This is a Josh O’Connor appreciation post.
If you asked, “Josh who?” he was the perfectly cast Prince Charles in the most recent season of The Crown. But O’Connor was also the actor who graciously laid in the cut and shared the mic during perhaps the Blackest Drama Actor Emmy Roundtable in the history of The Hollywood Reporter’s annual series, its other participants being Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton), Chris Rock (Fargo), John Boyega (Small Axe), and Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country).
Yes, I got a little hot typing that.
Taped in mid-May, the actors gathered for an extensive conversation was as entertaining as each of them has been over the past year, keeping us occupied and intrigued in their respective projects. Topics covered included representation, onscreen trauma, dream roles and missed opportunities (did you know Rock almost played Jimmy Olson in a Superman sequel?). Oh, and yes—all those sex scenes in Bridgerton.
“No one [in my family] was sufficiently prepared. I wasn’t sufficiently prepared, and I was there,” said Page, adding: My family doesn’t want to be overwhelmed by my backside, specifically, too often, but they’ll take it on this occasion because everyone seems to be terribly happy.”
For Majors, who began his onscreen career portraying gay activist Ken Jones in When We Rise, the issues ran much deeper: “[M]y mother is a pastor, I was raised in the church...And that book [the Bible] says some crazy shit around [homosexuality], things I do not agree with, especially in regard to one’s sexual preference...
“For a very stern, Southern, Black preacher woman, to see her eldest son play something that she religiously did not understand, and then for us to give light to that through the show, and for her to then understand it, that’s a gift,” Majors continued. “And because it was the first thing, it really allowed me to go, ‘I can go anywhere. Bring the humanity to it, just tell the truth.’”
Fully representing humanity was a major topic among the actors, with both Majors and Page pointing out that the right roles can become a point of empathy (or “empathy bridge,” as Page puts it) for a viewing public that may not have real-life experience with people from other walks of life. Rock, a writer, producer and director as well as an actor, had his own theory about Hollywood’s representation problem.
“[W]hen you hand a studio a script, what you notice a lot of times is everyone gives you notes of the character they most identify with,” he explained. “The women in the room give you notes about the women, the underlings in the room give you the notes about the underlings, and the head guy gives you the notes about the lead. They don’t even realize they’re doing this. Now the problem is that some people have a hard time imagining they’re Black, so there’s no notes on the lead if he’s Black. Or if the lead girl is Black, there are no notes from the white women. Because they couldn’t step into it.”
“[On Bridgerton,] it’s about how do we go into the past and look at the images we already have and spotlight joy within that?” Page later offered. “Where are our opportunities to spotlight Black joy, because otherwise you go into the past and you think that it’s Black folks’ job to suffer for a while, carry a moral for the white folks, and then we all move on. And finding opportunities for us to be splendid and spectacular and joyous and romantic was the theme of my involvement from the very beginning,” he added. “And Sylvie’s Love came out at the same time, and it was exactly the same conversations: Where’s our old-school Hollywood love story? Where’s our folks just falling in love?”
Page is similarly thoughtful about representing trauma onscreen, reflecting on his role as “Chicken George” in the reboot of Roots as a counterpoint to the romance novel realness of Bridgerton: “I need to look after my family in the more traumatizing work, as much as I look after them when they’re going to have a couple of blushes,” he said, noting that one of the most difficult scenes in Alex Haley’s masterwork involved him being dragged off in a carriage and sold into bondage in Britain. “[A]nd then I’m back in the 19th century on Bridgerton, and there’s a moment on set where I’m rolling down the street in this lord’s carriage and I’m like, ‘Oh shit, I own this now.’ That’s what I felt I owed my family at the other end of that circle,” he added.
As for Boyega, the past year saw him as active in the streets as on screen, as the actor gave a now-viral speech at a U.K. Black Lives Matter protest—his first, as he admits the roundtable. It was an event that preceded and perhaps in some ways predicated his official departure from the Star Wars franchise and subsequent callout of the racism he experienced while portraying lead character Finn.
“Yes, there are individuals in powerful places that would respectfully take a distance and be like, ‘You know, that boy is trouble,’” Boyega explained to his fellow actors. “But the [lesson] for me is to see that as a God-given filter and not to see that necessarily as an attack. Because to survive the times, and I’m speaking about mental health, the way in which you see things, your perspective, needs to be an ever-changing model.”
“John, because you did what you did, you did the job, you did the work, brilliant work, you then spoke about the work, about your process in the work, and that then changed the ecosystem for anybody coming in behind you,” Major said in thanks. “That in and of itself is full-circle the job of the artist. That experience changed your instrument and therefore changed the entire industry.”
Boyega also shared that as a result of his spontaneous activism at the protest, director Steve McQueen was compelled to add scenes to the anthology film series Small Axe. “I now had this fire and this new perspective. And Steve was just going, ‘I’ll give you the arena in order to display these emotions, and it aligns with who Leroy is as a character, so it’s perfect.’ It was reality reflected in art.”
So, given that Page, in particular, has gotten the masses not just stirred but shaken, will reality reflect art in upcoming installments of the Bond franchise?
“It’s got nothing to do with me,” said Page, dismissing 007 rumors as clickbait, with no meetings having taken place. “It’s literally just a thing for people to talk about. So it’s flattering, but it’s just a game.”
“We’ll all see each other at Regé’s Bond premiere,” Rock later joked, adding: “Directed by Ryan Coogler, I can’t wait.”
You can check out the Emmy Drama Actor Roundtable in its entirety on The Hollywood Reporter website.