Interview: Josh O’Connor on Hope Gap and Inhabiting the Physicality of His Characters

O’Connor discusses the challenge of rendering a performance with a smaller delta between actor and character

Josh O'Connor
Photo: Screen Media Films

In an ideal world, Josh O’Connor would have already experienced a meteoric rise akin to that of Timothée Chalamet. Both starred in queer films by European directors that premiered to great acclaim at Sundance 2017, and each delivered a stunning physical and emotional turn as a young man learning to connect his feelings to his sexuality.

While O’Connor’s forceful breakthrough in God’s Own Country didn’t translate to an immediate nor massive breakout, he has nonetheless amassed a substantial body of work in the three years since. In just the past six months alone, he tackled playing a young Prince Charles on Netflix’s The Crown and donned a clerical collar for a playful turn as Mr. Elton in the latest big-screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.

You won’t see him on the poster for Hope Gap, but he’s every bit as central to this divorce story as the two partners in the dissolving marriage played by Annette Bening and Bill Nighy. O’Connor stars as Jamie, their son and the vessel through which they often wage proxy warfare against each other. His adjustment to becoming an adult child of divorce accompanies the process of him becoming an adult in a larger sense. The separation allows Jamie to see his parents as flawed individuals in their own right and understand how their discontented union hampered his own attempts to connect in relationships. O’Connor’s shadings in the performance prove more subtle than his typically more flashy work, but it’s no less compelling to watch him chart a fully developed emotional arc through his character.

I caught up with O’Connor prior to the release of Hope Gap. We discussed the challenge of rendering a performance with a smaller delta between actor and character. Unsurprisingly, he devoted just as much thought and preparation in his process of embodying Jamie as he did someone as well-known as Prince Charles or extreme as Johnny from God’s Own Country.

Hope Gap is one of your more ostensibly “grounded” or “normal” roles. What challenges does it pose to bring a character to life who you might not need to do quite as much transformation to play?

I’m used to playing more transformative roles. Certainly, so far in my career, more often than not, I’m playing characters that are nothing like myself. In some way, that was kind of the attraction about Hope Gap. I think one of the hardest things is playing something closer to yourself. There’s nothing done really to my hair, and I’m wearing fairly normal clothes—albeit not how I dress day to day—all the aesthetic stuff is pretty much me. What intrigues me is playing a role where you have to look into the details to find some nuance, I suppose.

Do you create a scrapbook like you normally do to explore a character like Jamie?

You know what, I did because I think a big aspect of this film for me was a sense of home. Another thing that interested me about this script when I first read it was that I grew up in the countryside, and there’s a place that’s an equivalent of Hope Gap on the south coast of England where I will go if I’m ever stressed or finding things difficult. It’s my place of peace and quiet. I spent a lot of time in the area of Hope Gap trying to create, using my usual scrapbook thing, a sense of memory and nostalgia because I think it’s so important to this character—the way he gets on the train from London and feels a sense of doom and gloom, really.

What about filling in some of his history? We get some, but not all of it, though we can clearly sense that going back to his hometown is a journey freighted with emotional baggage.

I think so much of the things that are interesting about the character have to do with this idea of baggage and an underlying sense of tension. That meant, by the time we arrive at that early part of the film when Jamie’s father says, “I’m leaving your mother,” it wasn’t a surprise. It feels like there’s been tension in that household for a long time. I feel the big journey for me was that I wanted to start the film feeling like going home for him was deeply sad and tense, but by the end of the film, this parting of two people has unlocked some positivity for Jamie. That was my takeaway.

I’m always so impressed by how you adjust your body for roles, be it slowly relieving the tension and violence of Johnny in God’s Own Country, the humorous stiffness of Mr. Elton in Emma, or speaking through your teeth as Prince Charles on The Crown. How do you approach this physicality when you don’t have the luxury of a movement coach?

A lot of that I do on my own anyway. The revelation from The Crown that I discovered was that there’s such a thing as a movement coach. It’s going to be hard to turn back now because Polly Bennett, who I worked with on The Crown, is exquisite and brilliant. All the detail on God’s Own Country was me and Francis Lee, the film’s director.

The biggest thing to do with anything dealing with physicality is making sure it comes from a place that isn’t just an aesthetic decision. For instance, Prince Charles is a person who’s lived most of his life as an isolated, lonely child. I was looking at footage of Prince Charles and [saw] how he has his arms constantly in his pockets, locked in. I didn’t want to just copy that, which might be fine, because when you see someone just mimicking something, it looks like you’re mimicking something rather than inhabiting. Rather than do that, I wanted to find the reason for why he might be closed off.

With Hope Gap, what I found so challenging was that, in some ways, you have free range. But I didn’t want to make anything too drastic or make Jamie into a caricature. What I wanted was this sense that he removed himself from that tension, and he had a different life in London. This was bringing him back to the child he formerly was. I didn’t have as much help with the costume in terms of how he might be. My process has remained the same throughout, movement director or not. It’s trying to find real life reasons for how people move around spaces and how they inhabit the world. Again, it’s all from notes I’ve written in my sketchbook somewhere.

I even noticed in Hope Gap that it seems like Jamie’s a little more slouched over or checked out, and his face tends to scrunch up a bit when he comes home.

It’s interesting—we shot a bit more of me in London from the original screenplay. When we were shooting it, we spent a lot more time playing him out in that world. There was a clearer line between how he exists in the space in London with his friends and how he existed with his family. Those are things that can be lost in an edit.

You’ve said before that Love Actually would be one of your three “desert island” movies, so it has to be surreal being in not just one but two movies with Bill Nighy this year. When you’re working with someone you admire in a way that they loom larger than life in your memory, how do you keep that all in check?

I might have found it a little harder a few years ago. It’s one of the bizarre and wonderful perks of this job to work with some of my heroes, and, in many ways, Bill has become a hero for me as a person. I’ve always loved him as an actor and continue to love him as an actor. He’s one of the most purely kind people I’ve ever met. I can’t say enough that the making of Hope Gap was one of the most important decisions I’ve ever made. Essentially, because I met Bill, and he became one of my closest friends. This was a time where I was coming off of God’s Own Country and the madness of that, I was about to go play Princes Charles, and I was just a bit lost in the world and terrified. Here came this script, and I thought, “Great, it’s a nice summer trip with Annette Bening and Bill Nighy!” And I had no idea how much Bill would change my life. He’s the most open, accessible, hard-working person. He takes you seriously, but not so seriously that you feel disengaged. He’s totally terrific.

I always find it interesting talking to actors in their late 20s because finding roles in this transitional stage—it’s tough to determine when you’re a student, when you’re a young adult and when you’re a man, especially as the boundaries between life stages change. Are you consciously thinking about these things at all as you choose roles, or is it purely a story you react to?

I don’t know, actually! I think at the moment, I’m sort of midway through a transitional period where I’m now trying to be as picky as I can and choose roles that feel exciting and new and something I’ve not done before. That’s where I’m at. The principles of what interest me as an actor remain the same: A character, more often than not transformational, has an arc and an interesting story. But then, overall, it’s finding filmmakers and collaborators that are developing the film industry or our craft, whatever it is. In terms of whether I’m a young man or an older man, I guess I don’t think about it too much. I just make sure the character is something I can play. I do feel, though, that I’m getting away from being the student now. I think Jamie from Hope Gap is my last hurrah in that world. [laughs]

You said in a 2017 interview that you don’t have huge interest in doing television. But since then, you’ve done The Crown for Netflix and Les Misérables for the BBC, which, granted, have the scope of something you might see at the cinema. Given that the boundaries between the two mediums are much more porous now, are you thinking about television differently?

Yeah, certainly safe to say that I think about it differently. I think my meaning was more that I grew up with film. Film and theater was what I knew. I grew up in quite a remote countryside town, and my experience of anything [cultural] was that I would go to Royal Shakespeare Company and see plays. The big treats in my life were getting to movie theater and seeing movies. Television was less of a thing for me. What has happened in the last 10 years, television has had such a resurgence, as you must be aware. I feel with The Crown in particular, I was [curious] about the idea that you could take a character and go into so much detail with such a dramatic arc that spans many years. Purely as a kind of experiment, I suppose, to see what that does to you and how challenging that is, I’ve loved it. I’ve loved every minute. But I’m a cinephile and immensely passionate about cinema. That doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about television! But as an audience member, I’m biased to film and theater. That’s where my interests have always landed.

I’m the same way. I love all the detail you can get from television, but there’s something so special about watching artists create something so full within the confines of a smaller narrative on stage or in film.

I totally agree! Ultimately, that’s the key. I find sitting down in the theater and seeing a play or a movie, confined in an hour and a half, that to me is magic. The restraints of that are magic.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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