Today, Netflix’s hotly anticipated new series “The Crown” (from creator Peter Morgan, “The Queen”) pulls back the curtain on the British royal family.
Season 1 opens in the year 1947, as a young Elizabeth II, (Claire Foy, who also played British royalty in the role of Anne Boleyn in BBC 2’s “Wolf Hall”) weds Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith, the Eleventh Doctor on “Dr. Who”).
But their honeymoon phase is cut short by the subsequent death of Elizabeth’s father, King George VI (Jared Harris, “Mad Men”) after which Elizabeth, at only 25 years old, ascends to the throne.
Foy’s and Smith’s performances as young newlyweds whose world is turned upside down serve to humanize Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth, who in real life are notoriously reserved.
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We spoke with the two stars about the challenges of playing royalty and how there won’t be much “rumpy pumpy” between the on-screen couple.
It must be nerve wracking playing these two iconic figures. Did you grow up watching Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip?
Claire Foy: When you live in England, they’re very much in your lives. There are different points of the year — the Christmas speech, the jubilee — you get used to the celebrations. Harry and William, especially, is our generation. My mom really identified with Diana.
So, you do grow up with an awareness of them, but not an awareness of them when they’re younger, or knowing what their early married life was like, as she [Princess Elizabeth] came to the throne, or all the struggles that we fictionally believe they had. You do sort of have to forget everything you know, and not put that on it in a negative way. It gives you the distance to not judge them, to see them as just human beings and try to put them in the context of your life.
Do you think that they’ll watch it?
Foy: They’ll definitely be aware of it. But, we’ll never know [if they watch it], is the answer, because they’ll never say.
Matt Smith: Too inscrutable.
You really humanized the characters—the struggle of Elizabeth being only 25 years old and having her world turned upside down.
Foy: It’s the script and the reality of their situation. You can’t help but be moved by it and feel sympathy for the situation and the struggles they’re going through.
Smith: You can’t help but empathize. It sort of makes it almost, much less glamorous, even though it’s a very glamorous world. You understand what they’re going through, that they’re just very human, and they’re trying to deal with this very, oddly, inhumane situation.
Prince Philip’s role is very complex—in that era, for a man to be subservient to his wife.
Smith: Yes, absolutely, I think that was very difficult for him, with his great love and affection that he has towards Elizabeth, being emasculated after the death of King George — because from that point on, he had to walk two steps behind her the whole time. I think that was a very difficult concept for him to negotiate — you know, being asked to kneel to his wife. These are things that in the context of the 1950s were unheard of with men.
We read that it’s going to be very PG-13 between your characters.
Foy: Oh, there’s no rumpy pumpy. No one wants to see that. [cracks up]
Smith: No hanky panky. [laughs]
Foy: It’s not that it’s meant to be massively respectful, or anything…
Smith: It’s just not a part of the story that you really need to see the Queen and Philip, you know. But, hopefully one gets the impression that that’s part of their relationship, because you see enough intimacy.
Foy: It’s sort of a thing now, when you watch TV drama, you think that’s what you’re going to see. It’s just not that sort of show. But it’s definitely implied.
This is the second time you’ve played Queen of England, essentially.
Foy: Well, yes. Anne [Boleyn] wasn’t technically queen, she was queen consort, while Elizabeth is very much on her own. I don’t know how that’s happened. I don’t think they’re particularly similar. I don’t know what on earth I’m doing playing royalty. It’s a bit peculiar.
And you’ve put to bed the rumors of ever returning to 'Dr. Who'?
Smith: [The show is called] “Peter Tardis” now [smirks]. It will always hold an affectionate place in my heart.
Foy: You’re very busy.
Smith: Yes, I’m trying to be Prince Philip again. Can’t be masquerading as a time traveler! One of the attractive things about this show, really, was that it was so different from that sort of character [on ‘Dr. Who’]. Not to say that I don’t miss it.