In ‘The Crown,’ Imelda Staunton Stars as the Queen

Peter Morgan, the show’s creator, said that Imelda Staunton had the “vulnerability and strength” to play Queen Elizabeth II for the final two seasons.

LONDON — Almost midway through the new season of “The Crown,” which arrives on Netflix on Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II, played by Imelda Staunton, is aggressively confronted, one after another, by almost every member of her immediate family. Her three older children want to get divorced; her sister, Princess Margaret, is still angry with her for forbidding her marriage, 40 years earlier, to the divorced Peter Townsend. Even her mother upbraids her for being insufficiently stoic.

Through all these encounters, the camera lingers frequently on Staunton’s face as impassioned words pour forth from the person in front of her. Her expression is neutral, her features almost immobile, yet the queen’s pain and emotional distress are clear as she hears herself blamed for the family’s dysfunction.

“It’s an acting master class,” said Peter Morgan, who created “The Crown” and has written almost every episode. “By being unbelievably simple, she manages to be unbelievably complex.”

Elizabeth has to maintain her equilibrium at all times, Staunton said in a recent video interview after a day of filming for Season 6 of the series. “She must make sure that everyone around her knows she is stable, and not talk about her feelings, which she has no desire to do. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have feelings,” the actress said. “I have no perspective whatsoever on how I am playing her, but from the inside it’s very clear to me who she is.”

Lesley Manville, who plays Princess Margaret in Season 5 and will play her in Season 6, the final season, appreciated Staunton’s approach. “Imelda and I pretty much knew around the same time we would play the parts,” she said, adding that the pair both “do a lot of prep, a lot of research, have learned our lines and thought about what we are going to do. Then on the day, you can allow yourself to be relaxed, trust your instincts and play off the person opposite you. Hands down the scenes I have done with her have been the most thrilling.”

Staunton, 66, has had a long and successful career on both stage and screen. She is probably best known to movie audiences for her Oscar-nominated titular role in the Mike Leigh film “Vera Drake,” and for playing the deliciously evil, kitten-loving Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. Onstage, she has received awards and accolades for a variety of musicals and dramas.

Yet she has never been a star or a household name. That suits her just fine. “Like the Queen, I’m a very private person,” she said.

Staunton was nominated for an Oscar for her lead role in “Vera Drake.”Fine Line Pictures, via Everett Collection
In the Harry Potter films, she played the deliciously evil Dolores Umbridge.Warner Bros.

But playing the central role in “The Crown,” a globally watched, acclaimed and much-discussed series, which has charted the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and depicts the royal family against the broader canvas of British social and political history, is likely to change all that.

“I think ‘The Crown’ is the star,” Staunton said diplomatically when asked how she felt about the attention that she would receive for the role. “We are all part of this brilliant puzzle.”

Still, Staunton’s Elizabeth is clearly the center of gravity for Season 5, which begins in 1991 and ends in 1997, as Tony Blair’s Labour party sweeps to victory and heralds a new Cool Britannia‌. Along the way are the marital travails and eventual divorce of Charles (Dominic West) and Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), the infamous Charles and Camilla (Olivia Williams) recording and Diana’s bombshell BBC interview with Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah).

As always on “The Crown,” these personal revelations are set against wider historical forces: an economic recession under a Conservative government led by John Major (Jonny Lee Miller); public debate about the role of the monarchy; in Russia, the erosion of communism under Boris Yeltsin; in the British psyche, the subtle movement away from stoicism and toward self-expression and the cult of personality, as embodied by Diana.

In a telephone interview, Morgan said that there was “obviously the Helen Mirren question for this final part of the series.” (Mirren won a best actress Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in the 2006 film, “The Queen,” written by Morgan, and then played the monarch again in Morgan’s 2013 play “The Audience,” which served as inspiration for “The Crown.”)

But he and Mirren had agreed, Morgan said, that it would be “good to have someone different.” From that moment on, he added “there was only one other person. Imelda was very much my idea. There is an accessibility, an everywoman-ness to her that is incredibly valuable for the part. There is vulnerability and strength wrapped up, a quiet regality, and yet no grandeur.”

“Imelda was very much my idea,” said Peter Morgan, the show’s creator. “There is an accessibility, an everywoman-ness to her that is incredibly valuable for the part.”Netflix

Staunton grew up in north London, the only child of Irish immigrants; her father was a laborer and her mother a hairdresser. She was encouraged by her drama teacher to audition for drama school, and was accepted, at 17, to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where she spent two years “like a sponge, soaking up everything.” Years in repertory theater around the country followed, “doing terrible plays, great plays, staying in horrible digs, so happy doing what I was doing,” she said.

Change came when the director Richard Eyre hired her for a 1982 National Theater production of “Guys and Dolls,” during which she met her future husband, the actor Jim Carter (known to millions as Mr. Carson, the butler, in “Downton Abbey”). Bigger roles followed; in 1985 she won a Laurence Olivier award for her performances in “The Corn is Green” and “A Chorus of Disapproval,” and she started to get regular film and television work.

But film, Staunton said, “didn’t really exist for me until Mike Leigh and ‘Vera Drake.’ That was the job of my life: with Mike, there is no script, there are six months of creating and developing a character from the day they were born. It was the most fulfilling thing I have ever done, and so easy.”

In a phone interview, Leigh, who directed the 2004 film, said that Staunton “was amazing at sustaining that massive amount of exploration and improvisation that we do, plumbing the depths, exploring with empathy, uncovering layers of emotional truth.”

“Vera Drake,” in which she plays a ’50s woman who performs illegal abortions, was a pivotal project for Staunton, bringing higher-profile roles her way, both in film and onstage. She has since given tour-de-force stage performances in a number of Sondheim musicals (“One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in musical theater,” Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian of Staunton in “Gypsy”), as well as in theatrical heavy hitters, like Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

Conleth Hill, who starred with Staunton in “Virginia Woolf,” said that the actress’s “dedication and attention to her role, and her generosity toward everyone, makes whoever she is working with better. She called me on things, but not in an aggressive way, and she was always right.”

“We try to do this with as much integrity and respect as we can,” Imelda Staunton said of making the show in the wake of the queen’s death.Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Staunton said she was daunted when offered the role of the queen, but “knew I had to do it.” She had a long time to prepare, she said, and worked steadily with a dialect coach starting in 2019, as well as reading about the queen, talking to people who knew her, and watching as much footage as she could. “It’s like music, you learn it a year before so that it’s in your body,” she said.

Staunton’s take on the queen was that “there wasn’t a huge difference between the public and the private space,” said Jessica Hobbs, who directed the first two episodes of Season 5. “There is a security, an understanding of the commitment of the role, the way it had become who she was in her inner life.”

Any portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is under an even brighter spotlight following the death of the monarch in September. On that day, Staunton was filming the final season, which she described as “a strange experience.” Fortunately, she said, she had a 10-day break immediately afterward.

“I think it has affected how people are talking about ‘The Crown,’ and perhaps, understandably, feel protective about the family,” she said, alluding to the flurries of complaints in the British press about accuracy, story lines and characters. “All I would say is that we try to do this with as much integrity and respect as we can.”

Discussing the objections, Morgan said that “contrary to what The Daily Mail suggests, I feel very responsible about writing about this, almost as a historian.” He added, “In the light of the queen’s death, it’s easy for us to channel our profound affection for her to Imelda.”

Morgan said that Staunton was the perfect person to play the queen in such a delicate moment. “Everyone is missing the queen, you have someone who is loved in that role,” he added. “There is a synergy to that.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.