How Emma Corrin Brought Princess Diana to Thrilling Life on ‘The Crown’
The actress opens up to Marlow Stern about nailing Diana’s mannerisms, Charles’ scumbaggery, whether the royals have contacted her, and the time Harry Styles dogsat for her.
“I feel a fondness towards her,” admits Emma Corrin. The actress is speaking about Princess Diana, of course, the reluctant royal she so masterfully embodied in The Crown’s dishy fourth season, which traces her relationship with the icy Prince Charles over the course of 12 years, from age 16 (he was 28) through to their marriage’s collapse.
It’s a nearly impossible task, portraying someone as beloved and mythologized as the Lady Di, and yet Corrin handles it admirably, as the nervy teen transforms before our very eyes into a self-possessed humanitarian. (Corrin was so convincing that the royals are still clutching their pearls.)
“It’s almost like it’s two separate people. That’s how I was approaching it,” Corrin tells me. “Generally, we have a much better understanding of what older Diana was like than younger Diana—there’s hardly any footage of her when she was younger, living with her flatmates before she got married.”
Creator Peter Morgan plucked Corrin from relative obscurity for the star role opposite Josh O’Connor’s Prince Charles. What followed was a six-month crash course in all things Diana, including nailing her mannerisms with movement coach Polly Bennett and her speech with vocal coach William Conacher. Oh, and let’s not forget the roller skating, dance, and ballet lessons. While Netflix’s stately series centers on Queen Elizabeth II, her quarrels with Margaret Thatcher served as mere background noise to this season’s Diana/Charles drama.
On the cusp of surely receiving her first Golden Globe nomination for her performance, The Daily Beast spoke with Corrin about everything from how she embodied Diana to her thoughts on the royals (and of course, that Phantom of the Opera sequence).
There is an element of life imitating art when you take on a role like Princess Diana. In researching for this interview I found a bunch of Daily Mail posts of you just walking around London now running errands. Was there a bit of apprehension prior to taking this on, that it could invite the paparazzi vultures in?
It’s very strange on two levels. I remember when I got offered the role, one of the directors, Ben Caron, talked to me and was like, “Your life is going to change a lot. You’ll probably feel overwhelmed at times and quite scared with the amount of press attention you’ll get, and it will feel exciting at the same time.” He said, “Anytime you’re pap’d or someone is following you and you get some weird attention that is scary to you, use it, because that is exactly what she would be going through. And that helped me, because while we were filming, my trajectory echoed hers in a way.
I saw that the paparazzi were constantly trying to snap you while filming.
I had this very bizarre day that I remember so well. We were filming in Earl’s Court in London, where I come out of her flat and I’m being chased by paparazzi—just when she’s got engaged. We were filming on this road with the supporting actors playing the paparazzi for our series, then our security, and beyond that just a wall of Daily Mail paparazzi. It was so strange and kind of like no acting required, because I was like, “What? This is so weird!” But it’s been strange with lockdown, because I’ve experienced the show coming out from my flat, and although it’s been weird that I can’t celebrate with the cast and haven’t done a press tour, it means it’s more focused on the work and not on me so much.
It must be doubly annoying though to leave your apartment during lockdown to go grab a coffee and be chased around by photographers, like, “What the fuck! I finally leave and have to deal with this?”
I know! Because I spend 90 percent of my time in track suits and Crocs, and when I go outside and be like, “God, do I have to think about what to wear now?” But I’ve just given up. It’s so annoying.
As someone who runs errands in my neighborhood in sweats all the time, I can’t imagine. On a more positive note, I read this funny story about Harry Styles dogsitting for you. Is that true?
Yeah! We live in a similar area and I went out to dinner with my friends near his house, and I asked if he would watch my dog. If you had told me that a year ago! He was great. He liked having a dog around. He was very sweet, and my dog is very well-behaved, which is good. Didn’t pee on Harry Styles’ floor or anything.
And this is your dog Spencer, that you adopted when landing the role—and named after Diana? Is that right?
It’s a hundred percent true. I wish it wasn’t! That was a real moment of… misguided moment for me. But it’s done! I call him “Spence,” and then I called him “Spen”—but that’s weirdly turned into “Spoon,” so now we all call him “Spoon” now, which is very strange. But at least it’s not me shouting “Spencer!” across the park. If you’re trying to avoid attention, just shouting the name of your role is not the one.
And Harry Styles said that your dog farted a lot.
That was the Harry Styles review of my dog, and… he goes through phases, but he’s fine. I love him. And having a dog in lockdown has been one of the best things. I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know what I’d do without Spencer.
I’m dying to get a dog myself. I’m curious what your thoughts were of Diana and the royals prior to engaging with The Crown? I heard that your mother bore a passing resemblance to Diana?
Yeah, she did. And so I grew up with that—my friends all used to joke about it, and it was a running joke that my mom looked like her, so I had an awareness of her. And with the royals, I just had a vague awareness that they were there and didn’t think too much into it. But certainly, with Diana, my mom was very fond of her and so I’d grown up with a great appreciation of her, but I’d never researched that much into her or what she’d experienced. I knew her as this martyred and quite tragic figure who was so adored, but I was mostly starting with a blank slate because I think I was three when she died.
It’s interesting how you were cast, because I read that you were first hired to read as Diana during the casting of Camilla.
In December of 2018, they were casting Camilla for Season 3, and they were doing chemistry reads with about five girls who’d auditioned to play Camilla and needed to chemistry-read them with Josh, then with someone to play Diana. They hadn’t cast Diana, so just needed someone to read the lines. I remember getting the call from my agent and she said, “Look, it’s just a paid gig, it will just be the afternoon, they just need someone to help, and it will be off-camera. But you’ll be in the room with an amazing group of producers and directors, so why don’t you do the work?” So, I learned the lines, did a lot of research, and tried to get the voice down. I went in and remember towards the end of the day, they asked me to work a bit on the character and then put me on tape. I went back to my agent and said, “I think they really liked me!” and she went, “Emma, what are you doing to yourself? Don’t even think about that. What you can take away from today is you’ve met some great people in the industry, it’s great they responded to you, and leave it at that.” And I’m glad she gave me that advice, because it wasn’t until nine months later that they asked me to audition.
I understand The Crown employs a crack team of researchers, so what sort of insider knowledge did they give you about Diana, and how did you prepare?
They do! I spent a lot of time in their office. They give me this huge lever arch file that was broken down into sections corresponding to different episodes, so if I was reading the script to Episode 6, I could look in the bit that said “Episode 6” and it would give me all the information that they got from documentaries or people they’d spoken to who know the royal family. I still have the file and don’t think I can throw it away.
Maybe eBay someday.
Yeah, if I ever go broke!
I hope it doesn’t come to that! I also read that you consulted with Princess Diana’s secretary, and that you’d watched the Diana: In Her Own Words documentary a number of times.
I think I’ve watched that about 100 times. It still comes up on my Netflix! My algorithm is so messed up—just Diana. I talked to Patrick Jephson, and he was great. But to be honest with you, I felt oversaturated with information quite quickly. And when I got the script, I realized, “Oh, this is a fictional world. It’s Peter’s idea of what we’re playing, and my interpretation of the character,” so I stopped researching and more focused on the script and the beats I was hitting. But it was good to speak with Patrick.
What big takeaways did you have from your research that helped inform the performance?
How young she was. She was so young. And I was interested to learn more about her childhood. She spoke of being very lonely as a child, and I know there was a lot of conflict between her parents that left her quite isolated. That made me think, “Oh, maybe that’s the reason she was so willing to go head-first into a marriage with someone older in Charles, even though it might not have been the right thing.” Maybe she thought he was the older protective male figure that she was looking for.
I’ve seen Diana: In Her Own Words as well. And it gets quite dark. Was there a conversation with Peter Morgan about where the line was as far as how dark you’re going to take this? Because there’s a version of this that could depict the suicide attempts and other things she opens up about in that documentary.
No—not between me and Peter, although I’m sure there were those discussions. The thing about The Crown that I realized is that they never stray too far from the Queen. We see each character’s journey, their struggles, and what they’re dealing with, and there is a version that could go into Diana’s world too much, but one thing I very much did speak to the writers at length about was depicting her bulimia, because it was shown in the scripts, but through my research and listening to her words, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just shown briefly, because I think it’s integral to her experience at that time, and I think with bulimia or eating disorders in general, they’re very much tied to your daily life and what you’re going through emotionally. I didn’t want us to shy away from it onscreen. As long as you handle it sensitively, I think it’s important to create a space to talk about it. Diana herself talks about it very openly in the documentary, and I wanted to pay homage to her bravery.
They sort of let Charles off the hook in The Crown a bit when it comes to Diana’s bulimia, because according to Diana, Charles is almost helping fuel her eating disorder by constantly criticizing her weight, grabbing her waist, etc.
She sees that in the documentary. It’s unbelievable. That chasm between them.
It’s a strange juggling act, because there are scenes where you had only the skeleton and then others, like the interview with Charles or the gala dance sequence, where you were recreating documented events.
I really enjoyed the moments where we had creative freedom. Because you never want to mimic or do an impression, and then in those moments it becomes quite hard not to do that. But Peter’s brilliant because he never shows us anything that’s not integral to the plot. The interview was to show Diana’s insecurity around Charles’ answer to the question about love, and it’s so uncomfortable to watch. And people thought it was strange that we didn’t show the wedding, but it’s not very integral to the plot, because we’ve all seen it. Watching the rehearsal is much more interesting.
The meet-cute scene where we first see you with Charles felt like a nod to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.
Yeah! Through the fish tank. I got that too.
It’s a very difficult scene to pull off without the whole ordeal coming off as creepy, because the reality is this is Diana at 16 years old, and Charles is 28 and dating her older sister.
So weird! I think the way we chose to do it, there was this ethereal or mystical element to it, so because it wasn’t grounded in reality it didn’t become creepy. Because otherwise, yeah—he’s a lot older than her, he’s dating her sister, so how do you pull off that scene? Setting up that relationship is quite strange. You wanted to set it up as a fairy tale, so we paid homage to Baz Luhrmann, and I think it has a Midsummer Night’s Dream quality, because she’s very elfin and hiding around.
The ballet sequence is also a big one, where Diana is clearly working some stuff out on the dancefloor.
I love that scene, because it wasn’t choreographed. Ben Caron directed that, and I’m not a dancer. It’s very difficult to start training yourself in ballet at 24, because your body just doesn’t respond to it. The day before we shot that, he asked my dance coach if we should choreograph something for when she loses herself, and I said, “Do you mind if we don’t? Because we need to go with her to this place of total expression and total outrage where she just let’s go, and I don’t think I can do that with a choreographed sequence.” I asked them if I could pick a song to dance to that we don’t even use in the scene, and I picked Cher’s “Believe” and just had them blast it as I danced for three minutes. I remember I did it, and then I collapsed to the floor, and the director said, “Emma—that was great, loved it. We’re going to have to do it again because you keep mouthing the words, and we can’t use that.” I thought, “I don’t know if I can do that again?” But we did it again. We only did it twice.
The most cringeworthy sequence is probably the Phantom one, where Diana gifts Charles with the performance tape. Which strangely enough actually happened.
Especially because she’s already done the dancing thing and it’s gone down so badly, so you’re like, “Why?!” And it’s so sad. Her love language is this—it’s just how she expresses herself—and it’s so heartbreaking to see her confusion at why he doesn’t understand what’s happening, and that he’s then bitching about it to Anne and saying, “She can’t even sing.” It’s awful. There’s this sense of desperation where she didn’t know what else to do.
Charles did some crazy things. I mean, to have Camilla send cufflinks to Charles while he’s on his honeymoon with Diana is nuts. Or to have Charles constantly run off to his estate down the road from Camilla every time he got in an argument with Diana must have been torture.
It’s like the elephant in the room the entire time, and increasingly so. It’s staggering to think that she’s aware of it even in Episode 3 before they get married, and it just continues. I think she just gets worn down. But I really loved the moment in Episode 10 where Charles just loses his temper and says for the first time explicitly, “It’s her that I want!” and I thought it was so clever how Peter then writes that Diana goes to make herself sick, to deal with the torment, and then doesn’t go through with it, because to her just to hear it must have been a relief—and maybe gave her the strength to break free.
There’s also a big scene in the season finale between Diana and Philip where she threatens to leave and he says, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you… let’s just say, I can’t see it ending well for you,” and then she responds, “I hope that isn’t a threat, sir.” Was that a bit of foreshadowing on the part of The Crown?
That’s really interesting—I never thought of it like that. The threat… you just blew my mind. I’ve never read it like that. I don’t know. It’s heartbreaking also because of where Philip and Diana have been. You see their connection and how fond they are of each other, and now this is it. She saw Prince Philip as an ally, because he’s also an outsider, but it gives a glimpse into how people can cope with the self-sacrificial nature of basically forfeiting your purpose and duty in life to sit beside the Queen and walk in her shadow, and I don’t think that’s what Diana wanted to do. She was a young girl in the modern age and wasn’t ready to sacrifice herself for this role.
The royals complaining about how The Crown should be labeled as “fiction” seems very silly to me. It really feels like incredibly rich people not being able to take any criticism.
That’s so funny. Yeah, I kind of agree. Plus, it does a disservice to creativity, and imagination, and screenwriting, and scriptwriting. If we lose that then what do we have left?
Plus, while creative license was taken on this show, the reality is that a lot of these things did happen.
The Crown is accurate insofar as it’s about a family over a period of time, and we have factual information about what happened to the country—and to the family. So, you can write down all the facts as if it were a timeline, but all the substance is fictitious. We can know that Diana and Camilla went to a restaurant called Menage A Trois, which is hysterically ironic, but it happened, but we obviously don’t know what was said, so that is fiction. But that’s how a lot of series operates.
Also the reality of Diana’s treatment was far worse than what’s depicted on The Crown, so it’s almost like, look, if you can’t take this version then I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s mad that they want to label it as “fiction” when you have Diana: In Her Own Words where she talks about everything, and it’s much more harrowing.
It’s strange how you filmed this before Prince Harry jumped ship from the royals, and now it’s coming out amid all this familial drama.
I don’t really remember! I honestly don’t pay that much attention to that kind of thing. I’m not much interested in the royals. But it’s certainly strange, I suppose, since what we’re doing always feels so much like fiction—we turn up, put on costumes, and play these characters—and I guess we’re now at a time in The Crown where we’re dealing with people who are still alive. I remember there was one day where Josh and I were filming at a huge stately home at Buckingham Palace which is rent next to the home that Charles occupies when he’s there, and the flag was up! And these houses are wall-to-wall, so we were like, “Oh my god! That means he’s in the next room while we’re here doing the series.” It’s weird, because our version feels worlds away.
Did you receive any feedback on your performance by people who knew Diana, like Sir Elton John or anyone?
I think Peter Morgan did a screening earlier in the year with some friends of his, and there was someone who went who knew her well who emailed me afterwards, and it was really touching. And it was also sort of strange, because I never knew her. I was just going off instinct and research.
Have you gotten any feedback from the Palace? Has any word gotten back to you? I haven’t! I really hope it doesn’t.
Are you worried you won’t be invited to The Ball now?
[Laughs] I like that! As if there’s only one ball. Well, I haven’t been—so probably not!
I gotta say, I’m kind of bummed that you’re handing this role off to Elizabeth Debicki. I’m sure she’ll be great, but you were so good that I want to see more. And Princess Diana’s about to grow like eight inches.
She’s been eating her carrots! Or wait… what do you eat to grow? Broccoli? Anyway, I love the arc that I have and was very grateful to be able to take her from 16 to 28. It’s a beautiful trajectory, and I feel like it was bookended for me. A wonderful thing about The Crown is that you get to see different actors do their interpretations of this person. I think she’s going to do brilliantly, and I’m excited to watch.
I’m an American, so how do you feel about the royals? Do you think we’ve moved past the need for royalty in 2021?
I’m definitely more of a republican and to be honest, I’ve never been that interested in the royal family, but my interest has grown—even empathetically—during filming this. It’s quite fascinating, because it’s a very inhumane situation. They occupy a very strange place in society. I don’t know, it’s… quite difficult.
What’s next for you? I think the good thing about this role is you had to undergo a transformation, so it may be easier to shed than a Don Draper.
I’m excited for what’s next—anything that’s not royal! I have some things coming up but I can’t take about them yet. But they’re decidedly non-royal!