Pastures new

Alec Secareanu and Josh O'Connor on preparing for God's Own Country.

by Amber Wilkinson

Johnny and Gheorghe, played by Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu, in God's Own Country
Johnny and Gheorghe, played by Josh O'Connor and Alec Secareanu, in God's Own Country Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
Francis Lee's earthy Yorshire-set drama God's Own Country, about frustrated young farmer Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor), who finds his horizons and heart broadened by the arrival of seasonal worker Gheorghe Ionescu (Alec Secareanu) is out in UK cinemas this Friday. It's an emotionally raw and turbulent story and recently added Edinburgh Film Festival's coveted Michael Powell award to its list of international accolades.

O’Connor and his Romanian co-star Secareanu had to get to grips with farm life as part of the preparation for the filming as Lee was determined that they wouldn’t use hand doubles. This meant the pair of them got a crash course in the job on two different farms, which was new territory for both of them.

Secareanu said: “I was born and raised in Bucharest. My grandparents have a house in the countryside and I used to spend my summers there. They have a micro-farm with some chickens and pigs and things like that but every single time I had to do some work, I ran as fast as I could. So, we didn't have any experience in the farming stuff before.

“I worked on Francis' father's farm and Josh worked on the farm where we shot the film.”

Josh O'Connor: 'It's not a pretty world and there's no time for emotion and it's so vital to learn that'
Josh O'Connor: 'It's not a pretty world and there's no time for emotion and it's so vital to learn that'
Josh agrees, saying that it was “fun”, before quickly adding: “Well, it's hard work. It’s crazy hours. You're up at five or 6am, you go out and feed the sheep, come back and have a bacon butty and then you go back out, you fix a fence, you're doing everything and anything you need to do - you've just got to get on with it. And it's raining and it's a mess, muddy and horrible.

The work on the farms pays off in the film as it adds a naturalistic feel to the action, which has the actors doing everything from repairing dry stone walling to feeding animals. And it was particularly necessary when it came to a scene in which Gheorghe helps a sheep to give birth. Secareanu says it was a wonderful moment, but a tough one because although it was the first time he had done the job on his own, his character is supposed to be an old hand at the game.

“I had to keep my mind together because I didn't want to get emotional in the film,” he says. “But after Francis had called, 'Cut', I had a moment because there was a lot of emotions inside.

“I had to come away. It was very emotional. You have two lives in your hands and you're responsible for their lives if anything goes wrong. But John, the farmer, really taught me how to do it and what to look for. He said it was very clean. It was the first time. I had practically assisted John on one before but this one I did on my own.” Josh, meanwhile, had to get to terms with an entirely new accent – leaving Cheltenham behind to adopt the flat, Yorkshire vowels of Johnny.

“Francis is so brilliant as a writer that it seems like the words are written in dialect and I had an amazing team around me, working with Laura Hart, who was my dialect coach and who was brilliant,” he says. “You just kind of have to get that stuff out of the way so that you can focus on the emotions and the relationship side of it. But it was so important that it is authentic. I spoke in accent all the time.

“We had this one moment when I went to Asda in Keighley and it was early during the research stage and I was talking in the accent and slightly subconscious about it. I went to the till and the women looked at my funny and said, 'You're not from round here are you?' And I thought, 'Ah, I've been got, I'm rubbish, I'm a terrible actor'. Then she said, 'You're from Bingley.' And I was like, 'Yes!' I was delighted that I was getting closer.

He adds:"I think it was totally necessary, that week we spent on the farm. It's not a pretty world and there's no time for emotion and it's so vital to learn that. I remember the first day, feeding sheep. You go with this huge bag and they kind of barge you around. I was worried about hurting them but you could just see the way John was just picking up these animals and putting them to one side and you see it's a really strong, hardship job. As soon as you learn that, you just get on with it.”

Francis Lee tells us about authenticity and the emotional landscape of God's Own Country.

God's Own Country is released by Picturehouse Entertainment on Friday, for details of screenings, visit the official site.

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