World·Royal Fascinator

Why did Diana do what she did? Actor Emma Corrin looks for answers as she takes on iconic role in The Crown

For actor Emma Corrin, preparing to take on the role of Diana, Princess of Wales, for Season 4 of The Crown was a daunting prospect, and something of a lesson in trying to determine the psychology behind events in the life of an iconic, high-profile member of the Royal Family.

Preparing to portray Princess of Wales in Netflix drama was daunting prospect for actor

Actor Emma Corrin plays Diana, Princess of Wales, in Season 4 of The Crown. (Des Willie/Netflix)

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For Emma Corrin, preparing to take on the role of Diana, Princess of Wales, in The Crown was something of a psychology lesson.

The 24-year-old actor assumed the part knowing full well those watching her arrival next month in Season 4 of the Netflix drama will already have well-established impressions of a member of the Royal Family who grew from "Shy Di" to one of the most photographed celebrities and fashion icons of recent times.

Those existing impressions made assuming the role "incredibly daunting," Corrin said in an interview from London.

It helped once she got the script and saw the story. But there was also considerable work with a coach on "understanding the psychology behind a lot of what was happening." 

And a lot of what was happening to Diana was "incredibly unnatural and quite intense," Corrin said.

At the age of 19, Diana Spencer moved from an apartment she shared with friends in West London into Buckingham Palace after her engagement to Prince Charles, the heir to the throne and a man 13 years her senior. 

The Crown's costume designer wanted to create something that wasn’t an exact replica of Diana’s original wedding dress but which captured the same spirit and style of David and Elizabeth Emanuel’s design. (Des Willie/Netflix)

Diana thought "it was going to be the best event of her life and that they were going to live happily ever after, but then [she discovered] he was with another woman," Corrin said.

Along with that, there was the pressure that comes from being a royal in the public eye. 

"All of these are very extraordinary circumstances, really, for someone to be operating in," said Corrin. "These things that she was exposed to come with a whole lot of pressures that affect someone's mentality, and that was really interesting."

Even so, there are still all those impressions viewers will have before they catch their first glimpse of Diana when the new season of The Crown starts streaming on Nov. 15. And what if Corrin's portrayal doesn't match those impressions? Does that matter in trying to create a successful portrayal of such a well-known person?

Not necessarily.

"If you talk to actors who have to play a real person ... especially somebody that is so world famous and familiar as Diana — [the challenge comes] because audiences are expecting that actress to look and sound just like the real thing," said Bill Brioux, a longtime television columnist and commentator.

He looks no further than the actor holding the central role on The Crown for Seasons 3 and 4 as an example of overcoming that challenge.

Olivia Colman portrays Queen Elizabeth in Seasons 3 and 4 of The Crown. (Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix via AP)

"I think Olivia Colman [as Queen Elizabeth] has shown that you don't have to be a carbon copy, that you might capture a nuance or an essence of someone," Brioux said. "Certainly, Colman spent a lot of The Crown looking surprised and perplexed, you know, aghast at times." 

And we certainly aren't used to seeing the Queen looking that way in public.

"So I think it will be interesting to see how Diana is received," Brioux said.

As she prepared for the role, Corrin said she became overwhelmed "by the amount of factual information out there about her and also … the thought that I would be portraying someone so well-known."

Corrin said she "started work on her mannerisms and her behaviour and figuring out why she did the things she did or what she would feel about certain situations that I was going to be acting. "

Emma Corrin attends Paris Fashion Week on March 3, 2020. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Corrin also spoke to Patrick Jephson, Diana's private secretary. "He knew her very well and was able to provide a lot of insight, which was wonderful."

With Diana, Brioux suggested, there may be more pressure on an actor than if the portrayal was of a person not so well-known.

"People all have their own expectations of Diana in their minds," he said. "You're going to disappoint a lot of people no matter what you do, so hat's off to this actress for taking it on. 

"I think that there's potential, though, if you come close, to get a lot of rave reviews because everyone knows the subject and that's how they'll judge it."

  • For more on Corrin's experiences preparing for the role, click here.

A rare day out for the Queen — and no mask

Queen Elizabeth views a demonstration of a forensic explosives investigation during a visit to the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down science park on Oct. 15, 2020, near Salisbury, England. (Ben Stansall/Getty Images)

Royal visits can typically give the royal guest the opportunity to see some cutting-edge technology or to meet individuals being recognized for their work or volunteer efforts in helping others in their community.

But Queen Elizabeth's first major public engagement since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March offered more than a chance for her to visit a new defence research centre west of London and check out the latest in explosives detection.

The visit to Porton Down, where scientists are also helping in the response to the pandemic, seemed designed to offer a larger symbolism.

"I think it was a really important message for her to send that even though … we've been in lockdown and we're facing new restrictions, the Queen was still able to meet people involved in the COVID response," Roya Nikkhah, a royal correspondent for the Sunday Times newspaper, told the CBC's Renee Filippone.

Still, the visit, which the 94-year-old carried out alongside her grandson, Prince William, sparked questions — and criticism — because neither of them was wearing a mask at a time when Britons must wear face coverings in stores and other indoor spaces.

WATCH | Queen Elizabeth makes her first public appearance since the pandemic hit:

Queen makes first public appearance since pandemic started

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
The Queen attended her first public engagement since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic at a military lab. Royal watchers say it’s unlikely the Queen will be taking part in more public events anytime soon.

Those involved in the visit were physically distanced, and Buckingham Palace said safety protocols were followed. Reuters reported that staff at the research centre had been tested for COVID-19 before the visit.

"Every precaution that could be taken was taken," said Nikkhah. "That's why the Queen didn't have to wear a mask."

Royal author Robert Jobson told the Daily Mail that Elizabeth was sending a "message of confidence to the people."

"She's going back to work, she'll go about her business in the usual way, but without taking chances. She is reassuring the public that things must go on as normal, wherever it is safe to do so."

The Queen has spent much of the time since the pandemic stuck in isolation at Windsor Castle, considered to be her favourite residence. She has returned there recently after spending a few weeks with Prince Philip at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, and a shorter period on her Sandringham estate northeast of London.

Throughout the pandemic, Elizabeth has conducted official duties via video or over the phone, and made two appearances within the walls of Windsor Castle — one for a considerably scaled-down recognition of her official birthday in June, and one to bestow a knighthood on Capt. Tom Moore, a 100-year-old honoured for his charity fundraising.

Still, it's unlikely there will be many other outings like her trip to Porton Down anytime soon.

"I think [it] was probably a bit of a one-off," Nikkhah said. "I don't think we'll be seeing a lot more of her on public engagements." 

 A new portrait for Canada

Canada's new official portrait of Queen Elizabeth was taken by royal photographer Chris Jackson at Windsor Castle in March 2019. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images/Government of Canada)

There is also considerable symbolism on display in Queen Elizabeth's new official Canadian portrait.

While the portrait is new to the public, the photo itself was taken more than a year ago, in March 2019 at Windsor Castle, by royal photographer Chris Jackson. He shared it on social media late last week. 

In the portrait, the Queen is wearing her Canadian insignia as sovereign of the Order of Canada, Jackson said, along with the Order of Military Merit.

The diamond and blue sapphire necklace and earrings she is wearing were a wedding day gift from her father, King George VI, in November 1947, and were worn during her five-day trip to Canada in 1990.

Jackson said on Instagram that it was an "incredible honour" to have the opportunity to photograph the Queen for the portrait.

"I've been lucky enough to have visited Canada many times now with members of the Royal Family and have the fondest memories of the people I've met."

Royals in Canada

Diana, Princess of Wales, chats with Wayne Taylor at Casey House AIDS hospice in Toronto on Oct. 26, 1991. (Hans Deryk/The Canadian Press)

When Charles and Diana came to Canada in late October 1991, it was the last trip they made to the country together. And in ways it was two visits in one for the couple, whose collapsing marriage was under intense media scrutiny at the time, as they went their separate ways for much of the seven-day sojourn.

One stop for Diana in Toronto took her to Casey House, a hospice for people who have AIDS.

"Diana had just begun to venture into the issue of AIDS, then repellent to much of society, but it was still surprising that she chose to see a hospice full of very ill people rather than some less harrowing AIDS setting," Casey House founder June Callwood wrote in Maclean's magazine after Diana's death in 1997.

Callwood had a mixed view of Diana, but that visit to Casey House, where she sat and visited with hospice residents, left a lasting impression.

Diana "wanted nothing less than to change the world for the better," Callwood wrote. "And perhaps she did. On that lovely afternoon … she made everyone at a small AIDS hospice in Toronto feel worthwhile. That's quite a gift."

  • Our friends at CBC Archives have taken a closer look at the 1991 visit, which was also the first time both William and Harry went with their parents on a foreign trip. 

Diana, Princess of Wales, and Prince Charles wave goodbye in Sudbury, Ont., on Oct. 24, 1991. (Bill Becker/The Canadian Press)

Royally quotable

"My family and I knew nothing about it and were at a loss to know how we could help alleviate the terrible pain she suffered."   

— Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, reflects on her mother's death from osteoporosis 26 years ago, and went on this week to note the "huge strides" made since then in treatment and research into the disease.

Royal reads

  1. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, says she avoids speaking about controversial topics in an attempt to ensure she doesn't put her family at risk. She also says she's been told that in 2019, she was the "most trolled person in the entire world." [BBC, The Guardian]

  2. More than 60 years after Queen Elizabeth gave a pair of swans to a city in Florida, it has sold off three dozen of their descendents in a bid to ease a crisis in overpopulation of the birds. [The Independent]

  3. Thirty years after Diana laid a ceremonial foundation stone for a cancer hospital, her son William did the same. [The Daily Mail]

  4. Dutch King Willem-Alexander says he regrets going to Greece for a holiday after he and his family were criticized for taking a trip during the pandemic. [BBC]

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Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.

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