Netflix’s lavishly appointed Season 2 of “The Crown,” which takes place from 1956-1964, landed the same number of Emmy nominations as last year (13). But the series faces a mighty lineup of dramas this time, including Season 2 of last year’s winner “The Handmaid’s Tale,” as well as the penultimate season of “Game of Thrones” and the lauded final season of “The Americans.” This intense race could be close.
Netflix knows how to campaign, and the royal saga is popular, which would appear to give it an edge. But many Emmy voters seem to take for granted how well the team led by showrunner Peter Morgan (“The Queen,” “The Audience”), who writes and delivers all ten episodes at the start of each season, pulls off an historic costume drama on a fast-paced television schedule, complete with elaborate period sets and costumes. At a hefty $6 million-$7 million per episode for 20 episodes (a total $130 million), Morgan calls it “cinematic television.”
“He doesn’t mess around,” Smith told me. “It’s the only show I’ve ever been on where all ten scripts are in pretty good lick. He manages these characters and episodes and stories we think we know well and finds an interesting angle of approach.”
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And the acting is top-notch too, led by Golden Globe-winner Claire Foy (“Wolf Hall”) as rock-solid Queen Elizabeth. The Queen is trying to hang on to her fragile prime ministers as well as her dashing swain Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and keep the peace with her hipper sister, stylish Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who recovers from a broken heart by falling for swinging photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (Matthew Goode). All earned nominations this year; last time only John Lithgow as Winston Churchill took home an Emmy statue.
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It’s the last round for this cast, however, as Season 3 sends in an replacement crew to play the Royals as the hit middle age, including Olivia Colman (“The Night Manager”) as the Queen, “Outlander” villain Tobias Menzies as Philip, and Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”) as Margaret. While the original cast are wistful to leave the “The Crown” family, they’re moving on to opportunities aplenty. Before Season 3 started filming, Kirby was in touch with Bonham-Carter every day, sending her a music playlist for Margaret. “I’m grateful to get to share Margaret with somebody,” she said. “My obsession is extreme!”
Morgan did not know when he started how popular the show would be, but he signed his stars for only two years. “I don’t think it’s fair to ask an actor to age more than 20 years,” he said at a TV Academy panel. “If we’re going to be doing 60 years, it’s not fair for them to spend five hours in makeup every day. But it’s hard for me, now that I’ve got used to how Claire is. I’ve hit my stride in writing for her, it’s writers interruptus. You meet these wonderful actors and discover what they can do. The same with Vanessa. The new cast will present new challenges–it’s hard enough without new challenges!”
Smith had already experienced giving up a popular role with Doctor Who. “I’d rather do two years than seven,” he said.
While Smith (“Doctor Who”) and Goode (“The Imitation Game”) are fairly well-known, both Foy and Kirby launched film careers with the series, from Foy’s punk hacker Lisbeth Salander in the upcoming “Dragon Tattoo” sequel “The Girl In the Spider’s Web” to Kirby’s flirtatious turn opposite Tom Cruise in summer smash “Mission: Impossible–Fallout.” Meanwhile, Smith has taken on two creepy characters, Patrick Bateman in London musical “American Psycho” and Charles Manson in upcoming “Charlie Says.”
The issue of who got paid what has hovered over the series. Although Foy was cast first as the Queen of England and commanded more screen time, she was less established at the start than Smith, who broke out as a star in Doctor Who and had salary leverage when Morgan insisted on casting him because the chemistry with Foy was so strong in their auditions. “There was electric, immediate energy in the room,” said Morgan. “The producers said, ‘look, we’re in negotiation, does he really have to be Philip?’ ‘There is no option. It has to be him.'”
So they paid him more than Foy.
“I find a huge amount of support around me and in the industry and around the world,” said Foy of her unequal pay vs. Smith, “knowing that if I don’t speak up and support myself than nobody else will. You have to be your own advocate, without being difficult, and be willing to step away from something you don’t agree with. That’s happening and it’s extraordinary.”
If Season 1 set up the royal stakes in the central fraught marriage between dashing Navy man Philip and the Queen to whom he had bow and kneel, it was also a hard act to follow. All the directors came back to shoot Season 2, including Stephen Daldry (who cherry-picked episodes eight and nine). There was more color and travel, roving from Tonga, Ghana and Papua New Guinea to the Antarctic.
With Season 2, the team moved with more confidence into the story that digs deeper into Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband and her prime ministers, such as Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), as he colludes with Egypt on the Aswan Dam. Fashionably modern John and Jackie Kennedy come to Buckingham Palace. And old-fashioned Elizabeth faces harsh criticism from one politician, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan), causing her to change the stilted way she speaks in public.
The cast who played royals practiced the accent constantly. “We spent all our time speaking it on set,” Kirby told me in a phone interview. “It must have pissed off the crew. We were all in it together. I tried to find a middle ground, we didn’t want to alienate people too much, I tried to make my voice slower. She sounds different by the end of the season, we’re growing up with them. ”
As Morgan writes the episodes himself, he doesn’t have a writers’ room, but a researchers’ room. He sifts through history, dumping the obvious stuff in favor of delicious details that might surprise or upend conventional wisdom. “It’s an absolute joy, as a dramatist, looking at the intimate and the epic,” he said. “They are just like us and they are nothing like us.”
On “The Crown,” where the Queen tends to keep a stiff upper lip, a scene between Jackie and Elizabeth having tea and scones is as dramatic as it gets. “I’ve long been writing this for so long, everyone is so polite, I’m desperate for a fight scene,” Morgan said. “I long to write a punch-up, there’s been no blood on this show for 20 episodes. That scone was my fight scene. She buttered the scone irritatedly.”
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Most dramatists don’t pick an introverted, shy, middle-aged woman as their central protagonist. “With someone like Tony Soprano, any emotional response was valid: kindness, cruelty, gentleness, butchery sexiness,” said Morgan. “You don’t have that with the Queen. You’ve got her trapped within this other thing: it is very Russian doll. You’ve got the woman within the woman within the thing that is not the woman– the Crown–which is not gender specific, neither feminine or masculine. How a woman connects with that is complex, so she’s lost some of herself. She’s not an articulate person, so you can’t go on and on to explain that complexity. So someone like Claire is skilled enough to do it in repose. So you never feel that the character is not complex, because you’ve got an actor skillful enough to give you that, even in silence.”
In the editing room, Morgan found that whenever there was a missing transition he learned to rely on Foy’s reaction shots. “When Claire was on screen the whole thing was settled,” he said. “That wouldn’t involve her throwing plates. It was just the strength of her performance and how completely she inhabited the character, and how she as an actor in that character could give the whole thing an orientation and center and an anchor. As the Queen gives anchor and stability to the country, so Claire was doing in our show.”
Luckily Foy has always been a reactive listener. “I love being in a scene and not thinking about anything but what that character is thinking,” she said. “I’ve always loved listening and being able to think like the character. And this show appreciated a character who doesn’t go forward, but sits and lets people come to her. And not many shows appreciate that, they don’t put someone at the center, who’s just being and listening.”
Smith is Foy’s exact opposite. He brings a competitive athlete’s physical masculinity to Philip. “I quite like Philip’s maleness,” said Smith, “which in this day and age is interesting. And Elizabeth liked that about him.”
“Philip is a tough man,” said Smith. “Charles notoriously wasn’t, he’s the antithesis of Philip, emotional and sensitive. Philip is those things deep down. But he was growing up in a different time, he had to grow up quite quickly. He went through death and tragedy as a young man. He was essentially orphaned.”
Foy and Smith were opposites as actors. “We work in different ways,” Foy said. “We brought out in each other instantly a friendship, we’re able to give each other what we needed. Matt wants to try new things and get an extra take; I’m ready to go on the first take, to be real and never do it again. That was a tricky thing to negotiate.”
Foy admired Smith’s willingness not to make audiences like Philip. “He’s masculine and feminine, able to be emotional and vulnerable and bit of a love,” she said. “He can be incredibly selfish and you still like him, he has the gift of being likable.”
At the end of the series, as pregnant Elizabeth is lonely and isolated at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, scandal-plagued Philip finally comes to her on his knees, a supplicant. “That scene was a pain in the ass,” Smith said. “It took three days. The history is tricky. How much of it to reveal, a sensitive subject, that. With the Queen of England you never acknowledge the fact that Philip was over the abyss. I look at it as a man on his back foot fighting for his life. Whatever you say, they endure. They are a team. He makes her laugh.”
Alex Bailey / Netflix
On the other hand, Vanessa Kirby as Margaret gets to open up more. “The biggest gift was that she feels everything so deeply,” she said. “Whatever color of emotion she’s having is 100 percent. Claire is the master of subtle and internal; I’m sweating and spit is coming out. Margaret’s emotions are all on the surface, while Elizabeth’s are buried.”
In Season 2, Kirby gets to smash up her room a bit. Margaret is “someone in pain who descends into something quite scary,” she said. “Along comes Tony Armstrong-Jones and she meets him when she’s in the worst place.”
In the first cycle, Foy got to wear an elaborate wedding dress; now it was Kirby’s turn. “I’m not very fashionable, I wear jeans and shorts,” said Kirby. “Margaret taught me a lot, to express my internal life through costumes.” She and the costume designer Jane Petrie spent weeks choosing ratios and shapes and fabrics. “Her costumes are an indication of where she was at. Even when she trashes her room she’s wearing a gothic robe. The next morning, she’s pale in a yellow granny nighty, she had lost all sense of her identity. I wanted to take her on a journey to show how Margaret finds her place in the world. She’s born into something she couldn’t escape from.”
Meanwhile, Margaret yet again has to seek Elizabeth’s permission to marry. “I didn’t want to overplay it or underplay it,” Kirby said. “It’s a mixture of resentment and intense need and exhaustion and vibrancy. She is in active denial, looking away from Tony who is massively disloyal and destructive and dysfunctional for her. All those things in one scene feels quite scary.”