Celebrated and prolific casting director, Robert Sterne, fleshed out the world of The Crown by finding A-listers, character actors, and first-time performers to take on pivotal roles in season 4 of the Netflix royal drama.
When we think of The Crown, we tend to automatically think of the big names. Olivia Colman, John Lithgow, Helena Bonham Carter, Gillian Anderson. Or the A-list stars in the making that The Crown has helped us discover — Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby, Josh O’ Connor, Emma Corrin.
But in thinking of the marquee characters, we often overlook a crucial component of The Crown‘s lauded ensemble— the supporting players, the real-life politicians, and aids that add a layer of authenticity and richness to the Winsor’s orbit.
Whether it’s a character like Diana (Corrin) that dominates a season; Tom Brooke, unforgettable as Michael Fagan in just one episode; or the auxiliary parliamentarians with just one line, casting directors Robert Sterne and Nina Gold are meticulous in finding the right actors for each and every role.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, four-time Emmy winner Robert Sterne details his approach to the casting process. And the unique challenge of recasting The Crown every two seasons.
Awards Daily: Tell me about finding your Diana in Emma Corrin? When did you know she was the one for the role?
Robert Sterne: Well, we knew that Diana was on her way. As we worked through the decades, we knew that she was approaching, and we were really excited about doing it because we knew it would be massive. Peter Morgan had been open, discussing in advance, what he was looking for, how he was writing the character.
What was quite interesting about finding this version of Diana was that we were looking for the quite young version of Diana, the kindergarten teacher who found herself drawn into that circus. We weren’t looking for the iconic woman in her thirties, who was known all over the world.
It was the person that was going to go on the journey to become that person. And she had to be credible as a shy 16 years old at the beginning of it. And then go all the way to the end of the season where she’s struggling and growing up very, very fast.
And we looked all over the place. We brought in 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds, and then we’ve seen people in their early twenties. We had an extensive search—lots of people in America and Australia.
And in terms of Emma, she came in quite a few times because we couldn’t quite believe that she was as good as she was. Was it a fluke, or was it something that she could maintain?
We were quite surprised by the connection she made with the character. She came in several times; part of that was doing chemistry reads with Josh and making sure that works. But we just had to believe that the brilliant stuff that she was doing was real. And indeed it was.
You probably know that she went in as a reader for the part in the previous season when we weren’t auditioning for it. And everybody had said, ‘Who is this amazing girl?’ So when it came to casting the part, we brought her in quite quickly. Emma just had such a connection with Diana at that stage in her life and she loved doing it so much that there was a kind of magic and joy in the way she approached that character and her connection to it. She just blew everybody else out of the water.
AD: In terms of Gillian Anderson, was she always going to be Margaret Thatcher, or did you initially see some other actresses for that role?
RS: No, we had a list of one, and it was always going to be Gillian.
Nina Gold and I, who I’ve worked with on The Crown, have previously cast jobs that involved Gillian. And It’s her incredible range that’s just amazing. We worked on two jobs with Gillian previously. One where she played Wallis Simpson, Any Human Heart , and then she played the madam of a brothel in a Victorian thing [2011’s The Crimson Petal and the White]. They were just completely opposite characters from each other and she was just incredible, the detail she brought to the characters. She was unrecognizable, and we cast those projects pretty much at the same time.
And again, Margaret Thatcher is such a big, iconic character. Everyone knows her so well. Everybody does an impression of her over here [in the U.K.]. We knew we just had to have this kind of incredible transformative actor. And that’s what Gillian does so incredibly well. We had a list of one, and we were fortunate that she was free and up for it.
AD: Another casting choice that left quite an impression on me was Tom Brooke, who played Michael Fagan. How did you find him for that small but critical role?
RS: We knew Tom. We’ve seen Tom in other things. He’s done amazing work here [in England], all sorts of things in the theater. I had always been just a fan of the kind of truthful quality of his work. So when this part came up, I went straight to, ‘Let’s bring him in to have a go with it.’ And he was somebody who found the character fascinating and therefore made a really interesting connection. It was very clear that he was the guy for the job.
AD: Which roles did you find the most challenging to cast?
RS: There’s an episode that is about Queen Elizabeth and Margaret’s (Bonham Carter) cousins [episode 7, “The Hereditary Principle”] who had learning disabilities. It was a secret in the family and nobody had really told this story before. It was an amazing real-life story and we had to find actors who could play these people with learning disabilities. [Trudie Emery as Katherine Bowes-Lyon and Pauline Hendrickson as Nerissa Bowes-Lyon]. That was quite an interesting process because you’re not looking at the usual places to find actors. You have to go out there and find people who fit the brief, have learning disabilities, and are interested in acting. That was very different from our usual process, and I thought they did a wonderful job.
AD: Absolutely. In addition to finding the actresses who played the cousins, you also had to find other actors to play the patients in the care home correct?
RS: Yes. We went to care homes all over the country and met quite a lot of people. And out of that search, we were able to find our actors for those scenes. And they all had a really positive time working on it and it turned out pretty great.
AD: The Crown has so many speaking roles that are not necessarily the main characters, but parts that are very important in building out that world. How closely are you involved with finding those more minor roles and fleshing out those details?
RS: All of them. I mean, we do all of them. And quite often that they are people who are well-known or they are real people. The great thing about working on The Crown is that they have a fantastic research team that gives you a load of information about all of these characters as they come in. And then you’ll realize that the politician who’s standing to the left of Margaret Thatcher who’s got one line will be a specific politician and you’ve got to try and match it up, cast it accordingly, and try to do it as accurately as possible.
AD: That’s a fascinating insight because I think, especially as Americans when we watch the show, we don’t know the politician standing next to Margaret Thatcher. And I think we take for granted that such a small role has to be considered so greatly.
RS: Oh yes. Thatcher had a various cabinet of ministers at various points in her premiership. And for each of those people, we were really specific about who we chose. But we kind of have to be because a lot of these people are still alive and you don’t want to do them a disservice by not thinking about it.
AD: And something you’ve spoken about previously is you have this worry that you’re casting these incredible actors and then you have to switch them every two seasons. And you worry, is the audience going to come along? Is that something that you consider in the casting process?
RS: Well, that’s the unique and exciting challenge about working on The Crown because we knew from the start that everybody would do two years, and then they’re going to go. You set up this whole world and this ensemble of people and their interrelationships and watch what happens with it. And then, you’ve got to do it all over again. It’s a really brilliant challenge, actually. It’s good fun because the actors who come in have seen the previous versions of it. And there’s a kind of passing of the baton between these actors. Then they’re taking over and doing a different stage of life for these characters and bringing something different.
But you’ve got to just bear in mind the dynamics between people and that makes it a really fun thing to do. And to do it again and just put a different spin on it. And it is a challenge because there are quite a lot of people, the whole big family— those new relationships have to be put together again.
AD: What can you tell me about season five and your casting process so far?
RS: We are right in the thick of it right now. They start shooting very soon, and we’re just getting everybody together.
AD: Robert, you are one of the busiest casting directors working today. You’re responsible for launching so many careers, I would say. Who are your favorite discoveries as you look back on all the roles that you’ve cast?
RS: Oh gosh, I’d have to think about that! [Laughs]. I mean, we had a really good time on Game of Thrones. Because when we started on that, it wasn’t full of famous people. And we were able to have that fun of exploring and finding new people to do roles that we knew would have a massive impact on the show. And we knew that they would have amazing stuff to do. So putting together that original cast was really good fun. And I really, really enjoyed The Crown and having to redo it every two years. I mean, I don’t think that’s going to happen again. [Laughs].