Josh O’Connor on Working with Zendaya and Living Out of a Van

The British actor is already earning buzz for his sexy, swaggering role in the forthcoming tennis drama Challengers—this, after he snagged awards as a buttoned-up young Prince Charles on The Crown. So, what’s the young breakout star doing living the van life?

Jacket by Brunello Cucinelli. Sweater by Aime Leon Dore. Pants by S.S Daley. Sneakers by Autry. Socks by Adidas. Watch...

Jacket by Brunello Cucinelli. Sweater by Aime Leon Dore. Pants by S.S Daley. Sneakers by Autry. Socks by Adidas. Watch by Rolex. Ring, (on top) by Cartier. Ring (on bottom) by Clocks and Colours. 
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Josh O’Connor was driving his yellow camper van through the Italian countryside, finally heading home. The British actor had been living in the van for three months while filming La Chimera, a period drama about grave robbers, in the hills of Bolsena. In the two hectic years since he had left London, O’Connor had won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his performance as Prince Charles in The Crown, and shot two films, bouncing between the US, Italy, the US, and Italy again. He had been playing other people for so long that he felt exhausted, the kind of tired where it is as though you are already asleep, and drifting on is somehow a less daunting prospect than trying to slow down.

The route was an 1,100-mile drive, curling northwest across the Alps and up through Europe to England. On the way, O’Connor received a text from his parents: “Make sure you top up on fuel before you get to northern France.” Weird, he thought, but this was typical of his folks, fellow #vanlife enthusiasts, who are always giving him this kind of highly specific yet context-free advice. “Like, what does that even mean?” he says now. “So, I just ignored it.”

Which is why, cruising down a French highway with his fuel gauge low, O’Connor wasn’t worried when he spotted a commotion at an unusually crowded gas station. “There was a queue coming out of it,” he says. “And I thought, Those idiots, what’s so special about that one?”

He drove on to the next station, which was empty. There, a quick Google informed him there was a shortage of fuel in the region due to strike action, leaving many stations without gas. (The subtext being: Always listen to your parents.) At this point, O’Connor did what any homesick, exhausted person would: He floored it, carefully ignoring the fuel-warning light now blazing like a naked flame in the corner of his eye.

But the van, which O’Connor calls Winnie (the family he’d bought it off had named it Winston, but O’Connor got a more feminine vibe), wasn’t having it. Before long O’Connor had to pull into a sleepy town, where the engine promptly cut out. A stranger helped him freewheel the van into a gas station. With the pumps empty, O’Connor shut his eyes. At 3 a.m. he was awoken by a knock on the driver’s door. There was fuel; people were partying at the pumps. “I filled up the entire tank and drove through the night in bliss,” he says.

The joy was short-lived. As O’Connor neared the Channel crossing, Winnie sputtered again and juddered to an excruciating halt. It took French mechanics a week to repair the problem, during which O’Connor was stranded in northern France. Finally, with Winnie fixed and O’Connor ready to conclude his journey, his phone rang with a call from Italy.

There had been an issue with one of the scenes he had shot. Could he come back?

A less obliging actor might have demurred—or, you know, hopped on a plane. He was so close. But O’Connor climbed into his van and drove all the way back to where he’d started.

Shirt by Adidas. Sweater by Prada.

The van parked outside O’Connor’s north London flat hardly looks like a hospitable place for a young actor to call home. When I arrive to meet O’Connor, on a sunny morning this June, the back is filled with odd chunks of splintered wood. I can almost feel the heat and trapped dust swelling inside. It is severe. It is hard to look at. It is…soon apparent that it is the wrong van.

“God, I didn’t live in that,” O’Connor says when he sees me, explaining that I’ve been staring at a trash-removal truck. He leads me around the corner to meet the real Winnie: a refurbished yellow DHL delivery van. Inside, fairy lights are strung above the dining table, near a neat stack of gardening manuals and cookbooks. In the tiny kitchen, a waxy plant tumbles down past a spice rack, containing the big three of oregano, chili, and cumin. Hung on the walls are two needlepoint canvases of a medieval woman and man, made by O’Connor’s mother. Winnie is both a getaway car and a home away from home for O’Connor; he takes her on camping trips to unplug or, as he did last year, to Italy to live in while filming. “I got the van to get out of London and be away from all of it,” he says.

Such solitude is unlikely to last much longer. At 33, O’Connor is having one of those rare career-making runs of brilliant work that every now and then launches a young actor from the world of acclaimed mid–budget films into the zeitgeist. There’s the reason he was in Italy, La Chimera, which premiered to wild acclaim at Cannes earlier this year. Next year he’ll star in Challengers, the feverishly anticipated new drama from Luca Guadagnino, in which O’Connor plays a swaggering tennis player caught in a love triangle, opposite Zendaya and Mike Faist.

Layered jacket by Dsquared2. Shirt by Aimé Leon Dore. Pants by Baldessarini. Tie by MSGM. Belt by Sid Mashburn. Sneakers by Adidas x Wales Bonner. Sunglasses by Dunhill. Headband by Wilson.

If O’Connor has long been charming critics and casting directors alike with his ability to embody a certain breed of emotionally charged young men—think of his quietly devastating portrayal of Charles in The Crown, or standout roles in films like Emma and Aisha—then the months ahead could be the moment that buzz reaches a critical mass.

O’Connor first met Guadagnino at Sundance in 2017, where a packed audience watched Timothée Chalamet cry in the elegant final scene of the director’s Call Me by Your Name. O’Connor was there, watching the audience crying along, feeling the standing ovation go on and on, trying to push down the uncomfortable feeling that his own film at Sundance that year—the feature debut from director Francis Lee, God’s Own Country—was doomed to be the other queer romance from the festival, which few would remember. It was like turning up at someone’s door with your heart held out like a bunch of flowers, only to see them slipping into a car with somebody else.

Lee had first encountered O’Connor when he sent in his self-taped audition for God’s Own Country. The young actor so perfectly captured the specific accent and yearning sadness of the Yorkshire farmer Lee had written that the director was amazed when he finally shook hands with the bright, bouncy middle-class boy who had fooled him. To prepare for the part, O’Connor learned how to build a dry stone wall, helped to deliver dozens of lambs on a Yorkshire sheep farm, and lost so much weight he ended up in the hospital on an IV. It was O’Connor’s first attempt at doing the Method acting thing, his way of climbing into someone else’s skin. “He sits in the character,” Lee tells me. “With the best actors, you can’t see the joins.”

But at the film’s Sundance premiere, O’Connor felt like his big chance was unraveling. “Nobody could make it,” he recalls. “There was a snowstorm and it was half-empty. The people that were there were shocked by the sex and nudity and walked out, or were kind of quiet.” The emotional standing ovation that followed came as a blessed relief.

O’Connor had gingerly approached Guadagnino the night before, to compliment him after the screening of Call Me by Your Name. The two reconnected years later, bumping into each other at a fashion show in Paris, and kept in touch. Which is how O’Connor received a call one day from the director asking if he’d read the script for Challengers that had been going around. (He had.) Guadagnino was now directing the film and Zendaya was on board; would O’Connor be interested? (He was.)

O’Connor, in Winnie, his refurbished van and (briefly) former residence. Coat by Loewe. Shirt by S.S. Daley. Boots by Hermès. Socks by American Trench. Bandana by Drake’s.

O’Connor’s character in Challengers, Patrick, is a live-wire tennis pro with no coach and a planet-size ego. At one point, his on-and-off court rival, Art, played by Mike Faist, asks him if he could please put his dick away; they are in a sauna at that moment, but it feels like the request could come at any point in the movie. Patrick is more than a little reminiscent of the controversial pro Nick Kyrgios; for research O’Connor watched footage of the Australian player making lewd gestures, and yelling at the crowd between points. He looked at egos in soccer too: Eric Cantona and Roy Keane and Paolo Di Canio, players who would say the things you weren’t meant to say. “It’s really nice to play someone who is just pure outward energy,” O’Connor says. “I remember when I first read it thinking he’s this tough guy, like a Gallagher brother. But then I remember having a breakthrough where I was convinced he needed to smile. Anytime he’s angry, I’d just whack in a little smile.”

“Every great actor delivers on the day,” Guadagnino says. “But only the masterful ones like Josh make you discover all the details, all the subtleties, in their physical performance when you sit in the editing room and watch the material.”

In the run-up to filming, O’Connor, Zendaya, and Faist would spend two to three hours playing tennis six days a week, followed by two hours in the gym. “Then extra gym and tennis, then rehearsals,” O’Connor says, still aghast. “If left to my own devices, I’d go to the gym for an hour, then think I could eat whatever I want. I wouldn’t have done anything.”

“I watched this guy probably put on close to 10 pounds over the course of the weeks we were working. He physically transformed,” Faist says. “He’s a craftsman, and knew exactly what was required of him in the moment.”

To film Challengers, O’Connor had flown to Boston from Italy, where he’d shot the first part of La Chimera. Italy had been one of those dreamlike filming experiences where the cast and crew become a family: learning to bake focaccia from director Alice Rohrwacher, partying around an open fire at night, washing in a lake. He had been living in a beautiful cottage at the top of the town of Bolsena, right in the middle of the country. When O’Connor arrived in Boston, he swapped the cottage for a Succession-level penthouse. “I remember Luca saying to me: ‘Actors are like racehorses: You have to keep them in condition if you want them to run as fast as they can,’ ” O’Connor says. “I think what he means is nice hotels, nice food…but being in a hotel room isn’t the best condition for me. It was so luxurious and I just felt depressed.”

For a long time, O’Connor had been looking for the right van, something like the ’60s VW camper van his parents used to own before the engine blew up while his dad was inside it. (“It’s not as dramatic as it sounds,” he says.) After Challengers wrapped, he had to head back to Italy to finish La Chimera. It seemed like the perfect time to finally buy one. It was then that he found Winnie: the van that would become his refuge, a place that he could climb into when the weirdness of being an actor made the world feel like it wasn’t real.

Coat by Ami. Sweater by A.P.C. Shirt by Noah. Pants by Hermès. Sneakers by Autry. Socks by American Trench. Hat by Autry. Bracelet by Omega.

A few days after being introduced to Winnie, I meet O’Connor for afternoon tea in the restaurant of London’s swanky Corinthia hotel. O’Connor slips in, looking out of place in a T-shirt that says “Anti-Growth Coalition.” Afternoon tea—at least in the upper-class English tradition—is an elaborate, multi-course affair: tiny scones, cucumber sandwiches, posh-looking petits fours. “What is ‘tea’? Like a cup of tea?” O’Connor says, a playful smile spreading. I’m unsure whether this is a bit, or whether an actor most famous for playing royalty really doesn’t understand the concept of afternoon tea. “Is this a show? Do they do a thing? Why is it called a tea—because tea time? Presumably, people have a cup of tea?”

Talking to O’Connor feels a bit like this, like watching a tennis player rally against themself in practice. He is a set of happily clashing contradictions: long limbed but not quite lithe; a strong jaw but soft, sad eyes; curly, dark hair that is its own kind of artful chaos. For all of the emotionally withdrawn men he has played, in person he is deeply committed to having fun, laughing often and usually at himself, fidgeting with things (napkins, mugs, his own hands), and filling silences energetically. His is the kind of charm that feels leftover from a bygone era; people are keen to linger in his company. Before a screening of La Chimera in June, one of the film’s producers, Carlo Cresto-Dina, explained how women working on the film would talk wistfully about the prospect of ending up with someone like him, painting the picture of their future happiness together: “Why not me [and O’Connor] on the beach with two Labradors?”

Jacket by Ferragamo. Shirt by Martine Rose. Tie by Rowing Blazers.

O’Connor’s folksy, pastoral tendencies come from his roots. One of three boys, he grew up in Cheltenham, a place unofficially referred to as the Garden Town of England, where the local amusements include an annual downhill race to chase after a wheel of cheese. When O’Connor was a kid, his parents would drag him and his brothers on camping trips to France, driving through the night in their old Volvo. “We’d get a baguette in the morning and chomp on that whilst hiking up a mountain,” he says, taking a big bite out of the air. They never ate at restaurants, or vacationed in Mallorca or Marbella, like all his friends at school seemed to. Back then he thought it sucked. Now, those trips seem magical; a memory to hold close when his family are far away. He describes his parents as “beautiful souls,” and lists his relationship with his brothers as the thing he cherishes most in his life. “All three of us boys are so granola,” he says. “We’re a bunch of happy campers.”

As someone with dyslexia, O’Connor found reading and concentrating in classes at school difficult. “It’s frustrating, because everything takes longer and you have to focus on something really hard,” he says. There are benefits: While his drama-school friends would scan an audition script, then head to the pub, O’Connor would spend days staring at the page, which meant that by the time it did click, he’d already spent that time living inside the character. “You see things in a different way that aren’t necessarily generic.”

His excitable energy made him a “bit of a pain” in class. Theater became an outlet. He remembers one year acting in a production of Bugsy Malone with Tahliah Barnett, a fellow student at the school, who would go on to become the musician FKA Twigs. He played Knuckles, she was Tallulah, but even then her musical talent clearly surpassed his own. Undeterred, O’Connor tried to use music as a way to impress her. “I really shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s hilarious,” he says, starting to laugh. “I was in a band called Orange Output basically to try and get Twigs to go out with me. I was the lead singer, and one of the lyrics I wrote was ‘I’m addicted to crack, motherfucker.’ The closest thing I’d had to crack was Coco Pops.”

Did she ever respond? “No,” he says. “I don’t think she knows who I am.” (Fact-check: She does. “I’m very flattered that he tried to do that because I was definitely not cool and not particularly popular,” Twigs told GQ, via email.)

Sweater by Marni. Shirt by Kenzo. Pants by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Sneakers by Adidas. Scarf by Paul Smith.

Initially, O’Connor had not wanted to even audition for The Crown; as a (small r) republican, he doesn’t support the British royal family or the concept of monarchy. Then he read the script, specifically the scene in season three in which Charles realizes that his life cannot have meaning until his mother dies, and the prospect of the role became irresistible. If O’Connor’s career BC (Before Crown) afforded him relative anonymity, the success of the show ended that. He was soon being photographed in public, and endlessly probed for his views on the royal family. “It was a fucked-up time. I found it so impactful, people stopping me,” he says. “You want to be in stuff that’s successful and seen, but I think sometimes we underestimate how powerful even a slight loss of anonymity can be.”

O’Connor’s empathetic performance as Charles—he played the young prince as a lost boy trapped in a gilded cage, someone who has everything and nothing—seemed to shift the public perception of who Charles really was. His standout episode centers on Charles’s 1969 investiture as Prince of Wales, a dress rehearsal for the big moment to come. When the real Charles had his coronation in May of this year, O’Connor didn’t tune in. Still, he was asked by the press if he wanted to comment, which made him laugh. “I felt really happy for [Charles] because it must feel like his whole life has led to that moment,” he says. “I’m sure it’s the icing on the cake to put a really expensive hat on in a nice cathedral.”

The Crown earned O’Connor his own coronation of sorts: a nomination for a Golden Globe. But that year, 2021, the awards gala was scaled back due to the pandemic, and nominees attended remotely. When O’Connor won—in a room in this hotel, in fact—he was exhausted and alone at 4 a.m. in a little box on Zoom. At the Emmys, seven months later, he was the only member of the cast who could get to the US, and so he celebrated on his own again. He knows these aren’t hardships—winning awards at not quite the right time—but the sense of things continually being almost perfect felt tormenting. Like the production of Romeo & Juliet at the National Theatre that he joined ahead of a planned run in the summer of 2020, but which instead became a pared-back made-for-TV production. (The production still earned him and his costar Jessie Buckley outstanding reviews.) “Being in the National Theatre, which was a dream for me as a kid…but filming,” O’Connor says forlornly, “I felt so close. I was so proud, but I wish we could have done it to an audience.”

You could call Romeo exactly the sort of silently yearning, intensely sensitive young man that O’Connor has become known for: Prince Charles, Johnny in God’s Own Country, delicate souls in indie movies like Only You and Hope Gap. O’Connor’s demeanor onscreen is often so tightly constrained that the rare moments where he does get angry feel like thunder without the warning of lightning. “I believe that his curiosity and openness as a person is what makes him capable of finding [those] notes of interior anguish,” Guadagnino says.

“There seems to have been a theme in my work of men that have struggled with masculinity,” says O’Connor. His willingness to grapple with those themes—of repressed emotions and unexplored pain—and his tendency to shy away from easily legible roles for more complex characters, have put O’Connor among a cohort of actors, including Timothée Chalamet and Paul Mescal, becoming known for portraying a softer side of manhood. “I think, generally, we’re all still trying to figure out what the fuck is wrong with men.”

Jacket by Prada. Shirt by Commission. Shorts by Wilson. Sneakers by Golden Goose. Socks by Adidas.

By the time O’Connor steered Winnie back into London last fall, he was ready to park the van and not look at it for a while. Not surprisingly, his attempt to live off the grid had added to the challenges of shooting La Chimera, which had required, among other things, yet another physical transformation. Having bulked up to play a pro tennis player, O’Connor had to then slim down to portray a bookish archaeologist. For a long stretch, his main meal of the day was a tin of tuna and an apple. He prepped food in his tiny kitchen and used a solar shower—a fancy name for a plastic bag full of water that you let the sun warm during the day, then hook to a tree and stand underneath. Winnie was fine for vacations, but really, he realized, he was okay with being a guy who sometimes wanted to check into a hotel—and frankly, who wants to shower under a plastic bag at the end of a long day filming? “Also,” he says. “I stank.”

Since making it home, O’Connor has spent a few glorious months doing nearly nothing: cooking, gardening, and making ceramics. Inside his London flat, a bookcase stretches up one wall, displaying the plates and vases he’s made or collected (a passion that comes from his late grandparents, both artists). Otherwise, he has been lying low, awaiting the coming tornado that is life as an actor on the cusp of a big, vertigo–inducing ascent. These kinds of windows—runs of buzzy movies and press tours and the internet fame that accompanies them—can, if you’re lucky, lead into franchise movies and studio IP and all that comes with being a major actor. O’Connor knows his days of sleeping in a van are most likely numbered.

The weird thing is, every time O’Connor has advanced in his career, he has found himself wanting to drive back to where he came from. After The Crown, all he wanted, he says, was to keep working on the singular little films that have a slimmer chance of making it big, but if they do, it’s for the right reasons. “What I was doing in my career before The Crown—I just wanted to carry on doing that,” he says. All those times he got so close but didn’t quite make it, it turns out, were actually a blessing; like the long drives with his parents that he once found boring and learned to cherish.

It’s not that he isn’t excited to work on bigger projects, more that he is resistant to the stardom that often comes with them. “A lot of the trimmings of this job shouldn’t really work with who I am,” he says.

When Winnie arrived back in London, O’Connor’s neighbors were shocked she was still going. O’Connor can’t keep her parked outside his flat for long, and so he’ll have to move her—which is sad, because one of his favorite things about driving her in the city is a little game he likes to play: pretending he’s actually a DHL delivery driver. “When you pass other vans you have this brief moment of eye contact where it’s like, total respect,” he says. “They think you’re a van driver, and not an actor living in a van. It’s usually when they see the chimney that you can see them go, Oh, God, here we go.”

Coat by Paul Smith. Cardigan and turtleneck by Hermès. Pants by Todd Snyder. Sneakers by Adidas. Hat by Aimé Leon Dore.

Olivia Pym is a British GQ associate editor.

The interviews and photo shoot for this story were conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike.

A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of GQ with the title “King of the Court”

Photographs by Dan Martensen
Styled by Martin Metcalf
Grooming by Mary-Jane Gotidoc using Tom Ford
Tailoring by Vikkie Tarbuck
Set design by Josh Stovell at Saint Luke Artists
Produced by Alex Bassford at Farago Projects

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