Imagine your first memories – your first instances of recognizing that you are conscious – and they are of bustling butlers, chauffeurs, servants laying grand tables for heads of state, and manicured palace grounds. And your family? Well, your family members are some of the most famous and important people on the planet. It would all seem very normal. Until it doesn’t.
As Helena Bonham Carter – who plays Princess Margaret in the new season of Netflix’s The Crown – pointed out in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, “They didn’t choose this life. When you see things from their point of view, you see that it’s a ridiculous job, what they’re asked to do. Maybe I’m too reactionary, but I’ve become very sentimental about them.”
Of the elite few who are born into the roles they must hold for a lifetime, the British royal family lives under a microscope. The access, the privilege, and the wealth they possess place them in a rarefied realm. What The Crown does so well is pull back the curtain on their lives. Their interpersonal relationships and even existential crises are presented with empathy and nuance. This has a lot to do with the magnificent script developed by showrunner Peter Morgan and the incredible cast that portrays these very public figures. Season three, which drops on Netflix today, has leapt ahead in years and turned over a whole new cast playing older versions of the royals.
When Netflix flew us to London to interview said new cast, there was a lot of real and surreal mileage to cover. Not only were we granted the presence of Josh O’Conner (who plays Prince Charles with tremendous pathos), Erin Doherty (who plays Princess Anne with verve and nerve), and Tobias Menzies (who is uncanny as Prince Philip), but also Oscar winner Olivia Colman (who plays Queen Elizabeth II with rigid grace), and Helena Bonham Carter (who illuminates her role as Princess Margaret). Below are some of the most interesting things we gleaned from our conversations with them.
Animals Helped Them in an Unexpected Way
No, we’re not talking about the Queen’s corgis or her famous love for horses. Instead, we’re talking about Polly Bennett, the professional movement coach, who assigned each of them an animal in order to help them work out the physicality of their characters.
O’Connor said, “Polly gave me a tortoise to help me figure out Prince Charles. It’s in the way [a tortoise] retracts its head or has a lowered gaze that helped me the most. Also, he always tucks his hands in his pockets, like he’s not sure what to do with them.”
Similarly, Carter shared her animal, saying, “I was given a bird of prey. The back of [Princess Margaret’s] head is further back than normal, which gives her a wider perspective of the room. She was always very aware of what’s going on around her. And if you think about it, attack is the best form of defense, so she was ready to strike when she needed to.”
Pronunciation Is Key
Beyond movement coaches, one of the most integral parts of playing their roles came with ample help from the voice department. To capture the specific language and posh pronunciation of the royals, the actors’ every word was carefully monitored.
“It’s a massive part of the job, isn’t it,”shared Menzies. “It’s quite technical in a way most people wouldn’t consider. You have to sound and look the part, but you can’t be cosmetic. You have to be natural. If you’re too aware of the voice or movement, it takes you out of the story. It’s an odd sort of pitch to find.”
“Some of the enunciations come from influences I don’t know or wasn’t familiar with,” said Colman. “Initially it sounds f***ing mental, but it’s like learning any new accent – you do get into it.”
Doherty had similar insights, saying, “I knew I had to get the voice right. You can tell a lot about someone by their voice because it’s linked to our emotions much more than we realize. Princess Anne pushes her voice down quite a lot, so I feel like that was her being forced into a situation she didn’t want to be in and feeling quite constricted, so I used that vocally.”
The Shipping Forecast Made a Secret Appearance
The shipping forecast might sound like we’re referring to an obscure indie band, but no, we mean the actual daily shipping forecast. This humdrum broadcast by BBC Radio actually helped Colman get through some of her most difficult emotional scenes – and there are quite a few in season three. One, in particular, is a painful conversation she has with Princess Margaret in one the season’s most heartbreaking episodes. In order to keep from tearing up or emoting, Colman secretly had the shipping forecast playing in her ears.
“It was a necessary thing to do,” she confessed. “Helena would have to say terribly sad things to me. And the Queen wouldn’t react the way I normally would, which would be to cry. The Queen is much stronger and better at keeping her emotions in check. It was my first ever scene with the Helena Bonham Carter and I have earplugs listening to the shipping forecast!” Menzies chimed in, “I was listening to God Save the Queen by Sex Pistols.”
They Had Fun Between Takes
Although the atmosphere was tense and often stern onscreen, it was completely different between takes. “Method actors are quite few and far between, so it wasn’t like any of us were staying strictly in character when the cameras weren’t rolling,” Colman shared.
“Yes, we kept it lo-fi,” added Menzies. “Everyone was pretty relaxed, we were really just mucking about between takes.”
“Because we all work in the same way,” Colman concluded. “In the moment, we’re so enjoying working together. When they say ‘cut’, we mess around and have a lovely time.”
The Characters Teach Them
While you might expect that growing up in the UK would lend them innate knowledge of the extracurricular circumstances on the show, both O’Connor and Doherty confessed they knew little about the history of Britain or the royal family before joining the cast. “I didn’t know anything about Prince Charles, but when we started the show, you realize that they’re in our consciousness to some extent because they’re so present in the media. They’re hard to miss.”
Doherty agreed, saying, “It’s subconsciously fed into you, but still, I didn’t know anything about it. I learned so much from [Morgan’s] script and doing my own research.”
Others learned personal lessons from their characters. “Sometimes, you play people and they give you gifts, it’s sort of like having a baby,” said Carter. “Margaret is teaching me how to use silence. She’s very economic in everything the she does. She’s brilliantly self-edited, just utterly interior.”
Beyond her personal connection to Margaret, Carter points out that the royal family at large has helped give the British an identity. “If you think about it, the Queen’s consistency and continuity has given us a lot psychologically and symbolically. The show is beneficial in showing that. Peter takes these people that are institutions and works out the humanity behind them.”
They Feel Empathetic Towards Their Characters
“Imagine if your mum was the queen and you just want to hug your mum, but you can’t… because she’s the queen,” said O’Connor. “Sometimes, it’s hard to distinguish between what’s empathy and what’s a natural similarity, but I did empathize with Charles once I got to know him.”
Doherty felt a bond with Princess Anne as well, saying, “I feel really separate from her on a lot of levels, but where I latched on is her being thrown into this crazy world where she’s being launched into society. I can relate to that in respect to being on The Crown, from being an actress in this. Now I’m acting across from Olivia Colman and it’s crazy. I feel the surrealness of that.”
Carter shared wisdom on Princess Margaret gleaned from spending time with her friends and loved ones. “If the Queen is the good one, there has to be a bad one, and [Margaret] was the bad one. But I feel she was horribly misinterpreted in the press. To be that public daily and to go through your own emotional problems, like grieving a relationship coming to an end, you’re going to have off days. She wasn’t rude, she just couldn’t pretend. She was indelibly herself.”
She ticked off Margaret’s best qualities, listing, “She was very loyal to her sister. She loved meeting people, she had real interests, she was intellectual and artistic. She was genuinely musical – she could sit down and play anything. She wasn’t this anemic figure. She had a lot of dynamism, color, talent, brains. And she was fun.”
They (Really) Hope the Royal Family Doesn't Watch the Show
It’s tricky playing both a person who is still alive and one who has been interpreted by many actors before. Colman was practical with her position, stating, “It is an acting job, and it is a dramatization of what we can’t possibly know behind closed doors. You have to forget that people might judge or that they might be watching. I don’t think you could do this job if you thought about that all the time. The job is to commit, give to it and try to do the job you were employed to do.”
But she followed that up quickly with a confession.
“Beyond that, I don’t want to imagine them watching. God, I hope they don’t watch it.”
Season three of The Crown airs on Netflix MENA on November 17, 2019.