The fourth season of The Crown detailed the first encounter between Prince Charles and the young Diana Spencer, played by Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin respectively, whose ill-fated marriage became one of the most picked apart tabloid news engines of the 20th Century. Joe Utichi meets Corrin and O’Connor to learn more.
Emma Corrin is Diana Spencer
In hindsight, Emma Corrin has an idea about why she failed her audition to attend drama school. She had been invited to audition for RADA—one of the world’s most prestigious dramatic academies—and she was keen to impress. So, she chose a monologue from John Logan’s Peter and Alice, which had first been staged by Michael Grandage in 2013 with Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw. The play tells the story of Alice Liddell, the young girl that inspired Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, meeting with Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. There was just one issue, which might be guessed from the casting of Dench… in the play, Alice is in her 80s. “In my head, I was like, ‘It’s acting, I want to push boundaries,’” Corrin laughs, recalling the memory. “I’m an idiot, and obviously there was no way they weren’t going to hate that.”
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It wasn’t even her first choice. “I actually wanted to do Ben Whishaw’s part, but I don’t think I could have done a boy’s part,” she sighs. “I hope that’s changing. I’m pretty sure I would do that now if I were doing it again.”
As she sits down to reflect on the year in which her performance as the young Diana Spencer in The Crown has catapulted her onto the A-list—during a break from filming on the set of Grandage’s new film, no less—she can laugh at the memory. “I was honestly convinced I was going to get in,” she says. “I don’t think it was an ego thing or cockiness. It was pure naivety. I had come straight from school where I had loved doing drama, and I had a wonderful relationship with the drama department there. They had really mentored me. It’s that thing where you had been a big fish in a small pond, and then…”
Formal acting training is a flexible concept in the US, but in her native UK, drama school is the logical step for any aspiring thespian, so the rejection rattled her. “And in my naivety, it was a great lesson,” she says now. “Around the time, I read an interview with Andrew Scott, and one of the things he said that stuck with me was that there is no one way of doing it. Literally, that’s all I needed to hear. When you’re an actor starting out, you have no control. All you can do is prepare the best you can for auditions and turn up on time.”
Indeed, Scott had dropped out of his own drama tutelage in Dublin after six months to join a theatre company and learn on the job. Vanessa Kirby, who had starred in earlier seasons of The Crown, is a newly-minted Oscar nominee this year, despite having failed an audition for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her fellow nominee Carey Mulligan was turned down by the three drama schools she applied to. The bold resolve that inspired Corrin to choose a monologue for an 80-year-old—the same confidence that told her she had aced her audition—is the fuel that keeps any actor alive in an industry that is founded on rejection.
Corrin went to university instead, and when she moved to London afterward, she hopped sofas and worked different jobs to make ends meet as she auditioned and auditioned for roles she never got. “Every rejection, every phone call from my agent to say, ‘It didn’t go your way,’ I felt the layers of my skin growing. ‘OK, cool, let’s move on.’ You have to get beyond the fear of rejection and plow on because it’s intense.”
And so it was that she found herself on the wrong side of the desk at an audition for The Crown. The show was casting the role of Camilla Parker Bowles—which would eventually go to Emerald Fennell, who also didn’t attend drama school—and the casting directors needed an actress to read opposite as Diana Spencer. “It was a complete no-pressure audition,” Corrin recalls. “I was there reading the part of Diana, which I obviously thought at the time would be amazing to do, but it was a complete pipe dream. And yet I was also walking into a room of incredible creative people, and I thought, This is a chance to show them what I can do.”
From the outset, she prepared as she would for any audition. Diana: In Her Own Words, a posthumously released documentary in which the Princess narrates her life story, was the key to unlocking an understanding of a woman who died not long after Corrin was born. “I have no living memory of Diana, but I had this weird thing where my mum used to look incredibly like her, and often got mistaken for her in public,” she says. “My mum’s the most empathetic, open, sweetest person I know, and she’s like my best friend. And because of her love for Diana, and perhaps because of the resemblance, I think I assimilated the two in my mind. If I’m honest, I felt I was playing my mother in some ways.”
That same empathy came across in the documentary, which also gave Corrin the tools she required to find Diana’s voice. And she fell in love with the woman she found. “I do think Diana opened something up to negotiation in the Royal Family,” she says. “And they’re still negotiating today. But she made the Royal Family tangible in a way they hadn’t been before. She was a human through and through, and that was what I came to understand about her, and I think that’s certainly in the version that Peter [Morgan] wrote.”
It makes sense that the producers of the show would seek to audition their prospective Camillas opposite Diana. After all, one of the show’s standout scenes this season is a lunchtime confrontation between Diana and Camilla that is a masterclass for Fennell and Corrin; pleasant, even friendly, dialogue disguising a bitter power struggle between the lines that the young Diana isn’t sure she can win.
“It’s a masterclass in writing,” Corrin corrects. “It’s a complete gift for an actor to be able to bring that kind of writing to life because there is so much going on between each line. It’s the kind of nuance that really gives you a challenge but also is so good to get your teeth into. You almost have a complete understanding of what each of them is thinking even though it’s completely not what they’re saying. They’re both there sizing each other up.”
As the process wound on—and it would be a year before she finally landed the part—Corrin got the sense that she had succeeded in turning the job of reading opposite other actors into her own audition for Diana. And when she was eventually cast, she ran the scene again with Fennell, this time with Josh O’Connor present at the table. “The director, Benjamin Caron, said, ‘OK, whichever of you feels you have the power in the moment, you can take Josh’s hand,’” says Corrin. “And it was just Emerald holding his hand the entire time, and me trying to get in there. But it was interesting, as the scene went on, that I was able to get in there when Diana starts to bite back. It was such a great exercise, and I think it really helped us on the day to acknowledge the elephant in the room without acknowledging it directly.”
Corrin was already a fan of The Crown when she entered the audition room. Though she claims no particular affinity for the Royal Family, nor much interest in the history documentaries her own family devoured, it was the same humanity Morgan brought to the more guarded members of ‘The Firm’, as it’s known, that made the drama so compelling to her. “I was intrigued by the characters, the emotions, and the way they navigated this very particular space,” she says. The prim and proper stoicism of the Royal Family had never previously interested her. And yet the notion that behind each of them were these flawed human beings searching for their own place in the world made them somehow more accessible.
This was especially pronounced for Corrin with the show’s sixth episode this season, “Terra Nullius”, in which Charles and Diana’s fractious relationship is tested by a tour of Australia. “There’s a moment where you realize, Oh god, this is just a marriage struggling, and people working on it,” says Corrin. “The emotions they’re feeling—if not the particular details of their conversations—are the emotions we feel in relationships all the time. That’s something that Josh and I really held onto; this is a marriage breaking down, and these are two people trying to make this thing either sink or swim.”
Keeping that in mind helped across the board. Corrin describes herself as an inside-out actor. It wasn’t so much about the hair, the clothes, the costume. Instead, it was about what Diana was thinking and feeling with every particular scene. “I worked with Polly Bennett, who is a fantastic movement and acting coach, and we broke it down a bit. We’d go through each scene and figure out, what’s she done before this? What’s she thinking here? What did she have for breakfast? The kind of weird stuff you do as an actor. But then also, what does she want from this scene? What does she think she wants? What does she need?”
Corrin says the greatest compliment she has received for this approach came when a journalist reacted to a scene in episode six in which Charles and Diana seem to find a solution to their marital strife—at least temporarily. “For a minute I thought they might work it out,” the journalist told her. The weight of the history of these very public figures had been momentarily lifted; even forgotten.
It helped that she had a simpatico scene partner in O’Connor. “I read with him a couple of times in auditions, and we have a friend in common, so we knew each other a bit,” she says. “We got on really well instantly. We were naturally comfortable and trusting of each other, and he’s a wonderful person to act with because he is an active listener, and he gives back.”
What marks him out, she says, is an emphasis on allowing himself a world outside of acting. She remembers him telling her he felt the work could be all-encompassing if he let it. “He almost gave up acting to become an artist, and I think so many of us spent years trying to get here that when we do, it’s like, ‘Great, this is it.’ Almost like resigning yourself to a nunnery. He taught me, yeah, go to Cornwall and learn pottery, or go to Scotland and go fishing and hiking. It helps you; it feeds you.”
Corrin’s hobbies are a little more local; she is a voracious reader and has been developing her passion for writing, working on a screenplay with a friend. During lockdown, she made a new pen pal. “She’s called Trish and she lives on a beautiful farm,” Corrin says. “She’s had the most incredible life and has wonderful stories; I went to stay with her for a bit when lockdown was over. She does lino prints, and I spent a week learning how to do linocut and printing. I just love being open to stuff like that. Creating.”
For now, though, Corrin is fielding the many offers that have come off the back of The Crown’s rollout, and experiencing for herself a little of the tabloid interest that once hounded the Princess. As the world starts to open up, she’s glad to be back on set, in Grandage’s My Policeman, and is reveling in the theatrical sensibility he has brought to the production. “We had two weeks of rehearsal on this film,” she marvels. “Why doesn’t everyone do that?”
It brought her right back to her early days. “My roots are in theater. And Michael has an amazing way of steering you in the right direction but making you feel involved along the way. He’s genuinely interested and inquisitive about your take, and how you think it should work.”
Working with Grandage has been a learning experience, of a kind she actively seeks out with every job. But it’s less about learning the skills of being a successful actor, she says, and more about life. “A lot of people will ask me, ‘What did you learn from Olivia [Colman] and Helena [Bonham Carter] on The Crown?’ And obviously, you feel like such a sponge in those situations and it seeps in subconsciously. But the main thing you learn through other people is just how they move through the world, and how their experiences have shaped them. Their stories are all amazing, and so different. That’s what it’s all about, for me.”
Josh O’Connor is Prince Charles
In hindsight, Josh O’Connor has to admit he has become quite fond of Prince Charles, at least in Peter Morgan’s conception of the man in The Crown. “The Royal Family are historical figures, or they’re postage stamps,” he says. “And when they first came to me about this role, my biggest question was, where’s the soul? He’s a figure, he’s a face, and I have no idea what that’s like in real life.”
But as he concludes his two-season stint on The Crown and gets ready to hand the role to a new actor, he has been forced to reappraise, especially after essaying Charles’s agonizing struggle with his relationships with Diana Spencer and Camilla Parker Bowles in Season 4. “I feel more connected to him now because, in fact, it’s all soul. The idea that a young man has to wait for his mother to die for his life to take meaning, I mean, boom, we’re done. That’s a huge philosophical question. And what’s fascinating about what Peter has done is it doesn’t matter if you’re a royalist or a republican. I’m a republican and yet I feel so much respect and sympathy for the Royal Family. In fact, I’m a republican because I feel respect and sympathy for these individuals.”
For O’Connor, it is this aspect of The Crown’s construction that has made it such a barnstorming success. He is baffled when people ask for his opinion on Harry and Meghan, for example. “I have no idea what’s happening, and I don’t keep up with it. But it’s interesting that people think you would have some sort of insight into these people.” He recognizes that this is true of Peter Morgan, too, and of the historical fiction of The Crown’s narrative. It is preposterous, then, that some have called for the show to carry a disclaimer that it is not based on fact. Morgan has, for many years, made it his stock in trade to imagine what goes on behind the closed doors of history.
“And what we’re attempting to do is understand that predicament that they’re in and to empathize with these characters,” O’Connor continues. “In Season 3, I did a little research into how Charles speaks and how he is in public, but in Season 4, the thing that I could focus on was marriage, and I read a lot of books about marriage failure. And almost unanimously, in all the theoretical books and articles and personal stories, what always struck me—even if people weren’t admitting it—was how much love there is in divorce, and in separation.”
Perhaps this is where the confusion comes in, since what Morgan imagines feels true, even if it is not necessarily fact. “Ultimately, Charles was an adult, and he would not have married Diana if he didn’t think that it could have worked out. Whether or not he was influenced by his family, I think he believed it could work out.”
O’Connor came to The Crown late. His friend, Vanessa Kirby, had appeared in the show’s first two seasons, and as the phenomenon brewed, he would run into her at parties. “I think the first time I saw her, I said, ‘I haven’t seen it yet.’ But then, when I ran into her again, I had to say, ‘You’re amazing!’ Partly because I knew she would be amazing, but also because I thought, Well, I’m going to have to watch it eventually.”
He understood the show would recast after its second season, and when he did finally catch up, he marveled at the performances and thought, “Anyone taking over from that lot is doomed to fail.”
Now, he too is reckoning with the idea of passing on the mantle. “Whoever takes over from me will have the task of taking on the trauma that I’ve set up for him,” he laughs.
Speculation is rife about who his replacement will be—Imelda Staunton and Elizabeth Debicki have been lined up to play the Queen and Diana, among the names already announced—but the smart money is on Dominic West. O’Connor and West have previous: he was Marius to West’s Jean Valjean in a British television adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. “He will be unbelievable [as Charles],” says O’Connor. “Just before I did The Crown, I worked with him and Olivia [Colman], actually. We shot together for weeks while he was literally carrying me through the sewers of Paris. He’s great.”
O’Connor had a tough time on Les Mis, though, precipitated by an attack of eczema right before shooting began. The skin on his hands cracked, and he had to take steroids to calm down the symptoms. “They cast me when I was slim and cool, and then because of the steroids I put on loads of weight, and I was bulging. Poor Ellie Bamber,” says O’Connor, of the actress cast as Cosette. There he was, playing Victor Hugo’s stalwart young romantic hero. “And there’s this hilarious scene that my friends all take the mick out of, which is kind of harsh considering I was in trauma. Cosette’s there and then Marius comes into frame with just this weird, bloody claw of a hand. It’s so terrible.”
He was more aptly cast recently as Romeo alongside Jessie Buckley’s Juliet in a new production of Shakespeare’s classic romance for the National Theatre. It was going to be a stage play before the pandemic put paid to those plans. Instead, director Simon Godwin shot the play as a film, and it was released by PBS.
“This was my last chance to play Romeo because I’m definitely too old,” O’Connor says. He had left drama school at the same time as Buckley, and they had been looking for something to do together. It took on added resonance because of the approach to shooting. “I don’t want to spoil a 500-year-old play, but there’s a moment at the end where we’re on our deathbed, and as the camera pulls back we come through the National Theatre, and all the empty seats, and it is haunting. Then the message comes up, ‘This company made this film in 14 days during a worldwide pandemic.’”
The circumstances of the production might have been necessitated by the pandemic, but it became an unusual hybrid process that O’Connor relished. “What we held onto throughout was the rehearsal process,” he says. “It’s a process we miss so much in film. And it’s my favorite moment, being in a room with a bunch of actors and working stuff out. It’s like therapy. And then we shot it and the mad thing was that having rehearsed it, everything went out the window once you start filming. But all that work was there.”
Simon Godwin, says O’Connor, “Did not give a crap about film. He said to me, ‘I went back to watch some films,’ and I asked him what he’d seen. He said, ‘Titanic,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ That was the film he started with. I was like, ‘Check out Citizen Kane!’” But Godwin’s freshness to the process was exciting too. “His openness was sensational. There is so much ego in film and he doesn’t have a bit of it.”
Like Corrin, O’Connor has toyed with his own interests behind the camera. He has a story-by credit on a film in pre-production that he wrote with a friend nearly a decade ago. “It’s inspired by a boy we went to school with, and by my own obsession with Desert Island Discs,” a long-running radio program in the UK in which celebrities pick the records they would take with them if stranded on a desert island.
Another script he wrote is in development at the British Film Institute, and he hopes he will be able to direct it. “I mean, I certainly don’t see myself as being a writer, but I think directing, one day,” he says. “But when an idea comes into your head, you just want to get it out, so that’s what’s happening at the moment. I’m excited about Emma’s writing, because she’s a proper writer, whereas I’m just thoughts on a page.”
It has been a learning curve. “The BFI asked me to send them a beat sheet,” he recalls. “I’d never heard those words in my life. I sent them a painting, a piece of music, and a bunch of ramblings. They must have thought I was bonkers. They were like, ‘Yeah, so, anyway… what’s the film?’” He described it to them as Taxi Driver meets Derek Jarman. “And they said, ‘Are you crazy? No one’s going to fund you to make Taxi Driver meets Derek Jarman.’ I was just listing things I liked.”
O’Connor’s interests are myriad, and many of them lie outside acting. His grandmother was a ceramicist, and he has been cataloging her work. “She’s still with us but she doesn’t really practice anymore,” he says. “She made sculptural ceramics. And I have made ceramics, but I’m not brilliant. It’s a dream of mine to get into it properly and learn. I feel very fortunate that through my acting I’ve been able to get closer to my great love, which is craftsmanship and ceramics.”
For O’Connor, working with his hands is an extension of the same therapy he derives from acting. “We live in a time in which, with phones and technology, we’re so removed from touch, and what I grew up around. My grandfather was a sculptor. I just remember the smell of wood and the way his hands would work with it, like my grandmother with the clay. The idea of taking something natural and making something beautiful with it, with what god’s given you, that, to me, is the purest form of art.”
He likens it to the feeling that he has lost himself in a particular performance, but he is hesitant to subscribe to the Method, which is all about that kind of approach to acting. “It’s that thing where you’re just in it. There’s something peaceful and just natural about that.” He marvels at Olivia Colman’s ability to “just show up” and mine the depths she does. “There are times where I look back on my own work and go, ‘I can see me; I can see the work.’ And it’s partly because I’ve been in a difficult place with my own mental health, or life has been going on to a degree where I just haven’t put the work in. And that’s fine, everyone goes through moments like that. But I think committing to a role, like I did with God’s Own Country and Only You, and hopefully The Crown, where you really invest in who you’re playing… That’s the moment where the magic happens.”