Before the writers of The Crown dove into the romance of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed for season six (Part 1 of which is currently streaming on Netflix), the creators built up a narrative around the film producer’s life as the son of billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed. For many, it was their first glimpse into who Fayed was outside of his highly publicized relationship with Diana.
“One of the first questions I asked was, ‘What did he sound like?'” actor Khalid Abdalla, who portrays Fayed in seasons five and six of The Crown, tells The Hollywood Reporter in the conversation below. (Elizabeth Debicki portrays Princess Diana and Salim Daw plays Mohamed Al-Fayed.) “With the incredible hunt of the research team, they found one piece of footage that exists: Audio of him calling into Larry King Live while Burt Reynolds was being interviewed to ask him to do an impression. It’s 17 seconds of him speaking.”
More from The Hollywood Reporter
From there, Abdalla spoke with friends of Fayed’s and read the few articles that exist on him to craft his image of the man who died in a car crash with the Princess of Wales in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997. For him, putting a face, a sound, and attributing mannerisms and a personality to Fayed — who’s death was largely overshadowed by the national mourning for Diana — was about more than doing justice to his personal legacy. It was about showing that the lives of Muslim-Arab men matter.
“When I ask myself as a man who shares his heritage, how many films can I think of in which Arab characters have been known a little, loved a little? And if they’ve died, [been] mourned? I can barely think of any,” says Abdalla. “And when you think of the number who’ve died and been killed in wars over my lifetime — that alone, plus my father’s and my grandfathers — it tells you something about our cultural and political imagery that is particularly resonant right now. And it’s one of the things that makes me incredibly proud of this work.”
What did preparing to portray Dodi look like, given there’s so little information about him compared to the plethora of archival footage that exists on the royal family?
Right from the beginning when we started season five, one of the first questions I asked was, “What did he sound like?” And with the incredible hunt of the research team, they found one piece of footage that exists: Audio of him calling into Larry King Live while Burt Reynolds was being interviewed to ask him to do an impression. It’s 17 seconds of him speaking.
From there, of course, there was talking to friends and some articles when you dig deep into Google. But you start kind of unraveling, in a fascinating way, who he was and the core dynamics of his life, particularly in relation to his father and his mother. And you deconstruct this word, “playboy,” which is a huge injustice, I think, to him and to who he was and how he was in the world. He was kind of like a gentle, shy soul who was in no way a Hugh Hefner. He was a kind of vulnerable soul. He wanted to hug and he wanted to mend. And I think he probably had a lot of relationships where he was good at falling in love, but not so good at the hard stuff. And then you happen to have a lot of money, so the word “playboy” starts to stick to you.
But with research, I began to understand some element of what felt, to me, like a reflection of his soul. And that began to inform everything, including some of the arc going forward into season six. I’ve always said that our job is not to answer questions; it’s to ask them as intensely as possible. But on that journey, you also find things which tether you.
What did you make of his relationship with Princess Diana?
One of the things, for example, that tethered me in relation to Diana was the CCTV footage at the back of the Ritz, where you see them holding each other in such a tender way for seven minutes, holding hands behind their backs in a way that is so gentle with just some very soft caressing. There was a tenderness, there was a falling in love of some kind.
One of the big things I did for season six —and I don’t know why no one’s done this as far as I know — is that I gathered as many of the photos with the research team as I could of Dodi and Diana and I put them in chronological order. And when you put them in chronological order, it tells a story. And you’re kind of like, “Ah, that’s the moment when things shifted.” You also begin to feel the hounding from the media and you begin to feel all of these things. But the real key is finding that soul energy. There’s a resonant frequency from which you can explore. And then with the team, and obviously with Elizabeth [Debicki] who’s just extraordinary, we explored that. We were in the same places as they were and the filming, in some ways, for me, that was also an act of research.
Mohamad Al-Fayed was always seeking acceptance from the British and that then became Dodi’s plight as a result. What does it mean to shed a light on who Dodi was outside of that gaze?
Dodi is a figure who, for 26 years, despite the fact that he’s been in the public eye — on supermarket shelves and magazines and whatever else — people don’t really know anything about. Why is that question not being asked for 26 years? That hurts.
One of the things I’m most proud of is that, finally, after 26 years, he will be known a little, and hopefully loved a little. And finally, after 26 years, he can be mourned. When I ask myself as a man who shares his heritage, how many films can I think of in which Arab characters have been known a little, loved a little? And if they’ve died, [been] mourned? I can barely think of any. And when you think of the number who’ve died and been killed in wars over my lifetime — that alone, plus my father’s and my grandfathers — it tells you something about our cultural and political imagery that is particularly resonant right now. And it’s one of the things that makes me incredibly proud of this work.
In turn, I also feel a debt of gratitude in some ways to Diana as well, because it’s something about her gaze. She clearly fell in love with people’s souls, not the color of their skin. And, somehow, that’s the reason I’m here. That’s an energy that only some people carry, and some people get to shine a light through. And I think that’s part of the reason that people loved her all over the world.
The Crown releases Part 2 of season six Dec. 14 on Netflix. Follow along with THR’s coverage.
Best of The Hollywood Reporter