According to reports which the show’s lavishly produced episodes seem to corroborate, the new series cost a record $130 million, making it the most expensive television production ever. The regal price tag earned The Crown a fair share of attention ahead of its debut this Friday on the streaming service, but when asked about the experience of shooting such a costly production, the series’ cast was positively British about the whole thing.
“The truth is, we don’t see that stuff,” says Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who taking on another British icon, Prince Philip, when the now 95-year-old Duke of Edinburgh was a newlywed on the arm of the young queen.
Across the table from him at a hotel overlooking Central Park in Manhattan, that queen, played by Wolf Hall alum Claire Foy, nods in agreement, explaining that when you’re on a TV set, “your world is very small.”
But the most candid response to The Crown’s eye-popping budget comes from John Lithgow, who plays Winston Churchill.
“We were in drafty, old, rundown, superannuated stately homes outside of London, where they had taken over the interior in order to made it look extraordinary lavish,” he says in his characteristically august cadence. “But when we trudged through the muddy fields to our homely little trailers, this huge cast of actors—knights and dames of the empire—we were all in these tiny, little, drafty, cold, wet, damp cubicles.” Laughing: “It didn’t feel like a first-class production then.”
Still, it’s hard to scoff at the importance of expense in a television production in which the recreation of Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress worn by Foy in the first episode cost roughly $35,000. To pay for the actual dress worn when the then princess married in 1947, by comparison, Elizabeth saved ration coupons to pay for the material, in solidarity with the other brides of the austere time.
Watch in awe as well when, in Episode 2, Foy and Smith travel to Africa, where Elizabeth and Philip were on a goodwill tour during the final months of the life of her father, King George VI (played by Jared Harris), and mingle with elephants—a sight that on its own nearly puts the lifesize replica of Buckingham Palace or the show’s 7,000 costumes to shame.
There was the royal wedding shoot at Ely Cathedral, where Lithgow was so in awe he insisted on a tourist’s jaunt to the top of the tower and Smith looked at Foy in costume in surreal disbelief: “Oh my god, you’re the queen!” And there was the day of shooting in Winchester at the Great Hall where the Knights of the Round Table met 800 years prior.
It’s a grandiosity that befits a certain aspect of The Crown’s mission. As director Stephen Daldry has said, the series is a story about an entire nation, revealing its history to show how it got to where it is today.
But in line with writer Peter Morgan’s previous scripts about the life of Queen Elizabeth II, which include the film The Queen and Broadway play The Audience, the show is also at its core a character study, cracking open the palace doors to reveal the struggles and concerns of the people beneath all of the pomp and circumstance.
That tension is enumerated in a letter that Elizabeth reads from the Queen Mother, Mary (Eileen Atkins), after learning that she’s about to ascend the throne at such a young age.
“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through the failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” the letter reads. “You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes.” Then, gravely: “The crown must win. Must always win.”
There’s an undeniable thrill in watching the rise of one of the most visible female figures in modern history at a time when, just days after The Crown debuts on Netflix, the United States could be electing its first female president—for all the intrinsic Britishness of the series, this is actually an American production, after all.
But as Elizabeth approaches her 91st birthday, as the world continues its front-page obsession with any news about the royals, and as the family still strengthens its armored façade, the series is also a tantalizing reminder of the human sacrifices made in such situations.
“No one knows what goes on behind closed doors in any relationship, in any marriage, in any situation,” Foy says. “It’s nice to think that they can just switch off and can deal with it because they live in a palace. But that’s too easy. They can’t. I think we all need to have, every once in a while, a chance to see people on a human level and see that things are painful for everyone.”
Take for example, the toll it took on Philip, a proud and accomplished Navy man, to be cast aside as his wife took on the duties of her position. Literally, he was required to walk two steps behind her, the woman who was supposed to be his partner in life.
“I will not kneel before my wife!” Philip snaps at one point. “What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family?”
Smith acknowledges that it was “very emasculating” for Philip to go through that, but both he and Foy point to the strength of the love between the two as their entry point into understanding the characters on a human level.
“When we get off airplanes and out of cars and there’s loads of the extras playing the public and photographers, you go, ‘Why are they looking at me?’ And you realize, ‘Oh, because I’m playing the queen,’” Foy says. “So with her, I think my way of getting into it was her love of her husband, and realizing that Philip was the only one she ever wanted and dreamed about, and he was the center of her universe, in a way.”
The scope of the series extends outside of the royal family to Elizabeth’s dealings with Winston Churchill, illustrating the complicated relationship between the crown and the government. Despite having assiduously researched the part—traveling to Churchill’s wartime bunker, the Churchill Museum, and Chartwell, his country home—Lithgow, like his cast mates, had a hurdle to clear before feeling at home as the legendary figure.
In his case, though, it was the fact that he was American.
“I think it was a bigger issue for me than any of my English colleagues,” he concedes, revealing his anxiety about taking on arguably the most famous Englishman of the 20th century. “I kept thinking, ‘Wait a minute, why aren’t they using Michael Gambon or Timothy Spall or Albert Finney?’” Laughing, he continues: “Well, they’ve already played the part…”
Though Churchill is in his seventies at the time Lithgow plays him, he drew from the prime minister’s younger years as the neglected son of a politician and a courtesan, who didn’t do well in the military, to paint a more complex portrait of a gruff icon. “To me that so informed him as an old man,” he says. “This contradictory nature: a very courageous man, but a deeply insecure man.”
So for Lithgow and his co-stars, the series’ resonance is completely independent of the headline-making budget: a more rounded understanding of people for whom we already have preconceived opinions.
“I’ve just become much more affectionate for them,” Smith says. Asked what’s it like, after having filmed the first season of The Crown, to see Elizabeth and Philip together now, Foy confesses, “I could cry!”
“It’s like seeing your grandparents be married for that amount of time,” she says. “It’s the most beautiful thing. And knowing how they get on and how much they make each other laugh, it’s extraordinary.”
In a broader sense, too, maybe the series will cause us to reevaluate the pedestal we place all public figures and celebrities on, not to mention the humanity we tend to strip from those people as the price for hoisting them onto that platform—royal family or otherwise.
“It’s like we they’re immune to feelings, somehow, because they’ve put themselves out there,” Smith says. “The ironic thing is that, in their day, [Elizabeth and Philip] were more celebrated and famous than the Kardashians. Tens of thousands of people showed up to see these guys catch a train or get off a plane. They were global superstars.”
Foy eagerly jumps in: “Because they were good people! They were a family. It wasn’t necessarily because they brought their bum out.”
Smith smirks, ready to deliver his rather unprincely conclusion: “Handsome bottom as it is.”