From the moment it began in 2016, The Crown, Netflix’s hugely successful, much admired and occasionally controversial royal soap, has never put a foot wrong when it comes to casting – to the point where its stars have sometimes seemed to save it from itself. But even its producers were worried about the prospect of finding someone to play Princess Diana. Dust down the annals of Di-based drama and they tell a pretty desperate story: of a role that is irresistibly tempting and yet, utterly impossible to pull off. Was she out there somewhere, the woman who could bring her to life? And if she wasn’t, what would this mean for their series? “I was so nervous about being able to find someone capable of doing it, I was prepared to consider cancelling the show and simply not continuing, rather than getting it wrong,” admits its creator and writer, Peter Morgan.
For Morgan and his colleagues, though, the stars would somehow align. In 2018, when season three was still being cast (Diana would not appear until season four), a young unknown called Emma Corrin was asked to come in and help out with a “chemistry” reading as the search for someone to play Camilla Parker Bowles opposite Josh O’Connor’s Charles continued (the part went, in the end, to Emerald Fennell). Corrin, whose agent had instructed her that this was definitely not an audition, went down well with the director: after she’d read as Diana, he took her outside and asked if she would like to work on the character a bit – and eight months later, she got a call asking if she would like to audition properly for Morgan. “In a way, it’s unfair to say that Emma was born to play Diana,” he writes to me in an email. “Because I believe she will have great and lasting success as an actor playing many roles. That said, I do believe – and I think a small part of her might also believe – that she has an uncanny, fated connection to the character and was born to play this part.”
Does she agree? On my computer screen – Corrin is talking to me via Zoom from her home somewhere in north London; she is wearing a cream sweater, many rings, and could not look less like the Princess of Wales if she tried – smiles her adorable smile. Not really, though she remembers telling her agent that “something shifted in the room” when she first read as Diana: “‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘I think he liked me! He wants to work with me!’” She drops her voice a little, so that it sounds stern. “But my agent said: ‘Emma! Do not do this to yourself. Don’t even think about it. You met some great people who might want to keep you in mind for other things, that’s all.’” And what does she feel about her role now? All she can do is offer me the response of her friends: “They said they were worried about not being able to lose themselves in this series because it was me. But weirdly, after I showed them an episode, it was as if it wasn’t me there [on screen].” This, she observes, is what acting is about: only by making yourself invisible is it possible truly to inhabit a character.
Her performance has been widely acclaimed. Corrin, it is agreed, steals the show even from Gillian Anderson’s mesmerising Mrs Thatcher. When I watched the series, I couldn’t get over the way she had caught Diana’s gawky energy – a disabling, sometimes adolescent vitality that she never lost, even towards the end of her life. So, which did she get first: the angle of the head, or the voice? “Erm… the voice. But only because when I was initially auditioning, I would rehearse with my mum. She’s a speech therapist, and she helped me to locate it. I’d watched Diana: In Her Own Words [a 2017 TV documentary], and I had been so captivated by, and interested in, her voice. It’s unique. She was a Sloane Ranger. For that, you drop your jaw at the end of every sentence or phrase, and it makes everything slow and long. But it wasn’t just that. She had this incredible lilt. The way I heard it, she always sounded a little bit sad. There was a quality to it which I realised was important to her character.” What about the clothes? Did wearing Di’s novelty jumpers (early Di) and Catherine Walker evening gowns (later Di) help? “I see those as the final thing. You know those Morphsuits that you put on? It’s like zipping one of those up. Inside, you’ve got the voice, the character, all the context, everything you’ve researched, then you put the costume on, and it seals it all in. Costume is integral, but it clicks into place last.”
But there was so much else to learn besides. In one scene, we see Diana with her Walkman, roller-skating through the Buckingham Palace state rooms: an exuberant procession that underlines her state of semi-imprisonment even as it foreshadows her later break for freedom. “I couldn’t roller-skate, and I still can’t now,” says Corrin. “I had one lesson. For the dancing [we see Diana practising ballet alone, as well as dancing on stage with Wayne Sleep at the Royal Opera House in 1985], I trained for six months. I learned jazz and tap as well as ballet – there was a tap-dancing scene, but they took it out, probably because it was so bad.” This was her first big part, and at moments, it was hard to forget the fact. “With Josh, we spent so much time together, day to day; we got into this rhythm of switching in and out of character. But I only had one scene alone with Olivia [Colman, who plays the Queen]. I remember sitting opposite her, and someone saying ‘action’ and being quite thrown by how much of a gear shift it was. She’s so good. It was like an acting masterclass. It was hard not to say: sorry, can I just take notes?”
She had one scene alone with Emerald Fennell, too: shortly before her wedding, Diana has an excruciating lunch with Camilla at Menage à Trois (the restaurant, a Sloane favourite in the 80s, was real; the lunch is believed to be a figment of Peter Morgan’s imagination). “I remember that day so well,” she says. “I had the worst period pains of my life: I had a bucket on the floor, because I thought I was going to be sick. I think it helped, because I was so physically uncomfortable; it added to the scene, because I didn’t need to play her anguish.” In rehearsal for this, the director, Ben Caron, brought Josh O’Connor in, too (though the lunch is à deux, not à trois). “Ben asked Emerald and me to hold Josh’s hand whenever we felt we had the most power. I found that I wasn’t able to take it the entire time. Charles, you see, is the elephant in the room; it’s almost as if he is there as they talk. The dynamics of that scene are extraordinary. Camilla feels so comfortable in herself as a woman, just as Emerald does. She asks for pudding. She has appetite. Whereas Diana has a complex, emotional relationship with food. Camilla owns herself. She’s powerful and sexy, and Diana is a child.”
But this, on screen, isn’t all she is. A filigree of steel is perceptible right from the beginning; even as her emotions churn, happiness and sadness close together, as they always are when we’re young, you see splinters of determination, even of ambition. Morgan would remind Corrin that, however vulnerable Diana was, ultimately she fought back: “I ended up having this overwhelming appreciation for her complexity. I’m fascinated by the young Diana. We all have an understanding of what she was like as she got older, but her childhood… How isolated and lonely she felt for a lot of it. She was plucked from this lovely, warm situation with her friends in her flat in Earl’s Court into this very austere world. She was a teenager [when she got engaged]. That’s incredibly fragile: you don’t know who you are yet. You’re on the cusp of something. Then she was launched [as a royal] and so much was demanded of her. I went into every working day thinking about this swinging scale of vulnerability and strength. Vulnerability wasn’t the entirety of her. She endured an incredible amount.”
How does she feel about the controversy that followed the launch of the series last December, when the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, posited the idea that it should come with a “health warning” for viewers, informing them that it is fiction, not fact? “I think it was inevitable,” she says. “On some level, I do understand it. These people are alive. There’s bound to be protectiveness. I just think it does a disservice to the appreciation of cinema, television, writing, even the imagination.” Many, if not all, the scenes in The Crown are entirely made-up – and therein lies all of their wit, their elegance and their insight. To pinch from Julian Barnes, fiction is “a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts”.
Finding yourself suddenly so much talked about and admired, if not precisely famous (yet), would be an unsettling experience at the best of times. But in the middle of a pandemic, it has, for Corrin, been doubly weird. There have been no red carpets and no parties; interviews have all been conducted virtually. The air of unreality grows and grows. “When the show was coming out, we weren’t able to be together as a cast to celebrate it,” she says. “We were so proud of it, but haven’t seen each other since [before] the first lockdown. It has been so strange – and sad. But perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise. A friend said to me that at least it has meant that the focus has been on the work, not on events in, say, LA – and that’s what it’s all about for me. It has also made the whole explosion more manageable. I’ve had time to come to terms with it, I suppose.”
Twenty-five-year-old Corrin, who grew up near Sevenoaks, in Kent, fell for acting when she was small. “I don’t remember the decision to be an actor,” she says. “It was just… a very stark interest.” At primary school, she was Toad in The Wind in the Willows, a performance acclaimed, she remembers, by the mother of another child; she chose her boarding school largely on the basis that it had a huge theatre (a space in which she would star as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors). “I wrote a lot as a child. I had an insane imagination. I spent a lot of time outside, creating worlds; I put on a lot of plays. But I was 16 before I started thinking about it seriously. I had to say to my family: this is what I want to do. I wanted to quit school, and get an agent. My parents wouldn’t let me. They wanted me to have an another option, to get a degree under my belt.”
She was rejected twice by drama school. “I remember sitting on the bed, having got the letter from Rada. There was a voice in my head that said: right, how badly do I want this? I can’t let this affect me. I need to find a way. I’d heard an interview in which someone said: there’s no one way of doing it; determination and harnessing your creativity are the most important things. So I ended up going to Cambridge – I studied education – and they were the best three years of my life.” All around her, she says, there were young people “writing their own careers into existence”. In the year above her at college were Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, the creators of Six the Musical – a show that began its extraordinary life at the Edinburgh fringe (it has since been produced in the West End and internationally). “I remember it being sold out every night in Cambridge, and that taught us all a lot [about what might be possible].” For her own part, she helped stage a production of Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, and appeared in, among other plays, Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Philadelphia and The House of Bernarda Alba.
She can’t tell me what she’s doing next. But already, there is a sense that she is preparing for what might lie ahead – and this may not, always, involve being on screen herself: “Me and my friend Abby are co-writing a film based on an article I bought the rights to earlier this year. I met a producer at a festival last year, and she said: you will find as you get older that there might not be parts; there aren’t always roles for women out there that are any good.” It’s best to write your own, she thinks, if you possibly can – or to option everything in sight, as Reese Witherspoon seems to. She is painfully aware of the way that female actors, more than their male counterparts, are still judged so much by how they look. “I don’t think I will ever stop feeling that way: we’ve all grown up in the culture, it infiltrates your subconscious. But it makes me angry, and I do whatever I can to resist changing anything about myself for the satisfaction of other people.”
In her business, a big break – even a huge break – may not necessarily change everything. While there is talk of Emmy awards and Golden Globes for Corrin’s performance as Diana – she has already been nominated for best actress in a drama series by the Critics Choice awards – acting necessarily involves rejection. “The insecurity and the stress around it shifts, but it doesn’t go away,” she tells me. “It mutates. Recently, I’ve been sent a lot of scripts, and I feel like a very small fish in a huge ocean. It’s scary. My manager called me, and he said: ‘What’s going on? On a lot of the [audition] tapes you’ve sent in, I can tell you’re not trying.’ I felt awful. But what he said next was right. ‘This is where the battle begins. You’re not at a place where this is going to be easy. You’re up against household names like Emma Stone.’”
Will she be watching her successor in the next series of The Crown? (Elizabeth Debicki will play Diana in its final series). “Yes! I’m looking forward to it. Though I’m sad I only did one series, I always knew that was all I was signing on for, and I played her from 16 to 28. I took her from girl to woman, and I loved that arc. But I’m also quite pleased to move on. The industry loves to pigeonhole. The sooner I can move away from doing posh English, the better, even though that’s what I am.” Her plan, she says, is to do a kind of reverse Josh O’Connor (before he was Charles, he was a Yorkshire farmer in the film God’s Own Country). “I want to do a gritty, independent film, maybe in Scotland or something. I’ll have an outrageous accent, and flowing red hair.”
The Crown is available on Netflix