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November 13, 2019

A Change In Reign

Peter Morgan’s planned shake-up of the casting for The Crown brings Olivia Colman to the throne as Elizabeth and Helena Bonham Carter to her side as stylish sister Princess Margaret.

Benji Wilson
  • Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II with Tobias Menzies as her husband, Prince Philip

    Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Colman as the queen, with her beloved corgis

    Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret

    Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency
  • Rebecca Miller /John Parkinson Agency

Her very first day on set, Olivia Colman sat down at the queen's writing desk and saw a sheet of postage stamps. There, in profile, was her own face.

"That was just… cool," she says. "I got really overexcited. I thought, 'Quick! Send a picture to my husband.' All the stuff that I'm probably not allowed to have done, I totally did it."

The producers of The Crown probably wouldn't have minded much: Colman is their prime asset. In five years she's gone from being known best as a great supporting actress (in such series as Fleabag, Broadchurch and The Night Manager) to being known as simply the best.

She won the Best Actress Oscar for The Favourite this year, and when she succeeds Claire Foy as Elizabeth Windsor — better known as Queen Elizabeth II — for the third and fourth seasons of The Crown, her career coronation will be complete. Seeing her in the lead, it's hard to imagine how the producers could have thought of anyone else. In fact, they didn't.

"Olivia was not just our first choice, she was our first thought," says Andy Harries, one of the seven executive producers of The Crown, a coproduction of Left Bank Pictures and Sony Television for Netflix. (His fellow EPs are Peter Morgan, Suzanne Mackie, Stephen Daldry, Benjamin Caron, Matthew Byam Shaw and Robert Fox.)

"We rang up her agent and asked if she would like to meet Peter Morgan [also creator–writer] and me for a cup of tea. We went to the Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, London, and as we arrived, she was already sitting at the table. As we sat down, she went, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' so it wasn't that difficult, really. She's one of the greatest actors of our generation — there's no question about that."

It is typical of Colman that when she hears that story, she grins nervously and virtually ingests herself with embarrassment. "Ah, yes. I think I was meant to be cooler than I was. No one told me you're meant to go, 'I don't know…. I'll think about it.' I was like, 'Yes, please!' I'll know next time."

There will doubtless be many more "next times" involving plum roles dangled at swank hotels, because Colman is now at the head of acting's top table. But when she hears that, she replies, with regal self-effacement, that it just means she gets to work with the very best people.

"I mean, come on, take The Crown," she says, sipping a cup of tea. "Helena Bonham Carter is my sister!"

As if on cue, Bonham Carter enters the room and the pair of them air-kiss and giggle. They're on the ground floor of a four-story Georgian townhouse in London's Spitalfields district, and the lighting is so authentically Dickensian that they can barely see each other.

In fact, in the low light they really could pass for sisters. In season three, which debuts November 17, Bonham Carter succeeds Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, and the sisters' relationship becomes more central.

"A lot happens with Margaret during this time," Colman says. "We know that they are desperately loyal to each other: they're the only ones who really know each other inside-out. They slept in the same room in the nursery, they took every lesson together…. They are there for each other. It's very difficult, because they also have roles they have to play; they have to know their place.

"So it's tricky as well, but ultimately it's a lovely relationship: they are sisters who have each others' backs."

Bonham Carter adds that she and Colman also needed one another's support, sometimes literally. "Because there are a lot of walking shots in this, and neither of us can walk in high heels."

"That," Colman says, "would be my advice to whoever is cast as the queen after me: learn to walk in high heels. Neither of us can do it. We're rubbish. All of my favorite scenes were when the queen is in her wellies."

Season three of The Crown begins in 1964, with the election of Harold Wilson, a committed socialist, as only the second Labour prime minister since the second world war.

Covering the moon landings, the unmasking of Sir Anthony Blunt as a Soviet spy, the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966 and the slow dissolution of Margaret's marriage to Lord Snowdon, the 10 episodes portray swinging London and cultural upheaval against an immovable, stoic institution: the Crown.

"It's this horrible clash," Colman says. "There are all these societal goings-on at the time, and yet this family [is] still laboring under ancient notions of how you must be strong and you don't share anything — you put on a brave face."

In real life the queen, against all expectations, got along splendidly with Wilson. "The other prime ministers up to this point had all been older," Colman explains. "Churchill was like a father or even a grandfather figure. The rest were all older men who were very polite to the queen.

"Wilson didn't seem to have any of that. Men and women were equal in his eyes. He talked to her like an equal; he would listen to her opinions — she is a very bright woman — and for her that was brilliant. That's why there was this wonderful friendship."

Wilson is played by Jason Watkins (A Very English Scandal), a British actor of whom Colman speaks in glowing terms, as she does all her costars. "He's brilliant, and Wilson and the queen got on famously well. When they were away at Balmoral [Castle in Scotland], where the PM gets invited for a less-official trip, there'd be peals of laughter from the room. They'd be giggling, and then drinks trollies would be brought in."

That's precisely the kind of peek behind the curtain that has made The Crown a worldwide hit.

Queen Elizabeth II has been the most famous woman in the world for more than 60 years. Several generations have grown up knowing what she looks like and what she represents, yet almost no one knows what goes on behind the palace doors. It is an alchemical combination of the epic and the domestic that makes The Crown the ultimate family saga.

Having established a winning cast for two seasons, The Crown has sent itself back to square one. Every major character has been recast for seasons three and four, something no series has done before. (The show's casting directors, Nina Gold, CSA, and Robert Sterne, CSA, won the Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series for season one of The Crown and were also nominated for season two.)

"This is an extraordinary and bold experiment, which was part of Peter's original idea," Andy Harries says. "When we came to the end of season two and were thinking about how good some of the characters were, we thought seriously about whether we should change them. We decided that if we were going to change one or two leads, we had to change everybody."


This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 11, 2019


For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, on sale now.

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