The Glasgow-set romance follows the stars of Victoria and God’s Own Country playing a young couple battling hope and heartbreak
What if you handpicked the award-winning leads from Victoria and God’s Own Country and planted them in a stirring, intimate, Mike Leigh-style drama? With her debut feature, Only You, Harry Wootliff is a triple-threat: director, writer, and indie matchmaker. Starring Laia Costa and Josh O’Connor, both magnificently cast, the Glasgow-set romance follows a couple as they struggle to conceive a child through IVF; simultaneously grounded and bouncing with energy, the acting duo spiritedly convey the magnetism and raw power of their respective arthouse hits.
In Only You, Elena and Jake first meet as drunken strangers sharing a late-night taxi. After a detour for Elena to spew across the pavement, the pair end up philosophising about Elvis Costello lyrics in her living room. A couple of weeks later, they’re sharing a pad; within a few months, he’s proposing they have a baby. Problem is, biology’s not on their side. “It’s still a big taboo,” Costa tells Dazed. “I’ve had friends opening up to me about fertility issues after the movie, and we’ve been friends for 20 years. People aren’t aware of all the emotional corners that this process has.”
Costa and O’Connor, who both sit across me on a sofa in Hazlitt’s Hotel, arrived to Only You via different paths. Costa, a Spanish actor recently seen in lesbian comedy Duck Butter and underrated S&M horror Piercing, was cast by Wootliff on the strength of Sebastian Schipper’s one-take thriller Victoria. O’Connor, though, read the script and pitched himself to Wootliff. “Jake’s point of view is a challenge of normal masculinity,” O’Connor explains. “Me and Harry talked about the strains of falling in love, and the pressures on a young man who wants to have a family in a traditional way.”
It’s once the couple share a mailing address that Elena reveals her true age. Jake, who is 26, initially believes that his live-in girlfriend is 29. One day, Elena admits she’s 32. “I don’t care,” he says. “You’re gorgeous.” To which she responds, out of guilt, in the middle of the night: “What if I was a little bit older than 32? Like… 33? Or… 34? Or… 35?” In movies, men rarely date older women unless it’s specific to the plot. But as in real life, the age gap doesn’t matter, and the issue is never directly mentioned again.
“It’s just one scene, and then it’s gone,” says Costa, who’s 34, just slightly younger than Elena. “We’re not making a statement about it. But it’s there, and treated as normal, which I think is really good. Another example is that it’s Jake who’s actually saying, ‘Let’s have a baby’, even though she’s older and in your mind you think she should be the one asking for it.”
O’Connor agrees. “It’s only one conversation, but it’s a credit to Laia that it’s a deep theme that continues through the film,” the 29-year-old Southampton-born actor adds. “Because they’re so in love, who gives a shit?”
“We’re not making a statement about it. But it’s there, and treated as normal, which I think is really good” - Laia Costa
Anyone who sobbed through God’s Own Country will already know that O’Connor is an adept romantic lead. It was in the 2017 gay drama that he earned acclaim as Johnny, a Yorkshire farmer who makes hay with a rugged Romanian visitor. In January 2018, Xavier Dolan posted a close-up of O’Connor’s face to Instagram, praising his performance in a caption: “I am beyond impressed with Alec Secăreanu and Josh O’Connor’s subtlety and inventiveness. I’m so moved by the simplicity and the movement of the film, and how love, and humans in love, are filmed, and seen… It made me want to be different too, in that I want to be better at filming people and emotions.” Dolan’s new movie, Matthias & Maxime, is dedicated to Francis Lee, the director of God’s Own Country.
“I know Xavier, not brilliantly well, but enough,” O’Connor says of his celebrity friendship. “Certainly, we’d like to do something together. I used Mommy as a reference for Only You, weirdly. It’s a totally different film, but the boy in Mommy was weirdly helpful for Jake. There’s a petulance in Jake, for which I found it useful to take from.”
Due to the loose, Linklater-ish vibes, the actors were able to develop their own backstories and disappear fully into the roles. “The way we worked, it reminded me a lot of Victoria,” Costa notes. “Harry’s script was beautifully written, but we were trying to find new stuff constantly. On Victoria, we were improvising everything, and I try to take that freshness and spontaneity to all my projects.”
“On Victoria, we were improvising everything, and I try to take that freshness and spontaneity to all my projects” - Laia Costa
Whereas Only You lacks the bank heist of Victoria, it instead possesses the inherent drama of the IVF treatment – an expensive, circular rhythm of hope, tense waiting, and, quite often, heartbreak. Jake, aware of the procedure’s one-sidedness, injects himself with the IVF hormones as a sign of solidarity with Elena. Admittedly, there’s some overlap with Private Life, one of the best movies of 2018 (blame Netflix if you haven’t heard of it). But in Tamara Jenkins’ comedy-drama, Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are a grumpy, resentful couple who hate their bodies and haven’t had sex for pleasure in years. In contrast, Jake and Elena still know how to have fun: after an unsuccessful round of IVF, they impulsively go clubbing and then continue the party in bed.
“There’s hope, rather than it being a depressing thing,” O’Connor says. “They’re so excited about this next step of having a family, and that can quickly turn into fear and shame and terror.” It makes a change, he continues, from traditional plot obstacles such as infidelity. “The idea of an affair is sexy and gossipy and there’s no taboo. But [Jake and Elena’s] relationship is really good. The shit that goes wrong is not their responsibility. It’s not necessarily an idea that’s going to be sellable when you pitch a film, but Harry fucking sells it, and you’re batting for this relationship. She made them real, and also really attractive.”
In a recent interview, Wootliff described Only You as “an anti-Brexit love story” due to Elena’s background. Was this discussed at any point during the shoot? Costa looks at me with a puzzled expression, so apparently not. It’s pro-EU, they shrug. “I often think people can shy away saying it’s a love story,” O’Connor says. “But that’s something we should be really proud of. It’s actually a really successful love story.”
“The shit that goes wrong is not their responsibility. It’s not necessarily an idea that’s going to be sellable when you pitch a film, but Harry fucking sells it” - Josh O’Connor
What about the elephant in the bedroom? At no point is adoption mentioned in the film. “They’re not at that point,” Costa explains. “They’re still grieving the fact they haven’t have their own child. It’s a whole new movie on that specific subject.”
I refer to an interview that Costa did last year for Duck Butter in which she mentions that men tend to “get scared” and “freak out” during sex scenes. “No, I think we were OK,” Costa interjects quickly, knowing where my question is leading.
“I felt very comfortable working with Laia,” O’Connor says. “We both work in a way where to invest in the characters, you have to accept the embarrassment or the awkwardness, because sex is embarrassing and awkward. They’re not sex scenes for the sake of being sexy; they’re really raw and loving sex scenes, and then there are funny ones. It has to be ‘this scene is about Elena being powerful and Jake being subservient’ or whatever. You’re playing a game.”
“Sex scenes are never about sex,” Costa adds. “They’re about something else.”
Later this year, Costa will star in two TV shows, HBO’s Foodie Love and Sky’s Devils. O’Connor, meanwhile, is in between shooting seasons three and four of The Crown. O’Connor will depict Prince Charles on the popular series, and I’m probably the last journalist he’ll ever speak to who doesn’t bring it up at any point (not because questions on The Crown are forbidden, it’s just really not my thing). But for anti-royalists, O’Connor’s stacked slate also includes Hope Gap and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. The pair should, surely, do a Before Sunset-esque sequel for Only You in a decade’s time?
“Totally!” Costa exclaims. “I love this guy and Harry and everyone.”
“It’s so rare to have a group where we all know what we’re doing and how to play it,” O’Connor adds. “What’s so clever about Before Sunrise is that they saw a spark, and so they kept it going.” Does that mean there’ll be a God’s Own Country sequel, too? “I don’t think so,” he responds, immediately contradicting what he just said. “I think it’s lovely to just let it be.”
“I think we should work with Xavier Dolan. That’d be fucking cool. And also Lars von Trier” – Josh O’Connor
As for dream filmmakers to direct them in a separate project, O’Connor offers two suggestions: “I think we should work with Xavier Dolan. That’d be fucking cool. And also Lars von Trier.” Costa approves of both names.
“When you see Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, you realise that no other actress can do that specific performance,” she says. “Only You with another Elena and Jake would be a different film. That’s the magic of performances.”
Watch the trailer below.
Only You is out in UK cinemas and on Curzon On Demand on July 12