Few series have attained the international acclaim enjoyed by “The Crown.” Audiences have watched Queen Elizabeth II grow into a monarch, as prime ministers cycle through her reign and the royal family weathers the storms of inner turmoil and devotion to country. Season 3 debuted an all-new cast of family members who were slightly older than the actors in Seasons 1 and 2, and Season 4 added two very highly anticipated historical figures to the mix: Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin as Princess Diana. Robert Sterne, along with partner Nina Gold, has been populating the royal world on “The Crown” since the very beginning, pulling from his vast experience casting high-profile projects. He shared his process and advice with Backstage.
What does the casting process look like now that you’ve experienced the cast turnover?
Getting the new people in is getting people using qualities that are complementary to who did the role before. The amazing thing about Claire Foy and what Olivia Colman did as well, is that the thing about the Queen is that nobody has any sense of what she’s really like behind closed doors. What I have done, is think about the Queen as an actor who can play an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. What they haven’t done in “The Crown,” all the way through, is to make her very grand and regal. It’s been very much to do with family relationships and a woman who was growing up in one way and suddenly found herself projected and launched into a very different life that she didn’t expect and that her family didn’t expect, and how they dealt with it. That quality seems to be the thing that stitches them together in terms of the kinds of actors that we get.
How do you cast people based on such well known characters that are fictionalized for the show?
There are all kinds of famous people in it. You only know them from their public personas. And what all the actors have got to do when playing characters who are well known, is work out the difference between what they’re like when they’re standing on a podium doing their speeches that we all see, and then what they’re like behind closed doors. These choices are really interesting for the actors to play. You need actors who will make real decisions about what they’re like behind closed doors and run with that. That’s why we don’t go for impersonation. If you get people who are doing impersonations, it’s the public persona that we see. The way the Queen speaks when she is opening something or doing some speech, you need to be really clear about what’s going on, behind all of that, which did make it pretty interesting and very much to do with finding people who can really make a connection with their character. You’re never quite sure which actor is going to make which connection with the characters. That reveals itself as they’re introduced to the material. Some actors just completely run with it; they find a way of making their characters three-dimensional in the way that the writing demands.
What research goes into the casting process?
Now, because we’ve had years of video, and there’s a massive research team that is working all around the globe, they’ve got incredible resources. We’re sent loads of pictures of each of the characters at the time that they’re appearing in the show. We have interviews with them, any footage of them. We have a whole team of people who can provide a whole load of information about each of these characters, even down to any living character. You get a whole load of information that you take and do with what you will. Lots and lots of information available for these famous people.
Does knowing what parts of the story are coming affect who you end up choosing for a role if you might want to save an actor for a part in a later season?
I think you’ve got to do it by who’s the best get at that time and go for it. It’s quite tempting because there might be something further down the line, I suppose. We’ve always had in our head some of the key characters that will be appearing in some shape or form. You do have it swirling around in your mind that you’re going to have to find in a couple of years somebody to play these characters. But I do think that genuinely you should go with what you’ve got at the time and get the best possible one.
Talk about the casting process for Princess Diana in Season 4.
We knew it was going to be a massive casting, and it was going to be a big deal finding somebody to play Diana. We’ve been looking forward to it. With Diana Season 4, the thing was, we weren’t looking for that kind of iconic Diana in her 30s at that superstar stage. We needed to find the girl who could be the kindergarten teacher, who’s 16 or 17, and then grows into finding herself launched into that extraordinary set of circumstances. We were looking for somebody who could play it out, which again, was really exciting, because she was so young, and she would have to play so young. We didn’t have to necessarily find a name for it, although we could have done, but it was really exploring who could play that girl at that stage in her life. She had to go on quite the journey. To start off with, the schoolgirl and then you had to get to the fireworks towards the end of the season when there were the problems of her marriage and the stress and strain that she was under at that stage. We knew it was an amazing part.
Can you recount the story of meeting Emmy Corrin as a reader for Season 3 before she was a candidate for the role of Diana?
She was the first person to ever read those lines out in a room with me, but we were auditioning for Camilla (ultimately played by Emerald Fennell) for the previous season. Part of the audition process for Camilla, Peter [Morgan] said, “There’s a really big scene. We’re not doing it this season, but it’s going to be next season.” It was the important scene where there’s a lunch between Camilla and Diana. Peter said, “Although we’re not going to be doing it this season. Let’s use that in the audition.” I usually read everybody’s auditions, but I thought, It’s not going to be great having me reading as Diana opposite the people who were doing that final round, so let’s get somebody into reading the part. We weren’t casting Diana and we weren’t thinking about doing it. We were thinking purely about Camilla at that point. Emma came in, there were lots of people in the room for this final round, and everybody was just looking at the person reading Diana and not looking at the person auditioning. She came back up when we were doing our search for Diana and she was just terrific.
What makes this project unique for you to cast?
You have to redo it and redo it, which you never have to do on any other project. That is a really exciting challenge. The thing that was fascinating from a casting point of view for this show was that we were always going to have a new cast every two years. That’s what’s been a really interesting thing about working on this in particular is working out how to do that. It’s not just one character, you’ve got to put an entire dynamic and family together, again, from scratch, having achieved whatever has been achieved by the last set. You’ve got to bear in mind the real people, but whether the performances lead on from each other, and making connections between them to try and have the identity of very famous characters at different points in their lives. And then you’ve got to do it again and see if you can see put this kind of chemistry together between people. It’s really good fun and a unique challenge.
How do you bring your experience as a performer to your work as a casting director?
You’ve got to be open to whatever the actor wants to bring in. The whole process of auditioning, there’s no relation to when you’re actually doing the job. When you’re doing the job, you’ve had your preparation, you’re doing it with an actor, it’s so much to do with what happens between people and the chemistry you get from the other actor coming back at you kind of informs what decisions you make. You’re going into a completely false environment where you’ve got a camera pointing straight at you, you haven’t got another actor opposite you, and you’re kind of under a microscope. You have to do it, it’s part of the process, but it doesn’t bear much relation to what acting is about at its finest and free. I try and be as open as possible. At the same time, you’ve got to feel that they’re going to be brave in terms of offering up something that you have to accept and respond in kind. It’s about facilitating people to do what they need to do in that situation. I think having been on the other side of it really does help that. I just know what they’re going through.
What advice do you have for actors from the point of view of a casting director?
I think that you have to remember that when you go in the room, it’s your time and it’s your opportunity to do what you need to do. You know that the people at the other side of the room should be there to facilitate you to do the best work that you can in those conditions. Make sure that you get the opportunity to say what you want to say about it, to ask the questions that you want to ask about it. Give the performance in the room that you want to. Then you’ve got to have the confidence to say, “I want to go again and try it this way. Because this is what I want to do with this scene. And this is what I want to achieve with it.” Just make sure that you own that time.
Where do you look for new talent?
For Diana, she was supposed to be 16 or 17, we did a lot of schools and sixth form colleges and drama groups, areas that were not from professional agencies. We look all over the place. Sometimes for journalists on the ground, we look at real journalists rather than necessarily having actors do it. One particular bit on “The Crown,” which I really enjoyed was the episode about the Queen and Margaret’s cousins who have got learning difficulties. We decided very early on that we were going to go and find performers with learning difficulties, and those didn’t come from agencies. We did a lot of hunting around the country for people with learning difficulties who would enjoy doing drama or enjoy doing plays. It’s brilliant looking in unexpected places; you find unexpected and exciting things.
What makes you remember an actor for a future role or audition process?
All the time people come in and they’re brilliant, they’re just not right for that particular part. You start building up your relationship with their performances over a period of time and you bring them in, and you think, There’s something about you. And then we’ll try again. You have to work out what is the best part for them and try and make that happen. The things that really stand out are when actors have a real concentration that’s focused on what they’re doing and making decisions that they’ve really thought through in the scenes about how they’re going to play those scenes. That is the thing that stands out. If people really do focus, and there’s a quality of concentration, of really thinking through why you’re doing your lines the way you’re doing it and making decisions. And then being able to discuss them and back up why you made those decisions is always pretty compelling.
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