Spoilers ahead for episode two of Netflix's The Crown.
One of the most touching stories in Netflix’s The Crown is the brief one between Princess Margaret and her father, King George VI. Vanessa Kirby (Everest) and Jared Harris (Lincoln, Mad Men), who had never met before the series, show the close father-daughter relationship King George and Margaret shared in the months before he died, and his eldest daughter, Elizabeth II (Claire Foy), became queen.
“He was the perfect one,” gushed Kirby about Harris, who was sitting next to her for a Vulture interview in Los Angeles this summer. “He came in quite late to rehearsals because he was filming something else and he walked in and we were like, There you are! He was totally our dad.”
Kirby and Harris spoke to Vulture about the song they shared in the second episode, how falling ill during filming helped Harris depict King George’s suffering from lung cancer, and what Buckingham Palace might think of their portrayals.
You can really feel the love between King George and Margaret every time they’re together, but most of all in that scene in episode two when they sang “Bewitched” together. Tell me about filming that.
Vaness Kirby: Oh my god.
Jared Harris: We were so good about that. We went and recorded that down in Clapham. And the guy just [snaps], “Nailed it on the first take.”
V.K.: It was very emotional. It was very lovely. [Director StephenDaldry] wanted to put something in because their relationship was really special, and it's hard to put everything into the first two episodes. But it became clear that it was really important to see how much it affected Margaret's life, all the choices she made, and the absence of her father that is felt by everybody in the series, but particularly these two girls. They were so close. He always said that Elizabeth was his pride and Margaret was his joy, and you'll see that throughout most episodes. What becomes clear to her is that she was the favorite, but now the sister is the queen and all the attention is on her. So it’s kind of, I've lost my father and I've kind of lost my sister. My mother is mourning as well, but I'm really alone with my grief. And so she finds comfort in Peter Townsend, which you see in episode two.
You really only did one take for the song?
J.H.: It was! Well, when we did that it was on a backing track, but we actually recorded the song several weeks beforehand. We weren't quite sure if it was good, and Stephen heard it and went, “Oh no, this is perfect."
V.K.: Because it's not some great sonata, you know.
J.H.: We're not very good.
V.K.: Yeah, we're not very good [laughs].
J.H.: I had a terrible cold so I was sort of croaky and off-key. I forget what the man's name was, but he had this really good touch of having me come in late, which then allowed us to do a whole bunch of stuff when we actually filmed the scene that we didn't know we were gonna do. It was the whole encouragement of him joining the song.
V.K.: Oh come on, I free him in a way. I free all this joy in him.
J.H.: It’s like a little gift that she gives him. And then the idea that there were people actually watching. He would never have done that. And I'm sure there are certain liberties you have to take, but he would have loved to have had the confidence to do it, but he would never have done that, I'm sure. So it's like a gift that she gives him.
So you actually had a cold?
J.H.: Oh, yeah. It was a good old bronchial thing.
V.K.: So you know, no acting at all.
Do you think you called it upon yourself?
V.K.: I think he must have. I kept saying to you, you've done something weird here. You've been thinking about it so much it's manifested.
J.H.: It was just kismet, wasn't it? It was a gift from the gods.
V.K.: It was so lucky. Of all the days of filming to be ill. Half those times where I'd suddenly start going off in the scene it was real and I couldn't stop it, you know. But it was great.
It was a fascinating sign of the times, too, to see your hacking cough and the cigarette in your hand at the same time.
J.H.: Yeah, it was. And that the advice that he was given was to smoke more because it would clear his lungs.
V.K.: And Margaret was an absolute chain-smoker. Nothing kept her from smoking whereas Elizabeth never touched it.
J.H.: And they did keep it from him, you know? The government knew that he had cancer and didn't tell him and thought it was best to not let him know.
V.K.: You think that was the wrong thing to do?
J.H.: I think it's terrible. You have the right to know about your own body. The sort of weird thing is, you see these people with this incredible life, but actually none of it is theirs. Not even your body belongs to you. You've given it to the state. He didn't give it to the state — you're just born. So there's this weird constant fascination about, on the one hand, amazing privilege, and then the other hand, this incredible burden where you're not free at all, in any way. There’s that wonderful story on the victory in Europe day where Margaret and Elizabeth put on commoner clothes and went out onto the streets to experience it. It was the end of the war in Europe, and they’d only seen it from behind windows, or they’d been gone, out in Scotland, and they wanted to go out and run around the people and join in the celebrations. So they had this little brief experience of what it was like to run around and be free and do what you want.
When you were thinking about accepting the roles, did you think about what Buckingham might think of the series?
J.H.: I talked to Freddie Windsor [the son of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent].
V.K.: So did I!
J.H.: Oh, really?
V.K.: Yeah. That’s weird.
J.H.: I used to play soccer with him, so I called him up and we had lunch together. I was trying to find out the answer about the recognition thing. The question that we always had was: Do you have to acknowledge the status of the person that you meet? They’re also a family, so do you do it every single time you meet them? Isn’t that becoming obnoxious after a while? What is the etiquette? There’s a public etiquette and a private etiquette. He said, “No, your first time you meet them in the day, you recognize the queen or the status of the person, and then after that you’re a family, and when you know you’re taking leave of them for the last time that day, then you acknowledge that status again and go.” I didn’t imagine that this would be something that would be problematic for the family. It would be weird to see, I’m sure, because you’d look at it and go, Well, that never happened.
V.K.: It’s firmly based in fact, but there’s also a lot of imagination. You can only really focus on your little trajectory, and I mainly just thought about Margaret, especially because she’s not alive anymore. People don’t remember these people in their 20s and at the beginning of their lives, and we just see the queen who’s an old lady, who’s in her 90s and served the kingdom for years. I mainly thought about honoring Margaret’s memory, and tried to get as much information from as many different people and books and resources and archives and recordings of her as possible, so at least I was capturing an element of her spirit. Because it’s so exciting and wonderful that there’s a possibility of a global audience remembering these people and seeing what they were like and being given access to their life stories. That felt massively important. Margaret specifically lost the love of her life because her sister couldn’t allow her to marry. And that in itself is something I feel needed to be remembered. Funny enough, I did a play straight after finishing this and one of the cast members brought a letter from Peter Townsend to her uncle. He’d written from Brussels. And I had this letter in my hand, and I was shaking. I cried so much, because this is somebody that I felt so intimate with in this story over eight months and have completely fallen in love with and experienced that loss and that pain. Holding the paper felt so special.
J.H.: At the same time, it’s incredibly respectful of what they’ve gone through in a way. It’s a very human and touching view from the inside. It’s not superficial — it’s very serious and it’s empathetic. From that point of view, I can’t imagine they would be disappointed ’cause they are obsessed, apparently, with their public image and this would, I imagine, only be a plus toward that.