‘The Crown’ Star Matt Smith on ‘Naughty’ Prince Philip, the First Female ‘Doctor’ and Pay Parity

Matt Smith24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, Arrivals, Los Angeles, USA - 21 Jan 2018
Billy Farrell/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

By now, Matt Smith should be familiar with handing over a part to another actor — after four years of playing The Doctor, he left the role to next be embodied by Peter Capaldi.

And now, after two season of playing Prince Philip on the Netflix’s “The Crown,” he’s stepping aside to let Tobias Menzies take over. (The entire cast is being reimagined for the third season, including Olivia Colman as the monarch.)

But he’s getting quite the exit package: Along with co-stars Claire Foy, Vanessa Kirby, and Matthew Goode, he earned an Emmy nomination. 

“It’s nice to be invited to the party. I’m usually at the party having not been nominated,” he says. “I’m really pleased for everyone — Vanessa, particularly Claire, Matt Goode. We’re proud of the show and I think some of the performances in it are really strong, but then they are across all categories, really. So it won’t be easy to win, but it’s nice to be invited to the party.”

Smith, who’s planning to bring his “mum” as his date to the Sept. 17 awards, says he’s looking forward to seeing how Menzies and Colman reinvent the royal couple, as well as Jodie Whittaker, who’s the new — and first female — “She’ll be brilliant,” says Smith. “I think she’s got great humor but a real depth and sort of pathos and humanity that I think will lend itself to the character. I’m really excited as a fan, actually. Game on!”

Here, Smith talks to Variety about and why he likes Prince Philip, whether he’d be willing to return to the series, and his reaction to the pay parity dispute.

How did the second season compare for you?

Ultimately I feel proud of the body of work. I think if you look at it from episode one, season one to episode 10, season two, then hopefully you see a sort of gradient in the character and the person on screen and a change and a transformation. You learn a lot more about Philip’s personal history and how that informs him now. But he’s still cantankerous old crazy Philip, whom I rather like. I know not many do.

Do you think this performance in his role has changed the public perception of him? Do you think it’s humanized him at all?

I think it’s definitely changed the perception of the royal family. I think it’s been pretty good PR for the royal family, to be honest with you. And Meghan [Markle] can play Meghan! One of the interesting challenges for me was that I felt there was a sort of a misconception and a preconception about him, which reduced him a bit. And actually all the research I did found him to be brilliantly funny, very clever, very popular. In the royal house he’s the most popular of all of them. If you’ve talked to any of the staff, Philip’s the one they all love really. I think more than a lot of them, he’s a bit more of a man of the people. The royal protocol hasn’t dogged him in quite the same way his whole life and there’s a sort of rebellion in him and a naughtiness and a cheekiness. I think he’s quite affable and open by all accounts with the staff. They all love him.

You heard through the grapevine that he’s watched “The Crown.”

What happened was apparently there was a dinner [party] and a friend of mine asked him if he’d watched “The Crown,” and he turned around and said, “Don’t be ridiculous.” Which I thought was very good. But apparently the Queen has, we are told, but we don’t know. We’ll never know. But I think I’m pretty sure some of them have.

What would you ask him if you could ask him a question?

God, where would I begin? I wouldn’t ask him if he’d watched “The Crown!” (Laughs.) I’ve met a couple of them. I met William and I met Harry. I’ve met Charles. And the thing is when you meet a member of the royal family, it doesn’t really work like that. They talk to you and you respond. They’re the ones asking the questions generally. And if you are asking them a question, that is probably not one of the questions that you want to ask.

“So Philip, did you cheat on your wife?”

I wouldn’t ask him that! I’d get pretty short shrift, I’m sure. But [“The Crown”] creator Peter Morgan is adamant that that’s common knowledge [that he cheated on her]. He thinks so, but I never really know. I made a choice about it when we made the show.

What was your choice?

Put it this way: In episode 10 in that last scene, he’s fighting for his life, but regardless of all of that they’ve endured and they’re still together. It’s funny, isn’t it. The thing is we know what happens. We know that they stay together but when I read [the script], I was like, oh, actually I didn’t know that happened. I didn’t know that happened. It’s the angle with which [Morgan] approaches the story. He picks these very interesting and obtuse angles to tell the story from. And I think it’s very clever.

Is it harder for you to play characters who are real people?

I’ve just played Charles Manson. That was hard. I didn’t know where to begin on him, but I sort of loved Phillip, and there was a lot that I could identify with:  the competitiveness, the sporting nature, the battle, the defiance and the maleness.

What do you look for in a character? 

Something that frightens me. Something that feels sort of slightly outside of my comfort zone. I’m completely the wrong class to play Philip, and with Manson I’m completely the wrong everything. Wrong height, wrong voice. But it’s a very interesting question that we pose nowadays — what parts people should be playing and what parts are open to other sections of society and communities and races and creeds and ideologies. And all these things that for me it’s often just someone that feels slightly insurmountable in some way. And the Doctor did when I played him because I just thought, where do I begin with this? And the same with Charlie Manson. I think it’s a tricky thing to get right.

Is it bittersweet for you to give up the role?

I pass it on with a smile and a good luck. I’d rather be doing two years on something than seven. I think it’s very difficult to sustain seven years doing anything creatively and I think that’s one of the virtues of the show. If they get the six years right, you are going to get all these interpretations . It’s a bit like playing Hamlet onstage. We’ll be completely forgotten about. [Laughs.] We’re over. We’ve done it. It’s all about Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies now.

Have you spoken to Tobias and Olivia? What was your conversation?

I can’t tell you because I’d have to kill you. [Laughs.] I wished him well. We talked briefly about Philip. He’s a good guy and he’s a fantastic actor and I think he’s going to make a really genuinely brilliant Prince Philip. I think that’s a good bit of casting. They’ve got that right. And Olivia — she’s amazing. Totally amazing. So excited to see what she does with it. I think she’s got such range as an actor. So I’m excited. I think it’s going to go from strength to strength, but  the glory is of course when Foy and Smith were involved. [Laughs.] We want them to do well. Just not that well. Well enough, but not better.

You knew going into this that this was only going to be two seasons. Did that affect how you approached it?

No, no. You just do the job as you do the job. But had it been six seasons, I might not have done it. I don’t even want to do six seasons of anything really. Look, never say never, but I did four with “Doctor Who” and it’s tough. What shows do you think have been brilliant over five seasons? I think “Breaking Bad did it. “The Sopranos” is for me the one that’s number one, that’s the greatest. “[Game of] Thrones.” Hopefully that’s why “The Crown” has a chance I think because there’s a different kind of setup. You’ve got new actors coming in that are going to be fresh and that’s such a good thing. And also it’s rooted in history. You’re not having to invent too much and that that can become a problem because the great danger of science fiction is if you get caught up in your own mythology, it’s tricky. We found it on “Who.” It’s a tricky thing. You’ve got to be very, very diligent about it all. But the great thing about “The Crown” is that it’s rooted in history. This actually happened.

Is there any world in which you would come back, perhaps in some sort of flashback?

I’d come back! I said this to Peter Morgan, I think the last season there should be an episode each for each couple. He won’t do it, but yeah, it’s a cool idea, isn’t it? You’ve got three episodes: One of them is me and Claire, the other one is Olivia and Tobias and then the other one is, whoever it’s going to be. I’d come back because it’s a great show. And those things, they’re hard to come by.

Do you think Philip is a good husband?

They’re still together. He’s still with her. She still loves him. Have you seen the way she looks at him? That’s what’s interesting about it. They are the royal family, but they are human beings and I think he took on a lot. I’m not saying he went about everything in the right way because I don’t think he did. That’s what I was interested in in season two is I thought, I don’t want this to be easy. I want him to appear as he is. I want him to appear to be selfish, I want him to appear to be difficult. I want him to appear to be self-centered at times and insensitive. But also underneath that, I think he has a huge respect and admiration and love. If there was a war he’d be right by her side. And I think she knows that, and I think most importantly he really makes her laugh. And luckily Claire finds me hilarious [Laughs].

Do you think under different circumstances they would have gotten divorced?

Margaret did what she wanted! It’s not though they couldn’t, but she was the Queen and I do think there is an incredible connection between them that has endured. There’s this amazing picture we had in our makeup truck of him telling her a joke and you can see that she’s just cackling with laughter. I think that’s so, so telling. tThere’s an amazing speech — you can find it on youtube — where she talks about the service that he’s paid to the country and the support to her, but he’s made mistakes, he’s a human being and that is what the show does. It allows you to see that they are just like us. This show allows you to glimpse behind the veil and it allows you to see them being domestic and being normal. Even now, I think when I drive past Buckingham Palace at home, I sort of think, “Oh I know what goes on in there now. I know what’s going on in that room and that room and then I know what your job is.”

Their lives have also had so much soap opera to them.

But what’s amazing about the soap opera is she, the Queen, has never commented. Not through Philip’s indiscretions or alleged indiscretions, through all those prime ministers, through every disaster, Charles through Harry through Diana, all of these things, she has never ever broken silence and that is amazing and that’s why they’ve endured. And I do think when she leaves that role and God forbid, passes on, I think there’s going to be a huge shift in the family. I think it’s a big, big thing that it will never happen again. They’ll never be a monarch that serves as long. Ever. It just won’t.

What was your reaction when the news of the pay disparity broke between you and Claire?

It was disappointing. I would never ask at work how much someone earns. Never. My Dad taught me you never talk about money. So it was news to me. It was not something that I was aware of, but when we heard, I think we were both embarrassed really because Claire did the most work. She worked the hardest and she should be rewarded in response to that. But the important thing is that there was a response. Claire was the queen and she deserved to be remunerated accordingly. We expect this to be the norm going forward. And I’m sure that is the case with Olivia. I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be. It was a grave mistake, but one that won’t be repeated.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.