If you’re wondering how much Josh O’Connor and Erin Doherty knew about Prince Charles and Princess Anne before signing on to play them in “The Crown,” the answers, respectively, are “not much” and “virtually nothing.”
“I got off the phone with my agent and I was like, ‘I know “The Crown,” but who is this woman?’” said Doherty, joined by O’Connor for lunch in Manhattan. He’s not exactly a monarchist, either.
“If pressed, I would probably say I was a republican,” he says. “I’m just not that bothered, basically.”
Despite their ambivalence about the institution, Doherty and O’Connor have embraced their roles as the young royals, whose personal lives are a focal point of the third season of the Netflix drama. During a period of declining international influence and economic hardship for the U.K., Princess Anne and especially Prince Charles face rocky transitions to adulthood and life in the public eye.
Charles begins to prepare for his future role as king, including a lonely stint studying the Welsh language. But the heir to the throne resents the way he has to suppress his feelings because of a job he won’t inherit for decades — especially when it comes to his love interest, Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell). For viewers accustomed to seeing Charles cast as an aloof tabloid villain during his later marriage to Princess Diana, his vulnerability and likability come as a surprise.
Nearly as unexpected is the way his feisty younger sister, Anne — much less familiar to American audiences — becomes this season’s scene-stealer, thanks to her disarming candor, lethal eye roll and taste for David Bowie. Unburdened by being next-in-line, she’s free to tell it like it is, and she does so — frequently. During a pivotal showdown, she tells her horrified mother, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), that all she wanted from a hookup with Camilla’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Andrew Parker Bowles, was “a bit of fun.”
“There’s something that happens to you when you know your mum has something that will always be more important,” Doherty says. “Ultimately, it makes me feel so sorry for them. I wouldn’t want to be them.”
“I think it would be rubbish,” O’Connor adds.
Doherty and O’Connor will head back to London later in the day, where they will resume filming Season 4 of “The Crown” — a.k.a. the One with Diana. The actors followed similar trajectories to “The Crown” and share a sibling-like dynamic. Both former soccer players, at one point in the conversation they challenge each other to a “keepie-uppie” contest. Like Colman, they studied drama at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And they both recently appeared, opposite Colman, in a PBS “Masterpiece” adaptation of “Les Misérables.”
O’Connor, 29, grew up in Gloucester, in the west of England. Fans of British television may recognize him from his role as writer Lawrence Durrell, the oldest sibling in a family of British expatriates, in the PBS “Masterpiece” series “The Durrells in Corfu.” He also appeared as a sheep farmer in the 2017 indie “God’s Own Country.”
Doherty, 27, who was raised in Crawley, just south of London, appeared in “Call the Midwife” as a young mother whose husband is blinded in an industrial accident.
So how do you feel about Charles and Anne, now that you’ve come to learn so much about them?
O’Connor: I have huge fondness for Charles as a person. I’m still none the wiser as to what he’s actually like, of course. Obviously, this is a fictionalized version of him.
Doherty: Since spending pretty much a year in these people’s shoes, I feel an immense amount of compassion just because I feel like the situation that they’re in is so relentless, to be under that kind of mass scrutiny 24/7. I don’t know how they do it. I would never want to trade. It’s so lonely.
O’Connor: Loneliness is a huge aspect of this series, of this season in particular. Anne and Charles in Episode 6 reach out to each other. They’re desperately trying to find allies. A lot of Peter Morgan’s exploration, not just in “The Crown,” but generally speaking, in a lot of films, seems to be about loneliness.
As you were preparing for these roles, did you learn anything about these people that was illuminating for you as performers?
Doherty: I think for me the moment I unearthed all this bad press that Anne received when she was really quite young. They were calling her frumpy and things like that. I was like, “My God, if someone said that to me when I was 15, I would have a nervous breakdown.” And she went the other way. It makes me admire her even more. It’s where my admiration for her ultimately comes from. To withstand that amount of scrutiny and be able to just build yourself an armor and go, “You know what, you’re not gonna get in, and it doesn’t matter what you say.” That’s the nugget of gold I kept going back to. You’re witnessing what’s got her to the point of being so anonymous. You get to see what got her psychologically to that decision. She’s fascinating, but she’s also just a teenager trying to live her life.
Charles and Anne really do seem to share a bond.
O’Connor: One of my favorite moments in the whole series is when Anne says goodbye to Charles as he’s going off to Wales. She kisses him on the cheek, and there’s this weird moment of brotherly-sisterly love, and then she undercuts it with a punch to the stomach. It’s like, “I will show you warmth, but remember, we are just brother and sister.” What Anne has with her armor, Charles does not have. Anne is almost better suited to be next in line.
Doherty: They’re so great to play, because of that push and pull: “I want to do this, but I have to do this.”
I was a bit scandalized by their overlapping love lives.
O’Connor: It’s a bit weird, isn’t it? But they all are a bit like that in that world. Part of the problem they had with Camilla is she wasn’t close enough to the family. In aristocracy terms, Camilla was New Money, essentially. Maybe a couple hundred years’ worth of money, as opposed to generations and generations.
Speaking of Camilla, Charles comes across as surprisingly vulnerable.
O’Connor: He’s so vulnerable. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I’m obsessed with the assessment of masculinity or, I suppose, modern-day masculinity. Many Western men grew up with a view of what masculinity should be. I think Charles had to be a leader of men, and so what that means and the history of what that means must have been so impactful. He must have felt like he had to live up to that. He’s been surrounded by Philip and Gordonstoun, this rough, tough [environment]. And Charles isn’t that. I’ve always seen him as vulnerable. That’s not to say weak, I just think vulnerable and really in need of a mother.
Tell me about speaking in Welsh.
O’Connor: It’s extraordinary. It’s basically a workout for your mouth, positions and sounds you never have to do. I think [in the episode], it looks like I’m much better than I am. I essentially learned phonetically how to say those words and I know roughly what they mean.
Doherty: You smashed it. You did.
That must have been stressful to film the investiture scene.
O’Connor: It was this huge castle, it was my first day filming with the gang. I’d been filming on my own — which, by the way, was amazing. When you’re doing an episode about loneliness, being removed from the family was kind of perfect. Erin had my back. Olivia had my back. Tobias [Menzies] has my back. Helena [Bonham Caarter] just laughed [at me]. She literally was like, “Everyone’s waiting to hear Josh O’Connor’s version of Prince Charles.” And I just do this mad [makes a guttural sound to approximate Welsh].
Doherty: We were on the side and literally she started laughing. I was like, “He’s going to break.” [To O’Connor] I can’t believe you got through it.
I am curious about doing their extremely posh, lockjaw accents, which are very different from your own. It must have an effect on you.
Doherty: Your mouth doesn’t move, and the sound just kind of comes out.
O’Connor: Erin’s so funny at it. You don’t move your mouth.
Doherty: I watched this YouTube video, right? And I was like, “This woman isn’t moving her lips!” They just weren’t moving. And I was like, “Well, I need to get that down.” I try to refrain from “Well, she does this with her shoulder and…" but there was something about the voice and the way it comes out of them that is so informative. I find that whenever I’m practicing lines and I’m doing her voice, I just feel so frustrated and angry — because you’re just suppressing things just with the pure physicality of the placement of your voice. The symbolism of not being able to move comes through their voice.
O’Connor: The way they speak says so much about them. Charles does a thing where he’ll emphasize one word in a sentence, and stop at really weird moments, and it’s as if he’s allowing himself time to capture a thought. Also, you notice things with their mouth. Charles does this thing where it’s like, “Everything’s like that [casts the sides of his mouth down in a near-cringe]. It’s like the weight of the world. Everything’s awful.”
Did you spend a lot of time Googling things?
Doherty: I did. And then I had to stop because I would have just kept going. There came a point where I was like, “I’m too obsessed, I need to just get rid of it.” The pressure of it being a real person can just squash you. There came a point when I said, “I’m never going to look at these videos ever again.” I would literally spend hours every day just going back, seeing if I would figure anything else out about her, see if there would be any flashes that would inform a decision. But I had to just go, “No, shut the door on it.” I’ve got Anne on my shoulder. She doesn’t need to be a weird mask, she’s just kind of there, and I feel like Erin’s leading the way. ... I’m not prepped to let it go. It’s going to be a bit sad.
O’Connor: You just spend so much time living and breathing these characters. Especially now, we’re doing all the Diana period, so there’s so much pain that you’re going through with them. I worry about him. Not him as a real person, but as a character. You feel really guilty, and you don’t want them to have a bad name.
Doherty: You’re fighting in their corner, within the context of “The Crown.” You get attached.
O’Connor: I think about Vanessa [Kirby] and Claire [Foy] saying goodbye, and then someone else playing them. I will be excited, of course, but there is a part of me that will be like, “Get your filthy hands off my Charles.”
Has getting to know this world given you any perspective on contemporary royals currently in the headlines, like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, or Prince Andrew?
O’Connor: My investment is in these characters and beyond that it’s quite difficult to engage.
Doherty: But also I think we’re a specific time period within the context of these people’s lives. I found it really important to just eradicate everything else. In order to tell the story, I need to not know, because I want to know these people at this time in their lives.
O’Connor: It’s not relevant to us, essentially. When I was researching Charles, there’s so much footage of him and Diana. And you just have to avoid it because it doesn’t help me tell the story. The current stock, the Harrys, the Meghans, the Williams — that’s not to do with us.
Doherty: It does feel like a separate world.
O’Connor: Before I did this job, I didn’t care. I didn’t read anything about the royals, and that’s not going to change.