would have been a worse drama for that explanation. It wouldn’t make sense for him to have a closure scene. But selfishly, I wish I’d had that closure.”

A cast of different, older actors will be parachuted into The Crown for its fifth and final season. (Dominic West has been widely tipped to play the next Charles.) Meanwhile O’Connor is done with the prince – he hopes. In Mothering Sunday he plays an upper-class roué again and he had to resist, he says, those strained Windsor vowels creeping into the performance. (He had trouble with the word “out” which kept emerging from his mouth as a Charles-like urt.) “If my career ends tomorrow, and everyone says: ‘We just couldn’t buy him as anything else but Prince Charles’, well, it would be a bit damning. But I wouldn’t be so disappointed. I’ve had a good run.”

O’Connor has finished his burger and his beer. He picks up his phone and gives the news about the lockdown one last skim. There are a few days left until everything has to shut. Maybe they’ll get in a few days’ rehearsal on Romeo & Juliet after all. Though he’s disappointed, he knows he’s a long, long way from any real suffering here. “I’ve just done two seasons of The Crown. I’m really privileged. I can afford to take time off and for that to be a good thing, almost a holiday. It’s kids in their late teens and early 20s, people going to university, people with children and juggling jobs – I feel so sorry for them.”

Josh O’Connor and partner Margot Hauer-King attend the Royal Academy of Arts Summer exhibition preview at Royal Academy of Arts on June 04, 2019 in London, England
With partner Margot Hauer-King. Photograph: Eamonn M McCormack/Getty Images

Also those regional venues, O’Connor says, circling back. So many theatres and gig spaces were already dying before one lockdown, let alone two. “I was on the National Theatre stage last night, celebrating that we were meant to start rehearsals on Monday. It was haunting out there, spooky, horrible – but I believe the theatre will revive itself in London. What I’m really worried about are smaller venues that don’t get touched by financial support. Not a sniff.”

He carries on: “What I find difficult about the narrative of the arts during lockdown – yes, it’s a disaster. But it was a disaster that was going to happen anyway under the Tories and it’s just been sped along. I find it the most upsetting part of this whole experience. I know people will say, there are more important things. And there are more important things. But at the same time,” he shrugs, “I don’t understand what we’re living for if not to question why we’re here. And ask questions. And in my opinion, the best way to do that is through the arts. So yeah.” He smiles, apologetic. “That’s my rant over.”

Related: The Crown: the pleasure, and shock, of seeing the royals as truly human for once | Sarah Ditum

We leave the bustling diner, wondering how long it will be till everybody can gather freely like this again. All around the country, people are reading the news about the second lockdown and trying to think their way back to a positive, stay-indoors mentality. O’Connor does the same. “I’m never normally at home for any length of time. I’m always away on jobs, or coming back late from jobs. And just having the chance to cook, and being at home with my partner, it was kind of a dream come true. From a purely personal and interior point of view, I loved it, and I don’t feel ashamed in saying that.”

So he hopes for more of the same. The Romeo & Juliet, the hot streak, maybe meeting Phoenix one day to talk about their bad backs. All that can wait.