Elizabeth Debicki has mesmerized audiences with her eerie summoning of Princess Diana on The Crown’s fifth season, which charts the late royal’s messy breakup with Prince Charles and the royal family. “She precisely calibrates the elegant ennui of the public Diana—her familiar crooked-neck pose, her downward gaze so knowing and haunted while she talks in that mournful dove’s coo,” wrote Vanity Fair’s chief critic, Richard Lawson, in his review. “It was like watching a ghost, really,” said Diana biographer Andrew Morton, who secretly collaborated with the late princess on her bombshell tell-all 30 years ago, in an interview with Vanity Fair. The author added that he was “genuinely shaken” and “blown away by how she got every nuance of her character.”
Debicki herself is reluctant to reveal the source of her magic, at least while filming The Crown’s final season—which will chronicle Diana’s final days and tragic 1997 death. An avid researcher at heart, the Australian actor tells Vanity Fair that she happily dug into the many hours’ worth of available footage of the royal, studying the princess’s every movement and intonation. “There were a lot of light bulbs going off, but it’s funny talking about it because I’m still doing it,” she demurs during a rare break from filming. To articulate the process could unravel it. She will allow, however, that the Diana journey began with a somewhat awkward meeting with series creator Peter Morgan.
During an initial conversation with Morgan at his home, Debicki says, she instinctively grabbed a Diana book from the pile of tomes on his coffee table and held on to it so tightly that the creator told her at the end of the meeting, “You can keep that.” Even without the offer, laughs Debicki, “I was such a nervous wreck I probably would have walked out from his house with it.” When Debicki left the house, she opened the book—which she believes was Diana: Her True Story—and saw that the pages were covered with Morgan’s fastidious notes. “I turned back around, rang the door, and said, ‘Oh, no. You can have it. It’s fine.’ He said, ‘No, no. You take it.’” The interaction was so mortifying to her, she says, that “I thought I’d blown it.”
The Crown’s fourth season depicted Diana’s trajectory from innocent schoolteacher’s aide to fairy-tale bride to embittered young wife of a cheating husband, with Emma Corrin playing the part. When season five finds Debicki’s Diana, though, she is a woman coming into her own while navigating a nasty marital split, single motherhood, and the loneliness of her life as a one-in-a-billion public figure. If Debicki had a blueprint for her character’s arc this season, she says, it was “surviving something the best that she could manage it.” An early conversation with Morgan covered “the effect of public life…in relation to politicians. We had an interesting conversation about the tolls on mental health, how you can survive, and the effects it takes.”
Both Diana and Charles weaponize the media in the fifth season—with episodes depicting the royals sparring via bombshell interviews. Diana’s secret partnership with Morton and barn-burning Panorama interview, both of which were conducted inside Kensington Palace, were viewed by the royal family as absolute betrayals. Diana has been accused of being manipulative with the press, but Debicki saw the late princess’s tricky relationship with media as being a normal human impulse immensely magnified.
“Playing her in the show, I understood very much the desire to try to control what people think about you,” explains the actor. “It’s that thing that we all do in such a tiny way when you think, Oh, gosh, maybe [so-and-so] thinks this about me. You want to control the narrative that people have of you. When you have the entire world watching you, you want to have the reins on that narrative. It made a lot of sense to me.”
Debicki felt the complexity of Diana’s relationship with the press while wading through endless news segments featuring Diana and ping-ponging points of view. The actor calls it an “ebb and flow of with-her and against-her journalism that was very much happening in the ’90s. It was so vulgar. You feel so distinctly how poisonous it can be, in both directions. Something she said in the Panorama interview was, ‘The higher the media puts you, the bigger the drop.’ She says, ‘I was always aware of that.’ So she was incredibly savvy about how to use them.”