By Pierra Calasanz-Labrador
Queen Elizabeth II’s story has been portrayed on screen countless times, but no production has captivated audiences across the world quite as much as Peter Morgan’s The Crown on Netflix. The award-winning TV series has all the elements of a binge-worthy drama—politics, power play, romance, intrigue, and scandal—and to top it off, it’s based on actual events. We’ve always been fascinated by monarchy—British monarchy, in particular—and what makes this series so compelling is the way it humanizes fairy tale royals like never before. So when Netflix invited The Manila Bulletin to London for the press premiere of The Crown’s Season Two, I gamely packed my bags and told my friends I was off to visit the (TV) queen.
I was lucky to jet into London just as it gussied up for the holidays: Streets glimmered with fairy lights, and public spaces came alive with carnival rides, skating rinks, and Christmas markets. There’s no shortage of culture and entertainment—awe-inspiring museums, shop-lined streets, lively pubs, bookstores, and theater productions at the famed West End, for starters. Cosmopolitan, hip, and gothic all at once, London seems like one giant movie set, except that all these iconic landmarks are real and steeped in history: from Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben (currently under renovation) to the Tower Bridge, London Eye, and beautiful parks resplendent in the fall.
When you’re used to seeing Claire Foy (Queen Elizabeth), Matt Smith (Prince Philip), and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret) in royal regalia, watching them walk down the red carpet in modern finery is an event in itself. A crowd of fans gathered outside the Odeon in Leicester Square for the Season 2 press premiere, and the stars gamely indulged them with selfies and autographs as they made their way to the theater.
Inside, we were treated to a preview of the first two episodes of Season 2: riveting stuff, I am happy to report. While Season 1 closes with Princess Margaret being denied permission to marry Captain Peter Townsend and Prince Philip sailing off on a five-month tour, Season 2 opens with one of the most quietly dramatic scenes to date (I won’t spoil it for you). What I can tell you though is that this season kicks off with the 1956 Suez Canal crisis, and leads up to the retirement of Prime Minister Harry McMillan, following the Profumo affair political scandal in the early 1960s, and also focuses more on the men in the Queen’s life: Prince Philip and Prince Charles. In one episode, we even get a fascinating glimpse of American president John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, another “royal” couple in the world’s eyes.
Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown
Royal cravings The Crown’s Matt Smith (Prince Philip), director Stephen Daldry, Claire Foy, creator Peter Morgan, and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret) at the Season 2 premiere
Matt Smith and Claire Foy
Vanessa Kirby, AKA Princess Margaret
Billy Jenkins, who plays a young Prince Charles
Ben Miles, AKA Group Captain Peter Townsend
The author just before the interview
Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park
Palace of Westminster
Meeting ‘Princess Margaret’
Bold, impulsive, and fashion-forward Princess Margaret is a favorite of viewers, and she is convincingly—and wonderfully—portrayed onscreen by talented English actress Vanessa Kirby, who is ravishing in the flesh. I met Kirby for our interview at the elegant Corinthia Hotel. Describing her character, Kirby shares, “She’s so essentially royal—I think Margaret is the grandest of all of them—she was essentially a princess and behaved in that way, and yet she was the one who wanted to escape it the most. And having that internal conflict, I think, makes a great character and a very realistic human. So it was amazing to try and investigate that and sort of somehow make her real.” Knowing very little about Margaret before taking on the role, Kirby tried to tap into Margaret’s inner pain. “It was really important to try and work out the wounds that she took, really, and whether she was able to heal from them or not.”
This season, Princess Margaret finds a new love in Antony Armstrong-Jones, AKA Lord Snowdon. The rakishly handsome society photographer is played to perfection by Matthew Goode (Downton Abbey, The Good Wife, and who can forget Chasing Liberty?). “He was magic,” Kirby enthuses. “It was a long search to find Tony; the difficulty was that Margaret kept eating everybody for breakfast—not me at all, it was very much her—and it was really important that whoever Tony was, he was the first person in her life that made her feel genuinely uncomfortable and out of her depth. He’s the first person that unnerves her, and so we had to find a person that does that, and Matthew is very unnerving! He’s so brilliant and he has got this presence—he’s eccentric and unique, and we had so much fun.”
It’s All Bizarre
Now that Kirby (along with her co-stars) will be making way for an entirely new cast for Season 3, she shares, “[It’s] a bit of the end of an era because it was the happiest time of my life. I honestly feel like it’s such a gift of a part and it’s rare for a woman to have such a good part—for both Claire and me.” While she would’ve given anything to continue playing a “harder, tougher” Margaret in her later years, Kirby’s star is rising in Hollywood, and she’s set to appear in the new Mission: Impossible 6.
When asked if her own brush with scandal (she was linked to Tom Cruise earlier this year) informed her of her role, she replied: “I hadn’t even met Tom Cruise at that point; the only good thing to come of it was that my friends don’t believe anything they read anymore. It was so ridiculous; I haven’t had a relationship for years and it was very private, so that felt odd. The only similarities to Margaret is that, I suppose, you see in an episode that she is hounded by paparazzi, sort of a precursor to Diana, and it’s this strange time we’re living in where people can literally just make things up. I mean, I’m [supposedly] married as well, which is really weird—I didn’t like it and I just tried to ignore it.” Will she be playing the villain in M:I6? “Um… sort of? It’s always best to the baddie, isn’t it,” she teases.
On The Crown’s phenomenal success: “I didn’t think people would connect with it as much as they have. Honestly, I thought my mum would like it and that’s it… Two weeks before the show came out, we did a screening in New York and in the morning, [The Crown creator] Peter Morgan rang me, and he said, ‘I just want you to be aware that this is odd, I’ve never experienced it in all my career, where people from all different places, ages, genders, nationalities are connecting with it. I don’t know why, and we didn’t expect it.’” Attempting to wrap her head around its success, she muses, “I think it’s innately fascinating because it’s so bizarre. It’s such an alien world, isn’t it, to us? We perceive it to be privileged, but you’re born into [royalty] and you literally don’t have a choice. When you become an astronaut, you train because you know it’s a passion, but to inherit a job because your uncle abdicated, your father dies prematurely, and then you have a sister and you happen to be born four years after… it’s just bizarre, how can it not be a human story and a fascinating one? But it is very much a family drama.”
The Royal Couple
While we were in London for The Crown, church bells rang to celebrate the 70th wedding anniversary of (the real) Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.The gorgeously radiant Claire Foy, who plays The Crown’s Queen Elizabeth with a steely, determined grace, shares,“I find it really amazing and beautiful and serendipitous and coincidental.” After all, it began in a love marriage and they’ve remained each other’s “sounding board,” despite the incredible pressure largely due to the weight of the crown. Matt Smith, who is rockstar charismatic in jeans and a T-shirt, attests, “I think it’s this wonderful romantic serendipity—if you look at them now, yes, we’ve shone a light on very difficult [times]… as any marriage would endure that has lasted that long… but look at them, they look terribly happy.”
Season 2 hints at Prince Philip’s indiscretions and when asked about his thoughts, Smith reacts, ““Going for the jugular! Well I don’t believe we did see him philander… I think with any story that’s based in historical fact, it’s your duty as a dramatist to shine a light on the things that are perhaps uncomfortable for a nation and an audience. I think [creator] Peter Morgan does that with grace and skill, and it’s our duty to tell the truth about the situation. We’re not saying it’s one thing or the other, but we’re allowing you to decide.”
Just how factual is the show? Foy reveals, “Everything comes from research. That’s why the show is so interesting: Peter knows who is where and what time in what country at what point of the day and when these events happened. He doesn’t know what was said, but that is why his writing is so amazing—he’s able to piece all that together, with all distinct voices, as well. He’s extraordinary, really.”
Smith was a fan favorite when he played the 11th incarnation of the doctor in the British sci-fi TV program Doctor Who, and when asked if Prince Philip and the doctor have anything in common, Smith gamely replied: “Yup, they’re both aliens in their own environment. They’re both outsiders. They’re both going against the grain. They’re both reckless, doing what they want, when they want, how they want. They never ask for permission.” Portraying the dashing yet emasculated Prince Philip has endeared Smith to the real Duke of Edinburgh (who has reportedly never seen an episode of The Crown, in case you were curious). “I feel like I understand him more, and I’m very fond of him, emotionally. I defend him to the hilt.”
Meanwhile, Foy shares, “My understanding of [Queen Elizabeth] now is not as a monarch, it’s as a human being, and it’s also an affectionized version of her. I do know the facts of her life more than I ever have before, and it’s given me the opportunity to sit down and really think about what this woman has felt in her life, and I hope that’s what the show does, is that you mustn’t take these people for granted, generally.” Having stepped into her sensible heels, if only for a while, Foy shares, “They work really hard. It’s sort of like [when we’re asked], what’s it like to walk down the red carpet—it’s all well and good, but ultimately, it’s work. And the idea that it’s some beautiful fantasy and these people are untouched by what’s happening in their lives… it doesn’t sit well with me.”
“It’s not a fairy tale,” Smith adds.
While Foy is slated to portray the new Lisbeth Salander in upcoming Hollywood movie Girl in The Spider’s Web, she passes on the crown to Olivia Colman, who will play an older Elizabeth in Season 3. “I sort of want to be there [on set], as a fan!”
Season Two of The Crown kicks off on Dec. 8 on Netflix.