It’s hard not to root for Josh O’Connor.
It comes naturally to anyone who’s seen The Crown, in which he plays the dramatized version of Prince Charles — not necessarily everyone’s favorite royal — with sensitivity. It’s the same careful study of masculinity that many of us first came to witness in his breakthrough role in 2017’s God’s Own Country, the critically acclaimed indie that earned him a British Independent Film Award and a BAFTA nomination.
Rooting for him is also the first thought that comes to mind when the 29-year-old actor tells me about his quest to embark on 30 swims out in nature before he turns 30 in May, an effort inspired by his mother, who swam 60 wild swims in her 60th year. The hope is to raise £10,000 for Mind, a U.K. mental health charity, though he admits, “I haven't made anywhere near enough money.”
“The swimming bit's fine, but I just haven't been posting [on Instagram] or asked anyone to donate because I’m too scared, so I need to up that game,” he says sheepishly.
You wouldn’t expect anyone who spends long days embodying His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to be afraid to ask anyone for anything, but that’s part of O’Connor’s startlingly down-to-earth charm — the kind that manifests itself in a truly delightful off-the-cuff awards acceptance speech, and the kind that keeps him from promoting himself on Instagram the way young actors these days are almost expected to (instead, his account is filled with photos of sculptures and visual art pieces that inspire him).
O’Connor is calling after an undoubtedly long day, but if he’s at all tired, it doesn’t show. He’s been filming The Crown’s fourth season since September, and in between filming, swimming, and a whirlwind trip to Los Angeles to accept a SAG award alongside his Crown castmates for Ensemble in a Drama Series, he’s found time to hop on the phone to discuss the show and his upcoming movie, Emma, in which he plays the proud, vain Mr. Elton in a comedic turn that already has people crowning him the new “hot priest.”
Read on as O’Connor discusses his love of Brad Pitt, his hidden drawing talents, and The Crown’s “best season yet.”
What was your perception of Prince Charles before you started playing him?
I suppose I didn't really have a perception. I guess it's kind of strange because in the States, I think the royal family is a big deal, right? It's kind of the highest celebrity. Whereas here, I think there is a different attitude. In my upbringing, there was less of an interest, and if I was pressed on it, I would say that I was an all out republican [a person who advocates for the monarchy to be abolished], and I don’t believe in the monarchy existing, and all that stuff. But now, I have great sympathy and warmth for them, so that's obviously changed.
I guess because we don't have royals in America, everyone is so fascinated, but most of my friends over in the U.K. either don't care, or just are very anti-establishment.
I think it changed when Diana came onto the scene. I think she changed the game a bit, and modernized them, and made them relevant again. So in that sense, that's the only time in my life where I was, I guess, aware of them, was through her. So it's a treat to get to do that with Emma [Corrin], who's playing Diana.
What kind of preparation goes into playing Prince Charles? Are you eating a boiled egg at every meal, and everything?
[Laughing] No, I'm avoiding that! Obviously, we all put a lot of work into it, but ultimately, there's an amazing team of researchers, an incredible makeup department, and incredible costume department, and they do an awful lot of work to make you look as close to Prince Charles as possible. And then the rest is just creation, which is the interesting bit.
You don't appear until the sixth episode of season three, but the upcoming season has a lot more of you. What can we expect from that?
You're going to meet Diana in the next series, and I won't tell you the specific plots and things, but it's been a real treat. Emma Corrin is playing Diana, and playing her unbelievably well, and it's terrific. A lot of season four is about Charles and Diana, and what's exciting about it, and what [creator] Peter Morgan does so well, is that he tells the story that we don't know and he goes behind the closed doors. It kind of feels like a fresh story, and I think it's going to be the best season yet, in my opinion.
I feel like your performance last season was great PR for Prince Charles. You had us feeling really, really sorry for him. Do you think that's going to change this season with Princess Diana coming along?
[Laughing] Yeah, I think so, I hate to say it. I was so pleased that most of the feedback has been people saying, “oh my God, I feel so sorry for Prince Charles, that poor boy.” Because I'm now going to strip that right away. [Laughs] No, that's not necessarily true. The only thing I'm interested in is the nuance. I don't think anyone is purely evil or purely brilliant, certainly for Prince Charles. And I think Diana wasn't completely innocent — again, I'm talking fictionally, in our story — so there's kind of ups and downs. There's difficulty with Camilla and the whole family. It's going to be, hopefully, a real journey, and interesting art for people to watch.
Like you said, you're saying goodbye to this role after this season. If you could pick the next person to play Prince Charles after you, who would you want it to be?
Such a good question, and I've been asked this before and given a terrible answer.
I panicked and said Brad Pitt, which made me look like I thought that I looked like Brad Pitt! [Laughs] In reality, it was just that he was on my mind. He's a good looking guy, he was on my mind, I said Brad Pitt, I've thought it out, and now I'm regretting it. I should choose someone realistic, but I can't think of anyone.
You've joked that your ears got you the role, but people also think that you're too hot to play Prince Charles. Right when the season dropped, I saw people tweeting, “I'm absolutely devastated that they've cast someone so hot to play Charles.”
Well, I'll take it! I can’t believe that, it’s extraordinary. Well maybe Brad Pitt is right then. Maybe they should bring in the big guns. I mean, that's the kind of compliment I will happily take and be delighted with, and tell all my friends. I don't know. I mean, I haven't seen any of those tweets, but when I find them, I'm going to share them with all my friends.
Well, I don't know if you're aware, but when the Emma trailer dropped, you were crowned the new hot priest. People saw you in Mr. Elton's robes and basically said that you're going to overthrow Andrew Scott in Fleabag.
Yes, I hope so! I know Andrew, and so I'd be delighted to overthrow him. He is a hot priest in Fleabag. I don't know, I think that when people maybe have seen Emma, [my character] might be a little less appealing than he might seem in the trailer. There's a lot less appeal, so we'll see if that lasts.
Were you a fan of Jane Austen before you signed on for this role?
To be honest, not hugely. I mean, I knew of Jane Austen's work, and I guess I'm a fan at a distance insofar as from a literary point of view, it's beautifully written. So in that sense, yes, but not really avidly. I knew a bit about Emma through the book when I was younger, but actually more from Clueless. Reading this adaptation, I was like, this feels totally new and exciting, and it's really fun for me to do.
You've shared some stunning drawings of your own on Instagram, did you ever toy with the idea of being an artist instead of an actor?
Yeah, I guess for years I wanted to be an artist, and when I was growing up, lots of my family were artists, so I was kind of surrounded by that world. Then acting came along, and I loved it immediately. And also, I just realized that what's great about drawing, or painting, or ceramics is that you can sort of do it anyway — you don't have to be a qualified artist. You can just experiment and create your own work, regardless. And so I just carried on with acting.
What is your favorite item of clothing that you own?
I have two things, I have a pair of linen trousers — which sound mad — that have sea urchins all over them. And they are a bit mad, I probably wouldn't wear them in public, but I wear them around the house and they bring me joy. They mainly bring me joy because they look like hot air balloons, and I love hot air balloons. I've had them for a couple of years, and they're a staple in my house. I've got a great hoodie, which is, like, comforting to me, so that as well.
Who was your first celebrity crush?
I would say, realistically, it was probably Catherine Zeta-Jones. I remember seeing her and saying, “I will marry her.” I haven't married her, obviously, so that didn't work out.
If you could only watch three movies for the rest of your life, which three would you choose?
Number one would be The Great Beauty, the Paolo Sorrentino film, which I love. I think that, Raging Bull, and probably Love, Actually. You need the lighthearted and you need something a little bit heavy.
What did you last binge-watch?
Last binge-watch? Probably ... I was about to tell you what I've just watched, but it is a series about a murderer and ... I don't know. It was Don’t F— With Cats. And every episode of that, I go, ”I don't want to watch that again, I can't watch this.” But I did, and I watched all three in one sitting and then I felt dirty and it's horrible. It's horrifying. Instead I'll say something good, like — oh, I just watched Chernobyl. I binge-watched that, and that was great, and I loved it.