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Imelda Staunton on the joys and challenges of playing Queen Elizabeth II


This month Netflix viewers say goodbye to Queen Elizabeth II. The streaming service's sweeping historical drama, "The Crown," is ending its six-season run with a final batch of episodes. And it does so a little more than a year after the real-world death of Queen Elizabeth. Great Britain's longest-reigning monarch was played by three world-class actresses over the years...


CLAIRE FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Once again, messages of Christmas greeting.

DETROW: Claire Foy, Olivia Colman...


OLIVIA COLMAN: (As Queen Elizabeth II) ...Is that I am obliged to support my prime ministers on any position they take.

DETROW: ...And playing the queen of the 1990s and 2000, Imelda Staunton.


IMELDA STAUNTON: (As Queen Elizabeth II) What am I, do you think, a domestic or foreign policy queen?

DETROW: Staunton and the crew were in the process of filming the show's last season when the queen died in September of last year. I asked Staunton how that affected the production.

STAUNTON: Well, it couldn't affect the work. We couldn't let it affect the work because we were filming scenes from 1997. And we obviously - it was a very, very sad time and difficult. And we took time out. And then we started filming again. And we knew, you know, our responsibility was to keep doing the show that we had started to do.

DETROW: The first half of "The Crown's" final season focuses on Princess Diana and her death. It was a period when the queen came under intense criticism for her initial lack of a public response. And I feel like this is a good time to pause for a spoiler alert for any of the would-be viewers who are either unaware of major historical events or some of the artistic choices that the show made to convey them. In the series, created by Peter Morgan, there are glimpses of royal frustration and bewilderment at the very un-British outpouring of emotion that followed Diana's death. Staunton told us that was important to show.

STAUNTON: Well, I think it was great that Peter didn't shy away from that and that he did show the monarch not responding as she probably should have to the death. And I think she had no idea, obviously, I mean, that that was going to happen, that response was going to be so intense. And it was wonderful to play a person who was torn, where she - I don't think she'd ever been put in that position ever before. So I think she wrestled with it greatly. And I think her sense of duty at that time was to the immediate family. And it was puzzling, I think, to her, why it should be so public. And yet she knew that her life was public and her response would be seen by the nation and the world. And maybe that was her shock response. Maybe that was her sense of loss, not really knowing what to do and everyone telling her what to do and her having to just sort of stop and think about why she wasn't responding how the public wanted her to respond. So I loved that it was difficult and awkward, and I like that Peter allowed us to show that.

DETROW: There's a scene in that final episode of the first half of the season. It's almost a thesis statement for the whole show, where Charles says to your character, you know, essentially, this family can't have it both ways. We can't be a private family when we feel like it and a public family when we want to be.

STAUNTON: Yes, that's a great line, isn't it? Yeah, definitely. Well, yeah. But that's what Peter does. He shows - you know, he'll show the good, the bad and the ugly. He'll just show it all. And then you can make your decision. You can make your own minds up. And I love that he doesn't shy away from that or just paint the royal family as, you know, this extraordinary family for good and all that, that there are complications. And I love that he makes them complicated.

DETROW: I do have to ask about this. It became controversial after the episodes post the decision to have scenes where Diana's ghost interacts with Charles and Elizabeth. Where did you come down on those scenes?

STAUNTON: Well, for me, I mean, I - Diana, for me - her, for the queen, was just in her head. That's how I felt it. It was just in her head. And, you know, you go along. There's a brilliant writer who's decided to do this particular way of telling this part of the story. And in my scenes, I suggested, I don't think I would literally see her. I think I would hear her and feel her but not see her. So that's how, you know, and I - and that felt quite good for our scenes.

DETROW: Are there any key moments or key situations that really stick with you that you can tell us about from the second half of the season?

STAUNTON: You know, in a way, the second half, I think, begins with - I've always thought of this - with William and Kate, and it feels like Romeo and Juliet somehow, a young, innocent love. And it's almost like when, you know, Philip and Elizabeth first met, you know, a young love that does not have the weight of the monarchy on their shoulders as yet. And then you've got that. And then you have the queen going through, you know, much later in her life and losing Margaret and her mother and thinking about maybe her own mortality, although her faith, I think, carried her through all the way. I don't think she really looked at herself that much. She wasn't that introspective. And it's - I think it's wonderful to be back in the family. And also, with Margaret having a whole episode where they are just sisters, as opposed to the queen and the princess. So that was really satisfying to play that.

DETROW: I think - and this has been one of my favorite shows of the past decade or so. And I think about a show that has carried across 60 or so years of history, three complete cast overhauls. You've shared this iconic role with two other actresses. What, to you, is the long-term legacy of "The Crown"?

STAUNTON: Well, I think that we were in a piece of television that was a huge experiment. I think the experiment paid off. And to be part of something that has used so many actors, so many crew members, that we all wanted the standard to be as high as it possibly could at every minute of every single day was a great thing to be part of. And I feel so proud and grateful to have been there.

DETROW: Did you ever have discussions with Claire Foy and Olivia Colman, either at the beginning or the end of this role, just about sharing this space with them?

STAUNTON: No, I don't think we did, really. We just um - no, because I suppose we've each had a very different experience. I've made that up. I don't know if we have. But it feels like we have because, of course, we were queens at different times. So that's why it's very satisfying to have three different people play it - and all through the casts, you know, Charles and Philip. And it's funny because I don't think we've all been in a room together. That would have been interesting. Maybe in 10 years' time we'll do one of those. There's already a program like - what is it? - something lives. But it might be worth a go.

DETROW: We'd love to have you on NPR having that conversation, all of you.

STAUNTON: Okey-dokey.

DETROW: I mean, there has been so much speculation over the years about where and when the series would end. It felt like a running internet joke, especially as the Harry and Meghan drama played out. You know, "The Crown" Season 15 is going to be crazy. Do you feel like the show hit the right note at the moment to step away from Queen Elizabeth and the royal family?

STAUNTON: Yeah, totally. And, I mean, you know, that's Peter Morgan's shout, not ours, but it feels absolutely right. If someone else in another 20 years wants to start one up again, maybe they will, maybe they won't. But I think for Peter Morgan, who has lived with this institution for over 20 years, if you're thinking about, you know, Helen Mirren starting it with "The Queen" and then "The Audience" and then "The Crown," I don't think a writer would be involved with something for so long if he didn't have great affection for it.

DETROW: That is Imelda Staunton, who plays Queen Elizabeth II in "The Crown." The final batch of episodes is out on Netflix now. Thank you so much for joining us.

STAUNTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.