The Queen on screen: Actors discuss playing the most private of public persons

For seven decades, the Queen was the face of Great Britain, but that face betrayed little, making her an ideal canvas for actresses playing her on the screen, both big and small.

There’s the playful princess of “A Royal Night Out”; the restrained ruler of “The Crown”; and the monarch with a quick – and biting – wit, in “The Queen.”

“She’s such a great subject for filmmakers and television directors because what they’ve got is a blank slate waving to the public,” said Ella Taylor, a longtime film critic and an adjunct professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“She gave away nothing of her real personality in life. I don’t think any of us knows anything about the Queen. Her job was to follow protocol in public, and that’s an absolute bonanza, because they can just go nuts with it,” Taylor told Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

Dame Helen Mirren seized that blank canvas and ran off with an Oscar for playing Elizabeth in “The Queen,” from 2006.


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In a “Sunday Morning” interview in 2015, Mirren told correspondent Lee Cowan her inspiration wasn’t real life, but her own imagination: “I’m just doing a portrait,” Mirren said. “It happens to be a portrait on film. But it’s a portrait. It’s not her, it’s our understanding of her. And when you’re an artist, you are in there. You can’t not be in there. So, I thought that was an acceptable way to approach it.”

Cowan asked, “You’d met the Queen, as I understand it. What was that like?”

“I got major what we call Queenitis,” Mirren laughed. “Which is when you see the Queen, you just become this babbling idiot. You start sort of saying things, like, ‘Oh, it’s such fun, wasn’t it?'”

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Claire Foy as the young Elizabeth in Season 1 of “The Crown.”

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On the Emmy Award-winning Neflix series “The Crown,” there are three versions of Elizabeth: Claire Foy, as the young royal highness; Olivia Colman, who captures the Queen in monarchical middle age; and, next season, Imelda Staunton.

“I never got to meet the Queen, and I always wish I had had that experience,” said John Lithgow, who won an Emmy for “The Crown” playing Winston Churchill opposite Claire Foy. “Claire Foy is a wonderful actress. She brought youth. She brought this wonderful, tremulous trepidation. The scenes between Claire and me, we’re gradually seeing her assert her authority over him.”


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“So, it became a very particular kind of family drama,” said Lithgow. “And who knows, maybe it’s accurate!”

So many good actresses have played Elizabeth: Emma Thompson in “Walking the Dogs”; Kristen Scott Thomas in “The Audience”; Sarah Gadon in the romantic comedy “A Royal Night Out.”

And the Queen has been fodder for comedy, too, on “The Simpsons,” “Saturday Night Live,” and multiple times by British actress Jeanette Charles, most notably in “The Naked Gun.”


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“She came across so adorably,” said Taylor. “And the commentator says, ‘How about that Queen!’ Which only an American could pull off!”

Four-time Oscar-nominated actress Jane Alexander played Elizabeth in a Hallmark TV movie, “William & Catherine: A Royal Romance.” “I have been a lifelong devotee of Elizabeth from the time she was a princess in World War II,” she told Mankiewicz.

Alexander’s father was a doctor serving in London during the Blitz, and later in France after the invasion of Normandy. A teenaged Elizabeth, she said, inspired young people (in Britain and America) to support the war effort.

“My Mom would say, ‘Come, Jane, the Princesses are on!’ And you’d hear these little high voices … and they were talking about the war effort and what we could do as children, and it really inspired those of us in that household.”


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As Mankiewicz spoke to Alexander on Thursday, producer Gabriel Falcon interrupted with news that it was official: the Queen had died.

Mankiewicz asked, “How do you react to that, that news that she’s passed right in the middle of our conversation?”

Crying, Alexander said, “I’m sorry, Ben. I’m sorry. … It’s really the end of an incredible person for me. For all of us. For so many who have followed her all her life. She just meant a lot to me in terms of who you could be if you set out to be.”

Though Elizabeth is gone, these performances live on, and that, says John Lithgow, will only cement her legacy.

“I think that’s the magic,” he said, “whether it was an extreme version of shyness or just the wisdom and self-knowledge of knowing ‘This is my role.’ And it’s a very veiled role. We just cannot know her. But we really miss her.”

     
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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

     
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