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Josh O’Connor Lived in a Camper Van, Bathed in a Lake, and Chopped Wood to Star in ‘La Chimera’

Josh O’Connor plays a troubled archaeologist obsessed with his dead girlfriend in “La Chimera,” the adventurous and ruggedly beautiful new Italian film from Alice Rohrwacher finally out this Friday from Neon.

In the haunted and haunting 2023 Cannes premiere, O’Connor’s mopey, recently-freed-from-jail Arthur joins with a band of tombaroli, or gravediggers, to excavate ancient treasures that may include an Etruscan statue that Arthur feels homages his former partner. The statue is too beautiful for human eyes, as Arthur says. O’Connor, the daffy and floppy-eared British actor beloved for his roles in films like the new queer classic “God’s Own Country” and already for Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming “Challengers,” went Method to play the part of an outsider adrift in the Italian countryside. Not only did he learn Italian — the actor speaks near-fluently in scenes that ask he do so — but O’Connor also spent his nights between shooting days in a camper van he owns. That meant preparing his own food, bathing in a lake, and chopping his own wood. Arthur is living off the land, subsumed by locating an old flame named Beniamina.

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“I lived for a section of the film in my camper van, and I drove it from England to Italy to see everyone,” O’Connor told IndieWire of “La Chimera,” which filmed in Italian locations including southern Tuscany in February 2022, not far from director Alice Rohrwacher’s own home. “I grew up going around in camper vans and camping, but truly, when I first got to Alice in the winter of that year, Alice showed me Arthur’s shack, and I wanted to live in that. And Alice was like, ‘Wait til you see it.’ And I was like, I probably can’t live in that. There was nothing there. I stayed in my camper van. I stayed [with] Alice’s great friend Marie. She has a restaurant on Lake Bolsena, and she has this kind of orchard next to it, and that’s where I stayed, so I was washing myself in Lake Bolsena for a chunk of the movie. I had a great time.”

But director Alice Rohrwacher, previously known for her 2018 Cannes Palme d’Or contender “Happy as Lazzaro,” did not mandate O’Connor’s particularly rigorous approach. Instead, diving into the character by absorbing what would be Arthur’s real surroundings was all the actor’s own doing.

“Naturally when Josh arrived, I immediately understood that he is an actor with such a degree of empathy and generosity that one cannot even believe it,” Rohrwacher told IndieWire via a translator. “He was so generous with all the people in the area. He immediately made it clear that he wanted to become part of this area. This is just priceless: He expressed the desire not just to live there but also to live the way Arthur would, without running water, heating up just with fire, and that immediately made me realize it was wonderful. But no, I did not force him to do that!” Rohrwacher laughed.

LA CHIMERA, Josh O'Connor (center), 2023. © Neon / Curtesy Everett Collection
‘La Chimera’ © Neon / Curtesy Everett CollectionCourtesy Everett Collection

“When I first arrived in Italy, I had a very clear idea that Arthur was either like a ghost, or that he was this other sort of ethereal, almost godlike spiritual being,” O’Connor said of his character. “We probably agreed that there’s an element of him being torn between two worlds, where Beniamina [Arthur’s dead former lover] is and where reality is, but what I found so helpful is Alice’s note that he is human. He has to be a real person, and he’s not a spiritual being. He’s not some ethereal thing, which meant by articulating that, I can make him rude, and I can also justify it by that he’s extremely confused, and feeling this pull somewhere else.”

O’Connor, living in Italy and speaking Italian during the film’s shoot, was just as adrift as the character. “He’s an outsider in this community. He lives outsides the walls of this town, but is also an outsider to this world. He doesn’t know where he belongs. That tug of war would make me feel quite frustrated as Arthur. An isolation and a loneliness, and a sense that people don’t understand him. That would be the motivation for the times where he’s quite rude. It’s not a particularly forgiving world, the world of the tombaroli. What they’re doing is not the best job going.”

Isabella Rossellini, who co-stars as Beniamina’s ailing, Miss Havisham-esque mother with five other daughters of her own, echoed praise for O’Connor’s commitment to the role. “He’s charming and very available. It’s difficult to work in another country where everybody speaks Italian around you very fast, and you’re the lead, and you don’t know what people are saying … He was very dedicated to the role.”

Rossellini, who plays Flora as a tart-tongued whirl of wisdom surrounded by her derelict mansion, hardly went as Method as O’Connor did to play Arthur: “He wanted to live a little bit like the character, so he was living in a trailer,” she said. “He parked it. He was cooking his own food. I stayed in a hotel! Then he rented a little house with no heat. He wanted to really live the life of the people that are in the film, really close to nature, chopping your own wood, warming the house, cooking your own food. The days shooting are quite long. It’s always 14, a little less in Europe than in America, but still 12, still long. 12-14 hour days. I was full of admiration that he went home and cooked for himself from scratch, starting from the wood, chopping it and lighting it. I didn’t! I stayed in a very nice little hotel, modest, but more comfortable.”

O’Connor spoke to IndieWire in between shooting days on “The History of Sound,” a gay romance filming in Brooklyn and co-starring his friend Paul Mescal, directed by Oliver Hermanus. The post-World War I love story was announced as early as fall 2021, but circumstances got in the way of the movie finally going until now. O’Connor can’t say too much about it, especially in response to Hermanus’ recent claims that his chemistry with Mescal is like “fire.”

“I don’t know what he means,” O’Connor said. “Paul and I are friends and have been for years. There’s a great energy between us, and we’ve also been attached to that film for such a long time. We are just really excited to be making it. I can’t talk to whether we’ve got real chemistry, but I think we have.”

“La Chimera” is now in theaters from Neon.

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