The year is 1953 and a six-year-old Jonathan Pryce lays on his stomach watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on TV, firing his toy cannon at the coach that carries the new monarch and her husband, Prince Phillip to Westminster Abbey.
As Pryce recalls, the historic event marked his official introduction to the man he would come to portray 69 years later.
Now one of the most respected actors of stage and screen, Pryce took on the role of the Duke of Edinburgh with much excitement as an admirer of The Crown, but also with some trepidation, the late royal consort was one of the most recognizable men in history and creator Peter Morgan had plans to dive into aspects of Prince Phillip’s later years that were lesser known to the British public.
Much of Pryce’s storyline in season five revolves around Phillip’s relationship with Penny Knatchbull (Natascha McElhone), an extended member of the royal family and the wife of Phillip’s godson. Restless in his role as the queen’s (Imelda Staunton) right hand, the Duke of Edinburgh finds solace in a new hobby, carriage riding, and a new friendship with Penny as he comforts her after the death of her daughter. As with previous seasons, Prince Phillip is a man of great disciple and principle, but in Pryce’s take on the character, we see a new gentleness, a new humanity, someone with great wisdom but still looking for answers. Pryce has taken great care not only in the impressive physical transformation required for the role but in finding new emotional depth in a fascinating character.
Here in an interview with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Pryce discusses his Golden Globe-nominated performance on The Crown—the preparation, working with old friends, and gaining new insights into Prince Phillip.
Awards Daily: Mr. Pryce, I wanted to begin with your process as an actor. When you sign on to play someone like the Duke of Edinburgh, how do you begin constructing your character and your performance?
Jonathan Pryce: Well, I think I began 69 years ago [laughs] at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, which was my first acquaintance with the royal family, watching it on television. We got one of the first televisions on the street in 1953. I had just had my sixth birthday, and I’d been given a toy cannon that fired matchsticks. And I’d lay on my stomach and fire the cannon at the coronation coach as it passed along with the queen and Prince Philip. So that was my first acquaintance with Prince Philip, really.
As far as playing him was concerned, I’d become a great fan of The Crown because it’s done incredibly well. It’s written incredibly well; wonderful acting. [I loved] especially the first two series; I think most people in Britain felt this because it was a bit of history, and it was far enough away for people to not have too many preconceptions about it.
So I kept watching it, and I secretly hoped they’d offer me a role. And the only role that was left for me was Prince Philip. And when I was offered it, I was kind of delighted and scared at the same time. He’d been part of people’s lives for so long, and he was very much loved, the same as the queen. And I didn’t know if I could do it justice because, in every department, he’s a hundred miles away from me. As a village boy from Wales, being part of the aristocracy is quite daunting. However, there was the fact that I had played Pope Francis, and I’d had the same kinds of fears about playing him, but I’d had such a wonderful experience on that film, playing a real-life character and a living character. So, I felt fairly confident going into The Crown. And I approached Philip in many ways, the same as I approached Pope Francis. With The Two Popes especially, I had an incredible script to work from. Again, he was also a character that is a million miles away from me. I grew up a Welsh protestant, so to be playing the head of the Roman Catholic Church was quite a daunting prospect. The Catholics had been the enemy in my hometown in Wales.
Whatever I do, I start with the script. What I want to do is to fulfill the script. And if it means doing some research myself on the character, then that’s okay. But I approach living characters and fictitious characters in the same way; they are characters in a drama. And once you acknowledge that, you get a lot of confidence from it because you’re not making a documentary. It’s a version of Prince Philip. I reconciled myself with the thought that it was Peter Morgan’s version of Prince Philip, it’s Peter Morgan’s version of the royal family. I looked at lots of videos of him because unlike a lot of dramas, what you say is a given—there’s no deviating from what is written by Peter. There’s very little of, ‘Wouldn’t it be good if I did this?’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if I said this?’ The role is prescribed. That’s the joy of it: fulfilling that script. But because it’s on film, physicality is very important. I studied lots of videos on YouTube— the way he walks, his whole demeanor, his manner, and the way he meets people in public. You do see a bit of them in their private lives, in the documentaries they’ve made about themselves. But, essentially, it’s the public view of him. And it’s interesting to note that when he is going about doing the shaking hands bit, he’s very open to people. Historically he got into a lot of trouble with what was seen to be kind of off-color jokes or maybe mildly racist jokes. But you’d talk to people who knew him, and these jokes were generally to put people at ease because people tend to stiffen up or clam up when they meet a member of the royal family. And we have a great movement coach on The Crown, and she pointed out a few things that you can always latch onto. One was his handshake: it’s not a mean handshake, and it’s not a Donald Trump handshake either, but it’s a swooping-in, generous handshake. And it tells you quite a lot about him and his physicality. I trained with the people who did carriage driving with Prince Philip, and they told me quite a lot about him. Nothing overly confidential, other than that he was a great man to be around, very open, and a lot of fun. And they considered themselves as part of this carriage-driving fraternity— his second family, as it were.
And with people I spoke to who’d met him, I never met anyone who said that they didn’t like him or that he was unliked. He was seemingly a very generous person. And you know, the more you look into his history, you realize he’s not, you know, the handsome prince who married the princess. He was an intellectual and someone who was always searching and searching for knowledge and just generally finding out about things. That all gave me the feeling that everything about him was very positive; it was always on the front foot rather than on the back foot.
AD: One of the things that I find really fascinating about the way that The Crown has portrayed Prince Philip is that he’s torn between his love for the queen, his sense of duty, and his own identity. There’s always this push and pull and ongoing tension. I wondered what your thoughts were on that and this new iteration of Philip that we see in season five.
JP: Well, I think it’s interesting because he sees himself as the outsider. And it’s kind of why I think he was attracted initially to Diana and wanted to mentor her and advise her. Because he saw maybe something of himself in her, that she was the outsider who came in, who wanted her own life. And, of course, by the time he did get to advise her, he’d been living within the royal family for a considerable amount of time. But he knew how to work the system so that he could have his own life and his own identity but still be the person that was publicly acknowledged as this supporter of the queen and the royal family. Within his family, he was the decision-maker, and he ran the business; I think he did see it as a business. He refers to it in The Crown anyway as a system. It was also wonderful for me to discover through the script his history and his extensive family ties way back to Russia.
AD: I did also want to ask about his relationship with Penny Knatchbull. It can be interpreted in a number of different ways. To me, it seemed like an emotional affair, maybe an intellectual affair of sorts was going on between them. Did you see it that way? Or was it strictly a platonic friendship?
JP: Well, as you quite rightly say, it’s presented in such a way that the viewer can make up their own minds. Because nobody knows the truth of it. And I think that that was the best way we could have done it—to present it as a meeting of minds, but also an affection and a friendship.
When I first met Peter Morgan to talk about my playing Prince Philip, he said what he wanted to do and where he wanted to go with the character. And it was then, at that first meeting, that he talked about the relationship with Penny, about which I knew nothing—along with the rest of the United Kingdom. There were, when I was younger, stories of possible affairs that Prince Philip might have had, but they were like gossip in the papers. This relationship I knew nothing about. And when I left the meeting with Peter, I thought, “Oh God, is this a road I want to go down? Do I want to be the person who reveals to the United Kingdom that he has a friendship with a woman called Penny? I felt very nervous about it. And then I went on holiday to France, and one of the first things I did was Google it and put the two names into Google. And being in France, I got French Google, all the results were European, and I got page after page of this relationship that we knew nothing about in the U.K. I got a lot of confidence that this was a valid thing to be discussing and to be embodying. It’s what Prince Harry’s talking about now. It’s about what is given to the press and what the press agrees to withhold. Some deal must have been made for this relationship not to be made public.
But I see it as a very sincere relationship. What helped me in the playing of it is that I’ve known Natascha McElhone for 25 years—we met when we both did Ronin together. And I’m enormously fond of her, and I saw that relationship with Phillip and Penny, psychologically, the same as my feelings towards Natascha, who I admire greatly. And we know about [Penny] that she wrote a book about her personal life and her personal tragedy. I went to Natascha’s wedding and there is that sense of something that we share, Natascha and I, that sort of is replicated in Philip and Penny’s relationship. I’m talking about it now, but Natascha and I never talked about it because if you know someone well, you don’t need to discuss certain things. Certain things are a given. It’s the same as how I’ve known Imelda [Staunton] for 30 years and worked with her. I think she’s a wonderful actress, an extraordinary musical theater performer. And also, she’s been in a long relationship, Imelda; I have been with my Kate for 50 years. And neither of us needs to talk about what a long-term relationship is like. And, again, I’ll go back to the script—it’s all there on the page, and you have to fulfill it. That’s what’s so marvelous about the whole project, really.
AD: It seems as if Prince Phillip is a little bit more…there’s a tenderness to him that maybe we hadn’t seen before. We see it a little bit in his interactions with the queen, but also, there’s the fantastic monologue, a conversation that you have with Penny, where you’re talking about grief and how it sort of settles into your bones and shapes you as you move forward.
JP: I think what Peter is trying to do with all the characters over the years is to show their humanity. This was a chance, now that Phillip’s older and wiser, to show his humanity and the humane side of him. And I think Peter’s judgment was right because when Philip died, there was a documentary shown fairly quickly, not long after his death, where it was a series of interviews with members of the family. And they talked about him like anyone would talk about their grandfather— with enormous warmth and love and regard. I think he was essentially a kind man within the family. I think we made the right call on that.
As an actor, there are certain things that, when you read a script, make you choose to do that character or certain role rather than another. And you tend to find things that you can identify with. Or if he’s a totally unsympathetic character, you find things to bring to a character. You try to find out what makes him that unsympathetic character for which you have some sympathy. You try to show their frailty or their vulnerability. I’m 75 now, and I think I’m maybe a kinder, wiser man. You take that as a given within yourself. I felt that about Philip; I felt it was a very honest way to approach him. Why would I want to do anything differently? It’d be different if I were playing a Machiavellian politician; you’d want to show every bad side of them. With The Crown, you have the advantage of four seasons before you with this man, where the different elements of the man have been shown. A lot of times as an actor, it’s a wonderful kind of trick, that you have to make up somebody’s history—but in this case, it’s all there for you. I can go back and watch previous episodes of The Crown, and it’s all there. So I don’t have to show all those different sides of him. I can just be. And it helps that I’m kind of the same age and roughly the same height; that’s about where the resemblance ends.
I’m very encouraged as well by people who knew him—and knew him well— that [we got him right]. There’s a journalist, a writer who spent a lot of time with him writing a biography, and it was very encouraging that she told me just before Christmas that that was the man she knew, and she felt we had got him right. And I’ve met other people, but not royals, who’ve been involved in their lives, who say that the issues that Diana had with Charles are accurate. It’s what it was.
AD: You’re currently in the process of shooting season six of The Crown. Is there anything you’re able to share?
JP: There’s a great part of it that we’ve yet to film. The first part of the shoot of this season has heavily involved Diana and Charles. Obviously, we deal with the death of Diana in this season. And you see the way the family deals with it. You see Phillip’s burgeoning relationship with Prince William, which is very nice to play, very touching to play. And then there’ll be episode 10, where something extraordinary will be happening…something kind of summing up everything between Elizabeth and Philip will take place.
It’s all great; I’m so happy I’m doing it, and working with really good people. Crews that have been working on it since season one are still enthusiastic and dedicated to making it the best show they can. And I’m really proud of it.I was proud of season five, and hopefully, I’ll go down smiling in season six.
The Crown is available to stream on Netflix.