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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rebecca Nicholson

Elizabeth Debicki on playing Diana: ‘I never watched The Crown and thought, this is a documentary’

Actor Elizabeth Debicki in long green skirt, arms folded, in front of draped lilac fabric
Elizabeth Debicki: ‘Am I going to tell you what I had for breakfast, or who I’m dating?’ Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian. Bralette and skirt: Emilia Wickstead. Shoes: Christian Louboutin Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian

Elizabeth Debicki has had Diana, Princess of Wales on her mind for at least five years. When she first auditioned for The Crown, the soapy royal family saga that doubles up as a tabloid flashpoint, it wasn’t to play Diana at all. She read for a part way back in season two, though she won’t say which, because someone else played it “beautifully”. “Also, if I told people, they’d be like, what?” she adds, as if the idea is absurd, which means we can only speculate that she was up for the part of Prince Philip.

She thought she had blown it. “Well, I did, in the fact that I did not get the part,” she deadpans. The Crown’s creator, Peter Morgan, spotted something else, however. “They obviously saw something Diana-ish in my audition, which is really not what I was going for at that time.” Her agent called her and asked if she’d be interested in playing Diana at some point in the future. She filed it away in the back of her mind, where it lurked until a couple of years ago. Then she got the call. “It was a much more formal, will you do this role?” She’d had plenty of time to think about it. She said yes.

Debicki lives in London, but we are speaking on a video call as she is in Mallorca filming The Crown’s sixth and reportedly final season. She has come to my rescue, giving me clear instructions about how to make the windows bigger, which she finds funny, as usually she’s the one in need of tech support. “Any technology I use is running on some ancient program. People open it up and they’re like, why is this from 2004? Why do you have 874 unread emails?” She picks up her phone and shows me her email app. It’s actually 23,460 unread emails. That’s disgraceful! “It’s utterly, utterly revolting,” she grins. She has friends who, when they meet her for coffee, open up her phone, just so they can delete some of her messages.

This is a rare day off for her and she is feeling tired. It is easy to understand why; much of The Crown’s fifth season is Diana-heavy and deals with the final collapse of her marriage to Prince (now King) Charles. We talk for almost an hour and a half, and she fidgets admirably. She puts her glasses on and takes them off. She wears her hair up, and down, up, and down. She scratches her forehead, her nose, touching her mouth, her face, always moving, just a bit. This is all the more striking because most of her characters, from Jed in The Night Manager to Kat in Tenet, are glacially still, regally sombre, near-encased in their own sadness. One of the reasons she doesn’t often get recognised in the street, she suspects, is because she doesn’t much resemble her characters off-duty, and in the case of The Crown that’s certainly true. Even after two years of filming, her long, straight blond hair came as a surprise to one of the makeup artists on set, who had assumed that the Diana hair was real and that Debicki’s real hair was a wig. “At least we’re selling it,” she says.

She has a dry sense of humour. She briefly swoops the camera around to show me the little flat she has called home for the past few weeks. The cast were in Barcelona, but postponed filming when the Queen died, as a mark of respect; she is about to head back to pick up those scenes again. It is a charming, sunny room that gives nothing away, not entirely unlike its current inhabitant. “It looks like this,” she says, pausing to point out a giant clock fascia on the wall above the sofa. “I’m really confused as to why the clock is so big. Also, it doesn’t work, but it still ticks. Which is basically me.” If self-deprecation is an Australian trait, then Debicki, born in Paris, raised in Melbourne, is doing her bit to uphold the national stereotype.

Elizabeth Debicki as Diana, Princess of Wales, Dominic West as Charles, Teddy Hawley as Prince Harry and Timothee Sambor as Prince William, from season five of The Crown, 2022
As Diana, with Dominic West as Charles, in The Crown. Photograph: Keith Bernstein/Netflix/PA

After a decade as an actor, the 32-year-old appears, on the surface, to be smashing it. Her first job, straight out of acting school in Melbourne, was in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. She stole the show from Tom Hiddleston’s bare bottom in the BBC’s hit spy thriller The Night Manager, did a play with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, more telly, more films, then moved into her blockbuster era, starring in Christopher Nolan’s confounding Tenet, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 and now she has the most talked-about role in the most talked-about TV series of the moment. After all of that, is she starting to feel more secure in her success? “Mmmmm,” she says. “Yes and no. Still waiting for that big penny to drop.”

She is aware of how her career looks on paper. “Kind of like a linear, upward-looking journey? But for multiple reasons, I’m not someone who considers anything a given. Not that long ago, I remember leaving a big movie set and thinking, well, if that’s the last one, I’m happy I got to do it.” Where does that doubt come from? A few places, she thinks. Partly it’s just the nature of the business, and partly it might be that Australian thing again, which gave her a sense that to even get a job in the first place meant she was one of the lucky ones. “It just felt like a big jump [to leave Australia] when I was younger. Maybe that’s cemented in my psyche.”

If the penny hasn’t dropped yet, surely, with The Crown, it is about to crash down with a loud thud. Was she ever reluctant to enter into the circus of it, knowing Diana is such a sensitive role and, inevitably, her part in it will be heavily scrutinised? “No, I wasn’t,” she says, firmly. “I went off instinct, and I didn’t overthink it. I’ve watched this show and loved it for years. I knew I was stepping into working with people who were extremely intelligent and very sensitive about how they went about creating the script and making decisions. So I never felt like I’d jumped on unstable ground.”

Actor Elizabeth Debicki in cream dress, sitting on chair, against green background
‘When I go to Sainsbury’s, is it gonna be weird?’ Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian. Dress: By Malene Birger Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian

The Crown’s stable ground includes a massive research department, which helped Debicki in her preparation. When she was cast, formally, in 2020, she asked for “all of it. And when I got all of it, I remember thinking, well, that’s a lot of research.” I ask if she spoke to Emma Corrin, who played Diana in season four, from the age of 16 to 28 (Debicki picks up the story a few months later). “I absorbed the performance. I learned from it,” she says. But it was the scripts that brought it all into focus. “Suddenly what feels like a vast field of information is very quickly, extremely narrowed down to existing within the framework that Peter [Morgan] has built for you. It was a huge relief. I remember thinking, now my responsibility is to bring to life what he has written, and his interpretation of these events and these people.” Then, she says, it’s like playing any other character. There are layers to peel back or pile on. “The physical ones, how they look, how they dress … ”

Debicki does a slow blink, tilts her head down and looks up, her eyes set at a very familiar angle. Hang on, I say. Are you doing her now? Is that a Diana blink? She smiles, though I suspect it is more with patience than agreement. “You know, I did something the other day on set and someone went, God, you’re so like her! And I went, I’m not even doing it any more. Where is the line? I’ve lost the line,” she jokes. “But that’s understandable, because I’ve been in this for a long time.”

On the outside, though, the controversies rumble on. The Crown has reached the 90s, the decade of the annus horribilis, the divorces, Diana’s infamous interview with Martin Bashir. Many of the people depicted are still alive. John Major, played by Jonny Lee Miller, has complained that aspects of the show are a “barrel-load of nonsense”, such as its depiction of a secret meeting between the then prime minister and Charles, in which Charles hints that he has doubts about whether the monarchy is in “safe hands”. On the morning Debicki and I speak, Dame Judi Dench has made headlines with a letter to the Times, calling the show “cruelly unjust to the individuals and damaging to the institution they represent”.

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki in the Night Manager, 2015
With Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager … Photograph: Des Willie
Actor Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, 2017
… and as Ayesha in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2. Photograph: © Marvel Studios 2017

Debicki is well prepared for this line of questioning. Does she feel defensive about it? “I don’t really,” she says, calmly. “I understand what the show is, and what it’s trying to do. I also understand the reaction to it. I think this is a period of time that’s been told many times over and will continue to be told, and I know the degree of care and respect people enter into these stories with.” She says that to her mind, it’s a television drama, based on real events. “I mean, it is clearly fictional. I feel like audiences know that, because there are actors, playing parts. I never watched The Crown and thought, this is a documentary, or this is obviously true.” Even so, shortly after we speak, Dench gets a victory; the fifth season will include a new “fictional dramatisation” disclaimer.

Recent paparazzi pictures showed Debicki, as Diana, filming on a yacht. This level of attention feels like a shift for the actor who is, as she says, more used to flying under the radar. Has she noticed it creeping in? “No, but I don’t go anywhere,” she says. “I’m very supported by the show. I think that this lead-up into the show coming out, and then people watching it, has a kind of energy which is quite heightened at the moment. Also, temporary?” she says. But surely, I counter, you have thought about it? “But what can I do with that information?” she bats back. “I mean, yeah, maybe, when I go to Sainsbury’s, is it gonna be weird? I don’t really know. I also feel like I’ve gotten away with it for a while. I have been really lucky to work on great, often big things, and also be completely incognito.”

She will admit that this is uncharted territory for her. “Of course there’s a part of me that goes, God, will that happen? But then I think the Australian in me is like,” – she puts on a nasal, extra-Australian accent – “well, I dunno, just sit down and have a cup of tea, let’s see if anyone watches it. That self-deprecating Australian thing really bolts you to the ground, which is helpful, in times like these.”

* * *

Debicki was born in Paris in 1990. Her parents were both ballet dancers who met while working in Europe. Her father is Polish and her Australian mother had lived in France for years, and England before that. The family moved to “a very normal, very boring suburb” in Melbourne when Debicki was five. “They brought a lot of that [European lifestyle] with them to Australia. That used to straight-up embarrass me. I’d be like, why can’t you be like Julie’s mum? They have very white carpets and she bakes bread. And why do we have this stuff on our walls and why is there always incense?” She is grateful for her upbringing now, she says. “Maybe for that otherness, I don’t know. And the thing about having parents who come from other places is that the people we loved were always away from us, and we had to travel to them, and the world felt pretty small, in that sense.”

She was academic at school and often spent her lunch breaks in the library. “It was a happy place for me,” she says. “I think I liked the order of it, of learning, and someone pinning a gold star on your chest. That was extremely satisfying. Maybe it was because my home was floaty, and not like that.” She can imagine an alternative version of her life where she went to university, as she once thought she might, and studied history or literature, perhaps the ancients, maybe the Tudors. “I definitely have this alter ego that wants to be a historian, locked away studying something incredibly niche. My greatest form of peace and joy is the History Extra podcast.” Her parents were excited that she might go down an academic route, “because it was something other than what they had done”. But instead, it turned out to be the age-old story – a drama teacher spotted her potential and helped her audition for drama school.

Head shot of actor Elizabeth Debicki in the 2020 movie Tenet
In the 2020 movie Tenet. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

She got in, won a prestigious scholarship and put her historian dream on the back burner. In 2011, the year she graduated, Luhrmann cast her in The Great Gatsby, which mostly filmed in Sydney. She says that experience, her first job on a film set, was like a fever dream. “And then it was done. Then I went back to the shared house I was living in at the time, which was exceptionally dilapidated and exceptionally colourful. I thought, well, what the hell was that? And what do I do now?”

She had a while to wait until the film came out, but has worked solidly ever since. When watching her projects back to back, a common thread appears: sad women on boats. “It’s strange, right?” she laughs. “Trust me, I’m the first person to say, why am I always on yachts?” She’s on a yacht in The Night Manager, as the unhappy partner of an arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie; in Tenet, she plays the unhappy partner of an evil oligarch, played by Kenneth Branagh, and spends a lot of time on their boat. And now there’s Diana, unhappily married, hanging out on yachts … “I love being on boats, don’t get me wrong, but I certainly didn’t grow up being a boat person,” she says. “I think the first time it happened was Night Manager, and maybe the universe of casting people were like, you know what? She gives good boat.”

Why does she think she keeps getting cast as these sad, affluent women? “I couldn’t really tell you, but it’s something people must see.” She shrugs. “What the camera picks up on, what directors see, what energy you give, is often quite counter to what the reality of the person is. Some people have said, could it be the way you look? Weirdly, it’s sort of not my business,” she smiles. “I’m just like, OK, if that’s what you see, and the character’s interesting for me to play, then I will play that.”

Actor Elizabeth Debicki in brown dress, elbow bent, head leaning on hand, against blue and green background
‘I definitely have this alter ego that wants to be a historian.’ Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian. Styling: Lucy Walker at One Represents. Hair: Dayaruci at The Wall Group. Makeup: Emma White Turle at The Wall Group. Prop styling: Lee Flude. Dress: Tove Photograph: Hollie Fernando/The Guardian

In many of Debicki’s characters, there is a sense that there are countless hidden mysteries bubbling away beneath that still surface. In real life, she chooses not to reveal too much. It was a choice she made early in her career, she says, though she laughs at that now. “In the beginning, nobody cared, so why was I so protective? Also, what am I going to tell you? What I had for breakfast, or who I’m dating? Again, I think it’s the self-deprecation saving me. And as an actor, I remember thinking quite early on, isn’t it more helpful if you don’t know anything about me?”

We do know that she turned 30 in the early days of the pandemic, while she was in the US. “It was a very strange year to turn 30,” she says. “All my friends were very far away from me, on other planets.” She catches the slip and shakes her head. “Other places! I couldn’t get on planes to see them, and I remember thinking, apart from being around all these people, I’d rather just be in the desert, looking at the sky.” So she took herself off to New Mexico, one of her favourite places in the world, and spent the day in the middle of the desert. She is bad at birthdays anyway. “I am usually working, and I also find doing parties extremely stressful, because I’m always worried no one will come, so I usually avoid them. I definitely didn’t feel sad about it. I remember thinking, this is fine. I’ll just do this really small thing.”

Earlier, Debicki mentioned that when her agent first suggested she might be up for Diana, a few years down the line, she squirrelled it away in her brain. “Most actors have a little list of roles, we’d really like to give that one a go, and that’s where it sat, kind of detached,” she says. As we finish, I ask what else is on her list. “I knew you were gonna ask me that,” she says, squirming; strangely, for someone so composed, it’s the one topic that seems to throw her. “I’m really superstitious about that kind of stuff,” she explains, but she will say she’d like to go back to doing theatre. “Something really obscure. Non text-based,” she says, drily. “Maybe if you write it down, someone will call me. ‘You can play a clown, as you descend from the sky,’ or something,” she adds, waggling her hands in the air. For now, though, she has to pack up her little flat and move on. Tomorrow, it’s back to Barcelona, and back to Diana.

Season five of The Crown will be released on Netflix on 9 November.

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