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Josh O'Connor reveals why he felt 'lost' after “The Crown” — and how that helped him connect with his latest role

Josh O'Connor reveals why he felt 'lost' after “The Crown” — and how that helped him connect with his latest role

The Emmy winner stars in "La Chimera," about a man on a quest to reconnect with his lost love in the afterlife.

Josh O'Connor might have an Emmy for his portrayal of a young Prince Charles on The Crown, but his acting beginnings were humble, playing Scarecrow in a primary school production of The Wizard of Oz.

"I remember loving it and being on stage and the attention and being a show-off," he tells Entertainment Weekly, laughing as he recalls how he'd always forget to move the carrot he was using as a nose off of his forehead. "My brother sat in the front row [motioning to move the carrot down], and I was like, "He's so rude! I'm giving my heart.' But he was just telling me to put it back."

Some 25 years later, he's still giving everything he has to his roles, including his upcoming title Challengers (April 26), opposite Zendaya and Mike Faist, as well as his latest, the Italian film La Chimera (in theaters Friday, March 29), from writer and director Alice Rohrwacher. In the latter, O'Connor plays Arthur, an archaeologist who joins a band of grave robbers known as the tombaroli. He's not interested in the wealth of treasure in underground tombs buried by the Etruscans thousands of years ago. Instead, he is on a personal journey to reconnect with his lost love, Beniamina, and find a portal of sorts to the afterlife. Ultimately, his search becomes his chimera: something that is impossible to achieve.

<p>NEON</p> Josh O'Connor in 'La Chimera'

NEON

Josh O'Connor in 'La Chimera'

When he's not surrounded by grave robbers, Arthur finds the potential for new love in Italia (as seen in the exclusive clip above) — but that might be easier said than done, especially considering Beniamina's mother, played by Isabella Rossellini, shares his desire to reconnect with her daughter.

Below, O'Connor opens up about why he's never felt closer to any of the characters he's played, what it was like filming in those real tombs, and why he was so excited to talk to Rossellini about her animal "porn."

<p>NEON</p> Carol Duarte and Josh O'Connor in 'La Chimera'

NEON

Carol Duarte and Josh O'Connor in 'La Chimera'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Italian films often have a very different quality and style and pacing. Is that something that you could viscerally feel while you guys were filming this?

JOSH O'CONNOR: Yeah. I was very familiar with Alice's work, and I think I've watched [her other films] Happy as Lazzaro maybe six or seven times, The Wonders maybe 10, and Corpo Celeste a handful of times as well. So, that world, I was fully bought into it. Plus, before we started filming, I spent a long time out there with her and being in that world. When you make a film with Alice, it's like joining the circus. First of all, most of her cast are non-professional actors who live in her village. So her local plumber plays one of my friends, or the electrician or the car salesman or the grave digger — they're all in the movie, and so you get to know them in the small villages. The first week I was there, I met this guy who's in Lazzaro; I think he's in The Wonders as well; he's called Catirre. I met him, and I was like, "You are amazing in Happy as Lazzaro — I love you, you're great." And then that weekend, I was just strolling around the town and there he was with four other Italian men sipping coffee in the square. You are in the world whether you like it or not. So that was quite an easy process, to be honest.

As you started to dig into Alice's script and learned more about Arthur, what were you most excited to get to explore from an emotional perspective and bring to the screen?

Initially, I saw Arthur like a ghost — he was kind of stuck between two worlds and unsure about where he existed between those worlds. So I wasn't sure if he was a ghost, or a kind of spiritual being, or an angel, or what he was. And Alice was very clear when we started: He's neither; he's a real person. I don't think she's a religious person, but she has this idea of, what we can see and what we can't see doesn't differentiate between what's real and what's not. And that was a breakthrough for me. I think he is ghostly, but he's really just an outsider and he doesn't know where he belongs. And Beniamina represents an element of that, and that pull to the other place was really profound and clear to me.

It coincided with a time in my life when I felt a sense of not belonging or feeling a little bit like I didn't know where my space was in the world. And so that kind of combined really nicely. Arthur, of all the characters I've ever played, is bizarrely — even though I'm speaking in a foreign language and [he] sort of doesn't look like me because I lost a load of weight — but I feel most closely tied to Arthur than any other character. So that was really helpful as well. I didn't feel like it was a huge stretch; I felt I really understood him.

When you say you were similarly at a place in your own life where you were trying to figure out where you belong, do you mean where you wanted to live or where you generally fit in personally, professionally, or both?

I think it was all of those things. Fundamentally, it was spiritual. I felt spiritually lost, but it was a combination [of things]. At the time I was living in New York — I'm a country bumpkin who likes gardening, and that wasn't really the best match. But we'd just come out of the pandemic, and The Crown had come out, and there'd been this big hoo-ha around The Crown, but I hadn't really been outdoors to see what that was like and what the impact of that was. And suddenly, there I was walking down the street, and people were stopping me, and I hadn't experienced that before to that level, that degree. So there was a kind of real shape-shifting going on and a real element of trying to understand where I sat in the world.

I also think that's just a very human thing. I think everyone feels that to certain degrees in their lives at all times. When I start any character, I'll have a scrapbook of drawings or photographs or little bits of material that I stick in to build up a life for this character. And it'll often have bits of poetry or music that I like that help me build someone up. "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver was one poem that really helped. There's a line which is something to [the effect of], we are all citizens of the world. And I found that really comforting for me, but also for Arthur — he feels that he is a citizen of this world, but he's also a citizen of the other world, and Beniamina, his soul partner, is there. The big thing with the Etruscans, which I always really liked, is that they spent more time building graves for their dead than they did homes for the living because they believed that when you die — and that's why all these treasures were buried with the dead — they didn't hand down treasures. The treasures go with their souls to the afterlife, so that was something that I felt really strongly, as well.

<p>NEON</p> Josh O'Connor and fellow cast members searching for a buried tomb in 'La Chimera'

NEON

Josh O'Connor and fellow cast members searching for a buried tomb in 'La Chimera'

Were these graves you talk about created specifically for filming, or were you given permission to film in actual graves? They certainly seem a bit claustrophobic.

They were claustrophobic, and most of them were real tombs. The tombaroli, the grave robbers, they do exist still, but they were prevalent in the '80s. And so, dotted around Italy, there are these empty tombs that have been dug up and left behind, and particularly where we were filming around Bolsena and Tarquinia, they're everywhere. You go for a country walk, and you'll find them all over the place, so they're easy to find. On the odd occasion, we'd have to build out [a set] a little bit because you can't fit six actors and a camera in there. But no, most of them are there, and they are incredibly ornate and beautiful. You feel privileged to be in them... privileged and kind of out of place — like, we shouldn't be there.

<p>NEON</p> Isabella Rossellin in 'La Chimera'

NEON

Isabella Rossellin in 'La Chimera'

You mentioned many of the actors are people who are just from Alice's village — but Isabella Rossellini is not one of those people, of course. I mean, what a legend. Were you trying to calm your nerves the first day with her, or is she one of those people who's good about putting people at ease?

She's amazing. I mean, I did feel that, I think, particularly for me, because her father [Roberto Rossellini] was a god for me, and I sort of worshiped him. But I think you are absolutely right — she's very good at making you feel completely fine. But I also think that there's — particularly when you are in a film, when you're in that environment and with Alice's environment — it's very easy to forget about status or anything like that. It's probably the least status-driven film I've ever been on. Everyone has their role, but every day, we'd eat together, we'd cook for each other, and at the end of the night, you come back and go for a swim in the lake — there's really no hierarchy. The other thing that was really funny, the one thing I did have to get over, is that I was a big fan of Isabell's — I dunno if you've seen her porn... not actual porn! I mean, these insect porn videos, which are about the anatomy of these insects, and they are incredible, and I always loved them. And so when I met her, I was straight in with the questions about what that was about, and that was my fan girl moment. She's really special. And she's also a great scene partner — she's just really giving and brilliant.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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