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Signing on for a prestige TV project with two seasons of critical acclaim and awards sounds like a no-brainer, but it was a much more complicated prospect for the would-be royals on season three of Netflix’s The Crown. Not only would they be playing powerful real-life figures, many of whom are still alive, but they’d now have to follow in the footsteps of heralded performances created by different actors.
Ultimately, Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies joined the show as royal trio Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip, taking over their roles from seasons one and two stars Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby and Matt Smith, respectively.
“I think at first we were all quite terrified about inheriting parts from casts that were so well celebrated and loved,” Bonham Carter tells THR of her role as royal troublemaker Princess Margaret. “We thought it’s not a given that people are going to show us great warmth because they’d gotten to know Claire. They’d gotten to know Vanessa. And if you switch it, it’s … a different soul up there.”
Thanks to some convincing from creator Peter Morgan — Bonham Carter requested a script before committing; Colman did not — the newcomers knew that they weren’t hired to simply slide into someone else’s interpretation of a character. They were meant to create their own, lived-in versions of these very real people.
“As Morgan said, ‘It’s your employ to be old. It’s your age that we want. Not necessarily externally, but that too — we want the puffy, the sagging jawline — but we also want to have the internal battered bits,’ ” the 53-year-old Bonham Carter says. “No one can act bitter. No one can act the disillusion. No one can act life experience, and that’s what, hopefully, we bring to it. So it’s just a totally different era.”
For Menzies, 45, the character started with the practical — nailing Philip’s mannerisms and way of speaking — before getting to the internal mechanisms of what drives the queen’s husband.
“It started with listening to a lot of audio, watching a lot of footage, trying to get that detail so that I’m close but also natural and not too mannered or too much like an impersonation,” he tells THR.
Of course, that only provided insight into Philip’s public persona. The personal side of the character came from the writing and Menzies’ own interpretation.
“He doesn’t give very much away and he doesn’t speak personally ever, really, so it’s hard to have him on the record talking about how he feels about stuff or what sort of dad he is,” Menzies says. “Atmospherically, you do get from him emotion, I think. There’s a sort of hotness to him; compared to whenever I watch the queen, she seems a much cooler temperature. So I was keen to find moments where that comes out.”
The duo’s marriage is in a much more stable place throughout season three — “the challenges for both Elizabeth and Philip come from outside, but between each other, it seems to be a period of calm,” Menzies says — giving the actor more time to explore Philip’s inherent duality. “I think he is at times arrogant and fearsome and domineering and at other times vulnerable and wounded and sort of unmoored.”
Bonham Carter’s “exhaustive” approach was multipronged and included reading biographies, speaking with Margaret’s real-life friends and consulting her “three witches,” aka the three people she visits every time she plays a historical figure.
“My aunt is an amazing graphologist in New York. She always analyzes handwriting of well-known people whom I have to play. That always [brings a] really laser-beam perceptive. Then I have my friend who’s an amazing astrologer — I think Princess Margaret is often [part of] training for an astrologist, so she’d already done her chart: She has an inability not to say exactly what’s on her mind. That was confirmed by lots of friends. Then the famous psychic story.”
Yes — Bonham Carter met with a psychic friend before she accepted the role. The friend asked, “Margaret said to talk to you. Does this mean anything?”
It did, of course — and that was another tool the actress used to pin down a complicated, controversial and fascinating woman who she believes was misunderstood during her lifetime.
“Her close circle of friends was very happy to talk about her because they loved her, and in talking about her, it brought her back,” says Bonham Carter. “They felt that the narrative that she had in the press was so one-sided and just really relentlessly unsympathetic. People loved to hate her when she was alive, so it’s kind of time now, in death, for her to be understood. I felt very privileged, and I do feel there’s a responsibility if the person is well known to do someone justice.”
After all of the work Bonham Carter did to prepare — she even bought Margaret’s perfume — there’s still no simple distillation of the late royal, who died in 2002.
Says Bonham Carter: “The clue that Morgan gave me is that you can play a scene 10 different ways and they’d all be appropriate to her, and every time you land on some definition of her, then the opposite is true. She’s rebellious, but she was also incredibly loyal to her sister.” “She [was] constantly going from trying to be intimate and ordinary to then playing very much a high royal status card, socially. She was very ambivalent. You never knew quite who you were [dealing with], but she was very clever and she was very fun and she was very loving and she was also very distant, too.”
Most important, though, is the relationship between Margaret and her big sister, the queen.
“She absolutely adored her sister. I didn’t have many scenes with Olivia except the end scene,” Bonham Carter says, “and what’s great about season three is that you see the relationship really warming between them. They had a very close and loving and respectful relationship.”
Production on season three was well underway by the time season two premiered, and while Colman and Menzies have plenty of TV credits between them, it was a relatively new experience for Bonham Carter.
“I’ve never been on something that has shot for quite so long, but it means we have a real opportunity to get to know our characters and also each other,” she says. “In some ways, we’re better this season because it’s had time to invest, and we get to [build] the characters. It’s one of the best-run productions also — it’s a really well-run crew and set. It’s seamless. In real life when I start to reflect, I’m so appreciative of the lack of stress and the efficiency of everybody. It’s the best.”
The Crown is Bonham Carter’s first major foray into the medium, save for a couple of miniseries and early career one-off guest roles, but she’d be happy to revisit it again.
“Now we’ve got proper women and women of age on telly, so of course I’d be open to it. It all comes back to the writing, and that’s what makes me give up my life,” she says. “I go to work [because of] the writing. And you’re only as good as that, frankly.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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