Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but it’s not easy being the sibling of a monarch either.
On Netflix’s “The Crown,” Jared Harris and Vanessa Kirby play father and daughter royals, King George VI and Princess Margaret, both of whom had their fates changed by divorce. Today, their stories have been overshadowed by Queen Elizabeth II, who has reigned for more than 60 years. “The Crown” has dredged up their stories for a new generation.
Before ever tackling a role such as these though, most British actors have already formed some sort of an opinion about the Royal Family.
“That relationship [with the monarchy] has changed over time, and I think there is a conflict about that which is still ongoing,” Harris said in an interview with IndieWire. “What is the relevance of the Royal Family? Why do we still have one? Why is it maintained? And is it just for out of nostalgia or traditional reasons, and is that enough of a reason?
“It was really from George V that they really deconstructed the idea of what that job meant, because their constitutional powers were slowly being stripped away and their influence was being stripped away. And in terms of what role they should play, they actually do start to occupy this sort of iconographic position as the First Family and present an ideal to the public.”
Much like the royals themselves, the actors realized that how others perceived them helped them embody the roles.
“Everyone else does the acting for you,” said Harris. “You do it all the time in theater. If you’re doing Shakespeare plays you’re dealing with that issue all the time, and the rule is you can’t play a king or a queen; everyone has to treat you as a king or a queen. So you don’t play it; everyone else does. They confer that onto you.
“I enjoyed [executive producer Stephen Daldry] always calling me ‘Your Majesty’ every time,” he added. “I felt like I could get away with more. Every time I came on set — whether he’d come and talk to me, wanted to give me either direction or discuss stuff it was always ‘Your Majesty.’ That’s what I mean about you confer it on somebody.”
Kirby did her part by addressing Harris as “Papa” on set, but she also had that same experience as her co-star. “You walked into a room and it feels different, and people address you differently and people look at you differently and people treat you differently,” she said. “You have a whole network of people serving you and bringing you things and helping you with things. I became really aware of that.”
Only when the actors began to delve into the lives of their characters, did they truly appreciate the duality of the royals’ lives.
“When you look behind that curtain, they have all the same problems that everybody else was having who was living at that time,” said Harris. “I mean, the consequences of dealing with those problems well, there was much more at risk.”
Take for example Harris’ character whose given name was Albert. He was the second son of King George V and therefore never had to worry about inheriting the throne. That all changed when his older brother King Edward decided to marry the divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British government wouldn’t countenance him marrying a divorced woman whose previous spouses were still alive, and so he abdicated the throne. Albert had to take over, and with the new job came a new regnal name: George VI.
King George had been content in his previous life as Prince Albert, especially since he dreaded speaking publicly because of a stammer, the treatment of which was seen in the Colin Firth film “The King’s Speech.”
“In the terms of my character, it was a world he never wanted to be in, so there’s a sort of terrified person at the heart of it,” said Harris. “He’s comfortable when he’s with his family, but whenever he had to step up and play the role of the king it was something that he never reconciled himself to. He always used to put his wife first as well. If you look at any of the footage when they’re going out in public he actually makes her walk in front of him, which actually protocol should be the other way around. But she was so good at dealing with the public and she was so comfortable and sure of herself that he let her do the initial sort of bow or wave in front of the public and then he would follow on behind.
Kirby added, “They lived in this house, this townhouse in Piccadilly, where they grew up very normal, and spent some time in the country. Suddenly they were literally picked up and put in Buckingham Palace, which, is a very strange place. Jared was just saying it’s run down and hadn’t been looked after properly because the money hadn’t gone into it after the war. They were suddenly rattling around this palace and their father was suddenly king. What family does that happen to?”
This put eldest daughter Elizabeth (Claire Foy) next in line for the crown. As a princess, Margaret became something of a socialite and fashion plate.
“[Series creator and writer Peter Morgan], I felt, captured her so well and all the contradictions within her, that kind of effervescence as well as this very lonely sad person that was always there,” said. “She was the young eligible Princess of a huge commonwealth, unmarried and … the center of this new age new look celebrity woman. You had Elizabeth Taylor and you had all those girls just emerging at that time, and she was kind of the first one. She was so fashionable and she was like this icon. But also she’s so commonly known as the naughty one so that was a thing I was most delighted with, to be honest. It’s the counter foil to Elizabeth, who I think needs to be shaken up a bit.”
That party girl image gave way to a sadder, needier Princess Margaret, though, after tragedy struck, upending her life again.
“That was where she was and then it all changed because her best friend in the world, her dad, dies,” said Kirby. “The series deals with is his death and what impact that has on this small family unit who are very happy together, and this hole that’s left and has to be filled. Suddenly her 25-year-old sister comes over and dictates to her about what she’s allowed to do and even to the point of who she’s allowed to marry or fall in love with.”
Margaret had had an ongoing affair with Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), who was married when they first met. He eventually divorced and proposed marriage to Margaret, but the Church of England would not support her marriage to a divorced man whose spouse was still alive.
“Her sister comes down on her and says, ‘You will make these decisions for the benefit of the family and the country,’” said Harris. “We all have ideas that we are allowed to choose who we love and how we pursue those things, but the cost of those things in their lives is completely different.”
By the end of the first season, Margaret eventually abandoned their engagement. While this is heartbreaking to witness onscreen, Kirby had to learn to truly understand what was at stake for that family. King Edward’s abdication was the biggest black mark on the monarchy for a long time, and that he did it by marrying a divorcee at the express disapproval of the government and church cast a long shadow on the Royal Family.
“The abdication I knew [about] factually but I didn’t know anything about it,” said Kirby. “Really seeing people go through it, I have massive amounts of empathy for them and massive amounts of respect now. It looks at duty to a country and duty in your own life and to your own family.
“Getting to explore that when she was at the young beginning of it in the first two episodes and how that changes through the next five years and how the things that she goes through are incredibly tough for a young woman to go through,” she added. “Getting to know her so intimately and her lost loves and knowing what happened in the rest of her life, it was actually quite tragic. She was kind of a tragic heroine really.”
”The Crown” is currently available for streaming on Netflix. Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller