Josh O’Connor stars in God’s Own Country, a small, indie film with big themes. He talks to Georgia Humphreys about its comparisons with Brokeback Mountain and how it’s a world away from his role in The Durrells
If people were to recognise rising British star Josh O’Connor, it would most likely be for his TV work, which includes ITV’s The Durrells and Peaky Blinders. But the latest role for the Cheltenham-born 27-year-old, as the lead character in gay love story God’s Own Country, could be about to change that. The film recently won the award for best British feature at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Director Francis Lee’s debut is a beautiful tale of the intense relationship that forms between Johnny Saxby (O’Connor), who works long hours in brutal isolation on his family’s remote farm in Yorkshire, and a handsome Romanian migrant worker, Gheorghe, (Alec Secareanu), who arrives to take up temporary work on the farm in lambing season.
The two men quickly and intensely begin to fall for each other, and the film becomes a tale of self-discovery and emotional-awakening, while Johnny also faces the future of his family’s farm hanging in the balance.
O’Connor, who trained as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and was recently named a 2016 Screen International Star of Tomorrow, talks about how the unavoidable theme of Brexit runs through the story,
What made you want to do this film?
“I read the script and fell in love immediately with the couple and the story of their relationship. I loved the idea of playing a part that was so different to myself and throwing myself into that and, indeed, doing it in a world that was kind of foreign to me. So I think that was the initial thing and then meeting Francis, it was like meeting the director that I needed to work with.”
It’s been called the “first great film of the Brexit era” - what message do you think the film sends in terms of Brexit?
“Interestingly, when we were shooting the film it was pre-referendum, so all the campaigning was happening. But this wasn’t a film about Brexit - accidentally, we find ourselves with a film touching on an aspect of immigrant workers post-Brexit referendum.
I remember talking about it with Francis and with Alec briefly but only because we were so sure we wouldn’t be leaving the EU and that wouldn’t be happening. I remember Francis calling me when the referendum happened and he was like ‘You realise we’ve now made a period film’.
I think it’s a huge part of this film now, accidental or not, so with regards to that hopefully people will take away from it how wonderful people and different cultures are in our country.”
You had to learn the accent, how to be a farmer, and then there are sex scenes and nudity - which of these did you find the most challenging?
“Probably the farming. I’ve never farmed before. It’s unforgiving, it’s hard work, hard graft - but I loved it, and I loved everyone I met who guided me along the way. I worked with a farmer called John whose farm we filmed on. And he’s still a very good friend of mine; we talk on the phone, if I go up to Yorkshire to see Francis, I’ll pop in to see John, have a pint. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man, and I have so much respect for what he does and for that world. It’s not easy.”
What do you think about people billing it as Yorkshire’s answer to Brokeback Mountain?
“Francis, Alec and I unanimously love that film. I love Ang Lee, I can see why people are uttering it in terms of the farming aspect, and the landscape surrounding it. I think they’re very, very different films, and I think they deal with different aspects of relationships. Johnny and Gheorghe I think are quite comfortable in their sexuality, whereas the two characters in that film aren’t. But of course it’s such an honour to be uttered in that same sentence.”
What are you working on next? More of The Durrells? More film work?
“We’re finishing off the third series of The Durrells at the moment. And then I go off to do my next film project in four weeks. I can’t say what it is, but it’s a British film.”
God’s Own Country is in cinemas now