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July 01, 2020
Online Originals

Putting on a Tough Skin

Tobias Menzies has a difficult job to get into the character of Britain's Prince Phillip.

For an actor, portraying a living person can be tricky.

And for a Briton, portraying your Queen's spouse can be particularly daunting.

Tobias Menzies is the second actor to assail this task for Netflix's The Crown, taking over the role in seasons three and four from Matt Smith, who played the young Prince Philip.

Menzies notes, "The Crown is very much rooted in relatively recent history and it's a real person. It's a particular kind of honor/pressure playing a real person, and someone who is still alive."

Although Menzies is taking over from another actor, the two didn't really engage in any sort of handoff. "I do know Matt and I did actually have a conversation on the phone with him around the time that it was all happening," Menzies says."But no, we didn't have a, 'how do you do it,' conversation.

"I thought I had plenty of ammunition to go with, from the work he had done in season two, to all the scripts that Peter [Morgan, creator of the series] was writing.

"And then obviously there's so much material on Philip. Our footage of him, books on him, interviews to read and watch. So yeah, there was plenty of homework to do. I don't know what that conversation would have been like. Anyway, we both avoided it."

In spite of the wealth of material on the Queen and the Prince, it wasn't always easy to crack the surface of the real people. "I feel like it's happening on various different levels, I have found. On one level it's a technical puzzle which you have to fix.

"You have to work out and that is a pretty practical, that's just about putting the hours in, about listening to, and a lot working out how the accent that we're speaking works, how he moves physically. It's just about putting the hours in.

"I guess underneath that is trying to get a sense of the psychology of the person and read about their life.

"If I'm totally honest, I find both the queen and Philip hard to really get under the skin of. They're very famous and very well known, and there's a huge amount written and the huge amount of footage of them and interviews, but they don't give a huge amount away.

"They don't speak particularly personally a lot of the time. So in terms of what they're like behind closed doors, there isn't really a show reel for that."

To get to the humanity of his character, Menzies found he had a real ally in the show's writers and crew. He says, "The magic of the show, I think when it works, is that you get that frisson of, 'Oh yeah, maybe that's what they're like when they're on their own, when they're brushing their teeth, et cetera.'

"And for both, I mean, I can't speak for Peter, but certainly acting it, that is a work of imagination and fiction. You don't really know is the honest answer. I didn't find him the easiest person to really crack."

Daunting as it was, however, Menzies didn't have a moment of hesitation about taking on the role. "I think the show is so well written, so that's always exciting to be working on writing of that quality," he notes.

"And actually politically, I'm not particularly aligned with the Royal family or probably with the politics of someone like Philip. But as a character study, he is entirely fascinating and the actor in me absolutely wanted to take that on. So no, there wasn't a beat of hesitation.

"I suppose there's a slight difference between him and his wife, the queen, because I think you get a bit more of a flavor of him. It's not that he's completely kind of neutral. There's a heat in him, sometimes an apparent short temperedness, an irascibleness, an unwillingness or a distrust of unnecessary flimflam or over-ceremony."

Like everyone else, Menzies currently finds himself in quarantine because of the global pandemic. He says, "We are being asked to stay in our homes, social distancing, only going out for food and exercise and medical stuff. Times unlike any of us would have known. So it's really unusual.

"The atmosphere is strange. It's hard to get a real read because you're not allowed to go out and get a sense of how things are. So I only have my little anecdotal bits of where I'm living.

"I feel relatively fortunate. I actually just moved back into a flat that I had refurbished. And so my timing was pretty jammy because I was going to be unpacking stuff and sorting my books out anyway at this time.

"And I had just finished 10 days before we were locked down, and I had finished shooting on The Crown, and so yeah, my timing was kind of a bit jammy. But listening to the news is hard at the moments here, the numbers coming out from around the world a bit numbing.

"So mainly one is just hoping that people stay safe, and that you have a bit of luck and that everyone gets through okay."

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