SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We Americans don't have a monarchy. We do like to borrow Britain's royal family. From "Wolf Hall" to Pippa Middleton's wedding, the British crown captures our attention and imaginations. This past November, as we Americans chose a president, you might recall Netflix's diamond-dripping drama, "The Crown" enthralled Americans. This particular crown belongs to the world's most unknowable famous woman, Queen Elizabeth II. She's a mere slip of a princess as the series opens, just 25 years old, newlywed to the dashing Philip Mountbatten, now known mostly as Prince Philip. They are a fascinating couple, as played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith. This is not the first time Ms. Foy has played a monarch, though this time, she's kept her head. Matt Smith is perhaps best-known as one of the much vaunted Doctor Whos. Claire Foy and Matt Smith join us today from NPR West. Thank you very much for being with us, Your Majesties.
CLAIRE FOY: Oh, our pleasure.
MATT SMITH: What a lovely introduction.
FOY: (Laughter) Yes, a lovely introduction.
SMITH: Thank you for having us.
SIMON: So you grew up watching this couple from a distance. What was it like to step into their royal shoes?
FOY: Daunting, I think because you kind of have to forget everything that you've ever known really and start from square one and start to get to know them as people as opposed to figureheads of the royal family, which is quite difficult, I think, because you sort of have to erase all the Christmas messages that you've heard over the years and all the photographs that you've seen of them together and try and just get down to kind of the bare bones of it, I think. But - you know, daunting but great all the same.
SMITH: Yes, I concur, a wonderful privilege.
SIMON: Well, Matt Smith, let me follow up a bit, if I could. Philip can be particularly difficult for us to fix in our minds because he's so often in the background. And yet, of course, he is one of the characters who's front and center. Do you talk to people who've known him? Do you talk to people who have worked with them? Do you watch old newsreel? What do you do?
SMITH: Yes - all three, actually. We had a wonderful historian on set and a great research team, and they put us in touch. I mean, I spoke to one of his former equerries - is that how you say it?
FOY: That's how you say it. Well done.
SIMON: Horse guy.
SMITH: And he was - yes, yes.
SMITH: And he was very popular in the royal house, actually, Philip. And yeah, you know, you sort of immerse yourself in as much of the footage and try and understand as much of the period as you can. And luckily, we share a lot in common.
SMITH: And I was completely emasculated by Claire the whole way through.
SMITH: No, I jest (unintelligible).
SIMON: I feel like we're getting to the nub of something here. And...
FOY: We really are. We really need to have it out, so let's just do it now.
SMITH: We absolutely do.
FOY: Why not?
SMITH: Let's see it.
SIMON: Oh, mercy.
SIMON: Well, let's conveniently run a clip while you recover yourselves, which I think might indicate a little bit of what you're talking about because they're a married couple. But there is, as we'd say these days, a power imbalance. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) Then why go along with it?
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) Because that's the overwhelming advice.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) But that's the point, Elizabeth. It's just advice. It doesn't mean that you have to act on it.
FOY: (As Queen Elizabeth II) When it comes from the government, you do.
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) What kind of marriage is this? What kind of family? You've taken my career from me. You've taken my home. You've taken my name.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SMITH: (As Prince Philip) I thought we were in this together.
SIMON: That's very affecting. He's paid a price, hasn't he?
SMITH: Yeah. I think he has...
SMITH: ...Paid a price, you know, like we just heard in that clip. And, I mean, particularly in the '40s and '50s, where we sort of meet them, it was unheard of really that those things would happen to the man of the house. How good the times moved on in many ways.
SIMON: Claire Foy, as we mentioned, this is the second time you've played a monarch. I wonder if you feel you've learned something.
FOY: Well, I mean - I mean, if you compare Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth II, they couldn't be further apart in the sense that Anne was entirely at Henry's will.
FOY: Her death was an example, entirely, of that. And I think Elizabeth is a very sort of unassuming and reluctant monarch. She'd never wanted the responsibility. It wasn't her destiny in a way. It became that but, you know, only when her uncle abdicated the throne.
FOY: And so I think it's a story of kind of trying to triumph over adversity in a way. And I think that's what Elizabeth's reign's sort of been, is that she's found her way of doing it in her own way and being her own person.
SIMON: Let me ask you both - you are playing very public people who are the embodiment of the stiff upper lip...
SIMON: ...That - for which the British are so famed and, I don't mind saying, even adored. On the other hand, the camera starts rolling - at some point, you have to let it out. How do you do that with these characters?
SMITH: Well, I guess what - you know, from kind of Philip's point of view, is what's really interesting is that he's so conflicted. He's conflicted with his public role and conflicted with his private life and those two things, that battle. And so you get to really explore those things. And I think when the show really works is when we get to glimpse them at home and being normal and being what we all term everyday life. Claire Foy?
FOY: I think, weirdly, with a camera, it doesn't really want to see what you are doing. It wants to see what you're not doing. So I think these characters lend themselves quite well to that in the sense that you let the audience put themselves in that position - if they had that dilemma, if they were in that moment, what would they be doing or thinking or feeling?
I think sometimes if the character is entirely responding every single moment, it doesn't necessarily give the audience room to kind of think about it. And so I really loved it, to be honest. I loved letting the camera do the work and you just sort of be thinking.
SIMON: One reads, Matt Smith...
SIMON: ...That next season is built around your character, Prince Philip.
SMITH: I'd love to say it was. But what is interesting on the Philip front this year is that we sort of get to glimpse back into his past and see what happened to him as a child, which is actually quite traumatic. And I think it gives us an idea of why and how he is the way he is today.
SIMON: I was not pleased to read that it might be in the plans of the producers that you would age out of these roles.
FOY: Oh, I mean, it's not in the - it's the contract. We're gone.
FOY: We're gone. We always knew when we were signing up that the plan for the show was that it would be continued on through time, not that it's a massive historical sort of reference piece or anything. But the plan was that the characters are bigger than the actor.
FOY: So other people try them on is the idea, and we always knew that. So it's quite funny that - quite a lot of people have asked that question that we're sort of surprised, like we've been sacked. I hope it's not that.
But no, we always knew that we'd have two series to have a crack at it. And then we'd hang up our royal shoes, and someone else would do it. And I think it's an amazing, ambitious thing to do, that - to say to the audience, we're going somewhere else now; come with us. And I can't wait to watch it.
SMITH: Yeah. And let's just hope that they're not as good.
FOY: That's the real hope - that they'll say, they were never as good as Matt and Claire, though.
SMITH: Let's hope they're really good but not really, really good.
FOY: Really good - just good enough.
SMITH: But not as good.
SIMON: Oh, that's the wonderful thing about the theater, the solidarity of it.
FOY: Isn't it? Isn't it? We all support each other.
SMITH: We're a real team.
FOY: We're a real team, yeah.
SIMON: One last question - have you met the people you're playing ever?
FOY: Oh - I mean, I've - I haven't - I wouldn't say met. I've been in the same room and touched the hand of Philip and Elizabeth. But it was way before the show, and it was also, you know, incredibly impersonal and a bit weird.
SMITH: I'd love you to meet her now. That would be amazing.
FOY: I'd cry. I would. I would. I think I would just cry if I met her.
SIMON: Claire Foy and Matt Smith, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in "The Crown," thanks so much for being with us.
FOY: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you. Thank you very much for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "'THE CROWN' MAIN THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.