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As 'The Crown' ends, Imelda Staunton tells NPR that 'the experiment paid off'

Queen Elizabeth II, as portrayed by Olivia Colman (left) Imelda Staunton (center) and Claire Foy (right).
Queen Elizabeth II, as portrayed by Olivia Colman (left) Imelda Staunton (center) and Claire Foy (right).

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. This comes a bit more than a year after the real-world death of Queen Elizabeth.

Great Britain's longest-reigning monarch has had her life phases portrayed by three different British actresses through the years, first Claire Foy, then Olivia Colman, and finally closing out with Imelda Staunton, who portrays the queen amid the global shock of Princess Diana's death.

Staunton and the crew were in the process of filming the show's last season in 2022 when the actual Queen Elizabeth died in September.

Staunton joined All Things Considered host Scott Detrow to discuss the complexity of portraying the late queen for the series, and the show's attempt to portray the royal family in all of its truth.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Interview highlights

Scott Detrow: How did Queen Elizabeth's death affect production?

Imelda Staunton: We couldn't let it affect the work because we were filming scenes from 1997. Obviously it was a very, very sad time and difficult, and we took time out. And then we started filming again. And we knew 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. There are glimpses of royal frustration and bewilderment at the very un-British outpouring of emotion that followed Diana's death. What do you make of that?

Staunton: Well, I think it was great that [series creator and writer] Peter Morgan 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 that response was going to be so intense.

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth.
/ Netflix
Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth.

And it was wonderful to play a person who was torn — 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? But that's what Peter does. 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 this extraordinary family for good and all, that there are complications. And I love that he makes them complicated.

Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more interviews like this.

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

Staunton: Diana, 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. And that felt quite good for our scenes.

Detrow: 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: 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.

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Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.