[This story contains spoilers from the first four episodes of season six of The Crown.]
A question that has lingered around The Crown since its introduction of Princess Diana in season four is how the fictional drama will deal with the real-life death of the Princess of Wales in 1997. The storyline comes to a head in part one of the sixth and final season of the series, now streaming on Netflix, which finds Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and Dodi Al-Fayed (Khalid Abdalla) exploring the beginnings of a relationship.
Over the course of four episodes, audiences see how not only the couple’s lives but their budding romance was snatched from them in its infancy, smothered by the media and Dodi’s father, Mohamed Al-Fayed’s (Salim Daw), own selfish desires for his son and his business empire.
“It was really important for us to create that sense for the audience so that when they head into this pressure cooker of turmoil, you know that they’ve had this time together and they understand each other and care for each other,” Debicki tells The Hollywood Reporter in the conversation below.
In detailing the fatal crash that took place in Paris the night of Aug. 31, 1997, the actors recreate the true-life events that followed, from Prince Charles (Dominic West) flying to France to identify Diana’s body to Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton) grappling with the decision to publicly mourn with the citizens of London. The creators of the series also took additional creative liberties to give members of the royal family closure regarding their personal relationships with the princess.
One such moment comes in the form of a conversation between Diana and Charles on his private charter home after identifying her body in episode four, “Aftermath.” In the scene, Diana tells Charles, “You know I loved you so much, so deeply. But so painfully too. It’s over now. Be easier for everyone with me gone.”
“In this imaginary incarnation, they’re able to say what they never maybe were able to say, and I think that’s very real and accurate in grieving somebody,” explains Debicki. “Having the opportunity as the character to say the thing that I feel I probably wanted to say inside that character for two seasons just absolutely destroyed me, but in the best way.”
In episode one of the final season, “Persona No Grata,” we see Diana so full of light, which is in stark contrast to the inner and outer torment we saw her wrestle with in prior seasons. What was it like for you getting to show this other side of her?
It was really a joy. It was so important for me to paint with that color. I really felt in the season prior there were times where I really was reaching for that, because we saw her so isolated and with such sort of tumult and very sad. And so, when I opened up the script for the first episode, I thought, “Oh, this is so good.” Also, I knew from my research that the reason that they’re on that vacation is because she’s a mom who’s sort of thinking, “Do we keep the kids here in rainy London or do we go and try and have fun?” And it’s hard when your kids are teenagers. It’s like, what’s fun for them now? What do they need? What do you want to do? I just love the reality of it, and it was so important for me to show those really, really true moments of how happy she was to just be with the kids. For me it was like, no acting required. I love those actors who play the kids. We laughed the whole time. They’re funny and beautiful and really supportive of me. They’re just magic.
We also get to see the breadth of Diana and Dodi’s relationship in the first three episodes. What was your takeaway about their time together?
Khalid, who’s just the most beautiful actor and the most beautiful person to work with, and I were really curious going into it. We had some conversations and I remember us thinking we’re going to trust each other to find what it is in the moment of doing it. And what we found almost instantly was that there was this very easy chemistry between us. We really loved being near each other. He’s one of those people that makes me feel calmer. And I remember thinking, well, maybe that’s what it was too; maybe Diana felt calmer around Dodi. He was fun and really spontaneous. He loved being with kids. He was great with kids. He had sort of this silliness and sense of joy about him. And so, all these things we found with each other as actors, we just let it be part of their relationship.
There was also a real sense of someone who’s going to listen to you and that, to me, felt absolutely crucial for the character at that point in her life. Someone who is going to sit down and listen — and not only listen, but they might also ask you first how you’re feeling, what you need. And just that sense of being seen was for me, inside the character, just this huge, huge relief. There were days when we were on that boat with these long, several-page scenes and it can feel like, “oh my God, how do we get through this?” And honestly, working with Khalid, it’s like the camera would roll and we would just talk and then the camera would end cut the scene and I’d go, “Oh, we’ve done another one. How many have we done?” And someone would say, “We’ve done 50 takes.” And I’m like, “Really, 50 takes?” So that sense of support and being seen was key. And it was really important for us to create that sense for the audience too so that obviously when they head into this pressure cooker of turmoil you know that they’ve had this time together and they understand each other and care for each other.
In the final episode of part one, “The Aftermath,” Diana appears to Charles after her death, and they have a final conversation about their relationship. Can you talk about filming that scene with Dominic West?
That scene was really devastating and really beautiful. Dom and I were very curious when we were heading into it. I don’t think we knew how to play it, and I don’t think we rehearsed it actually. So, what people see is very raw; it’s like the first or second take for both of us. It’s kind of a meta conversation about grief. And for me, it felt so real, the idea that if you suddenly lose somebody that you love, you have to speak to them again. And also, in this imaginary incarnation, they’re able to say what they never maybe were able to say. I think that’s very real and accurate in grieving somebody.
And having the opportunity as the character to say the thing that I feel I probably wanted to say inside that character for two seasons just absolutely destroyed me, but in the best way. But what you don’t see, of course, is we would do the takes and then someone would cut, and then we would both wail and it would be that really terrible aching kind of cry. And then we’d mop it all up and we’d do another take. I think we shot it for about an hour and by the end of it, we were on the table. We were so tired. But I’m really proud of that scene. I feel like it’s really honest and I just think that Dom’s work in the whole season, but particularly in that episode, is just astonishingly beautiful.
The Crown releases Part 2 of season six Dec. 14 on Netflix.