The Crown's Lesley Manville on Reconsidering Princess Margaret

lesley manville the crown princess margaret
Lesley Manville on Reconsidering Princess MargaretNetflix

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“I hadn't thought of myself as a Margaret for a nanosecond,” Lesley Manville says. But that all changed when the actress met Peter Morgan, the creator of The Crown, for tea. “It happened very out of the blue,” Manville says. “My agent called me and said, ‘Peter is inviting you to his house to talk about playing…’ and I thought, what is she going to say.” But a meeting with Morgan was all it took to convince Manville it was the right decision. “I was incredibly excited after that,” she says, “and for weeks after, I’d wake up in the morning thinking, oh, God, yes, I get to play Princess Margaret!”

That was just the beginning of Manville’s journey, however. It was nearly two years after her meeting with Morgan that filming began on the fifth season of The Crown—airing now—and so she had more than enough time to prepare. “Two years is enough time to read all the books, watch all of the documentaries, and just absorb it all,” she says. “Not in any kind of rigid or methodical way, but just to get the flavor of this woman.”

Manville read books like Craig Brown’s Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret and Anne Glenconner’s Lady in Waiting to help get a sense of the princess—who’s been played in previous seasons of the series by Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter—and figure out how to portray her during the royal family’s tumultuous 1990s.

lesley manville princess margaret the crown
Lesley Manville plays Princess Margaret on the fifth and sixth seasons of The Crown. The actress was also recently seen starring in Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris and the TV series Dangerous Liaisons. Styled by Maya Zepinic.NICK THOMPSON

“The lighter books showing the more humorous, naughty side of Margaret were great because they confirmed everything that we already knew about her,” Manville explains. “And of course, she moved in artistic circles, so a lot of people that I know had dealings with her in their capacity as writers or directors and I've had little glimpses from them. Obviously, I also went back and watched seasons one through four of The Crown, marveling at what Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter did. But, of course, the job is in no way to emulate them. I'm being employed to do my version of Princess Margaret.”

That’s just what she does. Over the course of the new season (the current cast will also portray the same characters in the sixth and final installment), Manville’s Margaret—along with many of the other characters—enters a new phase of life. She’s no longer the carefree young tabloid sensation or good-time foil to her sister’s serious monarch, but instead a woman in her sixties grappling with a changing world, a tumultuous family life, and more than a bit of painfully focused hindsight.

In an early episode this season, the series imagines a reunion between Margaret and her former beau Peter Townsend (played by Timothy Dalton) that’s both heartwarming and wistful. “She meets up with Townsend again— which I believe did happen, but obviously it's been dramatized—and you actually see a tender side to her,” Manville says. “Here's this woman who's getting a little bit giddy about meeting up with this man who was a big love for her. He's still dashing and handsome, and you look at the two of them doing that dance, and the little flashbacks to Vanessa Kirby crashing into his office and kissing him, and then it cuts to them together 40 years later, thinking of a life that might have been.”

lesley manville the crown princess margaret
Timothy Dalton as Peter Townsend and Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret on The Crown.Netflix

It's not the only moment for Margaret to get introspective. As much of the season’s drama comes from the martial problems of the Queen’s children—chiefly Charles, played by Dominic West—Margaret’s left to wonder how her own life would have looked if her relationship with Townsend hadn’t been upended by her sister.

“In the final scene of the episode, Margaret actually goes to the Queen, but the great thing about that scene is that it's not really a scene about Elizabeth the Queen and Margaret the Princess, it's a scene about two sisters who've got stuff to settle,” Manville says. “It tells the story of the depth of their love; Margaret and Elizabeth were a great love story in themselves.”

Telling that story, the creators of The Crown know, requires a certain kind of talent. “Margaret is a bit of a favorite for all of us,” says producer Suzanne Mackie. “We’ve always loved Margaret, from Vanessa Kirby to Helena Bonham Carter. She’s just such a bright, irreverent, smart, compassionate, all-seeing, all-knowing woman who provides a whiff of danger and eccentricity—and Lesley Manville is one of my favorite actresses of all time. She’s incredible and has such range. You can’t take your eyes off her.”

Like any actor on the show, Manville’s open about it being a dramatization of real life but having spent years working on it she’s also clear on why The Crown has become such a hit. “The wonderful thing that The Crown does is tell the stories that none of us know,” she explains. “Peter Morgan can use his imagination to go behind what the public know about the Royal Family. It's easy to find out about the day-to-day running of the royal household and what they did and didn't do, but what you don't know is how all of those events affect that family on a deeply personal and private level. And that's what The Crown is allowed to do.”

Of course, sometimes real life does find a way of seeping in. During the filming of the sixth season, Queen Elizabeth died, and while her passing might not impact the arc of the series—which aims to wrap up well before the current day—it did give the people making The Crown pause.

“Imelda Staunton [who plays the Queen] and I were actually filming the day that she died,” Manville says. “We'd finished for the day, and I was back at home when we got the announcement here on the news. The suddenness of it was all quite shocking. And then there were my personal feelings about that—a huge amount of sadness—as well as a kind of different sadness as the collective feeling that we had on The Crown. But the notion that we would do anything differently because the Queen has died is kind of not the point.”

the crown netflix princess margaret lesley manville
Lesley Manville found inspiration for playing Princess Margaret in books about the late royal as well as the performances of her predecessors on The Crown.Keith Bernstein

Indeed, the point is to do as much as she can with Princess Margaret—who herself died in 2002—while she can. “I can show people a side to Margaret, along with the side we know about her,” Manville says. “I find her the most delicious human being to play, because there's that wild, crazy side of her saying ‘let's be naughty, let's smoke too much and drink too much.’ I love all of that about her. But what I've been afforded through these scripts is the opportunity to tell the story of a woman who's in her 60s living a life that is difficult.”

She continues, “Margaret was this globally famous, glamorous woman who was so iconic and revered, but how does she deal with that? Her line to the throne has slipped, she’s without a partner. So, I hope the audience will see, not just with this season, but with what’s to come in season six, a woman trying to come to terms with the residue of her life, and how her life was shaped beyond her control. She didn't have autonomy, and she’s paying a price for that.”

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