“It completely changed my perspective”: Jared Harris and Vanessa Kirby talk Netflix’s The Crown
Matthew Turner | On 06, Nov 2016
This weekend marks the premiere of The Crown on Netflix. One of the most expensive shows ever made, the epic stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, but its sweeping scale comes from the supporting cast as much as the sumptuous production design.
We sit down with two of the best, Jared Harris (King George VI) and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret), to talk creative freedom, following in the footsteps of The King’s Speech and what’s in their Neflix queue.
What research did you do?
Jared Harris (JH): Just read everything, see everything, listen to everything, get your hands on as much as you can and just immerse yourself in that world and in that time period, and really anything that will help you, your imagination, to put you in it.
Vanessa Kirby (VK): Mmm. You just try and find as many unusual ways to get into the world as possible. I actually went round the palaces, there was a beautiful exhibition of costumes, of Elizabeth and Margaret, at the very time I got the part, so I sort of spent lots of time in there with my mum [laughs], she was more fascinated than I was. And then Margaret has this great Desert Island Discs episode, and so I got all her favourite music off that and then listened to all the music all the time, even in the make-up trailer. And Claire was like, ‘Shhh!’ and I was blasting out Scotland the Brave or something. Which she loved, on the bagpipes, apparently.
JH: Scotland the Brave, interesting…
VK: I know, I was listening at home as well and my sister was like, ‘Pleeease, will you stop it?’
JH: Why do you think that was?
VK: Just the nationalistic and the British…you know…
JH: They have that thing of having the bagpipes wake them up in the morning…
VK: It reminded her of being really little, she said. And it was a really specific Scottish band that she wanted playing. And then watched loads of archive footage. And then try to throw it all away, and just hope that you capture the spirit.
JH: It’s better than an alarm clock, isn’t it? Having a bag-piper walk the grounds. [Does pretty decent bagpipe impression]
What was the most surprising thing you learned about them?
VK: Everything was surprising to me, because I didn’t know her, really, before. I didn’t really know much about her, except the fact that she was the sister of the Queen, and that was it. I mean, she’s not a Royal that you learn about, you don’t find her in museums, particularly. And yet she was the most vivid and imaginative and creative and sort of rebel, exciting Royal I’ve ever been lucky enough to read a lot about. And so, I believe – and we were saying earlier, I feel like she’s more like Elizabeth the First, or Marie Antoinette, that she’s got that element to her, and that dark, and that danger, which is complete opposite to Elizabeth, and so it was such a privilege to get to know her. So that element, and also the love story with her and Peter Townsend, for me, was quite buried in the public consciousness and to bring that back and to re-live it, in a way, for anybody watching, felt like an honour, because I felt that that was something that had been forgotten and it was so tragic.
JH: I suppose, while the commitment maybe, during the war, to remain in the palace and remain in London, and to endure what the people of Britain or London, specifically, were enduring, to go through the blitz with them. There’s actually quite a funny anecdote where a German plane flew down the Mall and – boom! – dropped a bomb on the palace. And they were convinced it was their cousin fourth removed in Germany, because who else would know, how to line up on the palace, exactly? You know, I also think something that occurred to me was that he and his brother really grew up together, they did not have much contact with either their mother or their father. And in that sense, they were – that was his family, and that connection to his brother was vitally important. So when his brother decides to do what he did, it’s a massive betrayal. And then, coupled on that, is not only the fact that he’s suddenly going to have to do this thing, which he never thought was going to come his way, but also, he’s going to lose his brother, because his brother must leave. He must leave the country. And so it was ripping the family apart.
VK: It’s a whole series of stories of betrayal, and do you choose your family, or do you choose yourself, or do you choose duty or yourself, and those are the kind of big questions which make it not just a British show, but a human one. And that, for me, was amazing, really. Really interesting to get into and it never felt stuffy or irrelevant or presentational, which I think some things could be.
Was the King’s penchant for filthy limericks covered in the research?
JH: Well, he was in the Navy, which is not known for its polite language, and his father was in the Navy, and was well known for swearing up and down the wall, so he would have grown up around that. In fact, his father used to – whenever he would stutter, his father would swear a blue streak at him, telling him to just buck up and get over it, so he would have been around it. He would have been exposed to it, and again, this is one of the things that – the track you fall into doing this is to assume that they aren’t like us. You know, they have the same desires and ambitions and goals and dreams and, you know, fallibles, things that we have, so of course they swear.
Had you seen The King’s Speech? Did you have to un-see it in your head?
JH: I actually took great solace from the fact that Colin Firth looked nothing like him, and it didn’t upset people. And I don’t look anything like him either. It’s a different story. The King’s Speech is about a man overcoming his personal millstone round his neck of this impediment, which he feels makes him unfit, for all time, to perform this function, since there’s some idea that the monarch is supposed to be an ideal of perfection in some way, and every time he opened his mouth was destroying that. But our story is a different story. Our story is really more focused on his – some relationship with power, but a lot more to do with him as a family man, him as a father to the two daughters, less of him as a husband, but he is a devoted husband as well. You can see that the family was a devoted family, when you look at the old footage you can really see that there was this very, very tight, close-knit bond between these four people.
Vanessa, I read that the piano scene was your idea? Did you have a lot of freedom in terms of your own input into the storyline?
VK: It always felt really collaborative – we were in rehearsals for a couple of weeks, all together, at the beginning, when we came together just before we started filming and Peter is so clear about the specificities of when he wants to write and what he wants to write. I think it’s an amazing achievement, because, God, if you had that period of time, you have eight years, what do you write? You can write about anything you want in that time, so they aim to kind of go into these different episodes, you’ve got one on Churchill, one on the Fog and then you’ve got one on Philip and then one on Margaret and there’s Elizabeth and that became – we had to follow that track, but within that we could always suggest things and say, ‘What about this?’, or ‘This is really important’, and Peter enjoys you fighting for your character’s line, you know? Because actually, he’s got to look after all of them and you’ve got to look after yours and so that became really interesting, because you could literally sort of go to him and say, ‘What about this?’ and sometimes he’d said, ‘No, we can’t’, but the singing came out of the fact that we wanted to show – because you only see glimpses of Margaret, really, in the first couple of episodes – to see how close she was with her father, and likewise, we talked about the embalming scene, when you see her, see his dead body, and him being embalmed, as opposed to Elizabeth, who sees him pretty covered up in uniform. It’s a very different experience and much more traumatic for Margaret and so these subtle wounds that are inflicted on Margaret and the closeness of that bond then affects the rest of the entire season and Season 2, whatever, and her whole life, actually, completely and utterly, and so that became really important. So those things you could suggest.
JH: But that was with Stephen, though, wasn’t it?
VK: That was with Stephen, actually. He said, ‘What can we do?’ and I said, ‘Well, do you know, I read this thing the other day where they used to sing at the piano together’, which kind of surprised me, because he’s not a particularly showy person and she is, and how did that work? And he said, ‘Right, let’s do it’ and I said [stressed voice], ‘But I haven’t ever sung a note in my life’ and ‘Oh God, what have I got myself into?’ But we sort of did it together, really.
JH: The next thing I knew, I was being called off to go and sing in a booth somewhere, I had a filthy cold…
VK: [laughs] You made the song. It made it much easier for me, I was really terrified.
JH: Because I sang so badly, I sang about four keys at once.
VK: It was perfect.
Margaret was a star in her time, she was a fashion icon. How did you feel about her costumes, which were very different from Elizabeth’s?
VK: I know, they were very different. You can see how different they become over the course of the episodes. And Michelle is amazing, as a costume designer, because I’m quite scruffy in real life. [Jared indicates the stunning dress she’s wearing.] No, I am, I am! But it was an amazing transformation in a sense, to really feel like when I would come on set, there’d be a tangible anticipation of what Michelle would come up with for Margaret next. And Claire was always like, ‘That’s SO UNFAIR!’ and she’s always in some dowdy thing. But it became amazing, because the dresses became a character themselves and we built something together and the stories that they told and the fact that Margaret has the evolution, when she starts wearing trousers and becoming more masculine and wearing shirts and bold colours, so different to Elizabeth. And it’s funny, because on this season you can tell, the minute that something – we know each other so well that sometimes you’re wearing something that’s slightly not Margaret-y, Claire will say “[gasp] No, no, no, no, that’s all wrong” and I say, “No, no, no, that’s too bright, it’s too bright, take it off, put something duller on!” And so you get this real understanding of who they are from their costumes, and, in a way, that’s who they were; Margaret was completely aware of her status as that, as a leader [of fashion], and she was in Paris and Milan and she was going to the shows and she was meeting all the designers and collecting fabrics and swishing around the corridors, sort of trying to see how they would look on camera and that became massively part of her, whereas Elizabeth was thoroughly uninterested. So it was really exciting to have that.
Do you feel that King George VI is still very popular, or still had a very special place in people’s hearts?
JH: People of his generation, or the generation who knew of him, they have a great fondness for him and that he and his wife displayed great courage during the war and he defined what kind of a monarch he was going to be, was someone who was going to lead by example and be a kind of totem for a morale-boosting thing and he became very useful. Initially, he and Churchill did not get on together, but during their experiences of Common Cause, they became very, very close to one another. I don’t think that anybody of the younger generation would know anything about him other than, you know, he’s Colin Firth in The King’s Speech.
VK: And there’s the statue on The Mall.
JH: Yes, but even that, there’s tonnes of statues you walk past. I mean, King Richard the Lionheart has a statue outside Parliament, I don’t know…
VK: We unveiled the statue of Jared, as well – we had a dead corpse Jared and we had a statue of Jared, somewhere, floating about in London.
JH: Where is that statue? I’m going to get that statue and put it in my garden.
How did you work on the stammer, because, as you said, you didn’t want it to be the same as The King’s Speech?
JH: Yeah, we had a conversation about it. We didn’t want the idea of the stammer to be something that – it isn’t about that, so we have a different narrative and we didn’t want it to be something that slowed things up and I also, from what I looked at, a lot of the footage, most the time, it was just this sort of dreadful pause that would happen and this sort of constriction, and you knew what was going on and in some way that kind of helped with the tension in a way, it made it even more embarrassing and even more uncomfortable than having somebody trying to splutter out words, you know? That’s what worked for us and there’s a few times in there where we do do that repetition thing, but it seemed like the other thing worked for us and we could move along with what we were trying to do, story-wise.
What was it like working with John Lithgow? Had you worked with him before?
JH: No, I hadn’t. I remember the first time he walked onto the set, I had a similar feeling when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis walk on as Lincoln – I played Ulysses S. Grant in Lincoln and the first time I saw him come walking across the field, I said, ‘Holy fuck, that is Abraham fucking Lincoln’ and the first time Winston Churchill walked into the big room, I thought, ‘Fuck, that’s Winston Churchill’. It’s amazing. And he was in it, he was doing the voice.
VK: He was amazing. And the nicest man on the planet.
JH: Yes, he was lovely. Absolutely lovely.
Did he stay in character throughout the whole thing?
JH: Well, you know, there’s a thing, and again, that’s something that they talk about with Daniel, but it’s this thing, which is that you maintain the accent, because he had a very specific address of speech, which is that he almost had a little lisp or something, that he had very, very loose esses. So he would maintain that, so that he didn’t do the thing of forgetting to do it when he started to do the acting, but he was John.
VK: He had a mouthpiece and he had some cotton wool too…
JH: Yes, he had all that stuff, so that it forced him to stay in it, but when you were talking to him, he wasn’t sitting there and going [adopts Churchill impression], ‘Well, I’ve never been on stage in my life, what are you talking about?’ He was John, but he was doing the voice. Daniel’s a little stricter – he doesn’t like to talk about things that aren’t happening for the character. So if you said, ‘God, my flight was delayed’, he’d say, ‘What is that?’
How do you think people are going to respond to it around the world?
JH: You know, good drama is good drama. It’s well written, it’s epic, it’s a massive scope, it’s a story where the context of it is about the second half of the twentieth century and the Western world that we live in, we’ve inherited from that. And within it is this incredibly passionate family drama about these – I mean, it’s like a series of love stories, isn’t it? I mean, what happens to Margaret, it’s tragic, in a sense.
VK: I think, also, it’s not just a documentary, a factual documentary on these people, who are an institution that we all know about, vaguel – I mean, it’s human beings in really extraordinary circumstances and I think that makes great drama. But it also changes people’s minds about things and my mind was totally opened and humbled, actually, by really, I suppose, bringing down the veil, or my perception, changing my perception of these people which actually I knew nothing about and I really didn’t care about and I probably judged a little bit, actually. So to see how much they have struggled in what we would perceive as being incredible privilege completely moved me and changed my perspective on people in the public eye. I think.
Are you big Netflix fans yourselves? And if so, what have you seen and enjoyed on Netflix recently?
VK: Ah, it’s so great, because you can watch whatever you’re in the mood for, whenever you want and I love it. I love them as a company, I think they’re really wonderful people and they’re really artistically driven and they give you a lot of autonomy as an artist, they don’t interfere, you don’t get a phone call saying, ‘Oh, we don’t like the wig, can we reshoot it?’ or whatever.
JH: No phonecalls from executives. You know, Johnny Depp got all those phone calls while they were doing Pirates of the Caribbean, the first one, from the studio executives, going [Hollywood exec voice] ‘YOU’RE RUINING OUR MOVIE!’, you know, ‘You’re destroying our film, why are you doing this?’ and of course, he knew what he was doing, but yeah, on our one, they leave you alone.
VK: There’s creative freedom, and I think you see that on the format of what it is, the platform of what it is. I mean, I like the documentaries on there. I love those. You like Stranger Things, don’t you?
JH: Stranger Things. I just binge-watched Stranger Things. I thought it was the best remake of Poltergeist, much better than the one that I was in. It was a really good remake of it, and a sort of weird kind of nostalgic look through a whole series of movies from the 80s and you saw all these references towards, you know, a lot of Spielberg in there.
Was there any particular documentary that stood out for you?
VK: Ooh, I haven’t watched the Amanda Knox one yet. Virunga! That one.
All episodes of The Crown are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.