A Royal Appointment With Mr Matt Smith
The former <i>Doctor Who</i> star on playing Prince Philip in the Netflix smash <i>The Crown</i>.
We’re taking tea in the lobby lounge of The Greenwich Hotel in New York. The floppy-haired English actor Mr Matt Smith, until now best known for playing The Doctor in the long-running cult BBC TV series Doctor Who, is in town for a few days to attend New York Comic Con with his old Who-crew before filming starts on season two of The Crown, the rave-reviewed Netflix series on the British Royal Family, in which he plays Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
Mr Smith has got a hectic international shoot schedule for the next series. He will head to Australia – “Philip went to open the 1956 Olympics in Australia, grew a beard, had this five-month tour to Papa New Guinea, went crocodile hunting, and [did] loads of crazy shit!” – and then return to South Africa for the final part of his character’s royal world tour.
But, hopefully, this trip will be less of a real-life drama than the one Mr Smith experienced when filming the first season. “We went to South Africa and a guy pulled a gun on me,” says the 34-year-old. He was drinking with a fellow actor friend in a rough Cape Town bar. “This guy came up to us and said, ‘What are you looking at?’ We were drunk. We said, ‘Nothing, mate. No worries.’ He was like, ‘I'll fucking shoot you, bru!’ He had a gun! Really stupidly, we just went to the bar across the street. I don't know why we didn’t just leave altogether. He came up to the window, and went [tap, tap, tap], no word of a lie, he had a Crocodile Dundee knife in his hand. A bouncer came up and was like, ‘Get out of here!’”
With season one of this lavish production, Netflix has shifted its focus from the White House (with its phenomenally successful House Of Cards) to the House of Windsor, telling the meticulously researched inside story of the two most famous addresses in Britain: Buckingham Palace and 10 Downing Street. The Crown traces the lives of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip from their wedding in 1947 to the present day. Each 10-part season will cover a decade in their lives, with long-term plans for 60 episodes in total over six seasons. More than just a posh period soap opera to fill the void left by Downton Abbey, this is long-form television at its most ambitious – and expensively made with a global audience in mind.
In fact, the first season is said to have cost $100m, which would make it the most-costly TV show in history. “The way you measure the amount of money that’s on any film or television show is the amount of extras,” says Mr Smith “There were a lot of extras on this and I went, ‘Ah, that’s where the $100m went.’ But who knows how much it is – it’s all complete speculation.”
It perhaps takes a US-based production company – with the physical as well as regulatory detachment – to make a show like this. Netflix doesn’t feel it has to genuflect before the royal family – which is why King George VI can flagrantly drop the c-bomb in the first episode, and Prince Philip can drop his boxers. (The Duke used to sleep naked, apparently – who knew!) It is bound neither by Ofcom – the UK’s broadcasting standards – nor by any sycophancy of queen-and-country patriotism. “Absolutely right,” says Mr Smith. “You have to treat [the subject matter] with the right amount of reverence, but not too much reverence.”
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip were the ultimate celebrity power couple in their heyday. “They were Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie times a million,” says Mr Smith. “They’d go and get the train to Balmoral and 20,000 people would turn up.”
This, at least, is something with which Mr Smith can relate, to some extent. When he was first announced as the new Doctor Who, his personal life became subject to intense tabloid intrusion. This was magnified when dating model Ms Daisy Lowe. “Every single part of my life was affected,” he recalls. “You have to be hyper-aware, because [Doctor Who] is a children’s show ultimately, and you have to behave accordingly, I suppose. I went from being an actor doing theatre and stuff, to overnight being on the front page of every newspaper. There’s journalists going to my granddad’s house offering him £40,000 [for gossip]. Nothing can prepare you for that.”
Mr Smith’s current relationship with Downton Abbey actress Ms Lily James is regularly splashed over the British tabloids. The smiley 27-year-old perches on the arm of Mr Smith’s chair towards the end of this interview, and gently teases his answers.
The Windsors are well used to constant scrutiny. It is tempting, if borderline treasonous, to wonder if Her Majesty and His Royal Highness will curl up with the corgis to binge-watch this latest portrayal of their lives, as imagined once again by writer Mr Peter Morgan, who has previously chronicled the reigning monarch’s life in the film The Queen and the play The Audience. Just picture Liz and Phil doing “Netflix and chill”. “I don't know, it feels so right!” laughs Mr Smith. It would do wonders for the ratings if The Crown were to officially be given the royal seal of approval. “They’ll never give it because they’re too professional at protecting the royal seal,” says Mr Smith. “And protecting that means: don’t give a comment, don’t show emotion.”
I’m in love with Prince Philip now. I think he’s a rock star
Mr Smith grew up in a “normal, middle-class family” in Northampton, played football for Leicester City as a youth and was head boy at the local boys’ state school. He is well-spoken without being posh, polite without being mannered. He has yet to have an audience with the Duke, and cringes at the thought of it. He did, however, recently have a fleeting conversation with one of his grandchildren. “I met Prince William at an event and someone said, ‘Matt’s going to play Prince Philip.’ And I thought, ‘Oh God, no, no don’t say that. What’s he going to think? This is going to be awful.’ And he just went: ‘Legend.’”
The popular perception of Prince Philip is of an out-of-touch, irascible, mischievous misanthrope who has spent a charmed life pinballing around the world making faux pas. But Mr Smith portrays a much more sympathetic, nuanced and likeable character. “I’m in love with Prince Philip now. I think he’s a fucking rock star,” says Mr Smith. “Everyone just thinks he’s this guy that made a load of gaffes and has sort of compiled this book of really funny quotes, but, actually, he’s fascinating. He left Greece in an orange crate [when he was a baby] because the royal family was being overthrown by military. His playboy father ran off to Monaco with a mistress, his mother was committed to an asylum, so he was essentially orphaned. His favourite sister died pregnant in a plane crash… He’s a man who was born into a really difficult situation in many respects, which is why, I think, there is that wit and candour and acerbic-ness to him.”
Prince Philip’s gaffe tape makes for quite astonishing anecdotes. So infamous is he for his litany of off-colour, off-message remarks on royal visits down the years, he has been dubbed “the duke of hazard”. “He’s quite a liberating character to play because, in the royal family, he gets to speak his mind and no one else does,” says Mr Smith. “Everyone else is bound by this sort of strange protocol.”
So having studied his life, what is Mr Smith’s all-time favourite Prince Philip clanger? “Oh God, there’s so many. But they’re very vanilla compared to the stuff Donald Trump comes out with,” he says.
The Crown is on Netflix now