The weekend climbers scaling angled walls punctuated with colourful holds at Yonder, north London’s family-friendly climbing centre, seem unfazed by the young man doing the same alongside them – but wearing box-fresh designer kit and being photographed in the act. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon in late autumn. Josh O’Connor is yet to make his royal debut as Prince Charles in the third series of The Crown; in a few weeks’ time he will be awarded best actor at the British Independent Film Awards; and it’s a couple of months before the February release of Emma, fashion and music photographer Autumn de Wilde’s deliciously stylish, witty interpretation of Jane Austen’s novel, in which O’Connor has a comic turn as Mr Elton. The climbers, uniformly friendly, terribly polite, leave the actor to his own devices. Pulling off the shoot in such a public space is surprisingly straightforward.
When we meet a few weeks later in a snug, unassuming Kentish Town café (the subject of the Saint Etienne song Mario’s Café, as O’Connor points out) for tea and a veggie-sausage bap, the winds of change are already blowing. Eyes flick towards the 6ft, 29-year-old actor in more ready recognition. In Los Angeles recently to promote The Crown, O’Connor was accompanied by two burly security guards. “American crowds are mad about the royals – maybe because they haven’t got them,” he says, bashful yet wide-eyed, of his blossoming fame. “They’re obsessed. It’s insane.” Growing up in “remote-ish Gloucestershire”, the second of three brothers and the son of an English teacher and a midwife, the warm, quietly self-assured actor is not chasing the limelight: “It’s not something I crave. It’s something maybe I’m even a little bit fearful of. But I want my work to be seen. And I knew that when I took this job, so it’s on me…”
His performance as the awkward, youthful prince brings a much-needed softness and sensitivity to the current series, shedding an insightful light on a man whose life is spent in a perpetual waiting room. O’Connor imbues Charles with a soulful masculinity and nuanced vulnerability that the actor first became known for in his Bafta-nominated performance as an emotionally repressed sheep farmer in Francis Lee’s 2017 film God’s Own Country. Subsequent roles have included one half of a couple on a painful quest to have an IVF baby in Only You, and as the son of estranged parents (Bill Nighy and Annette Bening) in Hope Gap. Who knows how close his Charles is to the truth, but in dramatic terms it’s a welcome emotional counterbalance to a lot of stiff upper lip. Filming for series four is currently in progress, and it’s fair to say that Prince Charles’ relationship with Diana, played by Emma Corrin, will put O’Connor squarely in the spotlight. Once again.
One look at O’Connor’s Instagram account and it’s obvious that his are not hollow protestations. Instead of selfies and promotional images, he has posted a collection of ceramics by the likes of Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, George E Ohr and Isamu Noguchi, alongside his own Picasso-by-way-of-Giacometti-inspired surrealist line drawings. “Moving to London, I missed my home, I missed the countryside and I missed my lifestyle, where it was harder to get to friends, so my time was spent drawing. There’s something pleasurable about switching off in London and trying to reconnect with that.”
His nonconformist posts average a couple of thousand likes. Pictures of him, or promos for The Crown, attract more like six times that – nonetheless, they remain the rarity. “I’ve always had art as a background on my phone, so when I’m working away a lot, I kind of look at them as a source of peace,” he says. “I thought, if I’m going to use Instagram, I might as well use it to share objects and things that I like. I’m obsessed with craft and I thought that the dynamic of sharing craft on a handset was quite ironic and interesting.”
His passion makes for a happy union with Spanish fashion house Loewe, whose campaigns for the Eye/Loewe/Nature range of outdoor-inspired menswear O’Connor fronts. Jonathan Anderson’s creative directorship has seen the brand become a huge supporter of innovative handmade craft and applied arts – an annual €50,000 craft prize is now in its fifth year, with the finalists’ works showcased at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. The two men have bonded over their shared passion. “I was surrounded by art growing up – my grandpa is a sculptor, my grandmother a ceramicist – and Jonathan has an unbelievable knowledge of craft and art, and he relit my flame of interest. I’ll post something I like, and Jonathan will often say, ‘This is my favourite’ or ‘I have this one’. It’s so exciting – I love introducing people to art, but Jonathan is on it, he knows about everyone.”
This interest in the details made O’Connor’s recent experience on set with Autumn de Wilde filming Emma particularly rewarding. When they first met, pre-filming, “Autumn sat down and brought out this intricate box that looked like she had made it herself. She opened it up and she’d collected cards of imagery, drawings, bits of material, photographs of actors. It was kind of like a mood box – I can’t really do it justice. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. She had visualised the film inside and out.” On set, “the space and the costumes were just as important as the scene. So you’d spend an inordinate amount of time with Autumn adjusting tiny things – the clothes, the props. I’ve never worked with Wes Anderson, but I’d imagine he has a similar obsession with precision.”
The results make for a visually sumptuous confection of pastel colours – whether it’s the iridescent eggshell blue of a gentleman’s suit (Bill Nighy, as a hilariously draught-obsessed Mr Woodhouse, has never dressed so well on screen), or the vivacious wallpapers and curtains that could almost hold a scene on their own, or the pyramid upon pyramid of powder-pink, blue and lemon bite-sized cakes that are brought out with increasing alacrity on almost every social occasion.
Perhaps surprisingly to those who are familiar with O’Connor playing parts where he is “trying to find the truth and authenticity, and going quite deep into characters”, here he is neither the unassuming hero (Mr Knightley is played with dashing vigour by Johnny Flynn) nor cad-about-town (Callum Turner plays Frank Churchill with smooth slyness). Instead, he’s the priggish Mr Elton, almost a caricature, “a man who is hilarious and tragic, and flawed – almost terrifyingly so at times”.
The role is very much interpreted as a comic one. “Emma is a funny story, and Jane Austen can be unfashionable and kind of difficult to make funny, but Autumn had a really great handle on that,” says O’Connor animatedly. It’s the first time he’s done comedy on screen, but he’s a natural. “When I started thinking I wanted to be an actor in school, it stemmed from wanting to make people laugh; and here, with every scene it was like, ‘How can I make this funny?’, even if I was just standing not saying anything – and Autumn fully encourages that. It was such a laugh. There were so many moments where we all got the giggles – the outtakes would be a whole feature film, just hysteria.” He laughs, thinking about being on set, his shoulders shaking, eyes crinkling and smile widening.
While his sense of humour, sensitivity and intensity all come to bear in his performances, so too does his rugged enthusiasm for physical challenges and the great outdoors. He’s utterly comfortable on the climbing wall; his performance in God’s Own Country as a farmer now means he “just pick[s] up sheep and put[s] them to one side” when out on a walk (much to the surprise of his friends and family); and his way of grounding himself is to reconnect with nature – another reason he makes a good ambassador for Loewe’s outdoorsy collection. He’s currently planning to do 30 wild swims before he turns 30 in May to raise both awareness of mental-health issues and funds for the charity Mind, via his Instagram @joshwaterlogged – named after Roger Deakin’s lyrical book detailing the author’s swimming journey around Britain.
“I had a bit of a shaky time back in the spring, a bit of anxiety, probably because I overworked myself for quite a few years. And I’d given myself some time off, but I didn’t know what to do with myself, and one day I was sat in my flat bouncing off the walls, and so I just got in my car and drove to a place on the south coast that’s important to me, parked the car, got out, stripped down and ran in the sea. It was like pushing a reset button – I felt incredible.” The challenge is in tribute to his friends: “I’m always impressed with how anyone goes through a dark patch and comes out the other end, so it’s in celebration of them. I think investment in therapy and care for one another is the ultimate goal, but if you can, a reconnection to water is pretty good.”
Swimming adventures are snatched between filming days, on the fly. The first, when he had three days off filming The Crown, was on the northwest tip of Scotland, near Sandwood Bay, eight miles’ walk from the nearest road. With tent, stove and sleeping bag, O’Connor trudged for a night of wild solitude before a morning dip in both loch and raging sea. “I got up, swam in the loch, and ran from the loch to the sea in the most horrific winds, with waves like I’ve never seen in my life. It looked pretty dangerous, so all I did in the end was just curl up and let the sea touch me and then run out, but the difference was amazing. It’s not about the distances swum, it’s about the experience. The freezing, exhilarating experience.”
When The Crown wraps in the spring, O’Connor will be working on a series of new projects, and August will see him take to the stage as Romeo opposite Jessie Buckley’s Juliet at the National Theatre. The play will be directed by Simon Godwin, O’Connor’s former tutor at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. “I saw Simon’s Antony and Cleopatra [with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo], and it was insanely good, so exciting,” says O’Connor. “It felt like it gave a new voice to the play, which I hadn’t really engaged with up until then. I called my agent and was like, ‘He’s amazing, let’s see if we can work together.’” With increasing success comes increasing confidence, and the ability to initiate creative partnerships – O’Connor’s thrill at that potential is palpable.
As we leave the café, he leans towards a shelf of ceramics for sale, looking at each one and asking if they are by a local artist. They are, and it gives proprietor Mario the chance to recognise The Crown actor. O’Connor seems almost as delighted to be in the café of the Saint Etienne song as its namesake is to host him. It’s typical of this prince: charming in every way.
Emma is released in the UK on February 14