Princess Diana’s impending death looms over the first three episodes of The Crown’s sixth and last season, which creep through the weeks leading up to her fatal car crash in Paris. There’s her controversial trip to St.-Tropez with Prince William and Prince Harry; her continuing cat and mouse game with press; her final vacation with fling Dodi Fayed; and her frightening car chases with frenzied paparazzi.
“There are so many layers to shooting a season like this,” says Elizabeth Debicki, who brought Diana to eerie life in season five, and who reimagines her last moments in season six. “The interpretation [of Diana’s final weeks] carries a historical weight that is very real for many people, but you’re doing an imagining of it,” she says, referencing series mastermind Peter Morgan, who has written every episode of the drama’s six seasons. “That complexity led me, as an actor, to go really into the micro moments.”
The Australian actor explains that she chose to “play against an ending that was this inevitable tragedy.” She portrayed Diana across seven years of her life and says that her research of the royal led her to “seek out moments where there was this joy, this confidence, this sense of freedom” to Diana.?
Part of the tragedy of the real-life Diana’s death is that, at the age of 36, the princess was finally hitting her stride after years of insecurity. But then again, says Debicki, “there was a massive evolution in so many areas of her life” in those final months.
Ahead, Debicki walks VF through filming the princess’s last days—discussing Diana’s leopard-print PR revenge, her uncertainty playing “ghost Diana,” and what she was thinking while filming the late royal’s final moments.
Vanity Fair: What evolutions did you see in Diana between The Crown’s fifth and sixth seasons?
Elizabeth Debicki: One of them was a sense of, what are her priorities now? What does life look like now that she is not an HRH inside the royal family? What does that mean in terms of how she can relate to people and move through the world? And also obviously the humanitarian work that ended up happening off the back of the divorce. Suddenly she seemed to be more free, albeit she faced lots of backlash to these courageous decisions about doubling down on her humanitarian work. There’s a confidence…the choices that are being made seem to be coming from a genuine and slightly freer place inside of her.
There were complications and contradictions in her decisions too, especially in terms of her relationship with the press and her decision to go on vacation with a controversial figure like Mohamed Al Fayed.
The first episode of this season [which chronicles Diana’s trip to St.-Tropez with William, Harry, and the Fayeds], for me, was about Diana being a mother and wanting her kids to have a nice vacation. That’s what I play. It’s a very simple thing to want, but in this circumstance, for her, an extremely complicated thing to obtain. There’s press, there’s media attention, there’s people judging the decisions made or not made to go on a vacation with Al Fayed.?
That’s what I mean by narrowing it down to the really micro moments and then playing against the end. It was important for me to show the audience that there were moments of real joy and lightness in those last weeks. That’s also who I learned her to be throughout so much of her life. There was this real commitment to create those moments of joy and levity for her children, amongst so many other complicated factors.
Like the boatloads of paparazzi tracking her and her sons’ every move. In “Persona Non Grata,” Diana holds a sort of impromptu press conference with photographers at sea. In The Crown, Diana seems to make that decision to one-up Camilla Parker Bowles, on the eve of her 50th birthday, in the press.
That’s Peter’s interpretation of it, right? That’s always been a mysterious and highly photographed moment: the leopard-print bathing suit. She told paparazzi something like, “I’ve got a surprise for you…just you wait.” And we, the general public, never really knew what she meant. Was there some bigger plan? Was there an agenda, or was it just a way of distracting the press attention from [Camilla’s] birthday party? Peter’s interpretation was that she was specifically doing that to grab the spotlight and thrust it back on herself. For me, inside the character, I could draw logical strings between those choices, lean into it, and enjoy playing that.
On a more factual level, we know that Diana was very media savvy. The revenge dress is the perfect example because you had the [Jonathan] Dimbleby interview with Prince Charles coming out. She wanted it to be clear that she wasn’t at home watching it. In fact, she was [out at an event] and dressed in this magnificent outfit that was revolutionary in terms of the fashion state for the royal family. That’s an example of just total media savviness in terms of understanding the transaction and what she was worth to the media.
There’s been so much speculation about Diana’s final days and her relationship with Dodi Fayed. Mohamed Al Fayed maintained that Diana and Dodi were madly in love. Diana’s sister and friends, meanwhile, said that it was a fling that was almost over. Peter reimagined the latter version. Is that how you interpreted it as well, from your research?
I mean, I don’t interpret the events. There are so many possibilities…so ?many variables, so much information. I was interested how Peter was going to collate that and which [narratives] he was going to spin together. Not unlike the audience, I open up the description and see, okay, this is the version that we will tell. It’s been my job to do what The Crown asks you to do, which is invest any scene with all of your abilities as an actor to bring something to life, to make the character’s choices understandable, and to make them sing off the page.
Then, we’ve been threading these [reimagined scenes] with [real-life] imagery we recreate. The imagery is like the silhouette, then we’re just filling it with the scene. Khalid Abdalla, who plays Dodi…we were looking at the imagery of Diana and Dodi walking out of the Ritz revolving door. ?
It’s a good example. I’m looking at how she walked through it, which arm she uses to push, because to a degree I feel like it’s my responsibility to recreate those visual moments for the audience, but then I'm imbuing it with Peter's interpretation of what’s emotionally happening.
Speaking of Peter’s interpretation, he gives Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles a moment of closure with Diana in “Aftermath,” when she appears to them both, after her death, as a ghost. First off, “ghost Diana” became a hotly debated subject online. . . were you surprised by that?
I didn’t think as far as the reception of it, because my job was navigating it as an actor. What does it mean? How does one play that? When I got to doing it, as in turning up to set that day, Dominic [West, who plays Prince Charles] and I both sort of danced around it in the sense that neither of us knew exactly how to play it. And funnily enough, I think what’s in [the episode] are the first or second take of shooting that scene. ?
We didn’t rehearse. We sat down, the director said, “Let’s just roll the camera and see what happens.” […] It became immediately clear that a way into that, as an actor, is that it’s a universal expression of grief. When one loses someone, you want desperately to have a conversation with that person.?
We also see you imagine what Diana’s Mario Testino photo shoot might have been like—the portrait of which ended up running in Vanity Fair. What was that like to film?
The original imagery of Diana is so stunning and so iconic. The thing that I love, as a woman looking at those photos, is I see somebody who seems so comfortable in their skin. She’s seen laughing. There’s not a sense of protocol hanging over things. But it’s the most iconic photo ever taken of this human being…I probably looked at the original imagery and thought, Well, who could ever do that?
You talked about finding the paparazzi chase scenes unbearable to film. But what were you thinking while filming Diana’s final moments??
I was very, very focused. I think the energy that I realized that [she] has in those [last photos]—it’s not an energy of being traumatized or being a victim of what’s happening around her. It’s a real focus—a sense of just getting through this obstacle [of the press attention]. It cannot be controlled from the outside, so you have to surrender to what’s happening and think about where you are going. I’ve done other scenes last season about the paparazzi…there’s a sense of her battening down the hatches to survive what’s going on.?
Almost like in life, when you are going through a very stressful thing, you focus on your breathing to try and protect yourself within something you can't control. That was probably the headspace I was getting into. I wasn’t in a place of needing to dredge up feeling [for the chase scenes] because it was happening to us in a very physical way in that car. I’m just playing desperately trying to get somewhere else. And for a lot of that story that day, it’s about her getting to do what should be a very simple thing—call her children.
You’ve spent more time playing Diana than any other character in your career. What did you learn from playing her?
The thing that I would notice again and again in these difficult moments that were happening in the public eye and these choices that were made by her—sometimes consciously and perhaps unconsciously, who knows—is that she would not only rise up from them, but evolve in a way. There was an acknowledgement of choices that were made and there were many course corrections.
That was always so clear from my research…it almost seemed like she followed her instinct to give the world the thing that seemed to be her greatest gift, which was this gift of connection. She had an understanding of using your platform to bring awareness to issues that people were not going near, whether it was AIDS or leprosy or landmines. These issues were stigmatized and she was moving through those boundaries and creating awareness. I think one could say, “Oh, yes, well that is what happens when one has a voice.” But I don’t think that’s the case at all. There was a great deal of strength in her vulnerability and a deep courage [in her ability to]to shift change.
In in a quiet way too, when you study it, her life was spent in search of love and…prioritizing that as much as humanly possible. That’s been inspiring for me…you can move through life and put things off. One of the things that sometimes is the first to go is your relationships with the people that you love. You think, Oh, there’s plenty of time. In studying this life with these characters it made me realize that all you have are people and the time you have with them.?