If you’re familiar with Josh O’Connor, it’s probably because you’ve seen him play tortured, emotionally constipated young British men, whether as a gay farmer in the movie God’s Own Country or as a mopey Prince Charles in a tense relationship with his mother on The Crown. But in Emma, director Autumn de Wilde’s newest take on the Jane Austen classic, O’Connor is all comedy, playing a supremely self-involved and idiotic version of Mr. Elton, a local vicar who sets his sights on the movie’s heroine, despite her obvious disinterest in him. Vulture caught up with O’Connor over the phone to talk about trying hard comedy, his ad-lib that made it into the trailer, and how he absolutely doesn’t know what Prince Charles would think about Harry and Meghan.
Mr. Elton’s collars get increasingly stiff and elaborate over the course of the movie. What was it like to act in them?
[Laughs.] Yeah, the collars were something that me and Autumn wanted to make more and more elaborate. First of all, all the costumes were heavily starched, so that felt very stiff — Mr. Elton’s collar would become more and more stiff as he became more and more angry and rejected. Also, the more I noticed it, the more I played with it, sometimes probably a little too much.
I’ve seen you in The Crown as a mopey Prince Charles and God’s Own Country as an emotionally repressed sheep farmer, but in Emma, you’re doing harder comedy. What’s it like to swerve into that?
It’s complete contrast to anything I’ve ever done before. To be honest, I don’t know if it’s something I necessarily want to do forever. God’s Own Country and The Crown, those are parts I spent a lot of time with. As soon as I met Autumn and we talked about how she wanted to create a screwball comedy, that was interesting to me. I wanted to stretch those muscles a bit.
The way Autumn shot the movie feels carefully choreographed. How much of that was written into the script?
The script was pretty much as it was. The one thing that I invented was, “We gather here today in this time of man’s great inn-oh-cence,” and then Bill says, “Innocence, no?” Basically, I said to Autumn, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Elton couldn’t pronounce ‘innocence’ or had never seen such a long word, and he’s actually not very bright?” She was like, “Great, love it.” In terms of the acting, Autumn actively encouraged us to do mad, mad things. There were days where I was doing such ridiculous, absolute nonsense things where she was laughing her head off. She would just call “Cut” and say, “Josh, that’s way too much.”
We were often all on set, even if we weren’t in the scenes. There’s one moment, for instance, at Mr. Knightley’s house where there’s four characters playing cards on the table. Mr. Elton shouldn’t be in that scene. In fact, it’s clear because they talk about Mr. Elton as if he wasn’t there. That day I called Autumn and said, “I’m not trying to doss out and not come to work today, but I really shouldn’t be in this scene.” And she said, “Oh yeah, you’re right, that must be a mistake.” Then she called me up again and said, “Josh, I’d really like you to be there anyway, just because you’re fun.” I come to work knowing that I’m not gonna be in the scene and get into costume knowing that I’m not going to be in the scene, but what happens is that yes, I am in the scene for no reason at all other than that Autumn thought it would be hilarious. She’s like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if they talk about Mr. Elton as if he weren’t there, but actually, you are just standing there?” Suddenly, it’s funny. Suddenly, you’re like, What the hell is going on?
If you’re doing a Jane Austen adaptation, there are a whole lot of previous performances you could look at. Alan Cumming was Mr. Elton in the Gwyneth Paltrow–starring Emma, for instance, or could watch Clueless. How much are those versions on your mind?
I didn’t revisit those films. I’ve seen Clueless. I love Clueless, and I think it’s a great adaptation. I don’t think I ever saw the Gwyneth Paltrow version, but I love Alan Cumming and I’m sure he was brilliant. It does feel like every young British actor, at some stage, has done a Jane Austen. So, I quite like the idea of [playing] a priest. Often, my favorite characters in olden days books are the priests because they’re just more fun to play.
You’re in the middle of The Crown season four, so I imagine you’re getting into the Charles and Diana years. Are there aspects of Charles’s psyche you’re focusing on in this go around?
Season three was about the introduction of Charles. We see how he’s the forgotten child, and then we see the beginnings of him and Camilla. I think this [season], you’re right, it’s very much the Diane and Charles years, and particularly focusing on what happened there and the ramifications of that going forward. We’re almost done now, and then I’m out, so I’m savoring it while I’m still doing it. But it’s been a pleasure.
Now that your first season of The Crown has come out, is it surreal to have people recognize you as Charles, or assume you have special insight into his life?
It’s my favorite thing when I go to any event where there’s press or fans. I’ll get questions about Harry and Meghan, or about Diana and Charles, or anything to do with the royal family, and my reply is always the same: “I literally have no idea or opinion.” I totally see why people think that they’re related, the fact and the fiction, but as far as I’m concerned, I work purely in fiction. I would say I have more affinity towards Charles as a real person, but I have no idea what Prince Charles is like really, and I have no idea if my character is anywhere near like him. So I have a lot of sympathy for my character of Prince Charles, but I have no idea of him as a real person. Some people think that because we are in The Crown, it means that maybe we have some inside knowledge into real life in Buckingham Palace. I’d love to know any inside facts, but the reality is, we’re as naïve as everyone else.
With Imelda Staunton taking over as the queen in the fifth and final season, have you thought about who you’d want to play Charles, or what advice you’d give him on the part?
I haven’t thought about it too much. In terms of advice, I have no idea. What’s so lovely about passing on the baton is letting the next person have the freedom to create something completely independent of you. I don’t feel any charactorial rights to Charles. I feel like I’ve taken on the baton and I’ve loved it, but I’m quite happy for someone else to have a little stab and do something new and not feel any responsibility to do what I was doing.
I’ve read that you’re quite a fan of the outdoors, and specifically swimming in lakes and ponds around the U.K. Emma is full of that countryside scenery, so did you spend much time off the set exploring?
For sure. In fact, I started getting my idea for doing those wild swims when we were shooting Emma. A lot of the locations we shot Emma were the same locations we shot The Crown, so that was quite funny. A lot of those manor houses, I knew the owners when I pretended to be Prince Charles, so that was surreal. Hopefully, people will watch this film and want to go and visit them themselves, that’d be great.