As much as we loved seeing Prince Philip get moon fever and Princess Margaret make the White House her bitch, the grand entrance of Camilla Parker Bowles in The Crown’s eighth episode was truly gasp-worthy: The cocktails! The skirts! The brutal dismissal of cheating men! She and Prince Charles, of course, proceed to embark on a very nice whirlwind romance that you definitely know the evolution of, which ends due to the Windsors deeming her unsuitable to become a future queen (well, at the time, that is) despite her and Charles’s borderline soulmate status. Earlier this week, Vulture hopped on the phone with Emerald Fennell, the English actress and writer who portrays Bowles, to discuss sacrificial love, the subtle art of smoking in tubs, and what we really talk about when we talk about Camilla.
One thing that surprised me about Camilla is how — even though her life is now diligently recapped in The Daily Mail every day — there’s little known about her from her early years. She was so private even as a society woman.
And that was incredibly beautiful for me going into The Crown. The thing about Camilla is that she’s an outsider when it comes to the family. She’s the only person in the show, really, who walks into Buckingham Palace and looks at the royal family’s surroundings and is like, Oh my god, no thank you! I’m inclined to say she never wanted her life to be turned inside-out the way that it eventually was. Think about what it would be like to fall in love with someone who has Charles’s life. Camilla wasn’t interested in that life in any way. She’d rather be wearing fabulous miniskirts to fabulous parties.
I’m glad your depiction got at least got one incredible smoking-in-the-bathtub scene.
The main reason to do anything is to smoke in a bathtub. What could be better? I have to say, that bath was punishingly hot. Add the wig and about a thousand cigarettes and it gets hotter. I remember slithering out from the bath after five hours just feeling … strange. [Laughs.] People were averting their eyes out of horror and decency. Very much a Creature From the Black Lagoon situation. Did I look glamorous? Hopefully I look glowing and not like a sweaty beacon.
You epitomized bathtub goals!
What did your Camilla boot camp entail, given that footage of her wasn’t as abundant as of the Windsors?
This might make me sound very lax, but I tried as best as I could to be analytical. I like to think that way. Since there’s so little about Camilla I could research myself, I viewed Camilla as [writer] Peter Morgan’s version as opposed to the real Camilla. So much of Camilla in the show has to do with her chemistry with Charles, and the thing about her is that she’s the first person who’s seen him properly for who he is. She’s not interested in all the bells and whistles that come with the crown. They have a relationship that’s very real and steeped in friendship, shared humor, and interests. The royals are in this big and scary but beautiful world, and then there’s Camilla and Charles who give it a bit of soul.
I really enjoyed the dinner between Camilla and Charles in Buckingham Palace, especially when Charles gets vulnerable and equates his life to Dangling Man. I’m curious if you ever viewed Camilla in a literary lens, and if so, what work relates best to her?
I’ve heard she’s a voracious reader and that makes sense to me from everything I’ve heard about her — she’s very emphatic and full of knowledge. In terms of literature, I don’t really think of Camilla in regards to anything related to royalty, but rather to Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. Fictionalizing history and how to do it well. Her versions of events are extremely compelling. I suspect Camilla, in real life, is a Jilly Cooper fan, who’s one of my favorite writers. If I ever met Camilla, I’d want to talk to her about books and what she enjoys reading.
I know Camilla is very well-read and that she also loves ping-pong. There are so many good photos of her going wild with a paddle.
Oh my god, I’m going to write to Peter Morgan immediately and say, Where’s my ping-pong scene?! A real origin story! I’m so uncoordinated, unfortunately, so I wouldn’t want to put Camilla to shame by not being able to hit a ball. I don’t know if I’ve ever hit a ball successfully, actually. [Laughs.] That’s the great thing about her, right? She’s so gung-ho with what she loves. She has a fun time wherever she goes. She finds her own fun. It’s distinctly physical with her and her movements. She’s very physical character, which I wasn’t exactly expecting.
What makes her so physically distinctive to you?
I did have to do all of the etiquette training along with the cast, but Camilla herself is a very grounded person. “Earthy” isn’t the best word, and I know people don’t like being called that, but she can feel the ground under her feet. A real “person of the world.” Charles is very intellectual and thoughtful and often gets caught up in his own mind, as you saw in that dinner scene when he goes on about Saul Bellow. Camilla, even with all of her intellect, doesn’t mind being like, Sorry, who?
Never heard of him. [Laughs.] There’s a bodily existence that she has. She’s not sitting in a corner, looking out a window, and worrying about it all. She’s just living her life, and that’s very unusual for the royals, because all they do in this show is think very carefully about every single thing. She doesn’t, until, of course, she has to initiate their break-up.
It’s been interesting to talk with my friends about Charles and Camilla over the past few days, because they’re all wildly split about how compelling or romantic the couple’s love story is. What’s your view?
The thing that’s really romantic for me is that their love is very much steeped in friendship. It’s not something you see very often anymore. I’d put the terrible context of their relationship, and the collateral damage it had, on one side. They remain and were by all accounts incredible close friends. A lot of romances and loves are very volatile, torrid, and sexy — smashing glasses against the wall kind of thing. So their friendship is very touching, even if the royal family wasn’t keen on Camilla because she was a free-spirited person. But I really don’t think she wanted to be a princess or the queen. It really shows how much she loves him now that she is. Here’s a question I’ve often thought about: If the royal family originally approved of their marriage, would she have wanted to marry him anyway?
That’s a great question. You know, I’m not sure.
It would be an enormous decision for any woman with their own life, their own job, and their own friends to marry the future king of England. It’s a consideration! What we do when we talk about Camilla is always make the assumption she was gunning for the crown. I don’t think she was. I’m not sure she would’ve married him. I’m not sure it would have worked the first time. The thought that you’ll be stuck in the same role for the rest of your life is terrifying. A lot of people have the presumption that everyone wants to be a princess deep down, but I don’t think Camilla did. She loved Charles but didn’t want the nightmare of that life. It shows how much they loved each other. It was a disaster at times, but it says a lot about what she’s sacrificed in her life to be with him. Because it must have been completely dreadful for everyone involved! Whatever the terrible fallout to this relationship was, though, it’s certainly true that it’s been a very enduring love and it’s survived a colossal amount of pressure. Whatever people think about them, it can’t be denied their love is real.
Has your perspective on bangs changed after enduring them to play Camilla?
I want Camilla’s hairstyle and it was a joy to wear that wig. If only I could get my own hair to get such monumentally gorgeous texture. I hope people are going to the hairdresser now and saying, Give me the Camilla! I’m all about the bangs! I swear, if my hair was a different texture I would’ve gotten them already. I have two stages of my life: Bangs, and growing out bangs. It’s never worked, but I try every time. Every time Reese Witherspoon gets them I’m like, I think I should try again! But she’s got better hair than I do.