“A middle-aged woman so incurious, unintelligent, and unremarkable that Britain’s new reduced place in the world was not a surprise but an inevitability.” This is just one of the many scathing insults Jackie Kennedy hurls against Queen Elizabeth in The Crown’s new season, effectively switching up the show’s homegrown monarchical drama into something a little bit more, ahem, Yankee-Doodle. But what ensues between Jackie and the Queen is less about petty revenge — that grand ol’ welcome to Windsor Castle notwithstanding — and more about how these two powerful women have a lot more in common than they’d care to admit. Earlier this week, Vulture spoke with Jodi Balfour, the actress who took on the role of Jackie, about embodying an icon, practicing her accent, and playing with a bunch of cute and cuddly corgis.
How did you get on the radar of The Crown’s casting people, and what was your audition like for a show at this level of popularity?
They had been looking for someone to play Jackie for quite awhile. Nina Gold, who’s the casting director for the show, definitely didn’t think of me for the role because we’d never worked together. I came in towards the end of the casting process. They had been struggling to find someone. I sent an audition tape to London, which Nina watched. It was quiet for awhile after that. But a few weeks later, as I was finishing my second binge of season one because I’m such a huge fan of the show — I was watching the last three episodes at my parents’ house in Canada during the Christmas holidays last year — I saw an email come in on my computer saying, “Can you go to New York to meet Stephen Daldry?” The next three days leading up to Christmas were bonkers — I flew from quite a remote part of Vancouver Island to New York that night to have a meeting. We talked about the role and discussed some of the scenes. It was in that meeting, which never happens, where after we’d been chatting for about 45 minutes, he said to me, “Well, I wanted to make sure, but I’d really love you for the role. Consider it yours.”
After you got the role, what did Jackie O. boot camp entail? How long did it take to perfect her essence?
It was a daunting task. I was elated that I got the part and it was a fairy-tale Christmas gift, but immediately after the Christmas vacation was over, the nerves kicked right in with the enormity of the responsibility to get to the heart of who she was. The tricky thing about JFK and Jackie is what you see is not what you get — there’s so much more to them than what you can learn in books and documentaries. I worked my butt off with The Crown’s incredible dialect coach, William Conacher. He works with the entire cast and plays such a huge part in how excellent everyone’s vocal work is. He and I began working immediately by Skype when I was in Los Angeles and he was in London. It started with watching and listening to everything I could of her accent. Lots of watching and listening and reading about her life and upbringing. I really tried to expose myself to everything that I could’ve been exposed to about her as a woman.
With playing a real person, and someone this iconic, what I’m really grateful for is that The Crown’s team let go of the sense of “re-creating someone” in favor of interpretation and creative license. Because with people doing impressions, there’s got to be a point when we take seriously that it’s an imagining of what happened, and with that comes your own artistic and creative expression of his person. That’s the hard part, because I wanted to pay respect to who she was, but there’s also a part of me that wanted to bring my own artistic choice and freedom into the mix as well.
It’s remarkably that the show’s dialect coach works with every single actor. What was a typical session like?
I spoke to him at length. With me — and I’m sure he has different methods with every actor — we started with him sending me a bunch of YouTube clips and sound clips. The research department on The Crown was an incredible support system as well, and they sent me a whole bunch of clips. William wanted me to listen and watch. Then we started not with the actual lines. This is a fun trip down memory lane for me. [Laughs.]
I’ve listened to Jackie and we were talking about isolating her vowels and her cadence, and looking into the individual elements of her dialect instead of it all together. So he would say things like, “Tell me a nursery rhyme. Read me a poem.” Things that were not based on the script. No necessary words that I was going to have to say for the show. I was getting to grips with the level of comfort. I would do “Humpty Dumpty” for him terribly in the beginning, trying to appropriate her accent to the best of my ability. We would read random books, eventually working our way to Jackie’s actual lines. It was good to get a level of comfort this way, because although the script is so bloody brilliant, there’s still a level of malleability on filming days — people add additional lines or retool certain lines that weren’t working. You can’t get married to the lines themselves, because if that happens and you were mastering that one word in training for months, that’s not great. It’s like a voice gym. You’re exercising your voice and exercising the muscles in your mouth and your throat that help make the sounds that are required. It’s not just sound, it’s also very muscular.
As someone who’s South African and tried to master an American accent, for me, it’s all visual. I visualize a shape in my mouth that’s different than the shape my mouth makes when I speak in my own voice. Similarly for Jackie, there was so much shape and muscular work to the dialect. And William was on set every day, which was the most luxurious and wonderful thing ever. He would whisper, “Don’t forget this, don’t forget that.”
The Crown takes creative liberty with its dialogue, but the mutual compassion and jealousy between Jackie and Queen Elizabeth struck me as incredibly humanistic. How would you define the relationship between these two women, who were both still coping with the spotlight thrust upon them?
It’s so emotional for me when I think about them. I feel like someone punches me in my heart. I use the term “kindred spirits” because that’s what it really feels like to me. Something about their relationship is completely alien, but at the same time deeply familiar. Their lives at that time were weirdly mirroring one another’s. So many make the comparison of Jackie and JFK to the royal family — the Kennedys were like the American royals. I think they see eye to eye on so many things, without even having to speak. There’s so much observed between them about the lives they lead and their marriages in particular. And about being introverts thrust into the position of such public exposure. So I really do think they were kindred spirits and recognized that within each other. In an alternative reality, I feel they would’ve been best friends.
I will say, Jackie has the most refined and beautiful insults.
They really are amazing. Those one-liners are just brutally spectacular.
My favorite Jackie scene is when she walks up to the doors of Windsor, but Queen Elizabeth had arranged the most absurd spectacle to reassert her dominance. Can you walk me through the logistics of that scene? It played out like a dance.
That was one of those moments as an actor when you’re like, “I’m pretty sure this will never happen again.” [Laughs.] It was at a beautiful, ancient castle in the middle of England on a foggy morning, where there’s 100 men on horseback and 100 more men in armor. It really was like a choreographed dance, to be honest. Lots of rehearsing. Between the gentleman that was driving the car, who had to hit the mark of where I had to get out, and the timing of when I had to get out as the horses were passing. And then to stand and watch the horses and hope they don’t go too far away, to then be met by the man who welcomes me into the castle. And then to be walked inside to be greeted by even more guards standing attention, and meeting another aide of the queen. Wowza! There were so many elements that had to be perfectly timed to have a great take. Simultaneously, there are all of these moments that the camera department had to hit as well. It’s a symphony.
The mind games of rich people are truly a thing to behold.
It’s genius. If you have it, why not flaunt it, right?
You’re one of the few actors who had the privilege of sharing the screen with the corgis. How cute and well-behaved are those dogs, really?
Well, sharing the screen with corgis is a gift. And they were corgi puppies. Religious! They weren’t super well-behaved, to be honest. That scene was a little challenging. Murphy’s Law was in full effect that day — it’s the end of a big scene that builds to a spoken and unspoken intimacy between the two women, and it’s a nuanced friendship beginning to happen. Meanwhile, you have to coordinate all of these puppies that don’t want to be on Claire’s lap and just want to lick our faces and bark. You can never be too sure if they want to be pet or not. It was very fun, but derailing at the same time. But when you see the scene, it’s well worth it.
I would’ve flubbed lines to keep playing with those corgis.
Oh my God. They are cute. They are so cute.
Do you have any strong feelings about who should play future characters, such as Princess Diana or Meghan Markle?
The only one I’ve thought about is Princess Diana, and I guess it would be a young Princess Di. What an amazing role. Probably because I just saw I, Tonya, my mind jumped to Margot Robbie. I can so see her in a short pixie cut looking Princess Di-ish. But also, there are so many talented, unknown actresses. In these wildly iconic worlds, it’s even more fun to watch someone who you’re not super familiar with, because you can imagine them that much more as Princess Diana. You can suspend your disbelief even more potently. Clearly I shouldn’t become a casting director!
Matt Smith said he’d like to see Selena Gomez as Meghan Markle, and I’m like, “Eh…”
Of course he said that. [Laughs.] Maybe Meghan Markle should play Meghan Markle. Go full Markle meta.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.