‘The Crown’: Emma Corrin and Josh O’Connor on Embodying the Agony of Charles and Di
Yes, performing that awkward ‘Phantom of the Opera’ scene made them both want to go fetal.
“It’s so cringey,” said Emma Corrin, who stars as Princess Diana in Season 4 of Netflix’s “The Crown.” “It’s the worst.”
“It’s so uncomfortable,” agreed Josh O’Connor, who, as Prince Charles, is Corrin’s frequent scene partner. “It’s so horrible. I’m so sorry.”
Here’s the thing about playing the British royal family’s two very famous star-crossed lovers — there are any number of based-on-real-life scenes with Corrin and O’Connor in “The Crown” that they could be talking about. Is it the duo’s terrible engagement interview, where it becomes very apparent that Charles has little interest in his future bride? Is it the press conference in Australia where Diana fumbles incredibly basic questions about their trip Down Under? Is it when Charles watches aghast as attention-starved Diana does a surprise dance to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in front of a packed audience at the Royal Opera House?
All worthy contenders, but the scene in question is the one in Episode 9, “Avalanche,” where Corrin, on stage in full Sarah Brightman “Phantom of the Opera” costume — complete with sets and orchestral backing — records a video of the impossible soprano lung-buster “All I Ask of You” for Charles’ anniversary present. The two, after a tepid dinner, watch the video together on the VCR — and O’Connor’s brutal, horrified reaction to Diana’s wide-eyed attempt at reconciliation is both heart-piercing and priceless.
“She hasn’t learned!” Corrin replied. “It’s the second time she’s done it [after the Billy Joel performance]! You’re like, ‘Come on Di! COME ON!’”
“In reality, what Emma did in that scene is amazing,” O’Connor said. “The [crew] were like, ‘Do you want to see it before [you film]? and I was like, ‘Maybe not, because I’m not really into that, I would rather react in the moment.’ But then the director was like ‘Emma is quite fucking great in it!’ — sorry, I shouldn’t swear — but it was like ‘Emma is really good in it!’ so I sat down and watched. And the singing is amazing! But then I had to be that prat! If my partner did that for my birthday, I would be in tears and so grateful. It was really hard to go from that, to acting like ‘What an idiot!’”
It’s the mixing of private moments with the public persona of Charles and Diana that makes Corrin and O’Connor’s performances so resonant. Each is required to make countless broad and fine choices every moment on screen to avoid mimicry, but to still give the audience the satisfaction of recognizing their personal experience of the characters.
They were helped by creator and showrunner Peter Morgan’s scripts, which cleverly intertwine a select number of very public moments that put a not-so-delicate point on the couple’s private upheaval. Moments that we’ve all endlessly seen are left out; the episode focused on the royal wedding cuts to black just before Diana, in her wedding dress, leaves for Westminster Abbey. The “Lion King”-esque presentations of newborn Prince William and Prince Harry on the steps of the Lindo Wing at St. Mary’s Hospital are omitted entirely.
What remains are the moments that deepen the focus on a couple as their public facade slowly crumbles to reveal a relationship built without a foundation beyond patriarchal expectations of marriage and duty.
“Diana’s iconism — Is that a word? It should be! — really kind of annoyed me,” Corrin said. “It means we can slap a term on this person, but it’s very insensitive to her experience. She was incredibly strong — but at the same time, a very vulnerable woman taking on a lot of responsibility at a very young age […] those two forces playing against each other are just incredible.”
For O’Connor, he knew at the outset of taking the role that he would have a chance to play a two-decade arc in Charles’ life. In Season 3, Charles was coming into his own in fits and starts, including his investiture as the Prince of Wales and falling in love with Camilla Parker-Bowles — played to posh devil-may-care perfection by Emerald Fennell. It is in Season 4, however, that Charles comes to understand the ramifications of his coming-of-age journey.
“That was always the attraction: to take on playing a more sympathetic Charles — a younger, more naive Charles — and then taking him right through essentially an entire marriage,” O’Connor said.
The marriage overtly falters during an explosive point for both characters in Episode 6, “Terra Nullius.” Charles and Diana are in Australia, and facing off across a table on the veranda of a house where they are staying in the Outback. Diana, the mother of newborn William, is exhausted, struggling with bulimia and the dawning realization that her husband considers her little more than a prop. For his part, Charles doesn’t understand why the prop in question simply can’t get with the program, perform on stage as required, and maybe say “thank you” every now and then.
The scene itself was filmed over two very hot days in Spain. The wide shots were completed, Corrin finished her close-ups, and the camera turned to record O’Connor’s takes. And that’s when the flies swarmed. Dozens. All over. Everywhere. Literally everywhere.
“It was extraordinary — they would go in my nose!” O’Connor said. “I was like, ‘This is mad.’ The tragedy of this day was that you couldn’t see the flies on the monitor. I’m sure everyone was just like ‘He doesn’t know his lines, he’s just not prepared, he’s not focused.’ I was doing these really intense lines — Emma, weren’t they crawling in my mouth?”
“It was funny the first two times it happened, and then we were like 10 takes in and I could tell you were close to tears,” Corrin said. “But you did it! You did it, and you were such a trooper! Sorry, that was patronizing. But you were such a trooper! You just smashed it, but I would have been in bits. Watching that scene […] you can’t tell at all.”
The rapport between Corrin and O’Connor is obvious, and that, in the end, may be what makes the duo’s work this season so compelling. You can’t have Di without Charles, and you can’t have Charles without Di —and you can’t get these kind of wrenching character studies on screen without innate trust and humor among acting partners.
Although Season 5 will shift the cast again, with the always-outstanding Elizabeth Debicki taking on the role of Diana and Dominic West rumored to be in the running to play Charles, it is a touch bittersweet that we won’t see Corrin and O’Connor finish the complicated and tragic arc of these characters.
“It was fascinating [to play Charles for two seasons], and kind of sad, and at times really fun and exciting and obviously a pleasure working alongside Emma.” O’Connor said. “That was a dream, and always with that cast, it’s a great treat. I loved it.”
“The Crown” Season 4 is available to stream on Netflix.