Dominic West and Olivia Williams on Channeling Charles and Camilla
It’s a big year to be a Brit. Between the death of England’s longest-reigning monarch and Liz Truss’ resignation as Prime Minister after a tumultuous 44-day term, it certainly looks like our friends across the pond are living through seemingly unprecedented times. But in the fifth installment of Netflix’s wildly popular series The Crown, showrunner Peter Morgan takes us back to a time in the U.K.’s history that makes current affairs seem almost tame. At its center is the relationship between Prince Charles, played by a dashing Dominic West, and Camilla Parker Bowles, brought to life by RSC regular Olivia Williams. The season chronicles the further unraveling of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s marriage and the affair that nearly tore the monarchy apart, crafting high drama from the royal family’s lowest point. In the run-up to The Crown’s release last week, West and Williams got together for a cheeky chat about royal encounters, British behavior, and coming of age in the 1990s.—CAITLIN LENT
OLIVIA WILLIAMS: Have you ever met a royal or had an experience with a royal?
DOMINIC WEST: Yeah, well I have. I walked to the South Pole with a royal actually.
WILLIAMS: Did you?
WEST: Yeah, I walked to the South Pole with Prince Harry and lots of wounded soldiers.
WILLIAMS: Why haven’t you told me this?
WEST: Haven’t I told you this?
WEST: Oh right. Well, we must go into my past more often.
WILLIAMS: “Had an experience,” that definitely counts as experience.
WEST: Yeah. We were led into the South Pole by a man who had two prosthetic legs. Actually, no. We were led by a blind man who was followed by a man with two prosthetic legs. So it was an extraordinary experience that I had with him, but I haven’t really been in touch since.
WILLIAMS: Okay, that’s very good. Well done. I can’t move on, that was so interesting.
WEST: I will. Has it been surreal to watch Charles and Camilla ascend to the throne?
WILLIAMS: It was quite surreal. Not generally because we were playing them. But it was just an extraordinary time in our lives. I’d never known any other monarch. I found the national response very moving. I rather thought, as with alcohol, this stuff has no effect on me. And then found it had done.
WEST: I actually get the sense because we are playing these characters at the nadir of their lives. And I suppose when they ascended to the throne in August or whenever it was, that it felt like finally there was a happy ending. They’d come through it and he’d realized his destiny and with the woman he loved.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. Suddenly all the scenes that you have about, “Should I ever be King?” or “Was Charles suitable to be King?” All that slid away and that second the queen passed away, he became King. And suddenly he seems like the most suitable and responsible person in the nation. How do you feel about coming out at a time of such change and turmoil in the UK?
WEST: I haven’t come out.
WILLIAMS: Oh, hang on!
WEST: Well, I’m not going to come out for years.
WILLIAMS: You’re going to stay firmly in the closet.
WEST: Until my career is definitely over.
WILLIAMS: How do you feel about the show coming out at a time of such change and turmoil in the UK?
WEST: When isn’t there a period of change and turmoil in the U.K.? And I don’t mean that totally facetiously. I think a lot of people say that this is too early, since the Queen’s death, for the show to be coming out. But for a lot of people there’s never a good time for this to come out. There’s never a good time for issues that people find difficult. There’s always going to be a criticism of the timing. But for me, I think an examination or a recap of what the King has gone through and the main event at the lowest point of his life, it’s not a bad time before he gets crowned King. It’s something we all want to know. We all want to know who this man is, the head of state. And in that way I think a drama about him can be useful.
WILLIAMS: Good answer.
WEST: What informed your performance more: the previous actor playing Camilla or the real life person?
WILLIAMS: Well, in my audition—
WEST: Which I was at.
WILLIAMS: Which you’ll remember. When you had the part and I didn’t have the part and there were two other Camillas in the waiting room. I had to do a speech that Emerald Fennell had done in the previous season. And so I studied her. Because I thought, “Well, she got the job.”
WEST: That’s so extraordinary. You copied the way she did it?
WILLIAMS: Oh, verbatim performance.
WEST: That’s really sneaky. Like cheating.
WILLIAMS: And yet here I am.
WEST: It worked.
WILLIAMS: I then chucked all that out the window. Sorry, Emerald. I went back to the YouTube videos, which were great. There is a wonderful clip of Camilla, she’s doing a big wink at a bunch of press photographers and I’ve been practicing in front of the mirror, and I cannot master the dirty wink.
WEST: It was so big.
WILLIAMS: It was so big. And she’s got such amazing control over this one eye that goes down, whereas the whole of my face goes down. She can do a dirty wink like the very best and I can’t. Your turn for a question. What is the most British thing about you?
WEST: Oh, I’m not really British. I’m Irish.
WILLIAMS: That’s not the question. What is the most British thing about you?
WEST: What’s the most British thing about me? Well, I can’t really get up in the morning without a cup of tea.
WILLIAMS: Very good.
WEST: How about you?
WILLIAMS: I apologize. Sorry. I apologize a lot. Sorry.
WEST: Yes. That’s a terrible thing.
WILLIAMS: Yeah. If someone bumps into me, I apologize to them.
Dominic WEST: The season takes place from ‘91 to ‘97. Where were you at, in your life, at that point?
WILLIAMS: In ‘91, I think…
WEST: Barely born, were you?
WILLIAMS: No! I graduated drama school in ‘91.
WEST: Oh, of course! Yes.
WILLIAMS: And then in 1997 I got my first big movie role in The Postman. Which was voted the second worst movie of 1997, after Flubber.
WEST: Oh, well done.
WILLIAMS: What were you doing in ‘97?
WEST: ‘97? I left drama school. I was a late start at drama school. I’d been to university four years, then I did three years at drama school. I left drama school. I got my first professional job at the Armeda.
WILLIAMS: Congratulations. And then in 1990… are we going to take this year by year through your career in your thirties?
WEST: No, it was you that asked! The season takes place from ‘91, so I was in my twenties having a great time.
WILLIAMS: What do the nineties mean to you?
WEST: Jonny Lee Miller was asked that question the other day by Edith Bowman. Then she asked that to me and I said the nineties mainly mean for me, Johnny Lee Miller in Trainspotting. And he went, “Yeah, that was my decade.”
WILLIAMS: Good answer. Has this experience changed how you perceive Charles and Camilla when you see them on television?
WEST: Yeah, I don’t know about how I perceive them, but I watch them. I watch them with an obviously increased curiosity as to the little tells, the little character tells and foibles that you witness, of which we’ve had some glorious ones since he became King.
WILLIAMS: What’s your favorite costume?
WEST: Oh, I think you know.
WILLIAMS: But I want you to tell the people.
WEST: He’s one of the best dressed men in the world, and the best outfit is his white tropical royal naval captain’s uniform, which I defy anyone to wear and not look cool.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, I’m a bit jealous of that.
WEST: Yeah, you’d look great in it.
WILLIAMS: Thank you. All I got was some very dirty wellies and the Barbour. The zip was broken. And a moth eaten v-neck lambswool sweater. But I’m hoping for better in season six.
WEST: Did you always love Camilla?
WILLIAMS: I’m not a fan of personal maintenance and I feel that she too is not a fan of personal maintenance. I quite like the fact that, allegedly, she spent a lot of time in her dressing gown before she was elevated to the Duchess of Cornwall. I like the fact that a pair of wellies and jeans was her preferred attire. I find dressing up and walking around in high heels rather exhausting.
WEST: Don’t we all. When you’re playing a real life figure, is the impulse to go on a YouTube deep dive to watch as much footage as you can?
WILLIAMS: God bless the interweb for researching characters. I did read the Gyles Brandreth book [Charles & Camilla: Portrait of a Love Affair] about Charles and Camilla and because he’s a good anecdotalist.
WEST: I want to ask you what you have been asking all our interviewers today. Would you please raise awareness for World Neuroendocrine Cancer Awareness Day?
WILLIAMS: I’ve had neuroendocrine cancer. Steve Jobs died of it and Aretha Franklin died of it, largely because of a lack of awareness. So if we could just get it out there, tell people the symptoms and try and raise some money for more research, then fewer people will die of ignorance. I developed a tumor that took up half my pancreas and parts of my liver, my spleen, and my gallbladder. So I’m down quite a few organs these days. So if someone had worked out what it was a bit sooner, I would be that much more organ-rich.
WEST: What are the symptoms?
WILLIAMS: The clue’s in the loo.
WEST: Well, we’ll go online and we’ll check it out.
WILLIAMS: Yeah, please do. Thank you Dominic.