How ‘The Crown’ Casts Its Royals

Few shows have made casting decisions more central to their appeal than “The Crown.” The plot twists are public record. The motifs are as old as time. The real-life characters, famous since birth, have generated enough biographies and magazine covers to fill several royal libraries.

It’s not so much what is portrayed in the House of Windsor drama, which debuted its fifth season on Netflix last week, but how and by whom?

For the past six years, that last question has been the preoccupation of Robert Sterne, the show’s lead casting director. Sterne, working closely with the series’s creator, Peter Morgan, has helped turn “The Crown” — which refreshes its cast every other season, bringing in older performers as the timeline advances — into a reliable showcase for some of Britain’s best actors. He has won two Emmys for casting a drama series — for “The Crown” last year, and for “Game of Thrones” in 2019. The show’s alumni, including Claire Foy, Matt Smith, Vanessa Kirby, Olivia Colman and Emma Corrin, have earned 14 Emmy nominations and six wins, collectively.

For Seasons 5 and 6, Morgan and Sterne introduced a new list of players for a third and final time: Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth II, Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana, Dominic West as Prince Charles, Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip and Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret.

In a recent phone interview, Sterne discussed the challenge of continually rebuilding the show, what matters more than physical verisimilitude and the hardest role to crack. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You’ve had high-profile gigs before, including casting all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones.” Has “The Crown” been more difficult?

It’s been a great and unique challenge. Casting every actor every two years is not something I’ve ever had to do before. You’re always keeping your antennae open for who might be good for something down the line. There are breaks every two seasons, but I suppose I’ve probably spent about five months of each year working on this show alone.

This season starts with a cameo by Claire Foy, the show’s first Elizabeth, before introducing Imelda Staunton as the queen circa 1991. How much are you guided by the previous actors on the show, and how much are you looking to real-world evidence from the period?

You have to do both. You have to maintain a kind of double vision. You want a certain visual similarity because these are real people, and that’s fun for the audience. But there’s also this idea of the baton being passed from actor to actor, which I think has been an interesting creative challenge for them, trying to rise to that bar. We thought of Imelda as the perfect successor to Claire’s and Olivia’s portrayals — an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances who is still quite relatable and warm and funny.

Staunton is the third actor to play Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown,” after Claire Foy and Olivia Colman.Credit…Netflix

What’s your process with Peter Morgan?

He’s really great because he’s very rigorous and specific about what he’s going for, which is a real gift for a casting person. Usually he says: “This is what I’m thinking. What do you reckon?” and we’ll have a conversation not only about who these characters are but what function they serve in his scripts. There’s a brilliant research team who creates a biography of every character with photos from the time they appear in the story. I’ll throw a bunch of ideas at him and then we’ll go back and forth. Eventually, we’ll start meeting people and try them out and see what happens.

How do you know when you’ve found the right person?

You can just see that they’ve made a connection with the writing and the character, and something just clicks. Quite often, it’s not necessarily what you imagined, but there can be a kind of joy in that discovery. Then you go and talk to everyone about whether this version is the right version.

The actors you’ve chosen usually have some resemblance to their characters but are just as often quite different physically. What do you look for beyond physical resemblance?

It can be quite complicated. The scripts are the starting point. You’re looking for actors who you think can inhabit a character in all its complexity as written. People who can transform, who have the technical skill and talent to do a really detailed version of the character. Peter never writes in simplistic terms, so you want somebody who’s going to rise to that and enjoy it.

As Diana, Debicki has “the right level of emotional intelligence,” Robert Sterne said. And West, the new Charles, “makes all his characters come fully alive.”Credit…Keith Bernstein/Netflix

This season, the Queen is in her late 60s. She’s confronting multiple cataclysmic events, both within her family and on the global stage. What was important to capture in this phase of her life?

I suppose it’s keeping the family together when so many elements are coming together to make it self-destruct. Adapting to the modernization that is required of the royal family in the new ’90s culture. There’s a very interesting kind of turbulence both in the family and politically, with the various media wars taking place, the divorces that are happening, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Hong Kong situation and the international side of things. Imelda Staunton is one of the very best actors that we have in the U.K. and an incredible class act. When she agreed to take on this challenge, we knew that she would just fly with it.

What about Charles and Diana? What did Dominic West bring to the table?

He makes all his characters come fully alive. You sit up when you’re watching him and consider the situation the now King Charles is in, both publicly and privately.

And Elizabeth Debicki?

I think Emma Corrin set up Diana in the early years as this person who’s struggling to find her feet and her autonomy. This season, we move on to the iconic figure on the world stage — the kind of Mario Testino version, at the height of her power, dealing with divorce and all the other pressures in her life. We had to find an actor who would burn very brightly, and Elizabeth Debicki has not only the most incredible wattage onscreen but the right level of emotional intelligence.

Which actor whom we haven’t talked about yet surprised you the most this season?

I am absolutely excited and thrilled by Salim Daw and Khalid Abdalla, who play Mohamed al-Fayed and Dodi al-Fayed. It’s a story about father and son and about outsiders, and I think that what they achieve together as a unit is really brilliant.

Khalid Abdalla, left, and Salim Daw play Dodi and Mohamed Al-Fayed in the new season.Credit…Keith Bernstein/Netflix

Which role was the hardest to cast?

Diana in Season 4 took absolutely ages. We could have had anybody, but it had to be the right person. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of people from all over the English-speaking world — America, Australia, the U.K., universities, drama groups, people who hadn’t acted before. We took quite a lot of time with that one. It was a role for a newcomer, but they had to grab quite a complicated part.

Several of the previous stars, including Emma Corrin, have gone on to big international careers. Do you take pride when that happens? Is that something you can anticipate at the audition stage?

I’m just focused on what needs to be achieved in the particular situation. But when people do get an opportunity and are able to move on and develop their careers and their creativity, it’s a huge pleasure to watch. Total delight, joy and pride.

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