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Playing a real person is a daunting task for any actor but with the added pressure of playing a member of the British royal family, actor Dominic West had some reservations before he said yes to portraying the then-Prince Charles.
In season five of Netflix’s The Crown, created by Peter Morgan, West plays Charles in the years surrounding his affair and very public divorce from Princess Diana, who this season is played by Elizabeth Debicki. Imelda Staunton plays Queen Elizabeth this season, while Jonathan Pryce portrays Prince Philip.
In the process of preparing for season five, West used the various resources provided by the show to his advantage and went further by renting a cottage in Cornwall and speaking to as many people as he could who knew Charles to really get the feel of the man who would be king in the ’90s.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the actor about what it was like to channel Charles in scenes like the ones around the infamous “Tampongate” scandal, why he thinks Charles is often misjudged and what he felt when backlash was leveled against this particular season.
How did you become attached to play Prince Charles in the fifth season of The Crown?
A couple years [ago] now, Peter Morgan just got in touch and I went to see him and he said he had been picturing me playing Charles, and I was quite surprised and delighted, obviously. And I had various reservations, the usual ones. Any new role is a gamble, really. What I said to him initially was, “I don’t think I’m the right guy.” I thought about it for quite a long time and whether I knew it or not, I realized that as an actor, you live for a great part, doing it with great people and good writing, and therefore there was no way I was going to turn it down.
Not only is it a very famous role, but this season focuses on a very vital and crucial time in Charles and Diana’s life, so what kind of trepidation did you feel in taking on such a role?
Apart from it being a very successful show and following a very successful performance from Josh O’Connor, it’s subject matter and it’s a period of a life, or several lives, that was highly traumatic and tumultuous. You’ve got to take that very seriously and it’s a very, very heavy responsibility and it’s not something I could accept lightly or straight away. I sort of had to persuade myself this was something where I could justify the gravity of the role.
What kind of research and preparation went into your portrayal?
The great thing about working on The Crown is you have so much support. Apart from hair and makeup and costume, you get this extraordinary research department, which has a highly exhaustive archive of videos and books and material that you can draw from and, of course, it’s season five, so they’ve been doing it for four seasons and are very seasoned at it, so that was a huge resource. What I did, sort of initially anyway, was I went and stayed in a place in Cornwall as Charles, as Prince of Wales, was Duke of Cornwall. And so I thought I’d go somewhere that was significant to him and he’s got an estate that he’s rescued out there, and you can rent holiday cottages so I rented a cottage and just walked around there for a while and read books and thought about it. But I think one of the interesting resources I found was talking to people because he’s probably met, with his parents, more people than anyone ever, certainly more than any politician, and it’s amazing how many people from every walk of life, whether a farmer or an actor or any walk of life, actually met him or have come across him or he’s come into their lives in some way.
Is it a challenge playing someone who isn’t available to give you guidance?
You wouldn’t really expect it, and I suppose also, it’s a funny thing trying to get into a role. I think you want to be on the outside anyway. You don’t really want to be on a one-on-one with your character. You’re observing, you’re looking at someone; you’re very much a detached third party. It would be strange to become in any way involved with someone.
As you mentioned, this is a pretty tumultuous time in Charles’ life. And in the season, there are quite a few scandals that Charles goes through during your time of the portrayal, including “Tampongate.” How did you approach those scenes?
I think the point with this job is really to treat it like all those roles I play where the person is either fictional or not still around, and that’s really the only way you can you can deal with this. You can’t really think in terms of a) what the audience is going to think about it and b) you do your research, but you don’t make moral judgments. You can’t make moral judgments. You have to be on their side. You have to put yourself in their shoes and that’s the role, and so I suppose you approach them by learning all the facts around this and then using your imagination and then, which of course is handled by a really good dramatist’s imagination, to sort of imagine or really speculate on what was going on in that person’s head or what led up to any of the events, which is really what the drama in front of The Crown is all about.
That’s an interesting perspective, given that this particular moment in time made Charles pretty unlikable.
Our perspective on those events was very much shaped by the newspapers, by the media. And I felt very much that was only one side of the story. And I think one of the great things about The Crown is, or any drama, everyone gets a fair hearing because they’re being represented by actors who are concerned for their character. And I feel very — like a lot of those scandals and a lot of those stories surrounding their divorce, newspapers were being briefed by one side or the other. You weren’t getting the full picture. And I think, really, it’s probably only now with the advantage of 20 years hindsight perspective, but also the advantage of a good writer and good actors, but you get some balanced view of what went on.
Is that how you ensured your portrayal of Charles was sensitive to him and the Royal Family?
Yeah. I mean, you can’t really think in terms of, “Oh, I hope I don’t offend anyone. I hope I’m not gonna upset them.” You automatically, because it’s the part you’re playing, you sort of root for your character anyway. They become you and therefore, you love them just as much as you love yourself. And therefore the business is to empathize and sympathize with that character anyway. So if everyone’s doing that, I think you get a balanced view.
The royal family means so much to so many people, and the show is premiering a few months after the death of Queen Elizabeth. How are you dealing with the renewed interest in this subject matter?
It’s become a very sensitive issue as you know. The Queen’s death was such an emotive and epoch-changing time and I think a lot of people, myself included, and I think most of the cast felt a personal loss. I think she’d been around in all our lives for so long and represented something so permanent that when she was gone, it was a shock and a bereavement. And so you’re very conscious of that. I know Imelda felt surprised by her feelings of grief. And I think we all felt that, and it’s sort of just emphasized the necessity of taking these lives and these roles in this show very seriously and with a great deal of respect, and I thought, that’s the nature of the show anyway, so it didn’t feel when she died that there was anything we needed to change about it. There was always a deadly serious respect shown for all these characters and that event reminds us of that.
There was some speculation that the fifth season would be delayed out of respect.
There’s a period of mourning and a period of respectful reflection. But when after that is the right time? I think for a lot of people, there is never a right time for looking at these events. And I felt that two months or three months since her death, I think [it was] a decent interval of time. Particularly because when the Queen died, the show was suddenly back in the top 10 [TV shows list on Netflix], and I think a lot that showed that a lot of people were therefore going back to The Crown because of the Queen’s death and at least part of the reason for that must have been that they were seeking comfort, [or] to find out more about this amazing life.
What is one thing that you feel you learned about your character or feel differently about coming out on the other end from having portrayed them as opposed to when you first started?
I was pretty amazed at how, when I said earlier, I talked to a lot of people that had met him, I mean, that was what was astonishing, was how many people have met him, but also how many people had a positive experience and felt that he touched their lives in a positive way. And that amazed me: There’s not too many people I think you could say that about. It really struck me that, actually, that’s his job. It’s his job to meet people and to make them feel listened to in some way and that they have a voice in authority. That authority is listening to them and it never struck me that that was what the monarchy was about or what Prince Charles or King Charles was about. That is what surprised me most. And I think it’s a very conscious act on his part to do that. I think he’s, from what I have read and from what Peter writes that Prince Charles was trying to in the ’90s [and] work out what the role of the modern monarchy was, and I think we speculate, or Peter seemed to think, that that was it, that it was the role to give voice to ordinary people, to have someone meet and listen to people from all walks of life and campaign for them in a way.
I think you’re right. Even with the Queen, you hear all these amazing stories about her since she’s died.
But I think more with Charles because he wasn’t a sovereign, he wasn’t the monarch. He was able to devote his life to campaigning on the various issues he was interested in. And with The Prince’s Trust, which is one of the most amazing organizations in the world, he’s actively helped millions of young people to develop businesses and find work and that’s not something you can do as sovereign, it’s something you could do as Prince of Wales, and I think he made it his life’s mission.
At the same time, there was a little bit of backlash about the show in recent weeks, including from Judi Dench. What was your reaction to seeing that and does it come with the territory of such a show?
I think definitely. I think those people are old friends or friends of King Charles, and I think the worry is that the rest of the world might think that what Peter Morgan writes is what happened, which is why they’ve asked for a disclaimer. But I do think that [if] people think or aren’t aware that we’re actors playing roles in a drama, then I’m not sure what we can do about that. It seems very odd that people can’t discern for themselves that this is imagined speculation by a dramatist, who I think gets a lot of criticism, particularly recently because he’s so good. I think, you know, there’s dozens and dozens of films and TV shows and hundreds of books and articles about this family and about my character. None of them are really commented on except for The Crown. The reason for that must be because it feels authentic to people and because it’s good.
Are the royals supposed to be off-limits for entertainment?
That’s the question. And the answer to that is, of course they’re not off-limits. The person who wears the crown is our head of state, and the very center of our constitution and, therefore, is a completely legitimate subject for discussion, debate and dramatization and dramatists since Shakespeare and before have been interested in that person who wears the crown. I think it’s the nature of the royal family’s lives or particularly the ones who have worn or wearing or are going to wear the crown, that their lives are scrutinized from the day they’re born, and they have people writing about them every day of their life, and therefore, in no way are they off-limits.
What would you say was your most challenging scene this season?
I was really looking forward to playing polo or riding a horse or something. I mentioned [to Peter Morgan that] this is one of the most active men I think I’ve ever read about. You know, he’s spending a lot of time just talking, sitting down and talking, can we do something more active? And Peter put into draft that I am doing a thing while hedgelaying, which is quite a tricky thing to do. You have to get a great big axe and you have to cut thorn bushes and wedge them down, and it’s quite a skill, which actually Prince Charles as president of the National Hedgelaying Society is quite skilled at. But it didn’t make the rewrite. I was ready. But in terms of emotional difficulty, I’m sort of confusing it now with season six, which we’re in the middle of shooting, but I think anything where the children are involved, the responsibilities redoubled many, many times. So I think those scenes are the ones that I was conscious of having to take most seriously.
Plus, you shot on location in Mallorca, Spain.
It was wonderful. We got a week there or just over a week last year and it was fabulous. Elizabeth Debicki got six weeks this season so she’s a lucky girl. We were on a beautiful yacht sailing around the Mediterranean and I know Mallorca quite well, I’ve gone there quite a lot. That was fantastic. You can’t go to Mallorca without being on holiday.
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