Fresh off the success of season three of The Crown, Josh O’Connor talks with ET about putting aside his portrayal of Prince Charles to take on another iconic role -- Mr. Elton in the latest adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
Since 2016, the English actor has been on the rise thanks to back-to-back roles in the British series The Durrells and a recent Les Miserables adaptation, as well as the film God’s Own Country, which earned him a British Independent Film Award for Best Actor. Now, the 29-year-old is fully a breakout star due to his acclaimed portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II’s eldest son on Peter Morgan’s Netflix drama about the royal family and the arrival of Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 film version of an Austen classic.
"It’s been a treat,” O’Connor says of all the recent attention. “I’m kind of enjoying a period of praise and loving it.”
Opening to positive reviews, Emma also cements O’Connor as one of this generation’s pretty young things alongside his co-stars, modern scream queen Anya Taylor-Joy; Johnny Flynn, who is set to portray David Bowie in an upcoming biopic; model-turned-actress Mia Goth; Fantastic Beasts stud Callum Turner; Game of Thrones favorite Gemma Whelan; and Sex Education breakouts Connor Swindells and Tanya Reynolds.
The cast is not all that unlike the one featured in Clueless. The 1995 film not only put a modern spin on Austen’s story but also made stars out of its young ensemble, including Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd and others. So when O’Connor heard that a new version was in the works, he was interested. “I remember studying [Austen] at school and thinking it was kind of brilliant and I absolutely loved Clueless,” he says. Now O’Connor is taking over the role previously made famous for him by Jeremy Sisto.
In this version, Elton is transformed from a popular high school student back into a cocky local vicar who has feelings for Emma (Taylor-Joy) despite her insistence that Harriet (Goth) would be better suited for him. “He thinks he’s God’s gift, like a genuine gift from God,” the actors says. So when Emma turns down his proposal, a dismayed Elton briefly disappears before returning with a new wife (Reynolds).
What also sets this film apart from other versions, including the 1996 one starring Gwyneth Paltrow, is the fact that Emma leans into the world Austen created in her 1815 novel. “More and more, people tend to shy away from language or shy away from the kind of periodness of it,” O’Connor says. Whereas de Wilde celebrates everything that makes Austen’s world so distinct. “Rather than shy away from it, rather than make it more palatable for audiences, she’s embraced it,” he adds.
To illustrate that point, the actor recalls one example when they were looking at priest costumes. They were all “pretty drab” and didn’t fit with O’Connor’s vision for Elton. When he brought it up to de Wilde, she told him: “Stay true to the period, but make it fashion,” he recalls. “Make it what they would’ve considered these sexiest outfits at the time.”
The end result is sleek and stylish costumes that fit Elton’s personality -- including one priest’s outfit with a collar so high, it comes up just underneath O’Connor's large ears. While the actor admits that wearing the shirt was “a little bit annoying with ears like mine,” it fed into Elton’s belief that he’s one of the most eligible bachelors in the town. “So anything with the costumes that felt big and exaggerated helped that characterization,” O’Connor says.
Playing Elton was also a welcome change of pace after playing Prince Charles on season three of The Crown. “The majority of the roles I’ve played have been more dramatic roles and Charles is kind of an extension of that,” O’Connor says. “What was exciting about Emma was actually the chance to do something more comedic, which I’ve never done really.”
Initially, however, the actor wasn’t planning on spending his time in between seasons making a movie -- but Emma proved too hard to pass up. “I think often comedy informs drama,” he adds. “So stretching that muscle in between seasons, I really appreciated it.”
Now, O’Connor is back to playing the royal as he films season four, which will feature Princess Diana (played by Emma Corrin). The Crown has been busy shooting all over England as the two actors recreate the couple’s whirlwind romance and subsequent fallout. Coincidentally enough, the paparazzi have been following the cast’s every move, particularly anytime Corrin steps out as Diana to film on location.
“It’s something we got really used to,” O’Connor says of already having one season under his belt. “Poor ol’ Emma is so young and it’s one of her first jobs. So, she’s often getting caught by the cameras whereas a lot of old hands know how to run away and hide. There are a lot of images of Emma looking amazing and she’s doing an incredible job playing Diana.”
But the actor welcomes “the hysteria” surrounding The Crown, suggesting “it can only be a good thing. Hopefully, it means people like the show and continue to find royals, that kind of life, fascinating.”
Even though filming season four has been “nonstop,” O’Connor sees the light at the end of the tunnel. “It’s almost finished and then that will be us out. So it’s kind of strange to come to an end,” he says.
Traditionally, the actors play their respective parts for two seasons before being recast. When the show was originally announced, it was believed it would run for at least six seasons. In January, however, Morgan and Netflix announced that season five, with Imelda Staunton taking over as Queen Elizabeth II, would be its last.
“I think it was just a realization -- they must have had it a while ago -- that really the story ends at season five. I don’t know where that takes them, but I imagine that it almost reflects the beginning of season one,” O’Connor says of the final season serving as a bookend to the series.
“I don’t know if this is the reason, but I can’t imagine Peter would want to get too close to where we are now,” the actor adds, while not directly mentioning the royal family’s current drama or the fact that Prince Harry recently told biographer Angela Levin that he wants the series to end “before they get to me.”
No matter what, O’Connor has enjoyed what he’s gotten to do as Prince Charles as well as Mr. Elton. But now the actor has to continue “choosing the right projects and still make as good as work as I can,” acknowledging with “fingers crossed” that it keeps going as well as it has so far.
So, now that the actor has seemingly completed requisite roles for any young British actor -- an Austen adaptation, a period piece, a royal portrayal -- what’s next for him? Shakespeare? James Bond? “I don’t know if there are [any mandatory roles], but if there is, then I would greatly have a go at them,” O’Connor says. “So, that’s an open offer to anyone who’s desperate for me to do anything. I’ll have a go.”