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‘The Crown’ stars say 'empathy' is at the core of royal-centric Netflix show

Imelda Staunton, Jonathan Pryce and Lesley Manville spoke to TODAY about showing the human side to their characters: "They are exactly the same as us."
/ Source: TODAY

The royal family faces their biggest challenges yet in the '90s set Season Five of “The Crown” — and fans and critiques are talking about how it’s going to play out on the screen.

Set in the '90s, "The Crown" is expected to cover events like Prince Charles and Princess Diana's divorce, and next season, the princess's tragic death in a car accident in 1997.

Of late, "The Crown" has been the focus of backlash and criticism for dramatizing events close to the present age, whose reverberations are still playing out in real time, and for premiering a season close to the death of its subject, Queen Elizabeth II. Netflix responded by adding disclaimers to the show, describing it as a “fictional dramatization" and "inspired by real-life events."

But speaking to TODAY, the cast of the show — which switched up for its last two seasons — stood by "The Crown," saying creator Peter Morgan, is handling the difficult upcoming seasons with a lot of empathy.

“I think empathy is very much in this series and has been from the very first season that they did,” Imelda Staunton, who succeeds Claire Foy and Olivia Colman who portrayed younger versions of the queen, told TODAY at the junket.

“That’s the point of a drama. If you’re showing characters, whether they’re real or not, surely you’re inviting the audience to look at it with kind eyes or at least try to understand the dilemmas of these characters.”

Adding, “And I think Peter Morgan’s writing allows that to happen.”

Among the issues that will be explored is the queen’s annus horribilis, or “horrible year,” includes three of her children separating from their spouses and a fire breaking out at Windsor Castle.

“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” the queen famously said on Nov. 24, 1992 during a speech at Guildhall to mark the 40th anniversary of her accession.

“Part of the fascination of ‘The Crown’ is that they do go behind the closed doors and provide some kind of understanding of the royals and how they dealt with these issues,” Jonathan Pryce, who takes on the role of Prince Philip from predecessors Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies, also told TODAY. “Either practically or emotionally.”  

The Crown, Season 5
Staunton and Pryce as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in the fifth season of "The Crown."Netflix

The tumultuous love triangle between Prince Charles (Dominic West), Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Camilla Parker Bowles (Olivia Williams) will be a major Season Five spotlight, as well as Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) and Prince Andrew’s (James Murray) headline-making marital woes. All the while, the queen is left to maintain an untouchable appearance and maintain the monarchy's relevancy while her family falls apart.

“The queen, that was a life she was born into and made a vow, was anointed queen and made a promise that she kept through these difficult times, which we’re seeing in Season Five,” Staunton said. “For many people, all our lives have difficult periods.”

Growing up with the royal family in Britain, Staunton said there have been moments where people “just take them for granted and you think, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, they’re doing this, they’re doing that.’ And of course, you don’t really look at them seriously, or consider what they’re going through or what their lives are, not really.”

But she believes Morgan is “trying to just give a little glimpse into what it might have been like to be faced with tragedy, with divorces, with various situations. So that’s what’s very exciting about this particular season.”

The Crown, Season 5
Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret. Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein / Netflix

And then there's Princess Margaret, who is reflecting on the life she never had and the freedoms that are now given to her niece and nephews. The queen did not allow Margaret to marry Peter Townsend (Timothy Dalton), a decision she always kept in the back of her mind — according to "The Crown," at least.

In upcoming scenes, Lesley Manville, who portrays Princess Margaret, told TODAY that shows Margaret and Queen Elizabeth as “human beings, with hearts and feelings, and broken hearts and regrets, and pain and grief.”

“They are exactly the same as you and I. But of course, sometimes you have to remind yourself of that and that’s what ‘The Crown’ scripts can do,” Manville said. “They can take us into the thoughts and feelings of them and show them as people separate from being royals.”

“There’s a lovely scene later on in Episode Four, when Princess Margaret and Queen Elizabeth have a kind of a bit of a showdown together,” she continued. “And you know that is that is not a scene about a monarch and a princess. It’s a scene about two sisters. And that’s what’s crucial about it and that affords you to go dramatically to a lot of very interesting places.”

Manville added that scenes like those are where viewers stop seeing them as royalty and see them as “two sisters leveling up," describing those scenes as “very powerful stuff.”

The queen and Prince Philip hold each other after the fire at Windsor Castle.
The queen and Prince Philip hold each other after the fire at Windsor Castle.Keith Bernstein / Keith Bernstein

Among other concerns of Season Five and the sixth and finale season have to do with the filming of Princess Diana's fatal 1997 car crash and how the events of her marriage to Charles might reflect on the newly-crowned king.

Morgan addressed concerns telling Variety in a statement noting that the 1990s was a difficult time for the royal family.

“And King Charles will almost certainly have some painful memories of that period. But that doesn’t mean that, with the benefit of hindsight, history will be unkind to him, or the monarchy,” Morgan said. “The show certainly isn’t. I have enormous sympathy for a man in his position — indeed, a family in their position. People are more understanding and compassionate than we expect sometimes.”

Elizabeth Debicki also told Entertainment Weekly that Diana's death was being handled with “sensitivity.”

As for Pryce, being able to portray the late Duke of Edinburgh gave him a new perspective on the family and all they’ve gone through and continue to go through.

“I’ve learned a great deal of empathy for the royal family and a greater sense of understanding of what a difficult life they, in some respects chose to lead, but a difficult life that they did lead and how well they coped in a way,” Pryce said.