The celebrated English actor talks to Awards Daily about embodying one of the most famous royals in the world – the future King of England Prince Charles – for Netflix’s The Crown.
In 2017, actor Josh O’Connor made a huge international splash in the independent film God’s Own Country. In the gay romantic drama, O’Connor played Johnny, a Yorkshire sheep farmer, who embarks on a life-changing affair with Gheorghe, a Romanian migrant worker. The role brought O’Connor several acting awards and a seat at the table for international performers.
Enter Netflix and The Crown. The design for the series involved rotating the cast every two years as the timeline advanced through Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Seasons 3 and 4 would introduce the character of Prince Charles and, eventually, would explore Charles’s tempestuous love affair with Diana Spencer. Legendary casting director Nina Gold smartly settled on Josh O’Conner as the perfect choice to take on Prince Charles. Over the course of Season 3, O’Conner grows this imagined take on Prince Charles into an increasingly independent man, more aware of the world external to Buckingham Palace than most royals would ever admit.
Here, Josh O’Connor talks about joining the hefty ranks of British actors who have played royals either on television, film, or the stage. He talks about his own relationship to the Royal Family, and he reveals his process in defining a take on Prince Charles. Finally, he talks about how his perspective and attitudes toward Prince Charles changed after stepping into his shoes. It’s a role that puts him squarely into the 2020 Emmy conversation for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
Awards Daily: I feel like every major English actor at one point plays a royal. How does it feel to already have that behind you?
Josh O’Connor: Yeah, it’s funny isn’t it. I think you’re right. Everyone has a go. It’s a real treat. I think we love it because our history is so intertwined with the monarchy and the royals. It feels very much a part of our existence. I think from a theatrical point of view that we’ve grown up with Shakespeare and kings and queens through plays. To me, as you say, it’s one of those things you have to do and want to do. For me, The Crown feels very Shakespearean, very theatrical, and I loved every moment and continue to love every moment. Charles is a character that has so much to do. I’m constantly digging and finding out interesting things about him. It’s a real treat.
AD: Before joining the cast of The Crown, where did you stand politically on the place of the Royal Family in the UK?
JOC: I am a Republican, which someone pointed out earlier means something very different in the States. Republican here means anti-monarchist. Well, “anti” is too strong a word. I was just mainly indifferent I would say, but probably leaning toward not being sure that we should be investing so much money in a family when we could be investing it in health service or other public services. So, politically, that’s where I stand.
Having said that, I adore every single one of them. I find a great affinity with all of them, especially now that I’ve played Charles. Even before then, in times of pandemics or war or any time of insecurity in our nation, we are lucky to have our Queen, and the Queen remains solid and stable. She’s something we can rely on. I really do have mixed feelings, and playing Charles has only made those more colorful and complex.
AD: Once you’d received the role, how did you start down the process of becoming Prince Charles? Obviously, you have the great script by Peter Morgan, but how did you settle on an interpretation for Charles?
JOC: The first step was actually quite a long step which was basically rejecting exactly that. Rejecting the fact that I was ever going to develop a realistic impression of Prince Charles. I spent so long looking at videos and other recordings of a young Prince Charles, and there was one day where I just thought there would be elements of him and little things that I do that I am playing Prince Charles, not some fictional prince. But also, as an audience member, I’m not sure how interested I am in seeing an actor do an impression of Prince Charles. It was quite quick that I threw all that out the window and focused on the character. I looked to that great film I’m Not There where you have eight different actors playing Bob Dylan. None of them looked like Dylan, and none are playing Dylan. They’re playing aspects of him. That was far more interesting to me than a direct impersonation.
AD: Was it freeing as an actor to play Charles at the younger age when there was less footage or public impressions of him?
JOC: Yeah, it’s a really good point. It’s getting harder as we get closer to now. You look back at Claire Foy and Matt Smith playing those roles. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the Royals at that age. So, there was a little bit more freedom for them to create those extraordinary performances. Likewise for me, there was a little more creative freedom, and I could create the character as I wanted to create it. It’s a little harder now that we’ve advanced into the Charles and Diana era. But it was very freeing to focus more on him as an idea, a character that I could mold myself.
AD: Charles’s Season 3 arc culminates in Episode 6, “Tywysog Cymru,” where he delivers that moving speech in the Welsh dialect. Talk to me about filming that scene.
JOC: Yeah, I obviously didn’t know any Welsh before I started. I learned it on the job. That scene was amazing because I stood in Caernarfon Castle which is beautiful and totally silent. It all went very quiet, and I started speaking the speech without really knowing what I was saying. It’s a brilliant moment of power – the moment where Charles turns from boy to man. He’s sticking two fingers up at his mom and the monarchy. It was great. It was a really important scene to shoot, and I’m really happy that people have such great affinity for it and have reacted really well to it.
AD: It’s a fantastic episode, and I can’t imagine learning that language. You’re going through it with Charles as an actor, stumbling through it the same ways he probably did.
JOC: Yeah, it was hilarious. Actually, kind of tragically, Tedi Millward – Charles’s tutor – passed away recently. He was there at the time when I was shooting it, and he made a comment to his daughter who relayed it to me that I was doing the speech too well. Prince Charles wasn’t as good as me. I was delighted with that. There was a moment where I thought maybe I should do it less well. [Laughs] I was very pleased with myself to be honest.
AD: Clearly Peter Morgan imagines much of the internal conversations in The Crown. But after inhabiting the role, do you feel any different toward Prince Charles than you did before?
JOC: Of course. I have no idea of his life in reality, but what I think Peter does so well is that he presents an alternative view of an historic event. Whatever happens when you do something like The Crown, it feels like there’s a new perspective presented. I do have new views on his and his life for sure.
AD: I know that Season 4 will deal with the introduction of Diana and that turmoil in his life. What can we expect to be explored thematically in Charles’s life over Season 4?
JOC: You can expect the opposite of what you had in Season 3. One of the reasons I was so excited to play Charles in The Crown is that I sat down with Peter and the team before I took the role. They outlined what Seasons 3 and 4 would look like for me, and they couldn’t be farther from each other. Season 3 is a sympathetic telling of Charles, and it’s not that Season 4 isn’t but it’s a different time in his life. We all know how that marriage ends, so it’s certainly not all flowers and such. It’s pretty brutal. It’s going to be exciting for people to go along with it.
AD: When does that finish filming?
JOC: We just finished it before the lockdown. It’s in post-production, and I don’t know what’s going on with that. I don’t know when it will be released, but I’m hoping it’s out later this year or the beginning of the next. I really don’t know. We just made it across the line before quarantine.
AD: I believe you were at the Screen Actors Guild when the cast won the Ensemble Cast in a Drama Series award. What’s it like working with this cast of actors?
JOC: It’s a total honor. These are actors I’ve looked up to and aspired to for many years. It’s kind of a who’s who in British acting when you turn up to do your work. You have Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi. They’re all my heroes, and it’s certainly ticked something off my bucket list. I’ve learned a lot from them all.
AD: Should your career afford you the opportunity to play another royal in the future, who would you like to play?
JOC: Very good question. I think there’s only one royal I have left in me. I may be wrong, and next year I do something else. But there is one royal I’d always wanted to play and that’s Richard II in the Shakespeare play Richard II. So, maybe one day, you’ll get to see that. Actually, at the end of Episode 6, when Charles is doing a speech at his university, that is Richard II. So, I feel like I’ve had an audition already.
The Crown is currently streaming on Netflix.