Spoiler alert: This interview contains spoilers from the first season of “The Crown.” Do not read until you’ve watched the full season.
Matt Smith is perhaps best known for his role as the Doctor in BBC’s “Doctor Who.” But in Netflix’s new series “The Crown,” which was created by Peter Morgan, he takes on quite a different challenge: Playing Prince Philip, the love of Queen Elizabeth’s life. Yet their romance is tested almost immediately when her father, King George VI, dies and she inherits his crown. As Elizabeth (Claire Foy) must choose again and again between marriage and duty, Philip doesn’t make things any easier for her, balking at having to give up his home, his surname, his career in the navy — and even having to kneel before her at her coronation.
Smith tells Variety he sympathized with Philip’s predicament — given what he learned about his tragic backstory in preparing for the role.
Why did you want to play Prince Philip?
There’s so much about him, really. I tend to like parts that are slightly outsiders in many ways. And Philip is a real outsider at this stage in the royal family. He comes in, from a completely different nationality and royal family. And there’s a sense of him being a bit of a maverick. I like that he’s a bit of a maverick. He says what he thinks at a time when it wasn’t always correct in many ways to speak out against the establishment. I liked the fact that he does that. And I fell in love with the character of Philip when I started to research it. I started to connect with the maverick in him.
What did you learn about him from your research?
What I found really wonderful about the show as a whole is it felt like a history lesson in many ways, particularly when I got into Philip. There was so much about him that I didn’t know. He had this extraordinary upbringing in many respects. His mother was estranged and was committed to a sanatorium. His father went off with his mistress. His sister died in a plane crash while pregnant while coming to visit him. And then he learned to fly planes — which gives that a new spin, doesn’t it? You realize that a lot of his wit and speaking out against things that he thinks aren’t right comes from this very difficult childhood. The first time he really felt at home was when he joined the navy. I felt there was a tremendous courage to him which I liked.
That’s so stunning, then, that he took on flying lessons!
It’s mad! I couldn’t believe it. It was such a tragic story. His sister was coming to visit him. She was his favorite sister. He’s a remarkable man in so many ways. In the navy, he was a great naval man. He was revered in the navy. I was privileged enough to talk to a few members of his staff. And they said he was tremendously popular with the staff in the royal household. He was a real modernizer. He was the first to hold what we essentially know now as a press conference. I admired his courage, really.
It certainly sounds like you sympathize with him.
There’s that scene where they’re leaving the house where they are staying in Africa and they’re driving back and you see them in the car and they drive past the tribespeople. And you can see for both of them, they’re processing the enormity of George VI’s death. It’s a huge moment. For Philip, he knows his life has completely changed forever from that moment. That’s the great battle of Philip. He’s got this great conflict at the heart of him. He loves his wife so much. And he does. But he hates being emasculated by her constantly. And he hates not being the head of the family. Adopting the role that any man would adopt in that decade. He says, you’ve taken my home, you’ve taken my name. What else are you going to take from me? So yes, I’m on Philip’s side.
We see so much friction in their relationship, especially in later episodes. Do you think he really loved her?
I think there is a tremendous and very profound love between them. In many ways I think it’s a bit like Darcy and Liz Bennett. It’s almost difficult for him to say it sometimes. When you think about the pressure that was on them, she was so young when she came to the throne. He thought their life was going to be in Malta. He was going to be in the navy, and they were going to kick around. But no. That put so much stress as it would on any relationship. But deep down, I think they’re total soulmates. And absolutely there’s a very profound deep connection between them. Which we see grow and grow in the next season. I think that’s one of the good things about the series. We get a glimpse behind the royal mask which they have to wear. The scenes I like are when they’re getting ready for bed, those really human moments we glimpse. I think he loves her really deeply and vice versa.
It’s a heartbreaking to watch, though, them not being able to really talk to each other.
There’s that scene in the end of episode 10, where he comes to see her and he’s about to go off to the Olympics. And he gets in his sports car and drives away. They can’t say what they need to say to each other. It would be so much easier. But there’s just so much going on. Hopefully it moves people. That’s the hope.
What was your relationship like with Claire on set?
We just laughed a lot because it was just so ridiculous. Those costumes! When you’re dressed in all this regality in the middle of Africa, pretending to be Philip and Elizabeth, there’s something that’s very ridiculous. But in the middle of all this ridiculousness, there’s a strange magic to it. I just have the utmost respect for her as an actress. She’s utterly brilliant. She’s so well-prepared and has such great humor. And generosity. I responded to all those things as well as I could.
Was there a moment that was particularly challenging?
There wasn’t an elephant [in the safari scene], so that was tricky. It was just [director] Stephen Daldry with a green screen. It’s that fine balance. We’re not caricatures of these people. It’s Peter Morgan’s interpretation of this world based on facts and true events. There is definitely a creative moment you choose where they go. What the wonderful [casting director] Nina Gold has done is cast actors with the right essence. And hopefully that’s what I did is capture his energy. That was the great challenge for me, to get to the bottom of that as well as I could. As truthfully and as clear as possible. Whether I’ve done it or not, history will be the judge.
How does Philip compare to other characters you’ve played?
Interestingly enough, if you take a role I’m most known for, like the Doctor on “Doctor Who,” they’re both aliens in many ways in their worlds. They’re both outsiders. The same with Bully on “Lost River.” He’s a bit of an alien in his world. I find that often I’m drawn to this people who are just slightly on the fringes of the world they’re involved in.
If you could ask the real Philip one question, what would you ask him?
That’s a good one! What’s been your favorite decade? And why?
How do you think the monarchy will react?
I have absolutely no idea. I really don’t know. I don’t know if they’ll watch it, if they’ll be aware of it. Do they have Netflix? God knows. If it was me, I’d watch it, but I’ve not been a member of the most famous family for however many years. Ultimately, we treat the characters with respect.