MOVIE EXCLUSIVE: ROBERT INCE
Queen and Country meets with rising star and man of the moment Alec Secareanu, from new British movie God’s Own Country, to talk acting, Brexit, playing gay and those sex scenes on the windswept hills of Yorkshire.
The desolate Yorkshire dales are perhaps the unlikeliest setting to see two strapping farmers grappling in the mud in sexual rapture. But that’s all about to change next month with the release of God’s Own Country, a redemptive tale about gay desire, family duty and self-acceptance set amidst one of the rural north's more unforgiving of landscapes.
The debut feature by former actor Francis Lee has been described as ‘captivating’ and is already being billed as an instant classic, joining the vaunted ranks of other iconic gay British cinema including the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette, Another Country and Weekend.
A haunting and lyrical film, it paints a vivid portrait of a burgeoning yet complex romance between two sheep farmers. Josh O’Connor plays the brooding and conflicted Johnny, burdened with running his family’s farming business where life, sickness and death are all daily experiences. His life is transformed by the arrival of enigmatic Gheorghe (Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker who initiates his journey of self-discovery.
I meet Alec Secareanu on the top floor of a members bar in Soho, amid a whirlwind promotional campaign for the film which has taken him across the globe. The film launched earlier this year at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City and LA’s Outfest before moving on to festivals in Berlin, Edinburgh, Sydney and Norway.
On his umpteenth interview of the day, Secareanu is charm personified, unshaven and dressed casual, holding court in a circular booth which overlooks a crowded Piccadilly Circus. I tell him this whole experience must be a world away from his life back home in Bucharest in Romania where he is still based. He agrees, describing it so far as “incredible and surreal.” Already looking like a seasoned acting pro, sipping an espresso coffee, he remains sanguine about Britain’s reception to the film, his first English language production.
Speaking exclusively to Queen and Country, he admits to being overwhelmed by the international reaction thus far: “It’s been very well received all over the place. The response has been better than we expected and we’re very hopeful it’ll be liked here in the UK too. The premier at the Sundance in the US was where it all started. That was a great experience and Francis won the Best Director award which definitely helped build momentum around the film. Participating in the Q&As has also been important in getting a sense of the audience reaction.”
I tell him he made a very convincing farmer, and am surprised when he tells me that it was him actually doing some of the more unsavoury farming practices depicted in the film. No body double was required. “I’m a city boy,” he laughs, “I was born in the city, but my grandparents had a house in the countryside and I’d spend summer vacations at their place. But admittedly every time I had to work there I ran away as far as I could because I don’t like farming stuff.”
It was a challenge, it seems, he took in his stride, and of course, as any method actor will tell you, with some preparation. “We had two weeks before filming working on farms which was pretty intense,” he admits. “We had long shifts from six in the morning to very late into the evening basically learning how to do effectively the work on the farm; how to cut sheep hooves, how to birth lambs, how to give them vitamins and injections, how to make cheese. Those two weeks helped me become more comfortable around the animals, because we have a lot of scenes with them. They also tend to be unpredictable, and you really need to know what you have to do.” He beams a handsome smile at the memory.
With playing someone much different to himself, he admits it was great working on discovering the character: “Francis and me worked for several months before the shoot on the character (of Gheorghe). We’d talk on Skype and he’d ask me questions about Gheorghe’s background, where he was born, about his friends and family, and how he has ended up in the UK. We built his life from scratch, from the moment he was born up until you first see him on screen.”
The relationship between Gheorghe and the taciturn Johnny is compelling throughout. I wondered how this was developed. Was it instinctual or were intricate workshops required in building the foundations for a believable relationship between two uniquely different men? “With Francis being an actor, he really understood what an actor needs to build a character, the relationships and that whole process involved,” Secareanu says. “For the first two weeks he tried to keep me and Josh apart. We met only briefly but we didn’t have time to connect. He wanted the first meeting on screen to be as authentic as possible.”
After shooting began, O’Connor and Sacareanu moved in together enabling a friendship to develop simultaneously as their on-screen relationship blossomed. “We filmed it chronologically so that helped us a lot on building the relationship.” The performances are, in the end, brilliantly realised; nuanced and unsentimental. Rough, yet sensual.
The shoot didn’t come without its own set of challenges for Secareanu though. “I come from Romania,” he declares in his perfect English, “so there the spring is usually very warm, nature gets greener, but that’s not the case in Yorkshire. It was very wet, damp, cold and muddy most of the time.” He looks out the window down at the people milling about on a gloriously sunny August afternoon in central London, and smiles to himself as he remembers Yorkshire: “The weather was insane most days. It would snow in the morning, then rain at lunch, then there’d be some sun and then it would do the same all over again.”
It was this changeable weather he admits which also helped shape the relationship of the characters: “The environment is a very present character in this story and of course it helped us to work on this farm because we started to understand the physicality of the characters. It helped us become more immersed in their story and ultimately be more truthful to these two guys.”
Lee is entirely economic with the script, meaning what’s not said is just as important as what is. For Johnny and his family, theirs is an impoverished and bleak life. Emotions are left unspoken. With the farming industry on the wane and migrant temporary labour often the glue in keeping these types of rural communities from dying, the Brexit metaphors abound. What’s more, it is Gheorghe, a European outsider who not only comes into the fray to suggest new ways of boosting the business (cheese-making) but also brings about hope in saving the farm while rescuing Johnny from himself.
Was it an intended message, I ask Secareanu? He laughs and says: “When we filmed, the referendum was only being talked about. We didn’t intend to make any political statement, but all of a sudden Francis was editing the film when Brexit happened and he told me from that point on he watched the film with a different view, because it had almost become a period piece. But we didn’t intend to do that. Francis knew when he was writing the story that he wanted an outsider to come into this very specific environment, and it just so happened it was a Romanian guy.”
For a gay person, moving to the countryside, or returning there as an adult, is ultimately an expression of displaying one’s authentic true self, but for many who have grown up and remained in rural places, their relationship to the land and the people on it can imprison and degrade, as is the case with Johnny.
Besieged by that what he cannot accept or express, he is geographically isolated as well as emotionally. His family duty within the traditional working class community to which he belongs and the anguish from a life denied is outlined in his stooped countenance, his sudden imperiousness and every mumbled word or fit of drunken rage.
Turning to alcohol and casual sexual encounters, Johnny has shut down his emotions to ensure the survival of the family business while his father, played by Ian Hart, ails after a second stroke. His interior world is reflected in the lugubrious and unyielding landscape, only redeemed by the light provided by Gheorghe’s arrival. “It’s beautiful here,” Gheorghe opines in the film, “beautiful but lonely.”
It’s also a beautiful, and spellbinding film, the type of which is rare. The paucity of well-made British films with gay stories not reliant on stereotypical tropes make the release of God’s Own Country all the more exciting. I ask him how important that films with strong gay stories, and those set in working class communities are getting made. “It’s very important,” he says.
“This is Francis’ background, as he grew up in a rural setting and wanted to tell a very specific story about the people that are living and working there and the problems they struggle with. The first time I read the script I thought it was incredible. It was one of the most detailed scripts I’d read. It doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but every single scene, every glimpse, look or gesture is described in the script so it’s a very visual story. I noticed that straight away. I’m glad not only that the film got made but that I could be a part of it.”
Playing gay hasn’t been a challenge for Secareanu either, and he praises Lee as director for his guidance, allowing him and Josh to come out of their comfort zones and explore unchartered territory. In the end, the sex scenes are visceral, raw and unflinching but never gratuitous.
The release of films like this often raises the usual issues of positive representation, or lack thereof, of gay people in mainstream films. But with distribution for this film all over the world, including in Romania, he believes it’s the right time for the film. He says: “In Romania there are still some political struggles, and battles to be won. But I think it’s a good time to launch the film there, especially for the LGBT community there who still struggle without a voice. I hope this film gives them a sense of ordinariness somehow.”
He is also excited about his family seeing the film. His girlfriend loved it and is hugely proud of him, naturally. Secareanu has performance in his blood, having honed his skills as a dancer back in Romania moving gradually from theatre into TV and film roles, even doing a stint at the Venice Biennale for 4 months in 2013 at the Romanian Pavilion. And while he’s modest about his background, it’s only a matter of time, I suggest, before Hollywood beckons? “I’m an actor,” he says with the usual humility, “I like to discover new characters, new people and tell stories. This is what I really want to do.” But he doesn’t see himself leaving Romania for good any time soon, only for work. With technology allowing auditions and screen-tests to be done online these days, he probably won’t have to either.
Our time is up. On leaving I tell him the interview is our first exclusive for Queen and Country magazine which is launching the next day. Another of those beaming smiles zips across his face, and he holds up his hands, crosses his fingers and wishes us all the luck in the world. As we do him. And with that, he’s gone, to do the next interview, before another screening of the film later that night and a well-deserved pint with his co-star.
God’s Own Country is released nationwide on 1 September