Josh O’Connor stars in Yorkshire indie God’s Own Country, quite a contrast to The Durrells. He talks to Georgia Humphreys.
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.
Keighley-born 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, how he hopes we are entering a new era for gay film, and why he feels the graphic sex scenes in God’s Own Country are necessary.
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.”
How tentative were you about the sex scenes?
“Not massively. When I first met Francis, and when I first read that script, I remember thinking from the first page that Francis had written a film in which the audience are the third member of this relationship and it’s such an intimate and authentic story, I think I’d find it bizarre, and I think the audience would find it bizarre, if we didn’t see those sex scenes and didn’t see the sexual part of the relationship, because it’s such an important part of a relationship. And they also punctuate the changes in Johnny. Gheorghe introduces him to intimacy, he doesn’t kiss previous to meeting Gheorghe. They [the sex scenes] never daunted me because I thought that they were totally necessary. I don’t think I’d do them if they weren’t.”
The last 12 months have been really strong for LGBT films – would you say we are entering a new era for gay films?
“I hope so. I think the more there are stories representing a whole swell of our world, it can only be a good thing. And they’re relatable to everyone. There’s been some amazing films, you’ve got this, Moonlight I thought was excellent, Call Me By Your Name is coming up. It’s a really great time for queer cinema and I’m very proud to be part of that.”
Do you feel pressure representing the LGBT society?
“No, not as such. I love this story and loved telling the story and am now loving the response to the story and that’s all I’ve really focused on.”
What are you working on next?
“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.”
How does doing a film like God’s Own Country compare to your television work such as The Durrells?
“In terms of length of shooting time it’s very different. And every job is different, you’re telling a new story with a new character. I like telling good stories and it doesn’t matter what form they come in, be it stage, film or television.
God’s Own Country (15) is released in cinemas today.