Many impressive, remarkable things happen in season three of The Crown. Helena Bonham Carter gives a lovely performance as Princess Margaret, and also recites dirty limericks. After two years of near-solid classical music, the score suddenly shifts to some notable rock and roll needle-drops. Prince Charles (and his ears) learn Welsh, and he falls in love with Camilla.
But nothing is more remarkable than one specific shot of Olivia Colman’s face at the end of the season’s third episode, “Aberfan.” The shot is an extreme close-up of Colman’s face, seen from a three-quarter profile view. As the camera holds on her face, a single tear slowly wells up in Colman’s eye and then elegantly rolls down her cheek, an unbelievable demonstration of simultaneous emotional openness and physical restraint. It’s the sort of shot that makes you lean back in your chair and yell “how did they do that?!” to no one in particular.
While visiting the set of The Crown, I was bound and determined to find out the answer to that question. How did they get that shot? Is it a CGI tear? Was it the result of careful makeup application, or special eye drops? Maybe it was stimulated by one of the puffs of air makeup artists will sometimes use to irritate an eye so that it tears at exactly the right moment? Surely there must be some wizardry behind that stunning image of the tear slowly welling in Colman’s eye?
But no. Olivia Colman did that herself. “We stand by with tear stick, glycerin tears, tear blower, all that shit,” makeup and hair designer Cate Hall told me. None of it was necessary. “Olivia just has a think about something, and goes … “ [Hall, at this point, used her finger to mime a tear falling down her cheek]. “I mean, the talent is outrageous.”
Hall then chased down Sue David, who’s responsible for Colman’s makeup. “[Colman] can even time her tears,” David said. “She’s just brilliant. She literally just … I don’t know how she did it.” She did, though. Both David and Hall insist that Colman not only performed the scene entirely without the help of makeup or tearing agents, but that she did it many times. Neither of them could remember how many takes she performed precisely, just that Colman shot the scene several times and that she cried one perfect tear each time.
I believed Hall and David, of course, but just to make sure, I also asked The Crown’s executive producer Suzanne Mackie about the scene. Was it faked, I asked her? “It was real, it was real,” Mackie said, shaking her head in awe. “She did that herself. Ridiculous.”