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For Josh O’Connor, known for his television role in The Durrells, it was the bright Mediterranean sun and the sparkling sea of the hit show’s Corfu setting that lit a path to fame. But the 27-year-old actor has swapped the heat and goats of the Greek island for the rain and sheep of the Yorkshire dales.
O’Connor is the star of an unusual new romance, God’s Own Country, hailed by critics as among the best films of the year. O’Connor’s portrayal of Johnny, a depressed and promiscuous young gay farmer, has invited favourable comparisons with the 2006 western Brokeback Mountain.
Last month, the actor, who lives in south London, was busy filming the third series of The Durrells during the day and then publicising God’s Own Country in the evenings. Long days, but nothing that compares to the hours he put in on the Yorkshire farm near Keighley where the film was shot.
After choosing his lead actor, first-time director Francis Lee sent O’Connor to work on the hillsides alongside a real farmer for a fortnight.
"I’ve never worked as hard," said O’Connor.
"It was an intense time. We would get up at 6am, go up the hill to the sheep in the Land Rover, then come down later in the morning to fix a fence or a broken paddock. That was the time for all the odd jobs, really. And then we would maybe go to have a bacon butty in the farmhouse.
"After that we often had to lift some bit of heavy equipment, or walk sheep along the roads. It is a way of life that is totally unforgiving and extreme, but it opened my eyes and gave me a new way of looking at the countryside. It put it all in perspective, because I grew up in Cheltenham and the farming around there is very different."
The experience also established a friendship between O’Connor and the farmer, whom he has since visited.
"John remains a very good friend of mine, although we are from completely different worlds. His farm sits above Keighley, which is in a kind of bowl below, and he is there seven days a week. As an actor, I always have this thing where I can’t plan ahead for holidays or a break because I don’t know when I might be needed for the next job. But John has gone without a holiday for 13 years. He can’t leave the farm."
And it was his new friend’s judgement on the finished film that O’Connor was particularly nervous to hear.
"He came out of a screening and said, ‘That was all right, that,’ which, from him, is the best thing you could get."
Lee had wanted to make sure his lead actors, O’Connor and Romanian co-star Alec Secareanu, who plays immigrant worker Georghe, were both capable of doing all the farm work required by the screenplay. The result is convincing and often highly unappealing. For O’Connor, however, the strength of God’s Own Country lies in its refusal to show the tough life of the farmers as without hope.
"My character admittedly starts out leading a life of casual sex and booze, and he has a troubled relationship both with his father and with the landscape, but those things change."
O’Connor is also glad the film is being received as something of an artistic anti-Brexit statement.
"All good art should be political, I think, and inevitably it all becomes political really, in one way or another. The fact this film is being talked about as the first of the pro-European films is interesting. It was never, as far as I know, the intention. It was just that it was all happening — the referendum campaign — as we were filming. So I feel that it is a happy coincidence."
Lee has revealed that when he first watched O’Connor’s audition tape he assumed the actor was from the north of England.
"I quickly realised he has a rare gift; the ability to totally transform himself into the character he’s playing," he said.
— Guardian News and Media