So far, Emma is famous for being nearly famous. As soon as the cast was announced in March last year, the paparazzi started to pursue her around London, an unpleasant echo of Diana’s treatment. A team was assembled to steer Emma through the rapids of oncoming fame and, in a fashion anointing, she wore a plunging cobalt-blue gown by Oscar de la Renta on the cover of October’s UK Vogue.
No wonder her excitement is overlaid with caution. “It’s a lot of new experiences in a short time. You have to be very good at setting boundaries, so you’re not taken advantage of.”
Having feasted on all 10 episodes, I can say that Emma is as convincing a Diana as another human being could be. It’s not just a matter of the sidelong look or the voice or the glamour, but the dramatic truth of a divided personality that she gets so well.
On their 1983 tour of Australia, where Diana is mobbed by adoring crowds, she confronts Charles with his neglect of her and his lingering attachment to Camilla. Emma captures exactly the trademark vulnerability and steel.
“Where do I fit in?” she demands. “You can’t leave her alone.” To those of us who lived through the crowded Diana years, when almost every day’s press traded on her loveliness and her pain, it is like being confronted with the late princess’s living embodiment. Shivery stuff.
“As well as having the innocence and beauty of a young Diana,” said creator Peter Morgan when he announced the cast in April, “she also has, in abundance, the range and complexity to play an extraordinary woman who went from anonymous teenager to the most iconic woman of her generation.”
It was no hype. “She’s a total natural on set,” says her dialect coach William Conacher. “Sometimes it was hard to believe she hasn’t been acting for the camera for decades. One of the first things Emma told me was that her mother is very like Diana. So much so that after Diana’s death, people used to do a double-take when they saw her. Emma was made to play Diana.”
The Crown, an addictive soap opera that opened with Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947, has been with us since 2016. Series four covers the turbulent decade from 1979 when Margaret Thatcher (a brilliant Gillian Anderson) reaches Number 10. Lord Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin, is murdered on his boat by the IRA, Princess Anne’s marriage collapses, Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace and sits on the Queen’s bed – and a shy, upper-class girl of 19, a virginal kindergarten teacher, appears from nowhere as the answer to the 33-year-old Prince of Wales’s urgent marriage problem.
We were all – press and public, Church and state – taken in by the superficial magic of Charles and Diana’s story, despite the almost perfunctory nature of their courtship. We colluded in the fairy tale.
The country was in a state of political and social unrest, unemployment was high. I was one of a small detachment of journalists sent to Gibraltar to cover the first leg of the royal honeymoon in August 1981. We had no suspicion that the couple on the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia, looking carefree, were already heading for the marital rocks. Girlish in a flower-sprigged dress, she looked far too young to be embarking on this voyage, but we assumed that the man at her side, almost 13 years her senior, would be her protector.
“I don’t think it was intentionally an arranged marriage,” says Emma. “That sounds too calculated. But through expectation, tradition and a need for Prince Charles to get married to the ‘right’ person, she came along and was, yeah, pretty perfect.”
In The Crown, Diana discovers before the wedding that Charles is still in love with Camilla Parker Bowles and tries to call the Queen to say the marriage cannot go ahead. The range of panic, disbelief and suppressed anger that Emma lays bare is startling.
“When I read Peter’s script,” she says, “I wanted to shout, ‘Why aren’t you leaving? Why don’t you go? Why don’t you get out?’ ”
Though Emma says doing publicity makes her nervous, she has modelled for our cover shoot with professional aplomb. Her grey-green eyes are steady and her features – rounder and more classically symmetrical than Diana’s – are composed. There is nothing particularly Diana-ish about her, except her height, but when she demonstrates her “hook word” for catching Diana’s light, girlish voice – “Awright, awright” – there’s a jolt of recognition. That tinselly final consonant is uncanny.
Emma’s rightness for the part was notched up in tiny increments over many months. In the summer of 2018 she had just left Cambridge University and was “auditioning relentlessly” while trying to earn some money.
She’d had two small television roles – in the US drama Pennyworth and in an episode of Grantchester – and had a small part in the film Misbehaviour, about a group of 1970s feminists who disrupt the Miss World contest.
She was working in a start-up, packaging lingerie, when her agent Maya Hambro rang. “Don’t freak out,”‘ she said. “It’s not hugely exciting, but it’s a great opportunity.”
The Crown was auditioning five potential Camillas for season three and wanted someone to “read in” for Diana, alongside Josh O’Connor, playing Prince Charles. “It’s paid,” Hambro added, “and you’ll be off-camera, but the room will be full of producers, directors and casting people.”
Emma learnt the lines, devoured countless books and documentaries about Diana, and took a deep breath. “It was kind of perfect for me, very much starting out, to be in an audition, but under no pressure.”
During a lunch break, one of the directors took her aside and asked if she would like to do more work on the character. “Can we put you on tape as well?” he asked. “Don’t get your hopes up, Emma,” Hambro warned. “It wasn’t an audition.”
But there were pointers. “I had some meetings. They called to check a few times to see what work I was doing. Little things. Then the public casting started and they invited me to audition.”
Hundreds of girls were seen for the role. Emma’s audition lasted for two hours and at the end of it she told a friend: “If this goes no further, it’s been the best time of my life.”
Emma believes her impromptu rendering of All I Ask of You, from the musical The Phantom of the Opera, helped to clinch it. As an ill-judged seventh anniversary present to the Prince of Wales, Diana arranged to have herself filmed on the West End stage, performing the song in costume with the orchestra.
“Can you sing it now?” Morgan asked. Robert Sterne, the casting director, called up the karaoke version on YouTube. He took the male part and Emma sang the female part.
“I thought, ‘My god, what am I doing?’ ” she recalls. “I hadn’t sung it in ages. I hadn’t warmed up. I was slightly flying by the seat of my pants, feeling absolutely mortified. They’ve since told me that it was the fact that I was so willing to do it that shocked them. They didn’t think I would.”
There was a further audition when she was summoned for a chemistry read with Josh O’Connor, but it sounds like a formality. Moments after arriving, the costume department were taking her measurements. The director, Ben Caron, offered her the role then and there, on set.
“After that long process, it was the most wonderful way for it to end,” says Emma. “I had the most intense rush of feelings I’ve ever experienced.”
Though she had vowed not to say anything about being offered the role of Diana, she went straight to her family home to tell her parents – Juliette, a speech therapist, and Chris, a businessman. Perhaps because of her South African mother’s resemblance to the princess, Emma had always
been fascinated by Diana, and was an avid follower of The Crown.
The show’s research department produced a huge lever-arch file of everything she needed to know, episode by episode. And she watched the 2017 documentary Diana: In Her Own Words obsessively. “It helped me get a grip on her voice and the way she reflected on what happened to her.
“It was very useful to hear her talk about the massive shift from being in Earl’s Court with her flatmates to the isolation of Palace life. I don’t like using the word naive about her – it does her an injustice – but it was so different from how she’d imagined. She’s in a kind of dream, waiting for someone to care that she’s there.”
Another route to getting into character was being fitted for both the wedding dress and a black satin gown inspired by the one Diana wore to her first official public engagement with Prince Charles – the moment when she is transformed from shy preschool teacher to movie-star celebrity.
“When you first meet her she’s wearing rather frumpy skirts,” says Emma. “But later you can tell that the clothes she wears help her to stand up and feel that she has a voice.”
Despite all her research, Emma likes to remind herself, and me, that The Crown is a writer’s take on the Royal family, based on key characters and events. But now the series has shifted closer to the present, she’s aware of the sensibilities of the people portrayed.
“We can say as much as we like that it’s Peter Morgan’s version, it’s fictitious,” says Emma. “But actually, you know, it is Diana, she’s real: an exceptional person who had an exceptional effect on many people.”
“I don’t like using the word naive about her – it does her an injustice – but it was so different from how she’d imagined. She’s in a kind of dream.”
She can “totally imagine” that Princes William and Harry would prefer not to see their mother’s life on screen. “I felt overwhelming frustration at the speculation about Diana when I was doing the research. If I’m feeling that, how much more tired the family must be about the endless commentary from people who feel like they own her.”
Prince Harry, in particular, is said to be upset by the inclusion of his mother’s bulimia, something Emma insisted on doing “properly” – that is, showing Diana at her most desolate, bingeing and then making herself sick.
“This kind of thing couldn’t just be alluded to,” she explains. “It’s something I don’t want to shy away from. The people [who suffer from the condition] are being done a disservice if it’s not shown. I really wanted to get to grips with it.”
Emma worked with the charity Beat, an eating-disorder support group. “For the Diana of the series, the Diana we’re creating, it was a response to her loneliness, a way of controlling something when she felt she couldn’t control any other thing; a purging, a secret she could carry around with her. She had this thing that almost became a friend, that she could rely on.”
Through total immersion in the Princess’s life, Emma says Diana has become like a companion to her, but there are still things she doesn’t understand. Sacrificial lamb or an agent of her own unhappiness? “None of us is perfect,” she says carefully, “placed in extreme circumstances, as she was.”
Emma would like to have met Diana. “I’d want to ask her what it really felt like, because that’s the only thing I can’t ever know. I have all the factual information, but it doesn’t tell me what she actually felt leaving the innermost circle of royalty, whether she found personal happiness.”
What makes Emma exceptional, I think, is that she actually cares.
The Crown Season 4 launches globally on Sunday, November 15, on Netflix.
The Telegraph Magazine (UK)
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale November 8. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.