How Josh O’Connor Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Playing a Jerk

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Josh O'Connor  - Credit: Anthony Prince Leslie*
Josh O'Connor - Credit: Anthony Prince Leslie*

Josh O’Connor would very much love to fuck off into the woods with a stick.

It’s a deceptively warm April day in New York City and O’Connor, who looks brighter than anyone who was awake before the sun has a right to look, is hunched over conspiratorially to share what music he’s currently listening to. It’s where he got the idea of fucking off — central lyrics to Irish blues singer Mick Flannery’s “Fuck Off World”: “Fuck off world/Fuck off politics/I’m going in the woods with a stick/I’m going by the stream just to sit.” Other songs in O’Connor’s rotation for the day include the vocal stylings of South African cellist Abel Selaocoe and the Taiwanese eight-part harmonies of David Darling & The Wulu Bunun. “This stuff is insane,” O’Connor says as he scrolls, pointing out favorites in a long playlist. But it’s Flannery’s Walden-esque lament of a world where capitalism and social media are silenced by the serenity of nature that have O’Connor entranced and amused — mostly because it depicts the exact opposite of his life right now.

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“I was listening to it when I was in Sydney for the press tour and I was like ‘Wahhh!’” he jokes, mock sobs shaking his shoulders up and down. “‘I just want to go to the woods with a stick!’”

While the impulse is understandable, it’s entirely antithetical to the promotion of a major blockbuster film featuring three generation-defining talents, a critically acclaimed director, and an erotic tennis ménage à trois. O’Connor stars alongside Mike Faist and Zendaya in the Luca Guadagnino-directed Challengers, a breakneck drama about professional tennis players caught in a love triangle that spans years and careers. Former tennis star Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is coaching her husband Art Donaldson (Faist) through the career of her dreams, one cut short by an untimely injury. But when they’re thrown into the path of former friend and court-mate Patrick Zweig (O’Connor), it kicks off a struggle for power that threatens to toss all of their lives into turmoil. Justin Kuritzkes’ screenplay flits through both time and perspective, turning each personal interaction into a zinging tennis match with the help of a bass-heavy, throbbing score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. It’s catnip for moviegoers — and has resulted in O’Connor’s contractual obligation to embark on a massive press tour spanning a dozen of the biggest metropolitan areas across the globe. O’Connor understands that part of acting is promoting the work. He just doesn’t think he’s very good at it.

Mike Faist as Art, Zendaya as Tashi, and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in CHALLENGERS

“‘Monotonous’ sounds rude, but there’s something a little monotonous about, particularly, press junkets. In the age of ‘content,’ they need ‘Who’s the best at tennis? Who’s this?” he says, snapping his fingers quickly. (This fluttering animation becomes a constant of our conversation: a hand that finds its way to the back of his neck as he mulls a question; an anxious flick at his ear when he’s afraid he’s being rude; a full shoulder-lean whenever excitement lights up his eyes.) “So that becomes a little tiresome, although I understand why it is the way it is. The caption version or quick hit [journalists want], I don’t know if I’m able to succinctly articulate that.”

Since O’Connor struggles with snappy summations of his work and career, let’s step in and lend a helping hand. The son of a midwife and an English teacher, O’Connor grew up in bucolic Gloucestershire county — a two-hour jaunt west of London — a Shakespeare-obsessed theater-goer. During his time at St Edward’s School (another notable alum is FKA Twigs), he was part of numerous school productions. A stint at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School led to auditioning, which led to television gigs, which led to O’Connor becoming what he calls a “jobbing actor.”

It was his role in the critically acclaimed queer romance God’s Own Country (2017) that introduced O’Connor to audiences and film executives who were suddenly clamoring to see more of him. When O’Connor joined the Netflix drama The Crown, playing a youthful, unsure Prince Charles, he cemented his image as an actor skilled at tender portrayals of both adolescent idealism and a kind of writhing inner rage. He occupies a unique place among other standout actors of his generation. Where Austin Butler brings brooding, Method intensity, and Barry Keoghan a simmering villainy, O’Connor imbues all of his characters with irrepressible boyishness — even when they are very much grown men. Unconventionally handsome, with lake-blue eyes and protruding ears, he is capable of being vulnerable yet prickly at the same moment, a juxtaposition that perfectly suits a sad-sack antihero like Charles. But in Challengers, he throws that demure shit out the window.

“Patrick might be in some ways the hardest challenge I’ve taken on,” O’Connor says. “Because his qualities are qualities that I don’t necessarily recognize in myself — his bombastic, front-footed nature. Outwardly, he’s so sure of himself and so comfortable with himself. I was resistant to that [at] first.” O’Connor credits Guadagnino for pulling him out of his shell, as well as Challengers costume designer Jonathan Anderson (who’s also the creative director of fashion house Loewe). “[Jonathan] was putting me in short shorts,” he says, “and you can’t wear short shorts and be a bit coy. You’ve got to be all in.”

In Challengers, O’Connor’s character is presented as a wild foil to the rigidity of Tashi and Art in their hyper-structured marital world. Where Art defers, Patrick pushes. When Tashi spits out insults aimed at hurting him, Patrick grins and asks for more. When Art aims low, Patrick congratulates him for being a snake, nothing but pride in his eyes. Patrick is both competitor and teammate, and carries himself like a man who is down but not out.

O’Connor says one of the things that attracted him to the role was how the relationship between Art and Patrick vacillates from one of “laddish” competition to an almost sensual, thrumming intimacy. And while moviegoers have come out of the film desperate to pick a villain (and O’Connor’s Patrick makes a very easy target), he prefers it when they pick up on his actual desire: for all three of these characters to find a way to be together after the credits roll.

“I don’t know what that would look like,” he says. “I don’t think they know what that looks like. So that’s what they’re trying to figure out. There’s something about Art and Patrick. Not only are they drawn to each other, but Tashi is drawn to the idea of them. I also think in terms of the tennis, she knows that the best version of Art and the best version of Patrick is when they’re [going] at each other.”

O’Connor’s greatest achievement in Challengers lies in how well this gentle Brit melts into the persona of a cocky American asshole. For the record, no one in this film holds a moral high ground. But while Tashi and Art’s fights seem to revolve around duty versus desire, Patrick sharply thrusts himself into the tension, reveling in scenarios that situate him as the villain. For O’Connor, that meant getting a crash course in movement, tennis lessons, and how to be a dick — all things he acknowledges he is not particularly good at. Enter Guadagnino.

Before the movie began filming in Boston, O’Connor explains, the cast and crew spent days there “just bouncing around training and rehearsing.” O’Connor, a tennis novice, was struggling. “There was a day Luca came to one of our training sessions and saw the way I was playing,” he says. “I wasn’t in character, because I was just learning how to play, but even the way I was holding myself when I didn’t get a point, I was very embarrassed, because I wasn’t very good. And he pulled me aside and said ‘Enough. [Patrick] doesn’t get embarrassed.’ He’d call me out on moments of insecurity or doubt or anxiety or fear. He’d come over and put his hand on my back, pull down my shoulders, and stick my chest out — just manhandle me. But that was really helpful.”

While O’Connor knew Challengers would be a daunting new experience, the fact that he was filming it directly in the middle of shooting another movie — the sun-drenched Italian drama La Chimera — didn’t make things any easier. From writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, La Chimera follows forlorn tomb raider Arthur as he searches the hills of Italy for both hidden treasures and his missing beloved. The role was written for an older man, but O’Connor, a huge fan of Rohrwacher’s work (there’s a never-received fan letter somewhere in their history) sold the director with his audition. O’Connor says the casting “felt like an act of destiny.” He continues, “I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I truly felt like it had been written for me. It was someone who didn’t know where they existed. They were sort of torn between this life and people they left behind in another life, dealing with spirituality and home and friendship and love and all those questions. Arthur felt like everything that I wanted to explore in myself.”

And then immediately after transforming into Arthur in the Italian countryside, he had to leave. “I was living in my camper van washing myself in a lake in Italy, and then, a week later, I was in this beautiful apartment above the Four Seasons in Boston, playing tennis,” O’Connor says, laughing. “I loved the duality of that. But it took a big strain on me.”

The possibility that Challengers could catapult him into even higher stratospheres of celebrity has O’Connor stressing about how it will affect his life. When I ask how he feels going through a press tour that will probably end with more people knowing his name, he sinks back fully into his seat.

“Now that’s a dreadful thought,” he says with a wry smile. “It’s not a popular, attractive thing to say, but as you know, that doesn’t fill me with excitement. I understand the structure of an actor is that the more you’re known, the more likely you are going to be seen by X director or X director. If we look at acting as a business, it’s a good thing. But I don’t look at acting as a business. So to me, it’s just a very vulnerable space to be in.”

O’Connor will be living in that space for the foreseeable future. But following the Challengers press tour and a few stops to promote La Chimera, he’ll get a quick break — and a chance to settle in at home. Last year, he bought a house and moved out to the countryside near where he grew up. He has a garden. He wants a dog. He already has plans to build a pond with his little brother, and fill it with small fish and mostly frogs. (They have a slug problem.) After we talk, he’ll have a small break in the day, which he’s using to head to the Adidas store to buy sneakers and swim trunks. And then, of course, more interviews. So the forest and that stick have got to wait. At least for now.

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