An impressive number of the royal family have assembled at England’s ancient Belvoir Castle to re-create the 1972 funeral of Edward VIII. We do not, of course, mean the royal family, but the members of Britain’s acting royalty who are portraying the clan in season 3 of Netflix’s The Crown, which launches Nov. 17 and continues to track the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Those present include Outlander alum Tobias Menzies as Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip; Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance as Philip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten; and Cinderella’s fairy godmother Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret.
During a break from shooting last December, Bonham Carter reflects on a time she met the free spirit she embodies on the streaming phenomenon. “My uncle was actually very close to her,” the actress reveals. “She was pretty scary. At one point, she met me at Windsor Castle and she said, ‘You are getting better, aren’t you?’” The princess was referring to Bonham Carter’s acting abilities. Well, “I presume that’s what she meant.”
Queen Elizabeth herself is portrayed by Olivia Colman. At the time of EW’s set visit, the actress is already a national treasure thanks to television roles on Broadchurch, Fleabag, and Peep Show. But just two months later, she’ll confirm her position as acting nobility, winning the Oscar for starring as another British monarch, Queen Anne, in The Favourite. Despite her in-demand status, Colman didn’t play hard to get when she was offered the part of the Queen for seasons 3 and 4 of the show, which are being shot back-to-back.
“I was incredibly uncool about it,” she says. “The producers went, ‘So…’ [I said,] ‘Yes! Yes! I’m really excited! Thank you very much!’ I loved the first two seasons.”
Colman is not alone. Season 1 of The Crown, which covered the years 1947–55, premiered in November 2016. Part history lesson, part classiest soap ever, the show breathed vivid life into events most people knew only from textbooks, if at all. While Netflix has not released viewing figures, there is no doubt that the first two seasons — the second of which dramatized the years 1956–64 — amassed a large audience obsessed with following the marital difficulties of Elizabeth and Philip (Claire Foy and Matt Smith) and the romantic tribulations of Margaret (Vanessa Kirby). Both seasons were nominated for a hatful of Emmys, with Foy winning for her work on the second run of shows.
But those expecting to see Foy, Smith, and Kirby in season 3 will be out of luck. Almost the entire cast is new, which represents a huge gamble on the part of Netflix. How will fans of the first two seasons feel about the characters being embodied by these different, and older, actors? What is it like for Colman to play a part so recently portrayed with such award-winning brilliance?
“It’s horrendous,” says the actress. “Everyone loves Claire Foy, so I have got the worst job in the world at the moment. You’re saying all the worst things, thanks!”
Uh-oh. Well, at least Colman doesn’t have the power to imprison pesky journalists in the Tower of London — right?
The true ruler of The Crown is showrunner, and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Peter Morgan. Just as the young Elizabeth didn’t imagine she would wind up becoming queen — that is, until Edward’s abdication put her next in line to the throne when she was 10 years old — Morgan never dreamed of becoming the monarch’s most successful chronicler. As a kid, Morgan wasn’t even interested in the royal family. “No, no, no,” he says. “It was a horrible mistake. I don’t know how we’ve ended up here.”
Let us help. Morgan’s road to the Windsors began with 2003’s Michael Sheen-starring TV movie The Deal, about the rise to power of British prime minister Tony Blair. Fascinated by Blair, Morgan then wrote 2006’s The Queen, which concerned Elizabeth’s subdued reaction to the death of Princess Diana and the PM’s attempts to prod Elizabeth into a show of mourning. Starring Sheen as Blair and Helen Mirren as the Queen, the film was a box office hit that won Mirren the Oscar and whetted Morgan’s appetite for another palace-themed project.
“I so enjoyed writing those scenes between the Queen and Blair that I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do a play about those audiences, because she’s had 13 prime ministers.” (Actually, that figure is now 14, thanks to the recent ascent of Boris Johnson.) The result, The Audience, opened in London in 2013 and later transferred to Broadway, resulting in Mirren’s Tony award. The Audience directly inspired The Crown, which Morgan initially envisioned as a film exploring the relationship between Elizabeth and Winston Churchill before it evolved into its current form.
“I thought, ‘It’s quite interesting to do a young queen, a middle-aged queen, and an old queen,’” he says. “Originally, when I went to Netflix, I was pitching it as three seasons. It just kept growing.” Morgan says he had enough material to have “easily” written three seasons starring Foy’s young queen, but he’s glad he kept it to two before changing casts. “By the time we got to the end with Claire and Matt, I think they were ready to go somewhere else,” he explains.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a royal-family story without some scandal. In March of last year, Variety reported that two Crown executive producers let slip at a conference in Jerusalem that Smith was paid more than Foy. Although one of the EPs, Suzanne Mackie, insisted that “Going forward, no one gets paid more than the Queen,” the news became a huge story. At the time, Foy told EW, “I’m surprised, because I’m at the center of it, and anything that I’m at the center of like that is very, very odd. But I’m not [surprised about the interest in the story] in the sense that it was a female-led drama. I’m not surprised that people saw [the story] and went, ‘Oh, that’s a bit odd.’”
By then, Netflix had announced the casting of Colman, whom Morgan regarded as essential to the show’s future. “Olivia Colman was a list of one,” he says. “I think I wanted to know [she would play the part] even before negotiations were done for seasons 3 and 4.” The only problem with casting Colman? Her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite would hit big screens before her turn as Queen Elizabeth arrived on small ones. “Obviously I’d have preferred her not to be playing another queen before,” says Morgan. “But it’s so different — such a different tone.”
The notable historical subjects covered in season 3 of The Crown include the 1964 discovery that the Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt was a Soviet spy, and Labour leader Harold Wilson’s rise to prime minister that same year. The show will also detail the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when an avalanche of coal waste buried a school in Wales. “I had never heard of it, which breaks my heart slightly,” Colman says of the event, which claimed the lives of 144 people, mostly children.
As for the intra-family issues explored, Morgan says the show will deal less than previous seasons have with the marriage of Elizabeth and Philip — which he believes became more settled in the ’60s after the early years of turmoil. Instead, the upcoming episodes will detail the breakdown of the union between Margaret and her photographer husband, Lord “Tony” Snowdon (Ben Daniels).
“They’re such extraordinary people,” says Daniels, “Completely addicted to each other. Even right up until the minute they were getting divorced, they still had a really strong physical relationship. People often said that it was like foreplay for them, having a big row. They would have these huge rows and then amazing sex.” Hearing this, Bonham Carter can’t resist encouraging EW readers to “try it at home!”
Season 3 also introduces adult versions of the Queen’s two eldest children, Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Anne (Erin Doherty). The relatively unknown O’Connor admits that one of the toughest challenges on set has been keeping his cool while acting with some of Britain’s most famous faces.
“I’m acting, acting, acting, and then I’m like, ‘I’m acting with Olivia Colman!’” he says. “It’s really weird.”
The season examines Charles’ youthful relationship with his future second wife, Camilla (Emerald Fennell), which began in the early ’70s, years before he met and married Diana.
“People always assume Charles cheated on Diana with Camilla,” says Morgan. “It’s absolutely the wrong way round. He was deeply in love with Camilla and forced to marry Diana.”
The Crown’s Diana is being played by Emma Corrin, but the actress will not appear on the show until season 4. By the time that season premieres, likely in 2020, Morgan will know if viewers have accepted the series’ new cast — although he doesn’t seem too worried on that score. “It’s a bit like changing contact lenses,” he says. “I think it takes you about five minutes to get used to it.”
Assuming the show does continue to reign over viewers, Morgan claims he hasn’t even begun to think of who might replace the current cast to portray the characters in seasons 5 and 6. The obvious candidate to play the Queen is, of course, Mirren, who already almost has an EGOT for her performances as Elizabeth alone. While the showrunner has not discussed the subject with the actress, he knows that Mirren is a fan. “She loves the show,” he says. “She thought there was nothing left to say, and I think she’s really surprised.”
Back at Belvoir Castle, the woman currently playing Queen Elizabeth II is, all joking aside, surprisingly calm about stepping into Foy’s shoes.
“It’s the same as any classical play you do — everyone will have already played that part before,” she says. But? “The first week, I did feel myself trying to do Claire impressions. ‘What would she have done?’”
Well, surely it makes sense for Colman’s performance in early scenes to mimic that of Foy, given season 3 basically picks up where season 2 left off. “Yes, actually. Maybe it was a stroke of genius that I was doing that,” she says, letting out a laugh Oscars viewers may fondly recall. “That’s what it was! Yes, that was preplanned!”
Anything you say, Your Majesty.
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