How ‘The Crown’ and ‘Halston’ Made Josh O’Connor and Ewan McGregor Reflect Differently on Fame

Josh O'Connor and Ewan McGregor
O'Connor: Courtesy of Netflix; McGregor: Jeff Vespa/WireImage

In any other year, Emmy nominees Ewan McGregor (lead limited series/TV movie actor for “Halston”) and Josh O’Connor (lead drama actor for “The Crown”) likely would have crossed paths at least a couple of times, probably at parties for streamer Netflix, which delivered both shows.

In that scenario, they may have made small talk and congratulated each other on their respective shows. They may have even laughed over the adaptation they share in common — “Emma.” (McGregor portrayed Frank Churchill in the 1996 film, while O’Connor played Mr. Elton in the 2020 version.)

But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they met for the first time (virtually) when Variety brought them together to discuss all of the things their nominated roles have in common. Given the space and time to reflect, they thoughtfully dissected everything ​from getting inside the mind of larger-than-life icons as Halston and Prince Charles, to how portraying such people changed their own outlook on fame and the sense of tragedy they felt around their characters.

There is such a cloud of fame around both Halston and Prince Charles. How did how you saw their relationships to fame affect how you wanted to portray them?

Ewan McGregor: Halston loved fame, and he knew how to work it. He was all about fashion and appearance and creating a mystique or sexiness or whatever with his clothing, but that absolutely translates to going out and causing a stir — to the point where later on in his career he would go everywhere with six or seven or eight or 10 supermodels of the day. But like for everybody, the negative aspect was that his private life, his sexual life that he was trying to keep for himself ended up spilling into that world, and I think that was difficult for him.

Josh O’Connor: With “Halston” I found it really refreshing to see someone actually loving being famous. With “The Crown,” the royal family [has] a kind of tortured nature about being famous; they have a love-hate relationship with it. I just loved how Halston’s just like, it’s pure joy, being loved and famous. And you see the complications that come in, but the initial feeling of loving that world, I really loved.

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Ewan McGregor portrayed the eponymous fashion designer through multiple decades in Netflix’s “Halston.” Courtesy of Patrick McMullan/Netflix

McGregor: Yeah, unlike Charles and Diana. [For them] it’s something that comes with the territory. They’re not causing it, they’re having to — especially for her — deal, to navigate this. It’s such a horrible intrusion in your life. I don’t know very much about Charles. I’ve met him once or twice over the years, not for a long time but at different events, and I’ve always been rather amused by him. He seems to manage to disappear.

O’Connor: I think he does. Ultimately, what’s always a funny thing about playing a real person is that suddenly people assume that you know more than someone else. I’ve never met him, I don’t know him, I’ve read some books. I thought, certainly in our story, it just feels like there was this constant battle. On the one hand, he wants to live in Highgrove and tend to his flowers in his gardens and have friends over for lunches and stuff like that — it feels like he wants that quiet life. And I think you’re right in that I don’t think it’s the same as fame because they’re born with it and in some ways they’re not really people: they’re icons; they’re these strange, almost mythological characters. And what Emma [Corrin] and I found really interesting playing it is actually he having taken it for granted, having been born with fame, but then in comes this almost extraterrestrial-like, godlike figure in Diana. And the change invented celebrity as we know it now. He’s the next in line to be king, and then here comes this princess who is loved and obsessed over and held up as this angelic creature, and I actually think he felt threatened.

Did exploring these aspects on screen affect your own relationship with fame?

McGregor: It’s so bizarre because we made “Halston” on the other side of the lockdown, so the whole idea of going out and being seen and getting fabulous and going to clubs and stuff, there wasn’t any of that. And it’s not really my life anyway; I wouldn’t be doing that anyway. But because of the pandemic, it was a strange juxtaposition. We did our Studio 54 scenes with about 20 extras; it was amazing what [director] Dan Minahan and the designer managed to achieve with so few people. I don’t know, I have a really easy feeling about fame or recognition: I don’t mind it, I feel like it just comes with the work we do. And we’re, to some extent, very lucky to have that because it’s a marker of people liking your stuff. When it comes to the public, I’ve always liked it as long as people are polite. On the other side of it, the paparazzi side of it, that rears its head at the worst times in your life; they’re on you when you least want them to be because there’s things going on in your life that are private or personal and they’re trying to turn them into a tabloid story, and that’s a horrible thing to have to live through and there’s no way out of it. I’ve been lucky; it hasn’t happened to me very often, but it has happened, and I’ve spoken to many people about how to get out of it. How do you get them to stop following you, how do you get them to stop direct messaging your children? And you can’t. You have to just ride it out and wait for it to stop. And it does eventually. That is a horrible reality that comes along with fame, but fame is just a recognition of your work and an appreciation of your work, and I like that aspect a lot.

O’Connor: I’m obviously new to it, and the only strange thing I found was, pre-lockdown I wouldn’t be recognized because I’d just done small independent movies and theater. And then you do something like “The Crown” and COVID happens so you were in a house, and you’re not seeing anyone, and then we’re allowed out and suddenly everything’s different. It’s not crazy — it’s not Diana or it’s not Justin Bieber — but every now and then someone will stop me. More often than not, it’s just really nice to hear someone has responded to something you’ve done. And I suppose there is a strange thing of trying to adapt to the idea that your anonymity has shifted. There is a strange thing when you walk down the street and someone feels like they know you because you’ve been in their sitting room or on their laptop in bed. There is a weird intimacy that people assume they know you, and that’s strange.

McGregor: It’s not something that you can switch on and off unless put a fake beard on like a balaclava or something. If you’re out in the world, you’re out in the world, just going about your day, in any number of moods like human beings are and you’re not in control of that side of it — somebody going, “Hey, hey!” That’s an odd thing, and that’s a very odd thing, Josh, just to have the realization of it in such an extreme way.

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Josh O’Connor (right with Olivia Colman) brought Prince Charles’ story into the 1980s in Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown.” Des Willie/Netflix

O’Connor: When someone stops me and says, “I love that film you did” and it’s something I did a few years ago, I’m really excited and really proud. It’s not that I don’t love that when someone says they love “The Crown,” but it’s a different thing. I wonder if you have that with the work that you’ve done: are there different types of responses?

McGregor: Yeah, things like “The Crown” have a very wide reach for a reason. But then you find people who come up who have seen one of those pieces that mean the most to you, and that’s a different interaction. Sadly now, the main interaction is, “Can I have a selfie?” There’s the selfie, “bye!” That’s usually the exchange of ideas that goes on, where before it might be more of a chat about something or the sharing of something. Now it’s just the sharing of the picture. But it’s all part and parcel — you have no idea what one thing open up. For me, “Star Wars” is the most global thing I’ve done, so people come up and say things about “Star Wars” more often than now. And now also my bike show [“Long Way Up”] that I’ve done with my friend Charley [Boorman]. We make these documentaries about my bike travels, and because that’s me — not me playing a character — people really are much more comfortable talking to me about that.

That brings up a good point, though, about how well you can really know someone. Neither Halston’s family nor the royal family were involved in your shows, so while there is certainly research to do, it’s not necessarily with first-hand sources. How did you approach understanding the real person behind the character version you were playing?

O’Connor: I’d never really played a real person before until this, and I just remember feeling super daunted by the idea of accuracy. The first two seasons of “The Crown,” Claire Foy and Matt Smith gave these incredible performances and I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, that’s who the Queen was.” So I just wanted to get into Prince Charles — his voice, how does he walk? And then I had this breakthrough moment of, “Well, I don’t know what the Queen was like when Claire Foy was playing the Queen; she just did an amazing performance.” I found that really helpful. And then the other thing I found really helpful was, one of my favorite films is Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” which is this piece about Bob Dylan. I’m a big Dylan fan and the idea of a biopic about Bob Dylan, to me, was a nightmare — it’s holy ground, you shouldn’t touch it. But Todd did it so brilliantly because [multiple] actors play different versions of Dylan’s personality. And the reason I love that film is because I love acknowledgement that we don’t know who Dylan is and it doesn’t matter how much research you do, ultimately, we’re not mimics. We do take aspects to make the audience feel safe in the knowledge, but I think we have to offer something more than just an impression. So for Charles, I did tons of research, but ultimately, I’m never going to know, so I just had to create something that is unique.

McGregor: I think you’re absolutely right. I agree with everything you’ve said; it’s absolutely true. And to do a great impersonation would be soulless. You’re trying to find out who they are to you and who they are in the script, so your parameters are set with the writing anyway. I had a certain amount of input with “Halston” because I was producing as well, but ultimately [what’s on the page] is what you’ve got to play and the exploration of that person is through the writer and the director and the producers. There’s a lot of people who’ve got their hand in there.

We looked at lots of footage. With Charles and with Halston there’s a lot of footage to sift through. You can watch speeches, you can watch interviews. With Halston, in the last stages of his career he became obsessed with capturing everything, so he had a film crew in his work room all of the time and there’s hours of [that]. You can see his camera persona, but I thought what was much more interesting was, “Who are you when there’s no cameras around — when they’re not in the Studio 54 but curled up on the sofa with Liza at home?” I found some great backstage footage of him. They did a trip to a museum in Detroit that was opening a fashion exhibition and Halston was giving them some of his original dresses from the beginning of his career and they were putting on a fashion show. So there’s a camera following him literally through the airport, onto the airplane, and he’s just so playing it up. But then there’s stuff backstage while the fashion show is going on and there he is, cigarette, whiskey in his hand, and he’s just having fun with everybody. There was an idea that we all shared that it was uptight and stressful, but in actual fact he was in his element and you can see him joking with the models and flirting the cameraman, and that’s what I loved to see.

It’s true that we don’t know them and we won’t get to. Halston’s passed away. I tried to get to know him through his friends and people he worked with, but that being said, there were some moments on set where I just felt it, “That was him.” I don’t know, but it was Halston, who I felt he was.

O’Connor: The things that get me in that show are the moments in bed or where the boyfriend is leaving and he’s crying and he won’t let him go — you want him to go, you don’t want him to go. Those moments of almost childlike vulnerability, you’ll never be able to find footage of that. And even if you speak to friends of the person, that’s rare that they will talk about that. The actor will always be left to interpretation. But I know that feeling you’re talking about where you’re going, “Oh yeah, that’s him, that feels right.” But I sometimes feel like you get to a certain stage and actually the character you created becomes the truth of whatever the situation is. It’s a whole new thing.

There is a surface-level aspect of glamour around both of these shows and your characters. But underneath, there are issues of addiction and losing his own company for Halston and the idea that Charles’ life is in limbo and he was in love with a woman he couldn’t marry at the time. Do you see them as tragic figures?

O’Connor: I always felt that with Charles there was this cloud that follows him everywhere. And i did lots of work on his posture and how he has his head down but, again with the mimicry thing, I didn’t just want to do an arched back. So, why is he like that? It felt like the weight of the world is on his shoulders and I had this image of this cloud, and the cloud was basically the concept that in order for Charles’ life to take meaning his mother has to die. I can’t take credit for that thought; it was actually a thought that [creator] Peter Morgan gave me. But Peter Morgan likens it to this great book by Saul Bellow called “Dangling Man.” In the book is this young guy from Chicago waiting to be drafted to go to war. He knows that war means certain death, but he wants to be drafted because until he’s drafted he’s in Purgatory, there’s no purpose. And I just thought that was such a fascinating image. And that’s what I wanted with Charles, but the tragedy is we know he is still waiting. So, what do you do? What is your life? What is your purpose, other than waiting for your mother to die?

McGregor: I think Halston was a tragedy. But whenever we’re playing the those moments where it’s slipping away or he’s being used, you’re just focusing in on trying to find that. And I was just thinking, listening to you, that I always found there was something very lovely and happy about the very end of his life. He came from a small town in middle America [where] he didn’t fit in, he was gay, his dad was abusive to his mum, he made hats to try and make his mom happy, he found meaning there and purpose in creating fashion. Then he went to Chicago and became a milliner and then traveled to Europe from there and did fashion shows and ended up in New York. He did Jackie Kennedy’s hat and took the world by storm, changed American fashion and lived the high life — just really lived. And when he was diagnosed with AIDS, he closed all of that down, moved back to the West Coast to be with his family. He had spoken with his mum every Monday until she passed away, but he didn’t really have a great deal to do with his family, with his brothers. But when he knew his days were numbered, if you like, he shut down the house of he created and went back to where he came from. The tragedy is, of course, losing his business and spiraling and losing your creative edge, but the very end of his life, I thought was really uplifting. He got himself a Rolls-Royce — with cash — and he had a driver and he just drove up and down the coast. I like to think of him in the back of the Rolls with a cigarette, maybe because I’d like to be having one myself and I can’t anymore, but I always thought that was rather cool.