Josh O’Connor learned the hard way that an Emmy can be a royal pain as an unintentional weapon. Hugging someone at the end of the Sept. 19 ceremony in downtown Los Angeles while holding his new statuette, the “Crown” star — who had just prevailed for lead drama actor — accidentally knocked himself in the forehead with one of Emmy’s sharp wings.
Things got crimson for a second, but thankfully, O’Connor’s bloody Sunday moment was short-lived. Fellow drama actor nominees Regé-Jean Page and Sterling K. Brown came to his aid and had a laugh about the award season capper of a war wound.
For O’Connor, it was a memorable end to an Emmy Awards that also marked the close of his reign as Prince Charles on Netflix’s much-praised chronicle of Queen Elizabeth II and the contemporary House of Windsor. And it was quite a way to go out. A British native, who was mostly unknown to Hollywood barely two years ago, O’Connor prevailed over tough competition as part of an impressive sweep for “The Crown.” The night culminated in Netflix earning its first drama series Emmy, for the show’s breakout Season 4 revolving around Charles and his star-crossed Princess Diana.
“This might be the final interview for ‘The Crown’ I ever do,” O’Connor says the next morning after dutifully undertaking a photo shoot for Variety at a downtown Los Angeles hotel, kitty-corner from the L.A. Live Event Deck, site of his Sept. 19 triumph.
“It’s been two years of my life, cumulatively, making the show. And then the rest of my life has just been talking about it,” he says. “It’s a strange dynamic; you spend more time talking about your work than you do making it sometimes. And that just shows the success of [‘The Crown’] — that people want to hear about it and want to understand the process and the stories. I’ve had the best two years ever. But it’s also exciting, the idea that I can go off and talk about other stuff.”
In a lengthy interview, O’Connor does just that, explaining how the devoted “Shakespeare man” is done playing members of the contemporary royal family, why he recently relocated to New York and where his renewed enthusiasm about the possibilities of a post-pandemic world might take him (including back to the legit theater business where he learned his craft).
As O’Connor poses with his Emmy, it’s clear that the kid from Southampton, 70 miles west of London, has come a long way from his drama student days at the famed Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where he trained as an actor.
The day after his Emmy win, O’Connor is pondering the whirlwind experience of the past 24 hours as he prepares to hop a plane back to New York. Part of his wistfulness comes from the fact that, while most of the “Crown” stars and producers held a raucous late-night viewing party in London at the Soho House, O’Connor was in Los Angeles at the actual Emmy ceremony.
For the 31-year-old actor, it felt magical to be there and meet some of the TV stars he normally idolizes from afar. But he was still the only “Crown” representative in the Emmy tent and thus was seated at a table with other solo guests.
“‘WandaVision’ had a table, ‘Lovecraft Country’ had their table, and ‘Bridgerton,’ everyone had their gang,” he says. “You are like a family when you make a show like that. And so it was strange not to have them there…. I’d have people coming over to me being like, ‘And what show are you guys in?’ And honestly, my table was so nice. They were all so lovely. I couldn’t tell you what the theme of our table was — I think it was ‘the misfits.’ People who didn’t have their mates.”
O’Connor says of the decision to uproot his life in the U.K. and move to the States that he was looking “to shake stuff up a bit. Maybe I just need to give another shock to the system and try New York.” That’s why, due to the pandemic, it made more sense to fly to L.A. rather than deal with the logistics of returning to the U.K. and back to celebrate with the rest of the “Crown” troupe.
He was missing out on quite a jubilant gathering in London. As it should have been: “The Crown” tied another Netflix entry, “The Queen’s Gambit,” for the most Emmy wins this year — at 11 each. Both programs also broke Netflix’s Emmy dry spell, as the streamer had not won any of the major series categories until this year.
The dominance of “The Crown” began early in the evening and didn’t let up, with wins for writing (via creator Peter Morgan), directing (Jessica Hobbs), supporting actress (Gillian Anderson), supporting actor (Tobias Menzies) and lead actress (Olivia Colman), in addition to O’Connor’s win and the drama victory. “It was a night to remember,” says executive producer Suzanne Mackie, who was at the Soho House soiree. “I am still reeling from it all.”
That includes O’Connor’s win, which Mackie lauds for recognizing his portrayal of Prince Charles. “A performance depicting an intelligent, thoughtful, sometimes troubled man, lost in love and marriage; it was emotionally nuanced, disarmingly complex, beautifully pitched,” she says. “Such an intuitive, intelligent performance.”
O’Connor’s co-star — and as of Sunday, fellow Emmy winner — Colman raves about the tenderness he showed on-screen and his ability to inhabit the role. “I genuinely loved watching him, marveling at how he ‘becomes’ what he’s playing,” she says. “Fragility, sparkle, strength, doubt: It’s all there in a second. Every scene we had together became my favorite scene.”
Netflix VP and global head of TV Bela Bajaria applauds O’Connor’s ability to build a layered portrait of Charles over his two seasons on the series.
“It really started in Season 3, where you see Charles’ upbringing and how that shaped him, and by the time you get to Season 4, he’s laid such a great foundation for the audience that you’re able to see the person behind the title,” she says. “His performance this season was just exquisite, and it’s wonderful to see his work recognized by his peers.”
O’Connor was far from confident he would emerge with an Emmy, even though he had picked up the Golden Globe for the role earlier this year. The butterflies hit his stomach the second he got out of his car and arrived at the show. “Those kinds of events, particularly the red carpet, is a kind of bizarre concept,” he says. “And so walking along there, I was very nervous. And then during the show, it’s just the waiting that makes you feel anxious or nervous. … And I kind of get anxious anyway!”
As “The Crown” started picking off drama awards one by one, it soon became apparent that O’Connor would probably have his moment onstage. Ironically, the star had earlier placed a bet — literally — on one of his category competitors. “I put money on Billy Porter. I’m a huge fan. I love ‘Pose,’” he says of last year’s winner in the category. “So, in some ways, I lost! It is such a shock. You never expect yourself to win.”
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It was O’Connor’s first time at the Emmys — an unconventional year for his inaugural experience with the show. Normally held at the Microsoft Theater (except for last year’s virtual affair), this year’s ceremony was relocated to a nearby tent in downtown Los Angeles, and limited to just around 500 attendees: all nominees and their guests. That meant most of the audience was made up of TV stars and A-list producers, and O’Connor admits he was overwhelmed by the star wattage.
“In the U.K., I’ve been working for 10 or 11 years, in the theater scene and television and film — and so I know people over there,” he says. “It’s a small industry. Here, you’ve seen these people in the cinema screens or on your television your whole life. But Sunday night, I sat right in front of Bradley Whitford. I’ve watched a lot of ‘The West Wing’ and have such admiration for him. And that’s surreal. I obviously fanboyed over Billy Porter. And [O’Connor’s ‘Emma’ co-star] Anya Taylor-Joy is a good friend of mine, and she was there.”
After the drama of his Emmy-inflicted head wound, the momentous evening ended for O’Connor with a quiet, intimate dinner with his agent and publicists at David Chang’s downtown eatery Majordomo — a chill contrast to the “Crown” rager happening across the pond.
The gold for “The Crown” was not only indicative of the streamer dominance at this year’s Emmys, but also a sign of the latest British wave of talent hitting U.S. screens. That includes Apple TV Plus’ “Ted Lasso” (created by and led by Americans but shot in the U.K. with a mostly British cast), and a win in the writing for a limited or anthology series/TV movie field for Michaela Coel and “I May Destroy You.”
“Michaela Coel is one of the greatest writers we have in our country right now,” O’Connor says. “She is brilliant. And yeah, you’re right, it was a good night for the Brits.”
“The Crown,” of course, will eventually be back in contention for future Emmys with two more seasons on tap, but per the design of creator Peter Morgan, it will be with a new cast playing the key royal characters a decade or more later. Dominic West, whom O’Connor starred with in the BBC’s 2018 version of “Les Misérables,” is taking over the Prince Charles role in Season 5.
“I’m so excited to watch it,” O’Connor says. “I got a really sweet text from Dominic West last night, congratulating me. He’s going to be extraordinary. Elizabeth Debicki, Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce — it’s going to be thrilling. The most exciting thing actually is getting to be a fan of ‘The Crown’ again. … I just like the idea of being able to watch it and not be going, ‘Oh, why did you do that? Why did you do that expression?’”
Also, O’Connor is more than happy to move on from people asking him about the real Prince Charles. “I think they’re only ever going to be disappointed,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about him, really. So I feel like that will kind of die out because people realize that I have nothing to offer!”
O’Connor famously wasn’t sure he wanted to take the “Crown” job, not knowing how interesting or challenging it might be to play Prince Charles. But by the end of his tenure on the show, he relished the experience and how much the character changed — not necessarily for the better — under his watch.
“The journey Charles has through [Seasons] 3 and 4 was the most exciting bit for me,” he says. “To take a character from being, in my eyes, entirely sympathetic. A young boy who’s seemingly unappreciated by his mother and father is trying really hard to fill these incredibly difficult and huge boots. To go to someone who’s in this total rut of a marriage. A deeply unhappy family. It was the experience of a lifetime.”
He’s also hopeful of partnering again with some of his “Crown” colleagues. (Actually, he already is, with Colman in “Mothering Sunday” — more on that in a bit.) In particular, he can see himself revisiting his chemistry with Emma Corrin, who played Diana this season, albeit after some time has passed. “We’ll probably have to give it 10 years, so that maybe people have forgotten [Charles and Diana],” he says. “And then we can do something together.”
You won’t see O’Connor reprising any sort of role involving the royal family, however. “I’m a Shakespeare man, so I guess I do some of those royals,” he says. “But not the royal family. I’ve sort of had my time doing that. And it’s been rock ’n’ roll, and I’ve loved it. But yeah, I’m checking out of that.”
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Next up for O’Connor is “Mothering Sunday,” from director Eva Husson, written by Alice Birch and based on the novel by Graham Swift. Odessa Young plays a housemaid who’s carrying on an affair with the neighbors’ son (O’Connor). It takes place over the course of a day in 1924, and explores class divides, postwar survivor’s guilt and more.
“It’s a film that’s covering an incredibly interesting time in history, and particularly in British history,” he says. “The time between the first and second World Wars where there was an entire generation of young men that were just wiped out. This film covers the people who were left behind and the chaos and carnage that came through that and the emotional chaos. At the heart of the film is Odessa Young, and she is breathtaking. I’m a big admirer of hers.”
O’Connor also reunites with Colman in the film, although they only have one scene together. “It was quite fun, and kind of surreal,” he says. There is also quite a bit of full-frontal nudity for O’Connor, but it’s something he felt was critical to the film. “It’s strange to see yourself nude on a big old cinema screen; that is an odd experience,” he says. “But it’s an odd experience seeing yourself on screen anyway. I think the nudity has to be there. So much of the story is about how this gentleman dresses himself and is comfortable in his body.”
“Mothering Sunday” brought O’Connor to the Cannes Film Festival for the first time in July, although he was disappointed to not see many of the other films there due to COVID-19 protocols. “For the festivals I’ve been to, I’ve always found that the most exciting thing is going to see other people’s movies, as a huge movie fan,” he says.
One film that O’Connor is eager to see, believe it or not, is “Spencer,” the upcoming Pablo Larraín feature starring Kristen Stewart about, you guessed it, Charles and Diana. And in the coincidental department, Jack Farthing — who plays Charles in the film — is a close friend. “It’s so surreal. He will be brilliant,” O’Connor says. But they haven’t traded notes: “He never called!”
O’Connor also is working with a childhood friend on a film project based on the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” podcast, in which guests are asked to pick what entertainment they’d take with them if they were stranded. (O’Connor’s current TV choice, by the way, is “Succession.”)
Then there’s his other love: the stage. O’Connor says he’s “desperate” to get back to live theater, and hopes to do so in the next few years. He recently starred in a new version of “Romeo & Juliet” for PBS’ “Great Performances,” a staging that was originally supposed to be in front of crowds. When the pandemic hit, it was shot for TV, without an audience.
“It was magic,” he says of the production, in which he starred opposite Jessie Buckley. “When I first moved to London, age 21, straight from drama school, I would just hang around the National Theatre. Not doing anything, just taking it in. It’s like a place of worship for us. And so the feeling of going into the National Theatre that’s usually so alive and full of people enjoying and sharing culture and art, and to find it empty, was really haunting and sad. For us to come in and breathe life into it again was one of the highlights of my career.”
A career that, as of this moment, now includes an Emmy. “It’s a beautiful way of acknowledging the work people put in to make these shows,” he says. “I feel like the memories of making that show and the two years I spent on this are the things that feel more special. But the trophy is very nice.” And sharp.
Grooming: Joanna Ford / The Wall Group / Bumble & Bumble; Location: The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles