The TV and film careers of Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley have been on a steady ascent, highlighted recently by O’Connor’s multilayered portrayal of Prince Charles in “The Crown” and Buckley’s unforgettable performance as the primly homicidal nurse Oraetta Mayflower in season four of “Fargo.”
Yet when the stage beckoned, the British actor and the Irish actress both said yes with alacrity, agreeing to play the star-crossed lovers in a National Theatre production of “Romeo & Juliet.”
Then the pandemic intervened, and O’Connor and Buckley ended up back on TV — but in a version of “Romeo & Juliet” that is very much focused on the inner workings of the theater-making process.
Directed by Simon Godwin and shot over 17 days late last year, the planned stage production was transformed into a film that will air Friday at 9 p.m. on GBH Channel 2, as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series. This “Romeo & Juliet” takes place in a shuttered theater, where a company of actors decides to put on Shakespeare’s play without an audience. Scenes unfold in spaces that range from a rehearsal studio to backstage corridors to the proscenium at London’s Lyttelton Theatre.
“We embraced the idea that it is on the stage, that we’re in this meta-world, or between two worlds, even,” said O’Connor, who spoke to the Globe recently in a joint video interview with Buckley.
Q. What do you think accounts for the continuing popularity of “Romeo & Juliet”? It seems to be the one Shakespeare play that everyone knows, even more than “Hamlet” or “Macbeth.”
Jessie Buckley: I think it’s just . . . love. I think everybody needs love. It’s a play that fights for the love that isn’t in the world. Love is massive, and mad, and is the core of us all.
Josh O’Connor: It’s quite a flexible play. It’s about love, but you can kind of find your own journey through it. It’s also about peace. That’s the thing we often forget about this play, is it begins with a description of war, and then [there is] peace and reconciliation.
Q. Can you talk about the logistical challenges of filming in the middle of a pandemic?
Buckley: The risk is high, and it’s taken very seriously. We were, in a way, in a bubble. Everybody wore masks, and we were tested twice a week; we were ruthlessly washing our hands. For the intimate scenes, we’d get tested in the morning, and then there was a three-hour window where we could rehearse. Originally, we were meant to do this as a play in a theater, but because of the pandemic, all theaters have been shut. This theater was dark for the first time in its life.
This story lends itself in a way to mirror what was happening in the outside of our world. Verona could be a replica for the world, where there’s death, and there’s people who haven’t been able to have human contact, or have been starved of love in their life. The conceit [of the production] was born out of our present circumstance, because that’s what made us make a film of this in the first place, rather than make a play. We tried to be as vulnerable to the reality we’re living through as possible, and create something through love, to find a way to imagine a world that we might step out into after the play finished and after this pandemic finishes.
Q. In terms of individual characterization, what unlocks the puzzle for you as actors, whether it’s a work by Shakespeare or anybody else? Do you seek points of identification with a character?
O’Connor: For me, it changes project to project. There are different moments where a character just sort of falls into place. Sometimes they never do, actually, entirely fall into place. With this, it was just the unspoken contract with Jessie: “We’re going to go for it, we’re going to do this properly.” Jessie always says: “Jump off a cliff together.” It was like we were just going to throw ourselves into it.
Buckley: It’s quite chaotic for me, to be honest. I always come into something having no idea about anything, in the hope that I might discover something else out about myself. What was so unique to this, and so gorgeous and a gift, was I had a great friend and a great director, and from the get-go we were collaborating and creating something together. We could lean on each other, and push each other, and share music and share images and share pieces of writing, things that were outside of this text itself. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s the person in front of you that is the most important. And when you have that trust between each other, you know that you can do anything, and it’ll be OK. And that’s when it’s the best.
Q. Josh, what are the challenges of portraying a real-life figure who is out there, moving around the world very conspicuously, as against Romeo, who’s fictional, or anyone else who’s fictional?
O’Connor: Do you mean Prince Charles?
O’Connor: I actually treat them the same. My approach to someone like Prince Charles is that I honestly haven’t a clue who he is, and I don’t have a huge interest in who he is. So I just approach him in the same way as I do Romeo, or I do any character, really. You just come in and go, “Who is this character, what do they want, and do they get it, and how are they going to get it?” Just exactly the same.
Q. Did you watch the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry, and what was your reaction?
O’Connor: Oh, I didn’t watch it, sorry.
Q. Jessie, in approaching a character, do you mentally map out a back story for them, and what was the back story, if so, for Oraetta Mayflower? Chilling to think about.
Buckley: [Laughs] I’d probably have to kill you. That’s a very slippery slope you’re asking me to go down there. There’s lots of nooks and crannies in that mad old bag.
Q. Your gait [as Oraetta] was fascinating to watch. What was that about?
Buckley: She just felt, like, bird-y to me. She was somebody who lived in an underworld, and there was something bird-y about her. I decided to work with a movement coach and play around and see what kind of came out, and that kind of came out. Then I put shoes on, and it definitely came out. And then it’s so bloody cold in Chicago, I was like birdy-ing my way through the streets.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
GREAT PERFORMANCES: ROMEO & JULIET
Starring: Josh O’Connor, Jessie Buckley, Fisayo Akinade, Shubham Saraf, Deborah Findlay, David Judge, Alex Mugnaioni, Ellis Howard, Tamsin Greig, Lucian Msamati
On: GBH Channel 2, Friday at 9 p.m.