British royalty can bust out some Bee Gees if inspired. Well, not the actual monarchs, but the Netflix ones. In The Crown, Claire Foy and Matt Smith are buttoned up as Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke Of Edinburgh Prince Philip. But when The A.V. Club sat down with them in New York, they broke out into a rendition of “How Deep Is Your Love.”
The Crown is the latest from Peter Morgan, who has chronicled the reigning queen’s life in the film The Queen and the play The Audience, both of which starred Helen Mirren. The Crown takes the same subject from a different vantage point. It begins with Elizabeth’s wedding and watches as she assumes power, dealing with her spouse’s jealousy, an aging Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), and her sister Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) controversial affair. Foy plays her as quiet but firm, someone trying to establish herself among those who want to control her. Meanwhile, Smith, best known for his stint as The Doctor on Doctor Who, gets to dive into the role of Philip, alternately childish, arrogant, and loving. We spoke to them about taking on their country’s history and the surprise appearance of Smith’s bare ass. And, yes, singing did break out.
The A.V. Club: Were you versed in the backstory of the royal family that The Crown covers?
Claire Foy: I don’t think I knew any of it, really. I didn’t know the circumstance of how they fell in love. I didn’t know the difficulty of them actually getting married. I didn’t know their early married life. I didn’t know about her coming to the throne and her father dying. I didn’t know any of that—I just thought she was the queen and she had sort of been there forever and, that was that, really.
AVC: Right off the bat, you guys have to establish a prickly chemistry between you. There’s affection there, but there’s also resentment on your part, Matt. Can you talk about establishing that?
Matt Smith: I think the story and the writing did a lot of it for us. But we were very keen that this wasn’t a sort of chocolate box version of their relationship. We glimpsed it in its entirety and its truth, which meant that it had to feel difficult at times for them. And I think in those difficult times, actually, they sort of become the most romantic of times as well.
AVC: How so?
MS: Because that’s when you see people going through things and—
CF: Overcoming things.
MS: And that’s romance, you know what I mean?
CF: And how deep the love is as well, is the thing. [Smith starts singing the Bee Gee’s “How Deep Is Your Love.” Foy quickly joins in.]
MS: It’s that time of day.
AVC With Elizabeth, at least from an American perspective, we have a baseline assumption of who she is. Philip always seemed a little more…
AVC: Yeah. How did you wrap that up in your performance?
CF: I don’t really know.
MS: Well, it’s quite difficult for Elizabeth, isn’t it? For Claire, subsequently. Because so many people have an impression of her because she’s been in our consciousness our whole lives, you know. And then Helen [Mirren] played her. And Peter [Morgan] has written her. But I think what Claire has done is totally unique.
CF: Totally awful.
MS: Remarkable—utterly, utterly remarkable. And if you see the whole series, you see a real growth in how she becomes the queen. How she started out. And it’s such a clever idea in the wedding, to have her seem so clever.
CF: Stephen [Daldry, director] did an incredible thing with the wedding because there’s no video footage of the wedding at all, obviously. But there is a voice recording of it, and that whole inspiration just came from hearing them. And even Philip sounds very nervous and very different when they’re doing their vows. And then you hear her and she’s [Goes into a very quiet voice.] tiny and she’s speaking like this and she sounds like you have never heard her before. That’s the inspiration of, let’s imagine that she was terrified. It’s about doing the real-life events and then bringing the reality of how people actually behave into it, isn’t it?
AVC: What about Philip? Watching it, I thought, “Wow, maybe this guy isn’t the nicest guy.”
MS: Interesting. It’s interesting hearing people’s versions of Philip. Why? Do you think he’s mean to her?
AVC: I think that there is a sort of misogynistic dickishness, forgive my language, to him.
CF: That’s the thing. He’s a product of his time as well. I think it’s unfair to judge him by modern standards, in the sense that I think he is incredibly forward-thinking, incredibly visionary, and modern in his attitude and the support he has for his wife. But in that time, in the 1950s, the way he behaved would have been radical, in the amount of freedom that they had.
MS: He walked two steps behind her, you know? That’s behind his wife. He took the back foot, and also when we look at the history of his life, it’s definitely made in a certain way, as it has for everyone. He had a quite difficult upbringing. But I quite like when people respond that way to him because that’s the bit of him that I love. I love when he’s a dick.
CF: And that’s the thing that Matt does is—he’s not perfect. There are ugly aspects to every single person’s character. I behave in an absolutely atrocious way to him a lot of the time and you can completely see a lot of my behavior. I think it would be bad to think that my behavior toward him is me furthering my queenly-ness. It’s actually insensitivity and carelessness of our marriage. But I think he is not afraid of being truthful. In being truthful, you do have to show the ugly side of someone’s character. We all behave like dicks sometimes.
MF: And he is the opposite of her. He’s reactionary. He’s really, really sensitive.
AVC: Claire, you’ve played Anne Boleyn. Matt, is this your first royal?
AVC: Is that sort of a rite of passage for a British actor?
CF: You get a medal.
MS: You get a medal. You get to be posh.
CF: You get a mini-crown.
MS: I don’t get a crown, actually.
CF: You do. You have that crown that had a funny thing on top of it, do you remember?
MS: Did I?
CF: A coronet. Yeah, you had.
MS: Oh, it was silly, wasn’t it?
CF: It was really silly.
AVC: I guess you made up for it by playing The Doctor, you know.
CF: Yeah, he’s played a different type of royalty.
AVC: Playing a modern royal is very different than playing a Tudor royal. What are the pressures when you’re embodying this history that’s your cultural history?
CF: I think the pressure is that you don’t want to presume anything and you don’t want to “be a queen.” You don’t want to sit upright and behave properly and wear these beautiful costumes. If you’re doing something that’s period, you’ve got to live in it and you’ve got to make it resonate with you.
MS: You really can’t play the queen too much, can you?
CF: No, you’ve got to actually try to do the opposite, because otherwise you play the statement of being it and—
MS: That’s death.
CF: That’s death when you’re acting. Yeah, you’ve got to just make it real. Live and breathe.
AVC: Elizabeth does seem so quiet and nervous, especially in that initial episode. As the series moves on, she stays reserved. How do you wrestle with her subtle gaining of strength?
CF: I think that’s more human, isn’t it? I don’t think people have supernatural—and if they do you go, “Oh god. They’re off on one.” Especially people who are relatively grounded and naive like she was. I don’t think she was going to have a moment where she went power-hungry and started trying to take over. I think she was very unassuming, and she had to learn how to exert her authority. It was very limited—to learn what that was in the first place. And then to learn how to influence and without having any real influence.
I think she’s done an extraordinary job of navigating that and making it her own, and I think there’s more strength in being quiet than jumping up and down and shouting. And in any of those characters in anything, the most menacing of all characters are people who just sit there and don’t say anything, but you just know they could rip your head off. Not saying that’s what the queen’s like. I just think in every acting choice that you make, you’ve got to go for the least obvious choice.
AVC: The political thread of the storyline is so interesting, especially looking at the colonial aspects and the way those are threaded through. With the current climate in Britain right now, what is it like looking back?
MS: I think you realize the same problems not repeat themselves, but are very similar throughout time. There is always a sense of something breaking up or needing to unite something else. Or someone coming into power that seems absurd or not absurd. You know, same shit, different day.
CF: That’s The History Boys thing that Russell Tovey says, “History is just one bloody thing after another.”
AVC: How do you approach playing people who are still in power?
CF: I feel they’ll just, you know, see them more as human beings than as faceless individuals. I don’t think the show is trying to do anything, or highlight anything, or anything like that. But I suppose from my experience of doing it, I definitely felt like I got the chance to get to know them as human beings and feel some sympathy and compassion for them. An understanding of what their life has been. And I think in a weird way, that’s a lovely thing, especially at their age, to examine what their lives have been like. They’ve had extraordinary, extraordinary lives.
CF: And there’s a whole new generation coming along as well. And sometimes you’ve got to look back to be able to go forward.
AVC: Matt, I have to ask you about the slight nudity on your part. What was the thinking behind that moment in the premiere?
MS: I don’t know, I just turned up. No, like…
CF: Take your trousers off.
MS: Get into bed. But actually now, I’ve seen those episodes. I watch it, I don’t think it feels out of place. I think it actually—
CF: It’s his character.
MS: Yeah, he sort of makes a clever beat. And also what’s interesting is, it sort of weirdly informs the whole next scene, which is why it’s clever.
MS: It informs the scene on the boat, which is really serious and it’s Stephen being really clever going silly, serious. Someone really clever, a filmmaker, once said to me—we were talking about film and she said to me, “You know, film really, all it is, is choosing what image you place next to another. And that’s it.” And I think that’s a good example of Stephen tonally understanding that the end of the film needs this sort of slight mixture of tone for the end of it.
CF: That’s a very clever thing. And Matt’s got a really nice bum so that’s great.
AVC: Have you gotten many questions about that?
CF: You have, actually. It’s been really surprising.
AVC: Well, I don’t think we necessarily expect to see that in our period royal dramas.
MF: Yeah. There’s a bit more of it in the second episode as well.