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Interview: The Crown’s Josh O’Connor

by Leora Heilbronn

Josh O’Connor is one of the most gifted actors working today and so for quite awhile now I’ve wanted to speak with the U.K. talent and mental health advocate about his stellar work in The Crown season three, Emma. and God’s Own Country. I finally received the opportunity to chat with O’Connor in support of his award-worthy work in season four of Netflix’s The Crown, for which his Prince Charles (a fictionalized version of His Royal Highness) is equal parts sympathetic and kind of off-putting at once, coming into his own as the heir apparent to the crown (though perhaps not the favourite). In this season, O’Connor has standout scenes with Charles’ uncle Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), prior to meeting (cute) and falling for the young Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), while keeping up affairs with Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell). It takes a skilled performer to balance all of these emotional ties and keep us rooting for a complex character like Prince Charles.

The following is a condensed and edited version of an immensely rewarding phone conversation with the portrayer of Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales, Josh O’Connor.

*Minor spoilers ahead for season 4 of The Crown*

Brief Take: Hi, Josh! Some actors say that when they’re crafting their character portrayals, they look to specific costume pieces or their character’s relationship to their family, in addition to the script, of course. I imagine that for you, you looked to all of these elements in crafting your performance as this fictionalized version of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. I’m curious about your process, especially in terms of the changing physicality of Prince Charles over the years.

Josh O’Connor: In terms of Charles, I suppose I’m always interested in physicality. We worked with Polly Bennett, who’s a really brilliant Movement Director, but I started off with a lot of his posture and then made specific decisions about the character. I knew when I signed on that I would be creating a sort of vulnerable Charles from season three and then in season four, I would go on to play a slightly more troubled version. [laughs] Maybe that’s a bit harsh, so a darker side to Charles, maybe. And so I started off with a kind of weight of the world on him so his shoulders are sort of arched over, and as we go through season four, they become more and more arched as he becomes more troubled by the world, I suppose.

BT: So, for my own curiosity, of all the stunning pieces in the meticulously crafted production design, you had your mind set on keeping a paperweight. Why, Josh? Emma Corrin said that she took a piece of costume jewelry from set. 

JO: [laughs] It’s a really good point. [laughs] It’s one of these things where you get into a pattern of doing press, particularly for a show like this where there’s months and months of press, one of the key questions is ‘Is there an item from set that you managed to take away with you?’, and the paperweight has sort of followed me around, not just this year but last year as well. To be honest, I’m not overly worried about the paperweight. [laughs] If I don’t get the paperweight, I won’t be devastated. But now, because it’s become such a thing, I’m sort of hoping that the art department have gotten wind of this and they will forward it to me. You also have to understand that it’s a particularly special paperweight – it’s beautiful! I challenge anyone who’s seen this paperweight to not want it. [laughs]

BT: That’s fair. And speaking of Emma, two scenes that really stood out for me in terms of your award-worthy acting this season was where Charles and Diana first confess their love for each other, in the Australia trip episode, and then bookended with the screaming match in the final episode where that love is replaced by so much animosity. What was it like building that complicated and turbulent love story with her?

JO: It was terrific. It was really important to me that in episode six in Australia that we told the love story. One of the biggest things for actors is not to tell the end of the story, so I wanted people to feel that even though we all know how it ends, that in episode six at least, there’s a moment of ‘are they going to be OK?’, and I love that. So far, people have had that response and that was always the goal. And then in episode ten, when he screams “I refuse to be blamed any longer for this grotesque alliance”, that burns because we’ve seen the love and the attempts on both their parts to make it work. All Charles is doing in the end is saying “I give up. I’m running low. I’ve got nothing left in the tank. We’re done.” He’s not only offloading the failure of himself, he’s also offloading all the stuff he’s never been allowed to say. All the times he’s attempted to tell the Queen what’s going on in his life and he’s told to bugger off. There’s this amazing scene that in an earlier draft, Charles does come in to his Mum and Dad and takes out a piece of paper to explain why the marriage isn’t working. That’s how it was originally, and that changed to ‘he opens his mouth and Diana starts talking’. He is gagged and can’t say anything until episode ten where he lets rip. It’s an amazing journey that Emma and I have gone on. I assure you that we’re very good friends and you don’t have to worry about that.

BT: You had mentioned that you texted her after the night that you had filmed that screaming match, just making sure she was OK. I thought that was adorable. 

JO: [chuckles] I’m always checking in.

BT: On the opposite spectrum, I really loved your scene with Emerald Fennell where Camilla and Charles are finishing each other’s sentences as they collectively tell a funny story. You can see the loving and mutually beneficial dynamic between them and see why that relationship has lasted most of their lives. And I also loved your scene in an early episode with Tobias Menzies where Phillip is angrily and drunkenly berating Charles for replacing Phillip as a surrogate son figure in Lord Louis Mountbatten (as played by Charles Dance)’s life. So in those two brilliantly acted scenes, you can see two very formative relationships in Charles’ life. Can you talk a little about your work in those scenes? 

JO: The scene with Tobias is a really special one because he’s a great friend of mine and as is always the way in The Crown, each season has its different focus. I was talking to a journalist earlier who was saying “you know, we really missed Princess Anne in this season”, and I couldn’t agree more. But there’s only so many stories you can tell and in that regard, Tobias and I have barely anything to do together. So that scene in particular was a real treat for us and he’s terrific in that scene. But it was a real moment for me, that episode, but that scene in particular marks Charles sort of becoming a man. He’s spent his entire life up until that point trying to win affection from his father. When he walks into that room, he sees that his father is drunk and in pain, they’re both in pain. There’s a moment where he says “I’ve lost a father too”, and then he replies with “you have a father”, and it’s this awful moment. I always thought of it as Charles looking at him and thinking “actually I don’t need your affection. I don’t need your love and your praise. I can be myself”, and I loved that. I’m glad you picked out that scene because it was a really special one for me.

And the other scene, that was another really important scene because anyone who’s looking for an answer to why Charles and Diana don’t work in our world and our marriage, that scene with Camilla gives the answer. What Diana does, without meaning to, in all those scenes in Australia, when we are in public spaces and there are thousands of people cheering for Diana, Charles was left alone. When she does that performance on his birthday, she makes it all about herself. She thinks she’s doing it for Charles but it becomes Diana’s story. I think that scene with Camilla is perfect because what it does is it shows she gives Charles the punchline, essentially. She shares that space and then in the final minute, she says “this is your space, Charles. Take the moment.” So it’s one of the dynamics that Emma and Emerald and I talked about, which is ‘who shared the space?’ Charles is sort of sidelined by Diana.

BT: I mentioned my favourite scenes of yours, but as a performer, is there a scene or moment that you’re particularly proud of?

JO: That’s a really good question. I think some of the scenes that you listed are the ones that I’m really proud of. But I’m proudest of the overall experience. [laughs] The scene that still gets me quite emotional is actually from season three. It’s the one with Olivia (Colman), in episode six of season three, where she basically says “no one wants to hear you”. That scene was always important to me because it was one of the first scenes that I shot and also it summed up everything that came after, that I was a lost child. Any time that I struggled with a scene in season four, I’d think back to that scene and think “remember, he’s just a lost boy. It doesn’t matter that he’s grown up, he’s still just a lost boy who desperately wants a hug from his Mum.”

BT: Do you have a favourite memory from set? 

JO: I have so many lovely memories but I’d have to say that my favourite memory was being locked in a hotel room. I say locked but we were stuck in a hotel room for a half day in Spain while they were doing some big shots outside. Myself and Emma and Richard Goulding, who plays my aide, it was the three of us and some of the brilliant hair and makeup team were all stuck in this hotel room for four hours straight while they shot outside. We played games for hours and it was one of the greatest days of my career. No acting involved! [laughs] I loved it. Ultimately, the best part of this job has been the crew and everyone who works on it, from Netflix to the set and off set, we have an amazing team on The Crown.

BT: During the last press tour, you had compared the Royal Family to The Sopranos. I’m curious how you feel about the Royal Family and, in particular, Prince Charles now. 

JO: The Sopranos link is very much in terms of the family orientation and the power that aligns with it. In terms of in reality, I imagine it’s nowhere near as exciting as our version of The Crown. [laughs] I suspect that ultimately they’re just a family and day to day, there are problems in every family. There’s a weird disconnect between myself and Prince Charles in reality because I’ve departed from the character now. Whenever people ask me what I think of Prince Charles, I’m totally at a loss because it’s a very strange sensation to link Prince Charles the person to Prince Charles the character.

BT: Now that you’re passing the baton to Dominic West…

JO: …I don’t think that’s confirmed. I actually only heard about that today – that he was being linked to the role. All I’ll say is whoever plays him, they’re in for a ripe treat because of Peter Morgan’s writing and everyone involved on the team are phenomenal. So yeah, I wish them best of luck. If it is Dominic, he’ll be terrific. I’ve worked with Dom a few times and he’s brilliant.

BT: What have you been watching or reading or working on in terms of your photography lately that you’ve really enjoyed? 

JO: Well I’ve been reading John Fowles’ The Magus, which I really enjoyed. It’s kind of crazy but brilliant. So I finished that, and then with photography, I haven’t been doing an awful lot. The last shoot I did was I shot my very good friend Jessie Buckley for Esquire magazine and that was great fun. So we went off and did a photo shoot with my film camera and I had a camera assistant that was great, so I really enjoyed that.

BT: I can’t wait to see you and Jessie in Romeo & Juliet on PBS coming up. Congratulations again on your brilliant work in The Crown

JO: Aww, thank you so much. Thank you, Leora. Take care!

The Crown seasons 1-4 are now streaming on Netflix

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Brief Take