“It’s a legendary story, this one,” says Josh O’Connor, flashing a sly, dimpled smile. The British actor, who plays Prince Charles in “The Crown”, then launches into the serendipitous details—not of the real life love triangle involving Charles, Camilla Parker Bowles, and Lady Diana Spencer, which drives so much of the drama in the series’ fourth season, but rather of the day of auditions that led to the casting of an unknown actress to play one of the most iconic women of the 20th century.
The story begins in 2018, as the third season of “The Crown” was getting underway. The casting team was on the hunt for their Camilla and brought in O’Connor to read with a few front-runners. They hadn’t started their search for Diana yet, as her character wouldn’t make an entrance until the following season. But they needed a warm body to run her lines.
Emma Corrin, then just 22 years old, got the call through her agent, who stressed that it was not an audition. “But, obviously, I was like, ‘I’m going to prepare as if it were,’” Corrin says. Without the benefit of a hair, makeup, or wardrobe department, Corrin focused on what she had: her voice. She analyzed Diana’s speech patterns with the help of her mother, a speech therapist. “No matter what Diana is saying, it kind of goes down at the end,” Corrin says, slipping into the hauntingly similar imitation that makes her so believable. “It’s like a sadness.”
Although Corrin impressed “The Crown” team on that first day, she wasn’t given the part straight away; an extended courtship was required. It took eight months for director Ben Caron to make her an offer. “It was the most exciting proposal I’ll probably ever receive in my life,” Corrin says.
Corrin had another six months to prepare and a team ready to help. The show’s movement coach, Polly Bennett, worked with her on abstract Diana concepts, like how the princess might stand in a doorframe (centered, leaning on one side) and what kind of animal she might be (not a deer in the headlights, as Corrin first thought, but a cat: curious, composed, a bit calculating). Still, it was Corrin’s newcomer status that proved the most useful on set. “If we had gotten an experienced actress, it would have been an actress acting being nervous,” Morgan says. “Trust me, Emma was nervous on every day that we were filming,” calling it “enormously helpful.”
“The Crown’s” fourth installment spans the 1980s, a transformative decade for the British royal family largely because of Diana. But the People’s Princess is not the framework for these ten episodes. Once again, Morgan centers the season on the prime minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher. As divisive a figure as Thatcher was, the approach poses some new challenges. “When you’ve got Charles and Diana as a narrative, everything else feels a bit like eating vegetables, right?” he says. “The other narratives are necessarily going to be slightly more tired.”
Well, not entirely. The series is known for recasting its stars every second season, which allows multiple narratives to keep crackling past what could have been a sell-by date. Consider too that the story has progressed to the point where the principal players are now well into middle age; having new actors appear every other season lets “The Crown” embrace this stage of its characters’ lives. Helena Bonham Carter, who returns as Princess Margaret, welcomes the chance to carry the troubled spare into her fifth decade. “It’s so nice to be employed and [able to] show off our age,” the 54-year-old says. Olivia Colman reprises her role as the queen with more gray at her temples and a simmering impatience. “It’s nice to play a little bit of bitterness, a little bit of jealousy,” Colman says. “All of these emotions which are much more interesting than—”
“Innocence,” Bonham Carter interjects. “Youth? Overrated!”
Season four takes “The Crown” into new territory—in that it will be familiar territory. The events it covers are recent enough that many of us have lived them, and obsessed over them, in real time. There is Charles and Diana’s courtship and historic undoing, but also episodes dedicated to the Falklands War and sanctions in South Africa. Morgan spends a year writing each season, working with a team of five researchers. “When people say we get things wrong, we’re like, ‘We did not get things wrong! We chose what happened,’ ” says Annie Sulzberger, head of the research team. The fudging that usually happens is that timelines get condensed for dramatic effect.
Still, the popularity of “The Crown” has given the series a profound responsibility, shaping these historical events for a new generation. The show is a dramatization, not a documentary, but it is often received as mostly fact. This season, in particular, will be shocking to younger viewers unfamiliar with Charles and Diana’s story, and just how ugly things got.
Diana is embraced at first, but then she is ignored, laughed at, and scolded. In the third episode, she moves into Buckingham Palace and desperately tries to connect with her family-to-be. Diana joins the group for a black-tie dinner, only to be stopped with a wagging finger by Charles. She apologizes and curtsies to the queen, and then dizzily makes her way around the circle to greet them in the proper order. Later come elocution lessons, with a rope tied around Diana’s waist to keep her from moving her arms while speaking. Her anguish is illustrated by her bulimia, seen in several painful scenes of bingeing and purging.
“The coldness, the traditions, and the expectations of behavior…I don’t think she expected that,” Corrin says. “I think she expected to join a family.” As for the situation today, the actress sees some parallels. “You just want to shake these tabloids and say, can’t you see history repeating itself?”