To Play the Queen, ‘The Crown’ Chooses Another Stalwart Briton

Peter Morgan, the show’s creator, said that Imelda Staunton had the “vulnerability and strength” to play Queen Elizabeth II for the final two seasons.

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By Roslyn Sulcas

LONDON — Almost midway through the new season of “The Crown,” which arrives on Netflix on Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II, played by Imelda Staunton, is aggressively confronted, one after another, by almost every member of her immediate family. Her three older children want to get divorced; her sister, Princess Margaret, is still angry with her for forbidding her marriage, 40 years earlier, to the divorced Peter Townsend. Even her mother upbraids her for being insufficiently stoic.

Through all these encounters, the camera lingers frequently on Staunton’s face as impassioned words pour forth from the person in front of her. Her expression is neutral, her features almost immobile, yet the queen’s pain and emotional distress are clear as she hears herself blamed for the family’s dysfunction.

“It’s an acting master class,” said Peter Morgan, who created “The Crown” and has written almost every episode. “By being unbelievably simple, she manages to be unbelievably complex.”

Elizabeth has to maintain her equilibrium at all times, Staunton said in a recent video interview after a day of filming for Season 6 of the series. “She must make sure that everyone around her knows she is stable, and not talk about her feelings, which she has no desire to do. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have feelings,” the actress said. “I have no perspective whatsoever on how I am playing her, but from the inside it’s very clear to me who she is.”

Lesley Manville, who plays Princess Margaret in Season 5 and will play her in Season 6, the final season, appreciated Staunton’s approach. “Imelda and I pretty much knew around the same time we would play the parts,” she said, adding that the pair both “do a lot of prep, a lot of research, have learned our lines and thought about what we are going to do. Then on the day, you can allow yourself to be relaxed, trust your instincts and play off the person opposite you. Hands down the scenes I have done with her have been the most thrilling.”

Staunton, 66, has had a long and successful career on both stage and screen. She is probably best known to movie audiences for her Oscar-nominated titular role in the Mike Leigh film “Vera Drake,” and for playing the deliciously evil, kitten-loving Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films. Onstage, she has received awards and accolades for a variety of musicals and dramas.

Yet she has never been a star or a household name. That suits her just fine. “Like the Queen, I’m a very private person,” she said.

But playing the central role in “The Crown,” a globally watched, acclaimed and much-discussed series, which has charted the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and depicts the royal family against the broader canvas of British social and political history, is likely to change all that.

“I think ‘The Crown’ is the star,” Staunton said diplomatically when asked how she felt about the attention that she would receive for the role. “We are all part of this brilliant puzzle.”

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