Writer Peter Morgan is well-versed in the world of Queen Elizabeth, given his award-winning film “The Queen” and his play “The Audience.” But he found he still has more story to tell about the monarch with his new TV series, “The Crown,” which bows Nov. 4 on Netflix.
Here, he tells Variety about his inspiration for the lavish new drama, how he cast the lead roles, and what’s in store for future seasons.
Why did you want to tell this story?
I didn’t really. I’m sick of writing the world of Elizabeth. But when we did the play “The Audience” the scene between Churchill and the young queen struck me as having lots of potential — this young 25-year-old girl and this 73-year-old, this daughter and this grandfather. And yet he was so in awe of her. I thought, I’d like to try writing this as a movie, Churchill and Elizabeth. Like “Educating Rita.” And then as I got writing, I thought actually her marriage is quite interesting, too. So let me just go back a bit. And then before I knew it, I thought this needs more time. That’s when I first rang the producer and thought, this could be a TV show. And Netflix just jumped at it.
Why do you think this period in her life hasn’t been told before?
Certainly no one imagines her as a young woman making choices about a marriage, learning how to become queen. What kind of sacrifices she had to make. No one imagines her as a romantic creature, a sexual creature. Becoming a mother. These are all things that other films explore with other characters. The queen is – one just doesn’t dare! It’s almost treasonable to think about her in a sexual context. Indeed I was pretty firm about what we were going to show and what we weren’t going to show. We weren’t going to tip into the salacious. It’s very interesting, that. Certainly things you don’t want to go too close. And certain things you want to go really in hard on. You want to go in hard on what the emotional consequences are. The loneliness and the difficulty of what it must be to suddenly have this bomb go off. I don’t think of the crown as this glamorous thing. It’s this murderous bejeweled thing, the crown. I think people just assume it’s fancy costumes and everyone’s happy, you live in grand houses, you have people in uniforms bringing you your tea. That’s what people assume being a queen is like. Occasionally you have to show up and shake hands. Of course it’s much more interesting than that.
Talk about casting. How did you settle on Claire Foy for the lead?
I tried to cast almost everyone in Britain before Claire Foy. (Laughs.) It was weird. Every time I went to a read through where we were doing auditions for “The Queen,” I was interested in actress A or B I would skip the bit where Claire was in there. And then after about the fourth time, I went, “This one is sensational, who’s this?” And they said, “Pete, she’s been in four times. And you’ve gone for a better-known actress.” She very queen-like slipped in and has proven to be very queen-like. Brilliantly effective. Completely undivaish. I don’t know whether the part made her that or whether she really is that. She was absolutely heroic. I think she’s spellbinding. I really hope this show does for her what we all hope it does for her. You believe her. How hard is that? It’s such a hard role — she has to be both stunning beautiful but only fleetingly and then be quite plain and forgettable. And yet at the same time genuinely startling. She has to be in the background sort of anonymous and then every now and then have devastating impact. It’s really not easy. Most leading actresses have this energy, this look at me. Here I am. They’re powerful, they’re beautiful. She has that in a very understated way. She’s sensational.
What about Matt Smith, who plays Prince Philip?
He really had a challenge. When those two read together, there was complete electricity. They worked so perfectly. A number of other actors had read for the part and absolutely nobody interested me. Matt was the hardest one for us to pin down, to do a deal with. I just said to the casting director, “He’s the only one.” I don’t care if this plays to his agent’s advantage. It’s him or nobody. Don’t posture. We won’t have a show. I’m afraid I gave them no negotiating position. I’m sure Matt’s being hideously overpaid as a result. He was the only one.
And why cast John Lithgow, an American, as Winston Churchill?
You don’t look at him – immediately it’s not a cliché. The audience bring their own discernment and their own understanding of John as an American to the part. Yes, Churchill had an American mother but that’s a poor argument to make. It’s an astonishingly versatile piece of acting by one of the world’s great character actors. We’re privileged to have him. Even though he’s tall enough to be Churchill the basketball player. (Laughs.) That’s why [casting director] Nina Gold is who Nina Gold is. Every now and then every head of department needs to prove why they are at the top of their field. Nina’s choice of John Lithgow is exactly that kind of moment. No one else would have thought of that and the moment she did everyone went “Oh my god, what a great idea.”
Given that the series is on Netflix, do you anticipate viewers will binge-watch it? Is that something you had in mind when you were making it?
I was, but at the same time, I don’t think this is a show where people will be watching more than two at a time. You just want to process it. I just watched a show recently, “The Fall,” where I watched 7 episodes in one night. Insane. I don’t think it’s that kind of a show. There’s too much going on in one episode to process it like that. Which is a shame, because I’d love people to watch it all, going up in one night. I once had the flu, had a raging temperature, and watched an entire season of “24,” 24 episodes, in 28 hours. It stayed with me forever as a result. It was a deep experience. I hope people stay with this. You never know.
Netflix greenlit “The Crown” for two seasons. Do you anticipate going ahead with future seasons?
There’s a tremendous conversation, a tremendous will to do it. And I was saying to Netflix, let’s do it only if the show has a significant enough footprint, if it resonates enough with people. You can’t tell yet. It needs to go out. I think the show has its real value when you watch episode after episode, the deeper it gets. Some of the very best episodes come later on in the season. It’s very powerful. I hope people stick with it. The really interesting episodes come later on — episodes 5, 9.
What did you learn from the first season?
You learn which characters work and how they work. You learn to write for them and you get their voices better. You know what the actors can bring to it. I feel much more confident going into season two than I did. If the show’s a success and we continue in season 3 and 4 we’ll have to recast completely and that I’m nervous about. As she gets older I’ll have to have other actors take over. That will make me nervous about finding who’s good, who’s bad. Now I could write for any of them immediately. Of course then you’d be finding new actors who’d be bringing new rhythms to the speech. New inflections, new strengths and weaknesses.
You wouldn’t want to age the actors with makeup?
They would look ridiculous. It would be wrong. What’s so beautiful about Claire is her youth. You can’t ask someone to act middle-aged. Someone has to bring their own fatigue to it. The feelings we all have as 50 year olds are different than the feelings we all have as 30-year-olds. That informs everything we do.
Do you think the series will bring viewers a new understanding of the queen?
I hope so. If no, I will have failed. It’s not just the drama. It’s what the drama represents. It’s like watching the secret love life of your grandmother. You feel connected to her in a way you didn’t because she was just grandmother. It’s a lot of things. It’s about the second half of the 20th century. It’s about learning things. It’s about a time we can’t get back.