When Matt Smith heard there was a television series in the works that was devoted to poring over the British royal family, two words came to mind: “Who cares?”
For so long, at least for this English actor, they were just that stuffy family that lived in those opulent “old houses” that he’d visited on school trips as a young boy or whizzed past in his car as an adult.
“‘We know what happens, we know the story, we’ve seen the movies,’” Smith recalls thinking — dusting off his initial eye roll — during a recent trip to Los Angeles. But like a good chap, he read all 10 first season scripts of “The Crown” crafted by Peter Morgan, best known for writing the historical films and plays “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.”
“It turns out, well, actually I care about the royal family,” he says with a smirk that capsulizes his eventual decision to step into the shoes of young Prince Philip, husband to Queen Elizabeth II, in the Netflix drama.
A tall order, sure — the Duke of Edinburgh is a living historical figure and the patriarch of one of the world’s most cherished families. But Smith is used to tall orders and cherished characters. The actor, whose early work consisted mostly of theater and run-of-the-mill TV roles, was thrust into the vortex of global fandoms at age 26 when he was cast as the Eleventh Doctor in the long-running “Doctor Who” franchise — he played the role of the alien time traveler from 2010 through 2014.
“It’s been quite nice to play a towering figure in a more naturalistic world,” Smith, now 35, says.
Not that Prince Philip isn’t a bit of an outsider in his own right.
“The Crown,” which is unapologetically female-driven, follows Elizabeth’s long and storied reign, with each season covering roughly a decade of the Queen’s rule while highlighting the push and pull of her private and public roles. In doing so, viewers also glimpse a man wrestling with living in the shadows of his powerful wife — a depiction that, when viewed through the lens of the current political and cultural climate, gains an added layer of poignancy.
“He’s torn between the duty to his wife and a duty to himself,” Smith says. “And I found that conflict very interesting to explore and play because he’s pulled in two different directions constantly. No other man in that period would kneel before his wife or walk two feet behind her. That was very difficult for him.”
Much of the first season, mapping 1947 through 1955, chronicled the strains on a marriage upended early on when Elizabeth ascended to the throne following her father’s death. The second season, now streaming on Netflix, opens in 1956 and runs through 1963 and further explores the marital tensions now heightened by the rumors of Philip’s infidelities.
He’s torn between the duty to his wife and a duty to himself.
Matt Smith, who stars as Prince Philip in "The Crown"
Philip isn’t shown philandering on-screen; instead, the series hints at his wandering eye and viewers can reach their own conclusions.
“What’s your opinion: do you think he had an affair?” Smith asks this reporter, leaning in and eager to assess how an outsider perceives it.
He’s seated in a shaded nook at the rooftop cafe of a West Hollywood hotel, wearing a very un-Philip outfit consisting of slim-fitting shorts and a white tank top to better bear the hardship of an unforgivably hot October day. When the question is punted back to him, he leans back in his seat.
“It's an interesting question, isn't it?” he says. “I think Peter thinks he did. I have my thoughts but I think it’s best to leave it open.” But he remains curious: “Did you forgive him in that last episode or did you think, ‘you swine!’?”
It’s clear Smith is interested in viewers’ perceptions. Him? He’s “completely fascinated” by Philip.
To prepare for the role, Smith says he read all the books he could and watched archival footage of the Prince.
“The more I researched him, the more I found there were a lot of misconceptions about him or, rather, preconceptions about him,” Smith offers.
Season 2 works to better acquaint viewers with the back story of the complicated and often overlooked figure. Morgan delves into Philip’s brutal childhood — his mother’s mental health issues, his father’s money troubles, his Nazi-sympathizing sisters, his schooling, his alienation — and examines the father-son relationship between Philip and heir-to-be Prince Charles.
A standout moment from this season, if you ask Morgan, that demonstrates Philip’s complexity and Smith’s ability to inhabit it involves a scene in Episode 9, in which Philip is giving a young Charles (played by Julian Baring) a lecture about toughening up, all within the tight space of an aircraft cockpit.
“All of Philip’s contradictions — his strength, his weakness, his pride, his aspirations, his self-loathing of his own perceived failures — come tumbling out of him at once, directed at the most vulnerable person in his life, his thirteen-year-old son,” Morgan said by email. “Matt renders the moment in all its horror and power. It’s a loss of control from a man who prizes self-control above everything, and it’s immensely revealing.”
Exploring the royal family’s private turmoil in “The Crown” has made Smith contemplate the changing nature of fame and the scrutiny that comes with it.
“The type of fame they have, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” he starts. “You think Kim Kardashian has a tough life? Try being the queen in the ’50s and ’60s — 100,000 people would turn up to see her catch a train. They really were, and still are, the most iconic people in the world.”
He continued: “Look, I respect what Kim Kardashian has done. She’s created an empire. But we’re talking about monarchs. Elizabeth has seen 12 prime ministers come and go. She’s navigated her way through invasions of other countries and has gone through tough times and still remained popular. If Kim Kardashian is still doing that when she’s 90 years old, then she’s done very well.”
Notoriety and fame — and all the trappings — were not something Smith considered much while growing up in the country town of Northampton.
A back injury in his teens thwarted Smith’s ambitions to become a professional soccer player. A teacher suggested he consider the National Youth Theatre, an arts organization in Britain.
“In many ways there are a lot of parallels between being a sportsman and being an artist,” Smith considers. “There’s a sense of practice and preparation and playing and performing to a certain degree. So in many ways, being in football was quite good preparation for me.”
Let Foy describe what it’s like working with Smith and she’ll tell you he’s a perfectionist.
“We’re very different,” she says when reached by telephone. “He likes improvising, he’s spontaneous and he likes changing everything and taking it to new directions and I’m like, ‘Come on with it. Let’s go home.’ I really value that part of him. He’s always looking for a new way of doing it. He never stops. He’s the most indecisive person — his indecisiveness knows no bounds. He can be indecisive about having a Kit Kat or going to the toilet. He is ridiculous. But he thinks about the angle of everything — things people don’t even think about.”
Steven Moffat, who was the showrunner on “Doctor Who” during much of Smith’s tenure, echoes the sentiments about Smith’s work ethic.
“When he’s working, and all those years he was working savagely hard on ‘Doctor Who,’ you couldn't get him out for a coffee in the evening, let alone a drink,” Moffat says by phone. “He’s terribly serious about it. If you met him at a party, then you think he’s just a really fun guy. You wouldn’t know how focused and single-minded he is when he’s working.”
[Matt] thinks about the angle of everything — things people don’t even think about.
Claire Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth II in "The Crown"
As an actor who has now inhabited two very notable figures, Smith makes an effort to shake things up. After wrapping his run on “Doctor Who,” Smith took part in a musical version of “American Psycho,” directed by Rupert Goold, in London. And with Morgan’s plan to replace key cast members on “The Crown” as the characters age, Smith’s stint as Prince Philip ends with Season 2. To cleanse his palate, Smith took on the lead role in the upcoming biopic about controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
That’s not to say his newfound appreciation and fascination with the royal family has expired. In a follow-up meeting weeks after the October sit-down, just a few days have passed since news of Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle. Smith admits he hasn’t watched the “couch” video interview that circulated shortly after the announcement, but that’s no matter. He’s absorbed in thinking about the magnitude of the life change Markle is stepping into.
“Her life will never be the same,” he says. “She walks anywhere now, people will know where she is. I can’t even imagine … and I played it.”