“I’m still maybe a bit emotionally stuck in,” said the actress, who portrays the princess’s final days in the last season of The Crown.
In The Crown, the story of Princess Diana could only ever end one way. For Elizabeth Debicki, who played Diana in Seasons Five and Six of
The terrible part was the responsibility. Diana had been a real person, a mother. She had really died in just this way, in a high-speed crash while fleeing a horde of paparazzi. Debicki, who took over the role from Emma Corrin, felt that she owed it to the viewers, many of whom remember Diana, to play the role with perfect accuracy and heart.
The ease came from having already played the character for a whole season. In Season Six, the voice, the gestures — those came naturally. Debicki, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, employed a coastal metaphor. “By that time, I was in the water,” she said. “Like, I’m here. Let’s swim.”
The current was with her. Throughout Season Six, there are scenes of Diana and her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), fleeing the paparazzi. “It’s quite literally hours and hours and hours spent inside cars with people yelling and banging on the windows,” she said. “Pulling up, getting out, the absolute roar of sound, into the building, door shut, safe. And then we do it all again.”
It felt exhausting, it felt frightening, it felt very real. When it came time to shoot Diana’s final evening, Debicki wasn’t acting so much as reacting, she said, letting her body respond to the banging, to the roar of stunt-driven motorcycles gunning past.
“A lot of making this show, it’s just a surrender,” Debicki said. “This part of the story was really dark and difficult. I just thought: I just have to go there.”
Debicki, chic in a corduroy pantsuit and flats, was speaking on an afternoon in mid-November, just after the release of the first part of the sixth and final season of The Crown. At 6-foot-3, she is even taller than Diana and much less diffident. She looks at a person directly, not sideways or upward through her lashes. Still, she and Diana share a gently wicked sense of humour. “They both enjoy teasing,” Abdalla, her co-star, said in a recent phone interview.
Sometimes, Debicki turns the teasing on herself, as she did that afternoon, stretched out, fitfully, on a sofa at a downtown hotel. (Unlike her on-screen personae, she is more fidgety than languorous.) She was considering how The Crown is the third project (after The Night Manager and Tenet) to have cast her as a sad, elegant woman who spends a lot of time on boats. “Me and boats,” she sighed. “Me and the boat.”
Debicki never properly auditioned to play Diana, on land or on a yacht. After the first season of The Crown, she read for a guest role. She didn’t get it. But her agent told her that the show might want her later on for Diana. Debicki didn’t trust it. She didn’t see the resemblance and she has never played an ingenue-type role. Even as a 17-year-old drama school student, she played widows, wives and mothers, women who were older and worldlier. Once Corrin was announced as Diana in Season Four, she gave up on the role entirely.
But Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, had always intended for Debicki to play an older Diana. “She was only ever in a group of one for me,” he wrote in a recent email. “If she had turned us down, I’d have had no option but to write the show differently.” They met at Morgan’s house, just before the pandemic shutdown. Debicki was so flustered that she accidentally walked out with one of Morgan’s books. Morgan insisted that she keep it.
Debicki then set sail on “this endless sea of research,” she said, reading through boxes of documentation, examining photographs, watching videos. Perfecting Diana’s specific dialect and cadence — soft, aristocratic, often stronger at the beginning of the sentence than the end — was of supreme importance. She also had to master the princess’s gait and gestural language. Then she had to do the hardest work: building the personality and memories that would make a person move and speak that way.
“As an actor studying a character, there’s nothing more you could ask for than the challenge of blurring the real life and the imaginary,” she said. The Diana she created is glamorous, wounded, playful, knowing.
She gave a lot of herself to that creation, but Diana, she believes, gave back. “Playing this character let me love people around me,” she said. “Maybe it sounds really corny or something, but I gave myself full permission to just absolutely love these people.”
Diana was perhaps the most beloved of the royals, and as Debicki began to shoot Season Five, she absorbed some of that adoration. On location, people would often come up to her as if she were Diana, asking to speak to her, wanting her to hold her baby. But in the scripted scenes, which mostly had to do with her separation and divorce from Prince Charles (Dominic West), she experienced the converse, a sense of isolation.
That made Season Six, at least at the start, something of a relief. Having the CCTV footage of Diana and Fayed on the night they died, she and Abdalla agreed that they saw a real intimacy there, maybe even real love.
Was Debicki’s Diana easy to fall in love with? “Absolutely,” Abdalla said. “We both wanted to find that tenderness and that sense of fun.”
The scenes on Fayed’s father’s yachts and the scenes with Diana’s sons were mostly a pleasure. Determined to play against the end, Debicki said she discovered “these really delightful moments where she’s having a lovely, lovely time and things are really easy and carefree and actually the future is like very bright.”
Debicki is lucky enough to have never been stalked by the paparazzi. “I’m not particularly interesting in that way,” she demurred. The scenes of them pursuing Diana hit her hard, and that pursuit intensifies until, at the end of the third episode, Diana has nowhere left to run.
Morgan opted to show neither the crash nor Diana’s eventual death in a hospital, a choice with which Debicki agrees. “I don’t think it’s at all necessary,” she said. “You must proceed with enormous respect and caution because this was a real person and a profound and horrific tragedy.”
Even so and even though the great majority of her scenes wrapped a year ago, she doesn’t feel that she has entirely escaped the character or that tragedy. To play Diana meant taking on the love and adoration and exquisite vulnerability, and also the pain. None of which has washed away. She is still in the water, still swimming.
“I’m still maybe a bit emotionally stuck in,” she said. “I don’t really think I’ve left it is the honest answer.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Alexis Soloski
Photographs by: Jingyu Lin
©2023 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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