The reality of playing one of the most famous women of the 20th century set in for Emma Corrin one day on the streets of West London.
She was filming a scene for Season 4 of “The Crown” re-creating the early media frenzy around Princess Diana — nee Lady Diana Spencer — the bashful 19-year-old nursery school assistant who became the subject of insatiable public curiosity thanks to her burgeoning romance with Prince Charles.
Corrin, in character in a feathered blond wig, stepped out of Diana’s former building in Earl’s Court and was swarmed by extras clicking away on vintage cameras. But just beyond the actors pretending to be photographers was a throng of real-life paparazzi, there to get a shot of the young, unknown actress stepping into a career-making role as “the people’s princess,” a woman who redefined contemporary celebrity.
In that surreal moment, Corrin tried to seize on the advice that director Benjamin Caron had given her when she got the part.
“He took me aside and very helpfully said, ‘You and Diana are going through a very similar thing. You're going to suddenly be in the public eye, in a role that everyone has had their eyes on,' ” Corrin recalls. “ 'You will be in the newspaper and you'll be papped. Anything you feel about it, be it fear or excitement or nervousness, be aware of it because that's exactly how she would have been feeling.’ ”
“God,” she continues, “he was so right.”
Corrin is speaking via video conference from a friend’s home in the English countryside, where she’s enjoying a few days of quiet before “The Crown” returns to Netflix on Sunday and beams her likeness into living rooms around the world. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s sitting at her laptop wearing earbuds and a cozy sweater instead of strutting the red carpet in a couture gown. But she doesn’t know anything different: Prior to “The Crown,” the 24-year-old had only a few acting credits, the most notable a recurring part in the Batman prequel series “Pennyworth.”
Covering the late '70s through the early '90s, Season 4 of “The Crown” explores the sad saga of Charles and Diana, whose whirlwind courtship and storybook wedding captivated the world but whose fundamental incompatibility and mutual infidelity resulted in a messy split more than a decade later.
For viewers who lived through the era, new episodes offer a highbrow take on a familiar royal soap opera that has already been chronicled in numerous tell-alls and made-for-TV movies. But for a younger generation, who might know Diana primarily as Meghan Markle’s late mother-in-law, “The Crown” provides a humanizing glimpse at a woman whose saintly posthumous image has been oversimplified.
Creator Peter Morgan isn’t afraid to delve into the less flattering aspects of Charles and Diana's relationship. Diana is a sheltered teenager when she gets engaged to Charles, nearly 13 years her senior (played by Josh O'Connor), in what is essentially an arranged marriage. “The Crown” also graphically depicts Diana’s ongoing struggle with bulimia and her sometimes embarrassing desire for public adulation. Charles, for his part, is a snobbish bore who resents his wife’s popularity and doesn’t bother to conceal his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell). If Corrin’s Diana is embarrassingly needy, her in-laws are a dysfunctionally frosty clan only capable of bonding through a shared love of horses and hunting.
“The Crown's” new season premieres at a moment when Diana is back in the zeitgeist. Her son, Prince Harry, has fought the intrusive British press and distanced himself from the royal family, in ways that speak to her influence. Other projects about the princess of Wales are on the way, including “Diana: A True Musical Story,” a Broadway show soon heading to Netflix, and “Spencer,” a film set to star Kristen Stewart. This week, the BBC also ordered an inquiry into a notorious 1995 interview with Diana conducted by Martin Bashir.
Previously, “The Crown” has often focused on obscure or forgotten chapters in British history, but many people vividly remember the Charles and Di era — and have fixed opinions about it. Caron admits that moving into a more recent period “feels uncomfortable.” (“I really hope none of the royal family watches it,” he adds.) The delicate subject matter made it even more essential to find the right actress to play Diana.
An executive producer on the series, Caron also directed three episodes this season, including the standout “Fairytale,” which follows Diana during the lonely, disillusioning months before her wedding in July 1981. In a sequence that drives home her youthful naivete, the princess-to-be skates through the halls of Buckingham Palace while listening to Duran Duran.
“There’s a massive arc for Diana in the season. From a young adult to a mother with two small children and a failing marriage to the future king of England. That’s a big space to occupy and Emma fills it,” says Caron. (In Season 5, following Diana in the last years of her life, the part will be played by Elizabeth Debicki.) "Emma effortlessly walked that line between strength and vulnerability."
Though Corrin has no living memory of the princess, who died when she was a toddler, she says she still felt her influence. “I grew up very aware of her being generous and empathetic — a people person — and how rare that was. Whenever I heard about her with someone or watch a documentary I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is the kind of person who I want to be,' which is now weird,” she says, laughing. “I went a little too far.”
And she has Camilla to thank for it, in a sense. Producers were casting the role of Charles’ longtime mistress. Though Season 3 hadn’t even begun to film, Morgan had already written a scene from Season 4 in which Camilla takes Diana, her lover’s fiancee, out for an awkward lunch date/power move. Corrin was asked to read for Diana.
“I remember calling my agent and saying, ‘My God, I think they liked me. I think that's a good sign?’" Corrin says. “She said, ‘Please don't get your knickers in a twist.’”
Some months later she was called in for a formal audition with Morgan, Caron and casting director Robert Sterne. She dazzled them with a spontaneous karaoke rendition of “All I Ask of You,” a song from “Phantom of the Opera” that features in one of Season 4’s more cringeworthy moments.
Caron had a single reservation: He worried that, with her wide blue eyes, Corrin looked too much like Diana. “Normally we don’t go to someone who is almost a lookalike. We find the best actor,” he says. “But she had both, and that felt a little bit unnerving.”
“Diana is constantly in a state of flux between” strength and vulnerability, says Corrin. “A lot of people refer to young Diana as sweet and shy, and yeah, a lot of us are when we're 18 or whatever. But she also so knew what she was about. When she goes to Balmoral” — for a weekend with the royal family that amounts to an audition to be Charles’ wife — “she knows exactly what she's doing. It’s outrageous.”
Corrin read biographies of Diana sent by the show’s research team, but the most useful source she found was the documentary “Diana: In Her Own Words,” which uses recordings of Diana’s interviews with biographer Andrew Morton. Corrin has watched it so many times she says it still comes up in her Netflix homepage.
Corrin trained with movement coach Polly Bennett to understand Diana’s distinctive mannerisms — her bashful head tilt, sidelong glances and tall-girl slouch — from the inside out.
With someone as well-known as Diana, Bennett explained in an email, “the challenge was to look at her afresh, as if we had no idea who she was or what she was known for doing, so we [could] imagine why her behaviors manifested themselves the way they did. We worked together to get to the core of what made Diana who she was, rather than proliferate what we think we see."
Suddenly being trailed by photographers would have been a huge change for an unassuming nursery school teacher who had rarely attracted much attention.
“We imagined laser beams sniping through space towards Emma, which immediately gave Emma the reflex of lowering her chin and shrinking her frame to hide," Bennett wrote. "Suddenly we have an active reason for Diana's trademark head tilt, which is far more practical to play for an actor than a direction of ‘just tilt your head’ that can leave them stuck and overthinking.”
Together they also spent many hours researching the psychological impact of bulimia and reviewing footage of Diana's body language to anchor the performance “in truth rather than mimicry,” she says.
Perfecting Diana’s accent required a bit less imagination. “I'm kind of a bit posh, so it was not a huge leap,” says Corrin, who grew up in Sevenoaks, an affluent commuter town outside London, and attended Cambridge. But she was moved by the way Diana’s tone dropped the end of each sentence, “which makes everything she says sound quite sad.”
As for her own take on this painful chapter from royal history, Corrin is diplomatic.
“I have come to know Diana better than anyone else, so my sympathy will always lie with her," she says. "But I also have a huge appreciation of Charles, and what they both had to endure in that marriage. I don't think you can pick a side.”
Spoken like a true queen. Or at least a princess.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.