Battle royal: The Crown 's Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki on portraying Charles and Diana's bitter divorce

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Dominic West as Prince Charles and Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana on 'The Crown'

Imelda Staunton was at the end of a long day filming The Crown when she learned that Queen Elizabeth II, the monarch she plays on the upcoming fifth and sixth seasons of Netflix's British royal family drama, had died at the age of 96. "That was pretty devastating," she says of the Sept. 8 news. "It was odd, to say the least," the actress, 66, adds of portraying the Queen amid the global mourning. "I'm glad I had time to regroup before I started again."

Staunton's costar Dominic West, the Emmy-winning series' new Prince Charles, first heard about the Queen's death in Spain. "I'd just flown to Barcelona to shoot my first day of season 6," recalls the star of The Wire and The Affair. "When I arrived in the hotel, one of the assistant directors said to me, 'Have you heard the news? The Queen's very unwell.' I went up to my hotel room and I just watched the telly for three days and then went home. We didn't shoot at all, out of respect."

The Crown creator and main screenwriter Peter Morgan saw the headlines at Heathrow Airport. "I had just landed from Vienna and switched on my phone to a starburst of pings and messages," he says. "I felt a great many things at the same time. And the days that followed were simultaneously a global phenomenon, a moment in history which you watched unfold as a spectator, and an intense and entirely moving personal experience which one wanted to process alone. The entire experience was made even more complex by the fact that, as my protagonist, of course, she is still very much alive."

The Queen had reigned over the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries for a remarkable, record-breaking 70 years. The monarch was a widely beloved figure, famous for possessing an unwavering sense of duty to her role that wasn't always shared by her 15 prime ministers or her fellow royal family members. Her passing inspired a prodigious outpouring of grief — particularly in the U.K., where her body lay in state at Westminster Abbey for four days. More than 250,000 lined up to see the Queen's body, some waiting 24 hours to do so. Another Crown cast member, Elizabeth Debicki, was glued to the BBC's coverage of people visiting the Abbey to pay their respects. "I almost can't talk about it without crying," says Debicki, who takes over from Emma Corrin as Princess Diana in season 5. "I don't think I'll ever forget that."

The death of the Queen and the ascension of Prince Charles, now King Charles III, to the British throne has placed an even brighter spotlight on The Crown, whose fifth season launches Nov. 9. Morgan's show, which tracks the royal family over the course of Elizabeth's reign, has proven to be both a hit and an awards magnet for Netflix since the series premiered in 2016. The drama has won 21 Emmys — with Claire Foy, who played the Queen on the first two seasons, taking home the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series trophy in 2018 (and then another as guest actress for a brief season 4 flashback). In 2021, the show won all seven top drama categories, including another Best Actress victory, this time for Olivia Colman who portrayed Elizabeth on seasons 3 and 4. Following the Queen's death, there were even reports — including one from a former Crown Prince Philip, Matt Smith — that Her Majesty had herself watched the show. (Morgan finds that unlikely. "God bless her," says The Crown creator. "I'm sure she had better things to do.")

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II on 'The Crown'

The show's fifth season was big news even before the passing of the monarch — partly because of the series' previous success, and partly because the 10 episodes will introduce a new cast portraying events that, to many viewers, will seem like very recent history. In addition to Staunton, West, and Debicki, the season features Jonathan Pryce as Elizabeth's husband Philip; Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret; Jonny Lee Miller as British Prime Minister John Major; Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker-Bowles (now King Charles' wife with the title of Queen Consort); and Timothy Dalton. The onetime 007 has been cast as Peter Townsend, the onetime paramour of Princess Margaret who Elizabeth denied her blessing for marriage. ("He was lovely," Manville says of Dalton, "and I think he's just spot-on as Peter Townsend.")

But the (broken) heart of the season is Debicki's Diana. "She is uniquely magnificent," says Morgan, explaining why he cast the Australian actress. "It was a list of one. Had she said no, I might have had to reconceive the entire show."

There are those who wish Morgan hadn't conceived the show in the first place and at least a few who believe that Netflix should have postponed the new season's premiere out of respect for its principal subject. In addition to temporarily suspending shooting following the Queen's death, Morgan did so again for Elizabeth's funeral on Sept. 19. In a statement, he even described the series as a "love letter" to the Queen. But The Crown has often created drama out of chapters in the history of the royal family that its members would love people to forget. Season 5 will be no exception as it details some of the darkest episodes in the saga. "This particular part of history, an awful lot happens," says Staunton. "There's a lot of turmoil, which isn't made up — these things happened. I think there's a lot going on for people to take on this time around."

There is certainly no shortage of famous and infamous incidents to be detailed from the section of the Windsor family's tale covered on the last two seasons of The Crown. Season 5 begins in 1992, while season 6 will continue the story into at least the early aughts, including Prince William's time at St. Andrew's University where he met his future wife Kate Middleton. (In September of this year, Netflix announced that actors Rufus Kampa and Ed McVey are portraying William at different ages in season 6, and that Meg Bellamy will play Kate.) It was a period during which the royal family endured a seemingly neverending string of jolts, scandals, and tragedies — including a fire at Windsor Castle, the ending of both Prince Andrew and Princess Anne's marriages, and the 1997 death of Diana in a car accident which also claimed the life of her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, and the car's driver, Henri Paul (her bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones, was the only survivor). For most of the '90s, however, it was the hostilities between Charles and Diana, who officially separated in 1992 and divorced five years later, which obsessed both the media and the world at large.

While Charles attempted to present himself to the country as a man worthy of being the population's King, Diana tried to build a life outside the royal family and present her side of the couple's story. Diana's quest resulted in both Andrew Morton's headline-making 1992 book, Diana: Her True Story, and her 1995 TV interview with now-disgraced BBC journalist Martin Bashir, in which she famously referenced Camilla's role in the breakup. "There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded," Diana told Bashir.

Debicki says she is "so fortunate to have this huge time span of years in which to play the character. It's my hope that people feel that there's an enormous evolution in her as the season progresses. For me, it's a journey into a human finding a part of themselves that is profoundly strong — there's a piece that has survived so much and can flourish."

The Tenet actress initially auditioned for a "little cameo part," which she declines to identify, on season 2 of the show. "I definitely wanted to do something on The Crown because my dear friend Vanessa Kirby was playing Princess Margaret and I was just obsessed with the show," she says. "I was one of those people who binged it." After the audition, Debicki was told there was interest in her possibly playing Diana further down the track. "This was so many years ago that I sort of put it on the shelf," she says. "I didn't put any eggs in the basket — well, maybe there was one egg in the basket. Then, years later, it came back around. When Peter actually asked me, I didn't have to give it much thought."

When Morgan approached West about taking over the role of Charles from Josh O'Connor, who played the part in seasons 3 and 4, the actor did have some thoughts — most of them negative. "I said, 'You've got the wrong guy, I don't look anything like him,'" West recalls. But there was another reason the actor demurred: "I was very conscious of Josh's amazing performance, and his amazing success, and thought it was a bit of a hiding to nothing to try to follow that." So what made West change his mind? "I thought about it for several weeks, and it was one of those things you can't really get out of your head. [I] realized that you've got to give it a go because you'll regret it if you don't. He's a fascinating man, Charles, and it's a fascinating life, and a fascinating role. I mean, apart from anything else, it's a huge show, and I loved the first four seasons. I realized that I could very happily live with this character for two years."

Staunton remembers being "terrified" when Morgan suggested she play Queen Elizabeth. "I was in shock," says the actress, an Oscar nominee for her performance in 2005's Vera Drake whose credits also include playing Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. "Not only do you have all these ideas about the Queen, but you're going to have Helen Mirren [who won an Oscar for playing Elizabeth in Morgan's 2006 film The Queen], Claire Foy, Olivia Colman — I had to get all that out of my head and start from scratch." Staunton met the Queen on several occasions and performed the vintage tune "Sing, Sing, Sing" at Elizabeth's 90th birthday celebration, but explains that such encounters did not really inform her portrayal. "You know, when she's in the Palace, she's just there, being herself," says the actress. "You get the sense not so much of her but how people perceive her."

Manville never met Princess Margaret, but she does have a great story about almost hanging out with the Queen's sister in the late '80s on the private island of Mustique with her ex-spouse Gary Oldman. "My husband at the time knew David Bowie," says the actress, an Oscar nominee for 2017's Phantom Thread and star of this year's Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris. "I'd just had my son, and [Bowie] said, 'Look, come over to my villa for a holiday whilst you've got the new baby and everything.' I was staying in Mustique at David Bowie's house and I then had to come home because I wasn't well. [Bowie] then rang me and said, 'It's such a shame you had to go home.' The night that I left, they'd been invited around to Mick Jagger's, and Princess Margaret was there playing the drums!"

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip on 'The Crown'

Pryce took the role of Prince Philip prior to the death of the Queen's husband in 2021, and felt emboldened by the fact that little was publicly known about him. "It sounds like a terrible thing to say about a person who's passed, but while he was an enigma I felt easier about playing him," says the Brazil star, who can also be currently seen on the Apple TV+ spy show Slow Horses. "Of course, when he died, there was documentary after documentary. I was like, 'Oh no, now you're going to be looking for that!'"

Where previous seasons have detailed the Queen's love of racehorses, season 5 explores Philip's participation in the sport of carriage-racing and his friendship with fellow enthusiast Penny Knatchbull, played by Natascha McElhone. Pryce declines to go into detail about how that might affect the bond between Philip with Elizabeth, but teases some behind-closed-doors turbulence between his character and Staunton's Queen. "It was a wonderful relationship, a loving marriage, but not without a few hiccups, like every long relationship," he says. "You're going to have to wait and see."

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip and Natascha McElhone as Penny Knatchbull on 'The Crown'

West describes the season 5 shoot as "like climbing into a big royal Rolls-Royce. It's enormously comfortable. You're aware of enormous resources available to you. You're aware of absolutely no expense being spared. We started off on Aristotle Onassis' yacht, the Christina O, in Mallorca, which was pretty cool. Then we went to Burley [Castle] for Windsor Castle, we went to Knebworth for Balmoral." The actor says he particularly enjoyed recreating Charles' role in the 1997 ceremony, which saw Britain handing Hong Kong back to China, a sequence shot in London's Docklands area: "I was dressed in Charles' white tropical royal naval captain's outfit — which is, I think, his best outfit — and I was taking a salute with these huge skyscrapers behind, a whole stands-full of Chinese dignitaries, and the Black Watch (a Scottish infantry battalion) marching past me. That was cool."

With all due respect to West and his military get-up, viewers will likely be more excited about Debicki wearing a recreation of the so-called "Revenge Dress." Originally designed by Christina Stambolian, the Princess wore this form fitting, off-the-shoulder black number to a party at London's Serpentine Gallery in 1994 — the same night a documentary screened about Prince Charles in which he confessed to being unfaithful to his wife after their marriage had "irretrievably broken down."

"It fascinated me how entranced people were with that dress," shares Debicki. "When it became known that I had the part, I received these text messages saying congratulations, [but] there was also a huge amount of text messages about the Revenge Dress. 'Do you get to wear the Revenge Dress?' 'Oh my God, you get to wear the Revenge Dress!'" The actress says wearing the outfit felt "very significant and quite powerful, but also it provoked something in me as an actor. I can't really explain it. It's pretty incredible that a dress would represent a moment in history, or that this human's life would represent so much and become so iconic. So that was a big day on set for me!"

Charles' appearance in the documentary was part of a campaign by the Prince of Wales to rehabilitate his image after the embarrassment of 1993's "Camillagate," in which media outlets made public an intimate phone conversation between Charles and Camilla that had taken place years earlier and was recorded by an amateur radio enthusiast. At one point during the exchange, the heir to the British throne told his lover that he wanted to "live inside" her trousers. When Parker-Bowles asked if he was going to be reincarnated as "a pair of knickers," Charles responded that it would be just his luck to instead return as a tampon.

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Olivia Williams as Camilla Parker-Bowles and Dominic West as Prince Charles on 'The Crown'

West explains that it was fascinating to revisit the controversy and re-enact the phone call with Olivia Williams — and that he found his own thinking reframed by doing so. "I remember thinking it was something so sordid and deeply, deeply embarrassing [at the time]," he says. "Looking back on it, and having to play it, what you're conscious of is that the blame was not with these two people, two lovers, who were having a private conversation. What's really [clear now] is how invasive and disgusting was the press's attention to it, that they printed it out verbatim and you could call a number and listen to the actual tape. I think it made me extremely sympathetic towards the two of them and what they'd gone through."

West describes Williams (Rushmore, Dollhouse) as "extremely bright, she's extremely forthright, and she had straightaway a sympathy for Camilla, that I shared actually. We both felt that we wanted to do right by our characters. We felt the odds were slightly stacked against their relationship and we wanted to try and bring it across in as sympathetic a light as we could."

Diana's romantic journey in the '90s led her into the arms of London-based surgeon Dr. Hasnat Khan, played in season 5 by Humayun Saeed, and ultimately Dodi Fayed, who is portrayed by United 93 actor Khalid Abdalla. Debicki is full of praise for both of her costars.

"I absolutely adored Humayun — he was such a lovely actor, and such a beautiful person," says the actress. "You never know how that's going to feel when you're playing things like that with an actor. So I was very lucky to have him, and I think he does such a beautiful job." Debicki also found Abdalla to be "a joy to work with. Not to sound like a broken record, but I just adore him, and I think he's such a sensitive and soulful human being."

Because of their characters' hostility towards each other, West and Debicki did not actually work together for long stretches of the shoot. Both remember fondly shooting a sequence that occurs near the end of the season and finds Charles visiting Diana at her apartment as the pair look back at their relationship.

"That was like a one-act play that Peter Morgan had written," says West. "It was wonderful to have an imagined scene where there is a rapprochement between these two, who had been through so much, so publicly. It felt right and interesting for them to reflect about being these rock stars, and also on the appalling pressures that had been [put] upon them."

"I would agree that it was like doing a play," says Debicki. "That was really something that we both got to do together and build together and it was a beautiful thing to make."

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II on 'The Crown'

No matter how beautiful — or popular (the series returned to Netflix's top 10 in the week after the Queen's death) — critics of The Crown claim that the series' return so soon after Elizabeth's death is in poor taste and that the show's depiction of Charles might threaten the monarch's popularity at a time when he is just beginning his reign. In September, Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper, the most pro-royal of the U.K.'s broadsheet newspapers, published an article headlined "The Crown's decision to show 'all-out' war between Charles and Diana raises concerns at Palace." The newspaper quoted a friend of the new King who called the show "exploitative" and said Netflix would have "no qualms about mangling people's reputations," even that of the late Queen.

Morgan offers a different perspective on the impact the season will have on the public's perception of the royal family. "I think we must all accept that the 1990s was a difficult time for the royal family, and King Charles will almost certainly have some painful memories of that period," says The Crown creator. "But that doesn't mean that, with the benefit of hindsight, history will be unkind to him, or the monarchy. The show certainly isn't. I have enormous sympathy for a man in his position — indeed, a family in their position. People are more understanding and compassionate than we expect sometimes."

The show's currently-in-production sixth season — which deals with Diana's fatal car crash in Paris, among other subjects — has also come under scrutiny by the British press. A story published by The Sun newspaper on Oct. 16, for example, quoted a "set source" who said that "turning Diana's final days and hours into a drama feels very uncomfortable…The show always tried to present a fictional version of royal history with as much sensitivity as possible. But lately, as things get closer to the present day, it feels harder to strike that balance."

Debicki tells EW that all concerned are handling the show's depiction of the tragedy as thoughtfully as possible. "Peter and the entire crew of this job do their utmost to really handle everything with such sensitivity and truth and complexity, as do actors," she says. "The amount of research and care and conversations and dialogue that happen over, from a viewer's perspective, something probably that you would never ever notice is just immense. From that very first meeting [with] Peter, I knew that I'd entered into this space where this was taken seriously [in] a deeply caring way. So that's my experience of the show."

West agrees that no one at The Crown is taking the subject of the princess' death lightly. "It's a hell of a season, because it deals with Diana's death and appalling scenes, like having to break that news to your sons," he explains. "I've got two boys of that age and so it's a heavy, heavy responsibility to get it right and something I think we all take pretty seriously."

The Crown Season 5
The Crown Season 5

Netflix Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana on 'The Crown'

According to Lesley Manville, very little has changed about the experience of shooting The Crown since the death of the Queen. "We're still doing the scripts. Nothing's changed, they haven't been rewritten. Why would they? We're dealing with the 1990s," says the actress. "One's feelings about what the whole nation has been through is kind of a private thing. Obviously, we talk to each other a lot [about it]. But the actual process of making the program is the same."

All that said, Imelda Staunton says she was "relieved" to be scheduled for a week off that happened to start the day after the Queen's death. As for her return to set? "Then you just get back on the horse, as it were," she says, "and you get back into it."

That, at least, is a sentiment with which the Queen would surely have agreed.

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