by Damon Wise
Inspired by UK playwright Peter Morgan’s critically acclaimed 2013 play The Audience—which enjoyed a brief but successful Broadway run in 2015—The Crown proved a surprise hit for Netflix when the series debuted in November of last year. Starting with the marriage of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II to Prince Philip in 1947, a scant few years before her coronation at the age of 25 in 1952, the 10-part first season served as an origin story for the world’s longest reigning monarch.
It also offered an introduction to actress Claire Foy, who—along with co-stars John Lithgow, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Matt Smith, as her husband Prince Philip—received glowing reviews for her performance, which earned her a Golden Globe just over two months after Season 1 aired. In December, the story will continue, acquainting Her Majesty with dangerous affairs in the Middle East and a more embarrassing scandal closer to home.
How did this part come to you?
It started the usual way – I got sent the script. It was slightly tempered by the fact that I was five months pregnant at the time [in the fall of 2014]. So when my agent mentioned it, I was like, “Do you really think I want to have a three-month-old baby and do a nine-month TV series while I play The Queen of England? Are you insane?” [laughs] So I was reticent about it. But my agent said, ‘They just want to talk to you.”
So I went, and it was nice, and they said, “Would you mind coming back and maybe doing a test?” I thought I’d have to go to LA, because it was Netflix, so I said, “Well, that’s not going to happen, because I can’t fly anymore,” but they said, “No, we can do it in London.” So I went back, and Stephen Daldry and I went over a few different scenes. Then they said, “Do you want to do it?” So it was a bit of an odd experience because at no point did I really consider it a serious possibility. And at no point did I really think that I would be who they were looking for.
What were they looking for in your audition? Were they looking for somebody with a strong resemblance to The Queen?
No. Well, we did do a costume fitting, but obviously, with a giant baby bump it was hilarious, because I was wearing a gown and a wig and a crown—I looked like a pregnant toddler. I think, knowing them now, they just wanted someone to discover [the part] with. It was very open. Maybe because I was pregnant, I was just very relaxed. Then, in November, they told me that I’d got it, and we started shooting in the July the following year. We knew that it was commissioned for two series from the off, and that we’d shoot all 10 episodes in one fell swoop. There was going to be no pilot.
What kind of research did you do?
Oh God. I can’t really remember. I think I did what I usually do, which is to buy thousands of documentaries and watch them all, because you can pretend it’s work. And then I got loads of books and read them. Actually, I had a very long time to get used to the idea of playing the Queen. I’ve never really had that before, actually—that expanse of time to get into character. Then we started working with a voice coach, William Conacher, who’s a genius—we couldn’t have made The Crown without him. It all happened very slowly, which was probably a benefit. There was no pressure to make any sudden, mad choices.
How do you approach playing such a famous real-life character?
You just have to take a step back from it. It’s an exercise in not jumping ahead of yourself and second-guessing every decision that you make—you have to try to go slowly, and not overwhelm yourself. I don’t really know what I do when I approach a character, apart from just try to get to know them and understand them. For the Queen, I just felt like there was a huge hook for me in the fact that she lost her father when she was very young. Just as a person, I was thinking how that must have felt, and how lonely she must have felt, and how scary. Then all of a sudden you’ve got the biggest responsibility of your life, and the one person that you want to help you isn’t there anymore.
What kind of conversations did you have with The Crown’s writer, Peter Morgan?
Peter had written every single script by then, and by the time we’d finished Season 1, he’d finished Season 2 as well. He’d written everything. Obviously, Peter comes from a theater background as well, so he works in a very different way, in the sense that if he’s watching the rushes and he sees something he likes, or he doesn’t like, he will alter it and move things around to enhance the story. He’s always thinking of ways to spice things up, or approach a scene from a different angle if it’s not working. And as an actor, that’s amazing, because you know that there’s someone somewhere who’s paying attention.
What’s the appeal of Peter Morgan’s writing?
I think he’s incredibly intelligent about the ways in which people communicate, and it’s not about what we say—it’s about our actions, and our choices, and also how we hurt each other. I think the undercurrent of a lot of his writing is about how we can be careless without realizing it. The scenes are so full because they aren’t written just to make the story move on, they’re about people being in a room, battling to get to…well, God knows where. There’s always an element of not knowing where the character’s going to go. And sometimes I don’t think he even knows.
In the UK at least, there was a sharp intake of breath when the project was announced, and it does go into some deeply personal areas of the Queen’s life. Were you ever nervous about that?
No. If I hadn’t read the script I would think, Oh my God, that sounds like walking into a pit of fire. Why would anybody want to do that? I wouldn’t have touched it with a bargepole. But then you read Peter’s script and you just go, Well it’s not like that at all. It’s not what you’d imagine, it’s not that kind of salacious biopic. You’re reading it and you’re going, Oh my God, this actually happened. And it just carries you along with it. I thought I’d be an idiot not to dive in.
Did you ever use Peter as a resource during the shoot?
Yeah, definitely. I would say to him, “I don’t think this is right,” and he would say, “Well, it is.” But he would take what I’d said on board, and he’d think about it, and sometimes he might say, “Well, let’s do it a different way, and then we’ll see in the edit.” It was the same with the directors. There was always a conversation.
Can you think of a specific example of a point where you said you thought something was wrong or needed clarification?
I remember one time when me and Matt were about to shoot a scene where we had to have an argument about the coronation. We really struggled with the intellectual argument of it. We were asking, “Are we acting them as a married couple, or are we acting them as the Queen and her consort? Who are we being?” Because in the end, we wanted it to be just a husband and a wife having a row, without bringing God, and all of the royal family, or an orb and a scepter into it. It diminishes it. You can’t run away from the reality of their life, although I think sometimes we wanted to, because it would—ever so slightly—have made our choices a bit easier. But we never took the easy route, I don’t think. As a team, I think we always said, “Fine, we’ll do it.” And the show’s the better for it.
Were you surprised when the show was such an instant hit?
God, yeah. I mean, we knew Netflix wanted it to have a broad appeal, be something that lots of people could watch. But I think we thought that it would mostly attract the kinds of people who would be inclined to watch a period drama or a program about the royal family. I was just shocked about the breadth of the audience and the different people who were watching it. Like 10-year-olds, and 25-year-old men—not really who I’d thought would be the target audience for it. But it was coming at people from all angles—like, their mums would tell them to watch it, or their children would tell them to watch it. That’s a very rare thing in this industry, and I feel very lucky that I’ve been part of something that people genuinely talk to each other about. It’s lovely.
It seems like it was only a matter of weeks between the show airing and you winning a Golden Globe for your performance.
I know! It was mental. Absolutely blooming mental. I suddenly found myself in a very odd situation, and I was thinking, This is strange. Six months ago, I would not have been here.
What can you say about the second season of The Crown? Obviously, there won’t be any bombshells because it’s based on a true story.
[Laughs] No, look on Wikipedia.
Do you have any particular memories from shooting that second leg?
Oh God, so many. It’s sad because people go and people come. There’s no John Lithgow this time—you have prime ministers coming and going, which is sad because you have to say goodbye to another actor. But we all went through the whole thing together, at the same time, so me and Matt just became terribly close through the whole thing. I always will love doing scenes with him. We just became even more of a family. It wasn’t like they were forcing people to come back to work—people genuinely wanted to come and make it again, and that was before we even knew it had been a success. Before it had even come out, people had signed up for another nine months of the same thing.
What’s next for you?
I’m in Andy Serkis’s new film, Breathe, which comes out in October, and I’m dead proud of that, so that’ll be lovely. And this is absolutely ridiculous what I’m about to say next: I’m doing a film with Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling—in October, as well—where I play Janet Armstrong. It’s called First Man. [laughs] I’ll probably be struck by a bolt of lightning before then, but apparently, that’s happening.