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Actresses who’ve portrayed Queen Elizabeth II discuss their experiences

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Olivia Colman portraying Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix's "The Crown." (Netflix)
Olivia Colman portraying Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix's "The Crown." (Netflix) Photo Gallery

The death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8 at age 96 spurred an immediate outpouring of mourning and memories throughout the United Kingdom and around the globe. But Elizabeth, who marked 70 years on the throne this year, didn’t simply make herself known to the public through radio addresses and Christmas greetings. The media’s fascination with the woman behind the carefully cultivated persona also led to a raft of fictional portrayals of the queen that sought to understand her, and her relationship to crown and country, more intimately.

From the actors who’ve played her at different ages in Netflix’s “The Crown” to Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth in the 2006 film “The Queen,” here’s what thespians who’ve studied Britain’s longest-serving monarch most closely had to say about what they learned from the experience.

Claire Foy (‘The Crown’)

Foy earned acclaim and two Emmy wins with her portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” in which Elizabeth’s long and storied reign is covered at a rate of approximately one decade per season — with an emphasis on the push and pull of her private and public roles.

“All the people who are closest to her would never speak to anyone. You’re sort of doomed in that there is no way in,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “So you just have to do the thing where you go, ‘OK, I’m a girl of a certain age, of a certain background, these are my interests, this is the person I want to marry,’ and then just flesh it out.”

Foy said the role forced her to consider the circumstances of the queen’s rise to power.

“I’d never really registered the fact that in order for her to become queen, her dad had to die,” she says. “The one person who could tell you how to do the job is dead, and everyone is looking to you to know what to do, and you’re terrified. But she just keeps calm and carries on, and that’s it, really. That’s the story of her life.”

The queen’s stoicism was something Foy found illuminating.

“Bloody hell, she’s reigned longer than any other monarch in the history of the country,” she says. “It’s always the shy ones.”

Olivia Colman (‘The Crown’)

Colman succeeded Foy as Queen Elizabeth II for the third and fourth seasons, covering the years 1964 through 1990 and winning both an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her portrayal.

In a 2018 interview with Vanity Fair, Colman said finding restraint in her performance proved to be a challenge.

“I emote. The Queen is not meant to,” Colman said. “She’s got to be a rock for everyone, and has been trained not to (emote). We’ve discovered that … whenever anyone is telling me something sad, it makes me cry.”

During an online conversation staged by the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, Colman talked about the difficulty in playing a real public person who lives a mostly private life.

“Because behind closed doors, we don’t know what she’s like,” she said, according to Radio Times. “I had a little bit of play with that. But definitely … the hardest part I’ve done is someone who’s real. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m quite pleased now to be able to move on to something else.”

Helen Mirren (‘The Queen’)

Mirren earned a slew of awards, including the lead actress Oscar as well as a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, for her turn as the queen in Stephen Frears’ film, which chronicled the events following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. The queen herself praised the performance and invited Mirren to dinner at Buckingham Palace, which she had to decline due to filming obligations on another project. Accepting the Golden Globe for her turn, Mirren dedicated the award to the royal matriarch: “I honestly think this award belongs to her, because I think you fell in love with her, not me,” she said.

In a statement following the queen’s death, Mirren wrote: “I’m mourning along with the rest of my country, the passing of a great Queen. I’m proud to call myself of the Elizabethan age. If there was a definition of nobility, Elizabeth Windsor embodied it.”

Speaking with Charlie Rose in 2006 about the experience of playing the queen, Mirren said:

“You cannot go anywhere near this subject without being under the most intense kind of scrutiny. It’s a hot potato in England. There’s scrutiny by the press, by the family, by everyone. … Although the monarchy is generally a very beloved and respected institution, parallel with that we have a huge tradition of satirizing and criticizing and mocking the royal family. If you’re doing anything about the royal family, especially coming from the arts world, they expect a mocking, satirical take on it. And in a strange way what was controversial about this film is the fact that it’s actually not.

“I suspect she is blessed with a lack of imagination, which makes her able to be absolutely consistent. You know, imagination is a dangerous thing. It can lead you up all kinds of dangerous routes. And I don’t think the queen has that kind of imagination. And because of that, she’s able to be utterly consistent.”

Sarah Gadon (‘A Royal Night Out’)

Gadon starred in this British romantic dramedy as a teenage Princess Elizabeth, who — in a story based only loosely on real events — ventures out of Buckingham Palace against the queen’s wishes along with her sister, Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), to enjoy VE Day celebrations at the end of World War II, escorted by a pair of military officers.

Speaking with the Globe and Mail about the film in 2015, Gadon said:

“I was stepping into the shoes of someone who has an iconic status, and I was trying to humanize her. It was something at the forefront of my mind. Reading the screenplay, I thought the character had a lot of integrity. What was interesting was my approach to Elizabeth was a little bit different than that of (director Julian Jarrold). Because I’m Canadian and Julian is British, whenever I would talk about a reaction, he would sometimes say to me, ‘Temper it, with maybe a little more reserve, because you’re playing the Queen.’ So, you had to always check in and remind yourself of these things.”

Penelope Wilton (‘The BFG’)

Playing the queen in Steven Spielberg’s 2016 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel about a girl who befriends a giant, “Downton Abbey” star Wilton said she attempted to ground her performance in reality despite the film’s fantastical trappings.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2016, Wilton said:

“If I played a fantasy queen in a fantasy film, they would cancel each other out and there would be no humor. You have to play the actual Queen, and sort of prick the British reserve to make it funny. … There have been a couple of films made of (Elizabeth) with her grandchildren, her on holiday in Scotland, and those kinds of thing. So I looked at those to see how she interacted with children … she is very straightforward and matter-of-fact. She doesn’t patronize children. She talks to them as if they are grown-ups, really. She was putting (her grandchildren) on ponies and things, and she has a very good interaction with children because she listens to them. I think that’s why the Queen that Roald Dahl wrote has a very good relationship with Sophie, the little girl, because the Queen listens to what she says and believes her.”

Judy Kaye (‘Diana: The Musical’)

The two-time Tony-winning actress gave a campy take on Queen Elizabeth II in the short Broadway run of “Diana: The Musical,” which revolved around Diana Spencer and her experience being thrust into the spotlight as the newlywed princess to Prince Charles.

“In preparing to play Queen Elizabeth, I did a lot of reading,” she said in a 2020 video interview. “Queen Elizabeth to me is the ultimate mother, the ultimate mama. She cares so much for her children; honor-bound, duty-bound, passionate about her job and passionate about her country.”

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