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In ‘The Crown,’ a portrait of a royal marriage under pressure

Going behind the palace walls, the ambitious Netflix series "The Crown" aims to capture the long reign -- and private dramas -- of Queen Elizabeth II. The new second season gives viewers a deeper look at the public-private dynamic of a royal marriage and begins at a low point: reports of infidelity by Prince Philip. Jeffrey Brown talks to the cast and creator about bringing the Windsors to life.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is one of the most expensive TV series ever made, said to cost more than $100 million to produce for two seasons. It is certainly one of the most ambitious, aiming to capture the 65 years, and counting, reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

    "The Crown" begins streaming its second season today.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    There they were, the happy young couple, Prince Harry and his American bride-to-be, Meghan Markle, offering the world the prospect of another royal wedding of pomp and spectacle.

    And what do Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Harry's grandparents, think of the couple?

  • Matt Smith:

    They look very marvelous together.

  • Claire Foy:

    They do. They're a very attractive pair.

  • Matt Smith:

    They're a very — yes, you know, they're a very handsome couple.

  • Claire Foy:

    Yes, they are, aren't they?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Claire Foy is, of course, not the queen of England, but she plays her on TV, in the popular and highly acclaimed Netflix series, "The Crown," just starting its second season.

    It's a behind-the-palace-walls, fiction-that-feels-real portrait of the Windsors, beginning with the Young Elizabeth becoming queen at age 25 in 1952.

  • Actor:

    It would help if we could decide here and now on your name, that is, the name you will take as queen.

  • Claire Foy:

    What is wrong with my name?

  • Matt Smith:

    Nothing.

  • Claire Foy:

    My name is Elizabeth.

  • Actor:

    Then, long live Queen Elizabeth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what was the key to getting her right for you?

  • Claire Foy:

    Not trying to get her right, I think, is the thing.

    I just never tried to play up to an idea that anyone else might have of her. We have been fed that. We know who that is. We all know who the queen is from what we see, and all the images that we have, and what she said.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The queen as icon, you mean, but…

  • Claire Foy:

    Yes, not — but no one knows Elizabeth Windsor, Elizabeth Mountbatten, except her and him.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right.

  • Claire Foy:

    So that's what's interesting. That's who we're playing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The him is Philip Mountbatten, later Prince Philip, a proud man who must learn to defer to his wife, at least in public.

    He's played by Matt Smith, who, along with Foy, joined us recently at Sardi's restaurant in New York.

    How do you do that, the second fiddle?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Claire Foy:

    I mean…

  • Matt Smith:

    Well, with great difficulty.

  • Claire Foy:

    … not very graciously, I will tell you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What was the key to playing him for you?

  • Matt Smith:

    It tends to start with like something physical. He puts his hands sort of behind his back a lot. Or so it's — you sort of learn different behaviors.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Well, I actually noticed you do like slump shoulders a little bit or head down.

  • Matt Smith:

    Yes, he's quite slumpy. And he sort of leans forward. He's a bit like a giraffe. His head sort of comes down and he lurches. He sort of leans into people and into life.

    And I tend to start in places like that, really.

  • Claire Foy:

    This marriage has turned out to be something quite different.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Season two begins at a low moment in the marriage, amid reports of Philip's infidelity.

  • Claire Foy:

    Divorce? It's not an option for us, ever.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The man who created "The Crown," Peter Morgan, best known for other historical dramas like "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," clearly enjoyed exploring the public-private dynamics of a royal relationship.

  • Peter Morgan:

    A very quiet, unassuming person who doesn't like the spotlight became queen, and a very powerful triple alpha male got to walk in her shadow.

    She doesn't want to be in the spotlight and he doesn't want to be in the shadow. And that's the tension. So, it's just husband and wife stuff, and it just happens to played out in Westminster Abbey, and the terms happen to be slightly grander than everywhere else.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A constant theme here, the job of being a royal, which comes with no real power, but plenty of responsibility.

  • Claire Foy:

    Are they a nuisance?

  • Actor:

    Not if you keep on top of them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Appearances are everything, an especially difficult role for Elizabeth's younger sister, Princess Margaret, played by Vanessa Kirby.

  • Vanessa Kirby:

    We have met.

  • Actor:

    We have.

  • Vanessa Kirby:

    Where have we met?

  • Actor:

    Perhaps it will come to you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's great and fun drama, but do they get it right?

    Catholic University Historian Laura Mayhall has written on the royal family in popular culture.

  • Laura Mayhall:

    One could nitpick. One could point to small and large historical anomalies.

    But I think that the importance of it, the reality of it, if you will, is more emotional and affective. It feels real because what the makers of the show do is, they show us, first of all, how mediated the monarchy is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I mean, in a sense, they are always performing.

  • Laura Mayhall:

    The compartmentalization of public and private is fundamental to the job of being a monarch. I mean, they're human, after all.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They're just people, like you and me, but not.

  • Laura Mayhall:

    But not, most decidedly not.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Peter Morgan has structured the series by taking us through well-researched and documented historical events, and then imagining his way behind the scenes.

  • Claire Foy:

    It's not attempting to kind of say, this is what happened. It's attempting to go, well, do you think this might have happened? But the dialogue is completely fictitious.

    And — but, weirdly, he's had people from the royal house say, people who've been involved in things, they have said, wow, that's amazing, because that's pretty much how it went.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, really?

  • Matt Smith:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Have you two had any yourselves, any contact?

  • Claire Foy:

    No.

  • Matt Smith:

    Sadly, not.

  • Claire Foy:

    Sadly, not.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No?

  • Matt Smith:

    Sadly, not.

  • Claire Foy:

    We're just the vessels for the dialogue.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Matt Smith:

    Prince Philip doesn't text me anymore.

  • Claire Foy:

    Yes, he stopped. Cut off all ties of communication.

  • Matt Smith:

    I know.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Matt Smith:

    He was so appalled with my rendition of him that…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Claire Foy:

    No, I bet he loved it.

  • Matt Smith:

    No. Yes.

  • Claire Foy:

    No, he's watched every episode.

  • Matt Smith:

    I know. Can you imagine?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Claire Foy:

    He's watched it six times.

  • Matt Smith:

    I would love to meet Prince Philip.

  • Claire Foy:

    I know you would.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In fact, while the real queen and prince go on seemingly forever — she's 91, he 96 — the actors playing them will not.

    Two new actors have been tapped to play "The Crown's" middle-aged royals in coming seasons.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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