He's about to star in two huge new TV series, The Crown and Les Misérables, but as next-big-thing Josh O’Connor tells Lucy Pavia, his feet are fixed firmly on the ground
‘I’m not constantly looking around thinking, “Oh God, I didn’t get that right”, but there is a bit of that,’ laughs Josh O’Connor. Currently knee-deep in filming on The Crown, the British actor chosen to play a young Prince Charles in series three is ruminating on his approach to the role. ‘There’s getting the dialect and the accent perfect, and trying to have some details of him. But, ultimately, it’s the creation of a character.’ A worthwhile disclaimer if HRH himself happens to have a Netflix account.
O’Connor has another, equally intense role in the offing before we see him join The Firm. In BBC One’s big Christmas-time drama Les Misérables, the 28-year-old will star as Marius Pontmercy with David Oyelowo, Lily Collins and Dominic West. The cast also includes his The Crown co-star Olivia Colman as Madam Thénardier, which provided ‘a bit of extra mother-son bonding time.’ Any viewers expecting rousing musical set pieces from the series might be disappointed. This new adaptation (by Andrew Davies, the man behind House Of Cards and the Colin Firth-in-the-lake Pride And Prejudice) is non-musical, drawing instead on Victor Hugo’s gritty 1862 novel.
‘What they’re hopefully going to get is a totally new perspective on that story,’ he says. ‘And it’s so relevant. It’s a book about class, poverty, and the social construct. Now seems like the perfect time to be showing something like this.’
‘I appeared in a little scene at the beginning, before an ice monster strangled me. I got a text from my mum saying, “Amazing so far!” with a selfie of the whole family watching’
O’Connor grew up in Cheltenham and received his first acting review at the age of seven when he organised a ‘surprise clown performance’ at his brother’s fifth birthday party. ‘Everybody left and I started crying – it was awful,’ he says.
At school he was ‘pretty disinterested’, preferring art, drama and football to academia (his grandfather was the late British sculptor John Bunting). When he moved to London after training at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, he expected to spend years pulling pints and scrapping for roles, but managed to score an ‘amazing agent’ almost straight away. ‘I couldn’t believe my luck, and I still can’t believe it,’ he says. Early TV gigs included a cameo on Doctor Who, an event 15 members of his ultra-supportive family gathered around the TV for.
‘I appeared in a little scene at the beginning, before the show credits came up, and melted an ice monster who then strangled me. I got a text from my mum saying, “Amazing so far, looking forward to seeing more!” with a selfie of the whole family watching, but that was it.’ He also remembers standing nervously on set when Matt Smith came up to welcome him. ‘It proved to me that, whatever happens, you just have to be decent and kind to people,’ he says. ‘I know it can make a huge difference to someone’s day.’
In 2016, he was cast as Lawrence on Sunday teatime drama The Durrells, but it was his extraordinary turn as Yorkshire farmer Johnny Saxby – who falls for a migrant worker called Gheorghe – in Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country that put him on the critical map. O’Connor’s preparation for the role was so absolute, he rubbed manure into the book he was reading to make sure he never forgot his character’s occupation.
‘However mad work gets, I’ve got this really beautiful family life back at home in Gloucester’
The performance got him nominated for a BAFTA Rising Star Award; at the ceremony he sat behind one of his method heroes, Daniel Day-Lewis. It also caught the attention of Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson, who made O’Connor the face of his menswear collection.
Is he a snappy dresser in real life? ‘I think so. Other people would probably say otherwise,’ he says. Does he splash out? He says he recently treated himself to an expensive pair of Church’s leather shoes after accidentally flying from the Brussels set of Les Misérables to a wedding in Cambridge with one dress shoe and one white trainer. ‘I had five minutes to buy them. They’re now my “well done for coming from Brussels to a wedding” shoes.’
Next year, he has ambitions to get behind a camera and direct, but he’s going to be immersed in The Crown until the end of February, with a bit of time off at Christmas to see his family. He credits his teacher dad and midwife mum for keeping him sane in the whirlwind experience of being the ‘next big thing’.
‘You’re treated so nicely, you get picked up every morning, someone’s always got coffee or is on hand to get you a slice of cake – whatever you want. Sometimes that can perpetuate a certain mood, a certain character in you. But I think, however mad work gets, I’ve got this really beautiful family life back at home in Gloucester. And that’s very solid.’
Les Miserables is on BBC One in December