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The Crown: How Netflix Casts the Controversial Royal Drama

Steve Palace
(Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)
(Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

As The Crown is one of the most popular shows about the Royal Family, people enjoy looking back at the various actors and actresses who’ve brought them to life.

From established names to up-and-comers who became stars through the hit Netflix production, the series is a high-profile showcase for British talent. Who makes the difficult decisions behind casting The Crown? And how does it all work?

The answers reveal a system as elaborate as that used by Buckingham Palace itself.

The casting of The Crown

Elle speaks to Robert Sterne, who’s been in charge of casting since Season 4. Nina Gold (Game of Thrones, Star Wars) worked with him previously.

The questions he asks include “Who’s done it before, who’s doing it after, and who are the real people?” Sounds simple enough, yet the reality is quite complex. Sterne and co look for performers who capture the “spirit” of what’s on the page.

He’s all too aware of the weight of history bearing down on him and producers. With controversies over how the Royals are fictionally presented, it must be a nerve-wracking business. And a lengthy one – it reportedly takes approximately a year to get everything in place.

Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

How the series began

Created and mostly written by Peter Morgan, the seed of The Crown was planted via his play The Audience. Staged in 2013, it gives audiences a glimpse behind the scenes of private meetings between Queen Elizabeth II and successive Prime Ministers.

This element forms an important part of the series, with John Lithgow playing the first onscreen premier, Winston Churchill. Interestingly he’s an American actor. In a 2016 interview with Variety, Morgan noted Lithgow’s nationality – and towering height! – but believed him to be a great character actor and worthy of the part.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

Claire Foy and Matt Smith

Elizabeth and Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh, first appeared with the faces of Claire Foy and Matt Smith. Foy was well-known beforehand but her performance catapulted her onto the world stage. Smith became a household name, owing to his time as Doctor Who (2010 – 13).

Matt Smith and Claire Foy
Matt Smith and Claire Foy (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

Morgan revealed that Foy was far from his first choice, though embodied a mixture of qualities he was after for that debut year. “She has to be in the background sort of anonymous and then every now and then have devastating impact” he explained. “It’s really not easy.”

Smith was a favorite because of his chemistry with Foy during readings. Apparently, it took some persuading to get him on board. Today, Philip is one of his best-known roles.

The passage of time

One curious feature of The Crown is its swapping of main actors every couple of seasons. Why do they do this? For Morgan, using makeup to age the characters wasn’t an option he took seriously.

So, after Foy and Smith bowed out, Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies took over for Seasons 3 and 4. Foy and Colman are contrasted through the imagery for postage stamps early on. There’s a lack of resemblance, proving that Sterne and the team aren’t especially interested in doubles, or impersonations of famous figures.

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies
Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

Emma Corrin and Diana

Sometimes the right person can land in their lap. For instance, Emma Corrin attracted attention as a stand-in for the Camilla Parker-Bowles auditions process. She wasn’t there to be considered but wound up bagging the role of Diana.

Her performance made her world-famous, together with Emerald Fennell as Camilla. Fennell is an award-winning writer/director, who made Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan in 2020.

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana on her wedding day (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

The lady’s not for turning

One major role in Season 4 was that of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. A surprising choice ended up onscreen – Gillian Anderson. Sterne tells Elle that “It seemed like a fresh and interesting way of going.” Happily, Anderson was a partner to writer Peter Morgan.

GIllian Anderson as Thatcher
GIllian Anderson as Thatcher (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

Supporting characters

Sterne stresses the attention to detail paid with smaller parts also. Tom Brooke only appears in one episode, playing Palace intruder Michael Fagan in Season 4, but the casting had to be spot on. Brooke’s resemblance to Fagan, plus his sense of soul, are mentioned.

Brooke was a relative unknown compared to Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who appeared as President John F. Kennedy in Season 2. Hall wanted to suggest Kennedy’s prescription drug use, which was unusual.

Regarding being cast, Hall said: “they certainly encourage people to honor the spirit of the people they’re playing but don’t encourage straight-up mimicry.”

Michael C. Hall as JFK
Michael C. Hall as JFK and Jodie Balfour as Jackie Kennedy (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

The Crown Series 5

What’s expected from the final two seasons of The Crown? Digital Spy writes that Season 5 “feature[d] some of the most shocking moments of the modern monarchy’s history, with Charles and Princess Diana’s crumbling relationship a prominent feature.”

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana
Elizabeth Debicki as Diana for Season 5 (Photo Credit: Netflix, MovieStillsDB)

More from us: 7 Major Historical Mistakes ‘The Crown’ Made

The original plan was to end the show with one run, but now a sixth season is in the offing. Imelda Staunton has been cast as Queen Elizabeth, with Jonathan Pryce as Philip. Elizabeth Debicki is Princess Diana and Dominic West plays Charles.

They are the final torchbearers for this fictional Royal legacy. The Crown is about to make headlines again, but that’ll hardly be a surprise at this stage.