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How fear helped Elizabeth Debicki play Princess Diana on ‘The Crown’

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Elizabeth Debicki rest her arm on the couch.
Elizabeth Debicki knows that letting go of so demanding a role won’t be simple, she says of playing Princess Diana on “The Crown.”
(Elizabeth Weinberg / For The Times)

Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki has now lived in England long enough to know how she likes her tea, a pot of which she’s letting steep in front of her.

“Leave the bag in for as long as humanly possible,” she says. “I want it to hit me like coffee, but I want it to still be tea.”

That’s a pretty apt metaphor for her lauded turn as Princess Diana Spencer in the fifth season of “The Crown”: an intense portrait of exiled loneliness inside an uncanny rendering of that gossamer lilt of a voice, warmly teasing charm, and mannerisms. After two years playing her — with Season 6 streaming later this year — Debicki realized letting go of so demanding a role wouldn’t be simple.

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“At a certain stage toward the end of it, it dawned on me that I’d have to very consciously unpeel the layers,” says Debicki, who credits having dancer parents, and her own ballet training, with a very body-conscious approach to acting. She also acknowledges how much her osteopath has helped her with the factory-reset part of the gig.

“The other day, he was like, ‘Can we go back to your [own] body?’” she says with a gentle laugh. “The actor wants the body to be as neutral a canvas as possible so you can impact on it and become somebody else, how they want to move.”

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Elizabeth Debicki as Princess Diana in "The Crown."
(Netflix)

For Debicki, Diana’s physicality was about so much more than the recognizable head-drop. “Everyone and their mother does that,” Debicki says. “My plumber does it; it’s so incessant!” Rather, she sought a deeper understanding of Diana’s presence in any given scene. “She was quite tall, but there’s also this deep humility that seemed to be emanating out, not wanting to take up too much space, knowing that you inherently take up so much space because you’re so luminous. I think it was always a slight kind of deferral.” She adds, “Bodies have maps of all the things they’ve endured: the knocks, the highlights, the beliefs they’ve inherited.”

When Debicki was still relatively industry-fresh, and “The Crown” was an instant hit, she’d tried out for a small Season 2 role that she didn’t get — “I was physically wrong for it” — but which led to whispers that the production would be interested in her for Diana down the road. Emma Corrin’s Season 4 casting as the princess-to-be briefly spurred a “you win some, you lose some” feeling, she notes, until early 2020, when the offer came to be the 1990s Diana. A pandemic-delayed start gave Debicki a wealth of time to prepare.

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“I was kind of feeling my way through it, groping through the darkness,” she recalls. “I let myself swim in it in a not particularly conscious way, thinking, then I’ll just pop up, and whatever sticks will stick, whatever’s triggered something for me. Because there’s so much information.” She pauses. “A lot of fear and doubt was involved, as well.”

When Debicki thinks about the “great teachers” she’s worked with in her blazing career — Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert — she understands why the descriptor “fearless” is often applied to them. But she believes they’d all admit, as Debicki does, that fear is important. “You never want to lose your fear,” she says. “It’s like the edge of things, another way of saying ‘awareness.’ I wouldn’t know how to act without it. Adrenaline’s very useful.”

Elizabeth Debicki

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Especially when everything about a role reminds you she’s “very imprinted on our collective consciousness.” She took her time studying footage, placing a premium on moments when Diana is with her children, “where there’s no public-facing mask,” she notes, “and she just seems happy.” She also sought lighter snippets with humor, which prepared her for the endearing sparkle she gives scenes when Diana is charming Mohamed Fayed (Salim Daw) at the race track, or flirting with heart surgeon Dr. Khan (Humayun Saeed). “She’s really funny, with, like, amazing comic timing,” Debicki says. “You get to see right into the joyful human being.”

Her scenes of marital discord with Dominic West’s Prince of Wales, meanwhile, she likened to doing “an Ibsen play.” She says, “He’s very funny and dry, deeply self-deprecating, so he’s kind of a joy to work with on really heavy material. Because you can really bring it from take to take, and then he and I could find a way to come up above the surface for a second and take a breath before going back in. We laughed a lot, but we’ve had bunches of scenes where it’s so sad and we’re crying so much.”

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Ultimately, Debicki found herself thinking a lot about the freedom and honesty Diana struggled to navigate as a hounded figure. “It becomes a privacy question,” she says. “Privacy is the wellspring of sanity. You need it in order to be able to conduct life in a way that’s satisfying to you. And the media, the way they were, it was this complex give and take, but when there was too much take, the implosions are just felt everywhere.”

Elizabeth Debicki.

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