To play Arthur, a gentleman archeologist-turned-tombaroli (illegal grave-robber) in Alice Rohrwacher’s La ChimeraBritish actor Josh O’Connor swapped the double-breasted bespoke suits he donned as Prince Charles on Netflix’s The Crown for a rumpled cream linen outfit that looks like its owner has worn through too many late night digs.
But the role in the Italian drama “is much more than me The Crown” was, says O’Connor. Ahead of his interview with The News84Mediathe actor proves his working-class roots by head-swiveling at the sight of blue-collar directing icon Ken Loach, giving interviews just behind him on the roof of the festival Palais in Cannes, where La Chimera (and Loach’s The Old Oak) are screening in competition. “That’s it Ken Loach over there!” O’Connor half-shouts/half-whispers, adding shyly, “he’s one of my heroes.”
O’Connor’s performance as Arthur, a tomb raider who leads a gang of Etruscan grave robbers who dig up ancient relics and sell them to black market fences, has put him in the conversation for Cannes’ best actor honor. Unlike his motley troupe, whose Chimera — or unattainable dream — is the promise of striking it rich through buried treasure, Arthur’s quest is more spiritual. His Chimera is Beniamina, the woman he loved and lost and whom he hopes, somehow, to find again, by discovering a “portal to the afterlife” in one of the ancient tombs he unearths.
Speaking to THR In Cannes, O’Connor discusses why he bonded with Rohrwacher over a love of “gardening and vegetables,” how he lived “the circus life” on the set of La Chimera and how he’s become Italian cinema’s favorite foreigner.
What was it like to swap the pomp and circumstance of The Crown for the earthy realism, and soiled linen suit, of this movie?
Well, this is more me than The Crown. By far. This world that I was living in with Alice [Rohrwacher] while making this film felt like the real me. I was living in my camper van when we filmed by the side of a lake, I’d wash in the lake, it was real, and I loved it. Every night Alice and I and our friends from the film we’d sit up around the fire, cook food and sing songs. It was a real circus life. I love The Crownbut that was a moment in time, an incredible moment, and I’m eternally grateful for it, but that was a character [Prince Charles] for which I really had no concept. Of course, I never have a full concept of any character, but I found Arthur [in La Chimera] Easier to access in some ways because I sort of desired what he had. I was intrigued by him, by his interest in artifacts, and, yes, even by his ability to see the unseen.
Do you see him as Arthur, the knight in shining armor (or stained linen suit), or as a pillager? What drives Arthur?
Well, I think it changed for me from the time when I read the script. At the time, I wonder if it was influenced by having seen [Rohrwacher’s 2018 film] Happy as Lazzaro. In that film, Lazzaro is a saint in some ways, and I loved that, and I love the kind of iconography around that, but I think I thought, “Oh, maybe Arthur is a saint.” And then I thought, “Well, no, he’s not because he’s also interested in money.” And then I thought, “He is someone who is also interested in the unseen, he has an interest in history, and in people and in nature.” He’s sort of a floater, a bit of a ghost, sort of a shadow. But at his heart, he’s deeply human. I think that the key for me is I was trying to understand how this character, that is seemingly searching for the afterlife, exists in this world. Someone described him to me that he is empty. But I don’t think Arthur is empty. I think he’s full. Actually, this life was not enough for him. He needs to be with Beniamina, of course, that’s one part of it. But also he needs to be in this other space because this real world doesn’t work for him. I’m not sure if that answers your question. I suppose I was still getting to the bottom of him when we finished the film. I feel like I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him. If I figure him out, I’ll let you know.
You are in this Alice Rohrwacher film, in the new Luca Guadagnino movie, Challengersand one of your next films will be RosebushpruningKarim Aïnouz’s remake of Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 classic Fists In The Pocket. How does it feel to be Italian cinema’s favorite Englishman?
It’s great. Yeah, it’s great. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, it’s sort of an accident. I mean, Alice happened to be my favorite filmmaker and, very fortunately, she asked me to do this movie. Now she’s like a sister, we’re family. And Luca Guadagnino is a friend and we’ve been trying to make something together for a long time. Challengers comes out later this year, and I think it’s a really interesting movie.
So I suppose, in that sense, it’s all an accident. But I also believe, a bit like the red thread attached to Beniamina that gets pulled in the film, I was pulled to them. I’m a great believer in fate in real life and sometimes we are pulled to people, that there’s some source, some purpose to life, and we are pulled to people that we need to be with. Alice certainly is one of those. She’s changed my life. It’s no exaggeration.
And there were clues there before. I was a big fan of Italian cinema. So Pasolini, Bellocchio, Fellini, Rossellini: These are filmmakers that I really admired. So I guess maybe I was seeking them out in some way. I do not know.
How did you and Alice Rohrwacher meet?
I saw Happy as Lazzaroand then I watched The Wonders and Corpo Celeste, and I wrote her a letter. And we had a Zoom call. I was in Mexico City at the time. We had an amazing call, and I loved her. And she said, “I have no movie for you. But maybe in the future, I will.” And then two months later, she said “OK, I was making this movie with an older actor, and now I will rewrite it so you can do it.” It was incredible.
What was the thing that clicked between the two of you when you first spoke?
I think we’re both hippies, in our hearts. We both love gardening and vegetables. So that was partly that. But also I think she was a fan of a film I did called God’s Own Country. And I, of course, was a fan of all her work. I think there’s an element of, “Well, I’m not an overly spiritual person, but I am a great believer in people finding each other.” And I think there was definitely this aspect. And as soon as I got to Italy, we spent every day and every night singing together on set. Often times they’d be ready to film and they’d be like: “Where’s Josh?” and you’d see me on top of a hill, looking at a leaf. And Alice is exactly the same. They’d be ready to do a take, and I’d be crouched down on the floor trying to check out the rings of a tree, and Alice would be fascinated by some insects flying by. And they’ll be like: “Guys, please, we’re trying to make a film here!” There are elements of Alice and I that just bind together, I almost feel we were bound to make something together.
I have one last, cheesy question to ask: What is your Chimera?
So here I have to ask: My understanding of the translation La Chimera is something that you desire that you can never capture. Is that what you’ve understood?
Yes, I’ve heard different translations, but I sadly don’t speak Italian.
I’m just asking because I told some Italian journalists that Alice and my friends were my Chimera, and they looked at me oddly, “But you have them?” It was like I was being really rude to them. But if the Chimera is something you’re reaching for you can’t quite achieve, I think for me it would be belief, belief in a god would be my Chimera. I feel like I’m constantly searching for an answer to life, and yet I feel a sense that it will be inevitably impossible to find the answer.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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