Few newcomers have embraced method acting as faithfully as the two leads of this fall’s seductive indie God’s Own Country, a modern romance set in the rustic community of West Yorkshire. “I don’t know the best way to say this,” says English-born actor Josh O’Connor, who stars as the young sheep farmer Johnny Saxby, “but when I put my arm into the backside of a cow, I did it for real. We delivered lambs on set. Everything happened as and when.”
Those looking for an idyllic, swoony escapist fantasy might be disappointed with the results, but they’d be in the minority. Since its premiere last January at Sundance, God’s Own Country has racked up awards there and at the Berlin and Edinburgh film festivals for its realistic depiction of working-class rural life and the LGBT experience.
With his first full-length feature, Francis Lee has crafted an of-the-moment spin on the classic conundrums of love—how to give it and how to receive it. His story is not one of instant attraction. Instead, chemistry slowly builds between Johnny and his hired help, the Romanian migrant Gheorghe Ionescu, played by Alec Secareanu. At first, a serious relationship doesn’t seem a likely path for the recalcitrant Johnny, who, despite being blessed with a statuesque beauty, is cursed with a tough British stoicism. Abandoned by old friends who’ve moved on and struggling to keep the family farm afloat after his father suffers a stroke, he succumbs to bouts of binge drinking and casual sex with locals he picks up at the pub or the cattle mart.
Johnny’s problem isn’t one of sexual orientation, but of intimacy—something 48-year-old actor-turned-writer-director Lee was keen to explore. “The film is not really about the trials and tribulations of sexuality,” says the Yorkshire native, who shot God’s Own Country near his own father’s farm. “It’s very much the journey of a person who hasn’t gotten to the point where he can love and be loved.”
Enter the dark-haired, gently handsome Gheorghe, the sole respondent to the Saxbys’ ad for a seasonal hand for their ailing homestead. While Johnny is hardly averse to a roll in the hay with another man, he’s initially hostile to the foreigner. Meanwhile, Gheorghe is less than impressed with his new boss. “Gheorghe thinks Johnny is a jackass,” says 32-year-old Secareanu, who was born and raised in Bucharest. “He has developed some survival skills over time because he just wants to work and be able to survive. He’s trying to concentrate on that.” Gheorghe’s past remains a mystery, largely because no one asks him about it or wants to know.
Though the film was completed before Brexit, the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U. has made certain themes in God’s Own Country more pointed, says Lee. “We didn’t re-edit it after the referendum, but Brexit just made the characters more poignant,” he says. “It just became apparent that what could potentially happen now is that two people from two different countries in Europe could fall in love and not be able to be together.”
Despite their mutual distrust and the exhausting nature of the labor at hand, sparks eventually fly. The tension reaches its peak one cold spring night on the farm’s top fell, where the pair has decamped for lambing season. When Johnny makes a typically aggressive, one-sided move, he meets his match in Gheorghe.
“Johnny is always in control and takes what he needs from sex,” says 27-year-old O’Connor, whom viewers might recognize from PBS’s much tamer period drama The Durrells in Corfu and the 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins. “He doesn’t know how to experience sex in a pleasurable way—it’s an act of need. Suddenly he has this powerful man in control. Allowing yourself to give in is so important.”
Much like the rest of God’s Own Country, the pivotal, explicit scene was choreographed to exacting detail. The director also created exhaustive backstories for Johnny and Gheorghe’s characters, even if much of it is never seen onscreen. Says Lee, “We looked at sexual histories, where they bought their clothes, whether or not they took sugar in their tea.”
To get acquainted with the movie’s milieu, O’Connor and Secareanu lived on separate, neighboring farms for two weeks ahead of shooting the film. They grafted alongside actual Yorkshire farmers and assisted with livestock, but they stayed apart until that first sex scene, after which they moved into the same house. “Our relationship as friends started to develop at the same time as the relationship onscreen,” says Secareanu, reminiscing about the actors’ cozier times at home, which included cooking together and watching recent queer touchstones like Weekend and Brokeback Mountain,which Lee had assigned to them as homework.
Lee’s film has drawn many comparisons to the seminal 2005 cowboy saga, and while he accepts this as a compliment, he insists the two have little in common beyond their pastoral backdrop. For one, God’s Own Country is not set in a homophobic society. “No one has to marry Anne Hathaway,” deadpans Lee. There’s an opportunity here for a long-term commitment, if Johnny Saxby chooses to seize it.
It’s this hopeful proposition that will captivate moviegoers who see God’s Own Country. “People are so used to these tragic queer characters—fated to unrequited love or rejection or loneliness or isolation,” says Lee. “What audiences are saying to us is that it’s really lovely to see an authentic story that doesn’t end that way.”
Photography: Sophy Holland
Styling: Lorna McGee at A&R Creative
Grooming: Kate O’Brien
Photographed at the George Inn London