Long before Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter were cast as Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret in “The Crown,” they each had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet the members of the royal family that they would one day portray.
Though the interactions were short, their impressions impacted how Colman and Carter would represent the family on the Emmy-nominated show, which wrapped its third season in November 2019 and has already been renewed by Netflix for three more.
Colman and Carter, along with showrunner and writer Peter Morgan and director Jessica Hobbs, joined Variety‘s Jenelle Riley in the Variety Streaming Room after a screening of the season 3 finale to discuss playing the royals, the bonds they have created through the show and what makes it such a hit in the U.S.
Colman met Queen Elizabeth II in 2014 at an event for the film industry that was held at Windsor. At first, Colman didn’t even know the Queen was there, but eventually ended up in a line to greet her.
“Suddenly we looked around the corner like, ‘Oh f—.’ This man in epaulets was telling us what to do, ‘Just a little bow, don’t overdo it,’ and sort of scuffled us forward,” Colman said. “So you might just meet your royal highness and just keep moving, keep moving because she had hundreds of people to get through. And that was it.”
Carter had a more intimate conversation with Queen Elizabeth’s sister, Princess Margaret, a few years before her death in 2002.
“She was very small and I went up to her and she kind of knew who I was because she knew my uncle very well. She said, ‘Oh Helena yes, you are getting better at acting,’” Carter said. “And I just thought that is so inimitably her, which was basically a compliment put down… No it wasn’t really a compliment, was it?”
Carter was able to talk with a few of Margaret’s close friends to gain better insight on who she really was behind her often negative public perception.
“I feel it’s my responsibility to try and find the essence of somebody, the true person. Margaret was a victim of a lot of prejudgment I think, and bad opinion. And she was much more complicated than she’s been generally portrayed,” Carter said. “It was very easy once I started talking to people then, in fact there were many, many, many more facets to her that nobody really wanted to know about. And then also in some ways, all the positive doesn’t really make good press.”
Something that wasn’t always represented well through the press or screen adaptations is the friendship and sisterhood between Elizabeth and Margaret, Colman said, hinting that this aspect will be explored much more in season 4.
“There’s a lot more of their friendship [in season 4]. A lot of the people that I’ve met, who knew Margaret, who told me things, said that they were slightly frustrated by the fact that in the first two seasons, there wasn’t enough of the closeness of that relationship,” Colman said. “They were incredibly close. Nobody else had had that same childhood.”
Their characters’ sisterhood has also transferred off-screen between Colman and Carter, who said that they text each other frequently.
“What’s nice is, I mean, I have never had a sister, but I’ve always wanted one, so now I got one,” Carter said. “We didn’t really have to do much. It was just, I think it was sort of just an immediate understanding.”
Hobbs, who directed the season 3 finale, commended how well the two work together, saying: “It’s a real gift. You get these two in a scene and it’s magic. At times, you’re thinking I really should come up with a good note, but actually I don’t have much more to say.”
When asked how the show has become such a hit, showrunner and writer Morgan chalks it up to the combination of family and drama that is relatable to everyone, not just the royals.
“In every country in the world, the Queen has been a sort of a constant figure. She has been one of the great public figures, certainly of the last 70, 80 years. She’s connective tissue for all of us internationally,” Morgan said. “Then, if you put that to one side and all the historical significance of it, it is just a family drama… And the most satisfying to me anyway, the most satisfying, long running shows are the ones that are about families. Whether it’s ‘The Sopranos’ or ‘Succession,’ or whatever it is. The internal wranglings within a family, whether it’s Proust or whichever way you want to go, it’s a joy for a writer.”
Watch the full conversation below.