Elizabeth Debicki Says Portraying Diana’s Final Days on ‘The Crown’ Meant Creating ‘Room for Surprise’

Elizabeth Debicki was hyper-aware of the pressures that came with re-creating Princess Diana’s last days on “The Crown,” arguably the most high-profile interpretation of her life and lasting cultural impact. After all, it’s no mystery how the story of the beloved royal ends. The first half of the Netflix series’ sixth and final season dramatizes — with some degree of truth — the months leading up to Diana’s fatal 1997 car crash in Paris, France. The remainder of the season chronicles the aftermath of her death, focusing on the royal family’s struggles to reconcile with their grief.

For Debicki, who earned her first Emmy nomination for her Season 5 performance as “the people’s princess,” knowing Diana’s endpoint led to a deliberate decision to subvert viewers’ expectations of what was to come. “I
understood very well where the character was going and I understood what the audience already knows,” the 33-year-old Australian actress said. “We all expect something [to happen], so how do I create something that’s perhaps less expected? And create room for surprise or space for the audience to experience something new?”

That meant switching her approach.

The Crown Season 6
Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki), Prince William (Rufus Kampa) and Prince Harry (Fflyn Edwards) in The Crown Season 6 (Photo Credit: Netflix)

The knowledge base she established while preparing for Season 5 allowed Debicki the confidence and freedom to take more creative chances in her second go at playing Diana. “I stopped thinking by the time I got to Season 6,” she said. “I trusted myself. I actively let myself discover things, and I was comfortable enough in the skin of the thing that I felt I could push it in different directions and see what worked. You’ve worked hard to lay the foundations for yourself so you can be braver.”

Debicki singled out “all the stuff with the paparazzi” as challenges to film because of what happens next, but it’s a quieter scene creator Peter Morgan wrote — where Diana and boyfriend Dodi Fayed (played by Khalid Abdalla) attempt to dine at the hotel restaurant hours before their deaths — that proved to be more emotionally taxing.

“The idea of desperately wanting a bit of peace and quiet in a restaurant and not be able to have the luxury of boundaried space and privacy — I remember that being a very, very sad place to be in,” Debicki said.

While Diana’s death casts a long shadow over the first half of Season 6, many of Debicki’s most joyous moments involved scenes with Diana’s young sons, William and Harry (played by Ed McVey and Luther Ford), where she enjoyed her happiest times. It added a liveliness to an otherwise burdened season.

“I’m proud of the scene where it’s me and the two boys, and they’re packing up to leave to go to Balmoral,” Debicki said of an Episode 3 scene that was shot very quickly. “I remember watching that in ADR and I thought, That’s really good. We did a good job. It’s just a lot of love there, you know?” Charting Diana and Dodi’s romance was also a highlight: “These two people landed in a place of grace with one another and there was real love and compassion, real humanity.”

“The Crown” doesn’t pretend to be an official record of the royal family, though it’s hard not to make comparisons to real life. One of the drama’s most controversial creative liberties came in the form of Diana’s ghost in the fourth
. In the scene, Diana has a surprising heart-to-heart with her estranged ex-husband, Prince Charles (Dominic West), on a plane following her death. The “grief scene” is one of Debicki’s favorites, though she was initially apprehensive about how they were going to pull it off.

Khalid Abdalla and Elizabeth Debicki in "The Crown" (Netflix)
Khalid Abdalla and Elizabeth Debicki in “The Crown” (Netflix)

“When I found out there was this [controversy] happening around it, I completely understood it because when I read it first in the script, I thought, What is that? How do you do that? What does that mean? Does she look like a person?” she said. “When we came to do that scene, we didn’t rehearse it. We just ran the cameras and it was very honest work. It was a very sad scene to shoot.”

After she took a beat to reflect on her body of work as Diana, Debicki concluded, “I guess I’m proud of a lot of it.”

By the end of filming, though, it was time to let Diana go. “I was ready to leave the part when I felt I finished the story I intended to tell,” she said. “So that was a peaceful thing. I knew I had done my best with that [role].”

“It was very challenging to shoot. Acting is a very physical job and things manifest in ways where it takes time to heal from them. Whether you’re physically tired or your body’s experienced an emotional landscape that’s not its own, that stuff takes time to work its way out of your system. [It] took a long time for me to come back to myself.”

Even so, playing Diana was a rare opportunity, Debicki said — like “lightning in a bottle.”

“I learned a lot, probably more than any other role I’ve ever done,” she said. “I was very, very lucky to play her. I can’t imagine anything will ever come close to it. I feel immensely grateful that I got asked to do this part — it was a big chunk of my life, nearly three years — and an extraordinary thing that came into my life. And I never saw it coming.”

This story first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the Drama Series issue here.

Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap
Gary Oldman photographed by Molly Matalon for TheWrap

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