The Crown‘s Matt Smith talks to Awards Daily TV about portraying Prince Phillip and working with Claire Foy for the Netflix series.
Netflix’s critically acclaimed series The Crown explores the life of Queen Elizabeth II during critical eras of her reign. Season 1 explores the death of her father, King George VI, and her ascension to the throne. Yet, underpinning all of the royal drama is her marriage and relationship to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, played by Matt Smith. Their relationship remains strong today, but its beginning held a certain tension related to her responsibilities as Queen of England.
Smith manages to pull off an incredibly difficult task through his performance. He humanizes someone most of us only know from pictures or camera footage. He explores the man behind the Queen. As in real life, Prince Phillip takes a back seat to Queen Elizabeth II.
Yet, Smith never allows the character of Prince Phillip to fall to the background. He delivers a strong performance that puts him in the running for the Primetime Emmy® Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
I spoke with Matt Smith about interpreting Prince Phillip for the series, working with Claire Foy, and that unexpected nude scene for The Crown.
Here in the States, not much is known about Phillip. What did you base your interpretation on?
There’s a great book by Phillip Eade, and we had a wonderful research team led by an American who was so diligent and brilliant. I suppose like any part you immerse yourself in as much research as you can, soak it up, and try to articulate it in the most interesting way possible. The more you dig into Phillip, the more you realize he really does have a very interesting, very tragic backstory in his early life. We sort of explore that a bit in Season 2.
What did you learn about Phillip that you previously didn’t know?
He was essentially an orphan in many ways. His sister died in a plane crash which is all the more interesting that he went up in the air and started flying planes. He was sort of farmed around different schools in Germany and England, sent to live with his uncle. His mother was committed at one point to a sanitarium. There’s so much really. That’s why, I think, he turned out to be a dry, witty, funny man.
Were you surprised that, when you read the script for The Crown, you would have a nude scene as Phillip?
Well, I didn’t know because that was never in there. One day, I turned up and Stephen Daldry said, “Do you know apparently it was a fact that he slept in the nude.” That was news to me, as it were, until the day I got there to film. I was like, “Okay… .”
What did you want to covey with your performance as Phillip?
You hope that people understand the man a little better. That’s quite difficult because there are so many things. Often, you don’t think that far in advance. You just think about the truthful response to this particular situation. Where’s the truth in this scene? Then, as you add things together over 10 episodes, you begin to paint a picture of a man. It’s almost not our job to think in such broad terms. We go day by day, scene to scene. Over time, you create a collage of someone, and it turns out to be something. I just found him to be wittier and funnier and brighter. More of a family man than people give him credit. Particularly in England because I think people know less about him here in the States. In England, there’s this strange preconception about him.
One of my favorite scenes in Season 1 was the coronation. Was there any historic evidence for Phillip’s reluctance to kneel there?
If you watch the actual coronation, you see him bow and kiss her on the cheek actually. I think there was a degree of historic fact about it. Obviously, there’s an interpretation by Peter Morgan. But I think the idea was that he didn’t want to have to kneel to his wife. In that day and age, no one knelt to their wives. He was the only man on the planet doing so.
Tell me about working with Claire Foy. Had you known her before working on The Crown?
No, I’d never met her before The Crown. She’s an absolute dream. I have such admiration for Claire. She’s truly one of the great actresses. We’ve come to be absolutely wonderful friends. I have a profound amount of respect for her ability but also for her character off-screen as much as on-screen. She is funny and brilliant. It was a really wonderful experience.
One of the more remarkable things about the series is the chemistry you two display as you age these characters. How did you help build that relationship between the two of you?
It’s quite interesting. Either you have good chemistry with someone in a show or you don’t. With me and Claire, we absolutely do the things that often develop organically over time. We both work quite hard to tell the truth, work hard on the scene and be prepared to go. We’re lucky enough that the writing is very good, and the show is shot in such a brilliant way. There are a lot of elements around us that go toward creating what appears on-screen as good chemistry. Creatively, there’s an element of challenge and risk which is often very interesting.
Were you at all apprehensive about taking on the role given that Prince Phillip is still alive?
I suppose there’s always a slight hesitation, especially in England were they have such a notorious place in the fabric of people’s lives. Everyone has an opinion or thinks something about them. So, you want to get them right, but you also want to interpret this person with your own truth. I suppose there’s always a sense of hesitation when you’re playing someone who’s still alive and incredibly, incredibly famous. But, in many way, that also makes it an interesting job because it’s a challenge. It makes you think twice, but these are the roles you really want to run after.
The Crown Season 2 drops this fall on Netflix.