The stars of hit Netflix series “The Crown” have spoken about how creator and showrunner Peter Morgan handpicked them for their roles – and defended him from criticism over the series, which examines the private lives of the British royal family.
Imelda Staunton, who plays Queen Elizabeth II; Jonathan Pryce, who plays her husband Prince Philip; and Lesley Manville, who plays Elizabeth’s younger sister Princess Margaret spoke to Variety ahead of the Nov. 9 premiere of Season 5.
With the show switching up its cast every two seasons, Staunton, Pryce and Manville are the third incarnations of their characters, taking over from Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively. They are set to portray the senior generation of royals in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Season 5 sees the Queen handling the fallout of three of her children’s marriage breakdowns, most dramatically that of Prince Charles (Dominic West) and his wife Diana (Elizabeth Debicki). There’s also the decommissioning of her treasured royal yacht Britannia, a fire sweeping through Windsor Castle and the pieces of the puzzle coming together that will eventually lead to Diana’s tragic death in 1997, an event which saw the royals’ popularity drop to an all-time low.
Given the subject matter, “The Crown” has been accused — most recently by Judi Dench — of being insensitive to the royal family by dredging up past scandals, as well as dramatizing some of their most private moments. But while speaking to Variety, Staunton and Manville — both unprompted — defended the show and its creator. “I think that we’re very sensitive to the royal family,” said Manville. “I’m representing [Margaret] hopefully sensitively and truthfully, underneath the umbrella of it being a drama, let’s not forget.”
Staunton cited Morgan’s prior work — “The Queen,” the 2006 film starring Helen Mirren as the Queen dealing with the fallout of Diana’s death, and “The Audience,” his 2013 play on the West End about the weekly meetings between the monarch and the Prime Minister — as evidence of his devotion to this work. “Peter Morgan has obviously got a huge affection for this family having done the film ‘The Queen’ then ‘The Audience,’ then ‘The Crown,’” she said. “I don’t think he would have bothered to keep going if he wasn’t quite emotionally, I think, involved with it.”
How were you cast? Did you audition or did the producers approach you?
Jonathan Pryce: They asked me. I said, “Who’s playing the Queen?” And they said Imelda. I said, “Oh, I’ll do anyway!” But it was part of the decision to know who was playing [the Queen]. I mean, Imelda had been cast a year before, and when I heard that Imelda was cast, I didn’t put myself forward but I secretly hoped that they would ask me. But yeah, it was a very simple decision to make because I was a fan of the show — and I still am a fan of the show — and I knew it was something that I would have fun in being involved with.
Lesley Manville: Peter did approach my agent, and I went and met him at his home. And that was it. Job done. Deal done. I didn’t hesitate in saying yes, I wanted to do it. I was quite surprised, actually … I didn’t really see myself as a Margaret, which is interesting. So I was kind of taken aback and flattered. But yeah, it was very simple. Cup of tea with Peter, that’s it. I play lots of working-class women and so therefore, that is in no way, as it were, a visual audition for playing Princess Margaret. So I think it was offered to me in the knowledge that I would do my thing, and that it would come out all right. And that my working-class roots would be squashed!
Imelda Staunton: I was asked to go and meet Peter, and met him. And he said, “Well, I want you to do this.” “Oh,” I said. “Are you sure?” And then that was that. That was back in June 2019.
Imelda, was it an instant yes for you, or was there any hesitation?
Staunton: Of course it’s daunting, but you’re not going to say, “Oh, can you give me some time, I’m not sure.” Don’t mess around, of course I’m gonna do it! And then you go home and then you get frightened, and all that stuff happens in your own time.
How much did you look at what your predecessors had done with your characters in the previous seasons?
Pryce: Obviously, I’d seen it and watched every episode. I think, if it hadn’t been as it is, two standalone [seasons] with different actors — if it hadn’t been known that that’s what happens, if you felt you were just replacing someone or replicating someone — I wouldn’t have wanted to do it. But you knew you had a certain degree of autonomy in how you approach the role. And obviously you’re grateful for those great performances that have preceded you because the standard of the show is so high, and you know you’re going into something that has a high standard of production and acting and everything. But, you know, it’s the same when you do a classical role in the theatre. You don’t worry that you’re not the first King Lear that people have gone to see.
Manville: I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed watching both those actresses, Vanessa [Kirby, from Seasons 1 and 2] and Helena, play Margaret, because boy, oh, boy, they were phenomenally good. And I would love to talk to them, I think, once it’s all done, once we’ve shot everything, I would absolutely love to go out with those two and have dinner and talk about our three Margarets, because they are three Margarets — it’s not three actresses trying to be the same Margaret. But there’s no point in me copying what they did. It wouldn’t be useful, or indeed, the job description. I’m cast to give Lesley Manville’s version of Princess Margaret. And so that’s what I’ve done. But I take my hat off to both of them. They were phenomenal.
How did you prepare for the role?
Staunton: You [look at] footage, you do research, you read, you watch, you do all those things that are absolutely necessary and just steep yourself in that. I started working on her voice back in 2019, all those things that just slowly start cooking quietly. So it’s a long process. It would have been much more frightening if [the producers] had said, “Will you do it, and we start on Monday?” I think. So I had a lot of time.
Pryce: And there’s a whole team, as well, behind us to help us maintain that characterization. You have voice coaches and movement coaches, and people who advise you things that either may or may not do. What’s been great to discover is the economy of their movement and how little they actually do. On the first day of filming, when we had a dinner or lunch party scene, and both of us thanked the servants for the food, and we were told “No, no, no, no, no, you don’t thank anybody.” So for an actor working within those parameters, it’s a wonderful discipline.
Lesley, Helena Bonham Carter said she spoke to people who knew Margaret — did you go down the same route?
Manville: Helena is related somewhere down the line, I think the Bonham Carters were cousins or something like that [Bonham Carter’s uncle once dated Margaret]. So no, I don’t have quite such a pedigree, unfortunately. But I did know people [who knew her], because Margaret was very interested in the arts, she went to the theatre a lot, she was a patron of the Royal Ballet, she moved in those circles so I do know people who met her and of course, they’ve all told me their experiences and their stories of her. And she seemed to me like somebody — from listening to them — that was very candid, she wouldn’t hold back on her thoughts and feelings about productions or individuals’ performances, she was incredibly outspoken, but she was also a great deal of fun. So my research was primarily looking at her, looking at footage, reading the books and the wealth of stuff, but you can’t be too religious about that. You have to do it and it’s enjoyable to do it but you kind of have to let it sink in, do its job and then my job takes over, which is the acting.
Imelda, when you put on the costume, particularly if you were wearing a crown, did you find people reacting to you differently?
Staunton: No, I didn’t notice that. But, again, I don’t imagine the Queen or the royal family notice it. I didn’t get to the front of the lunch queue, if that’s what you’re asking.
Lesley, in addition to the immediate royal family, Margaret’s children are also still alive. Did knowing that they might watch it inhibit you in any way?
Manville: No, it actually doesn’t inhibit me at all. But I think that we’re very sensitive to the royal family. I can see nothing on the page or what we’ve done that would be — I’m sure Margaret’s children know that their mum liked to have a nice time, she liked to party, she liked to sing and mess around. I’m representing her hopefully sensitively and truthfully, underneath the umbrella of it being a drama, let’s not forget.
Were there any real-life royal episodes you were hoping Peter might write into the series for you to enact?
Staunton: No. Because one knows that they can’t do everything because this is a sort of stock cube, if you like, of the last — whether it’s a decade or shorter than that, or slightly longer than that — so they can’t tick every single box. Also, Peter Morgan has obviously got a huge affection for this family having done the film “The Queen,” then “The Audience,” then “The Crown.” I don’t think he would have bothered to keep going if he wasn’t quite emotionally, I think, involved with it.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
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