‘Like Philip, I wouldn’t want to kneel to my wife ... I get defensive over him nowadays’
Former Doctor Who star Matt Smith tells James Mottram about playing the Duke of Edinburgh in the second season of Netflix’s The Crown
Matt Smith ever so politely interrupts his flow to tip a china pot towards his cup and says: “Excuse me while I pour tea and speak.” Dressed in black jeans, boots and a thick woolly jumper, his hair impeccably swept back, he sounds awfully regal. Perhaps two years of playing Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on Peter Morgan’s Netflix show The Crown has gradually begun to seep in.
It would be hard not to. Last night was the premiere and today the stars — including two corgis — have gathered at London’s Corinthia Hotel to promote the second season, which is available now.
For the 35-year-old Smith, it’s been a fine addition to an already eclectic CV that’s seen him jump from playing Doctor Who to a muscular madman in Ryan Gosling’s movie Lost River to Brett Easton Ellis’s serial killer Patrick Bateman in the musical adaptation of American Psycho at London’s Almeida Theatre. If the latter “put the clappers up me”, Prince Philip was just as frightening. It was his “alpha maleness” that Smith responded to. “That conflict that’s in him,” he explains. “I thought, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t want to kneel to my wife!’ I wanted to fight that battle. I get quite defensive over him nowadays.”
With Morgan once again the creative driving force, this follow-up to the Golden Globe-winning first season spans 1956 to 1964, with the focus in the early episodes very much on marital difficulties between Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Smith’s Philip. Even before the trailer dropped in August, Morgan hinted at a panel event that this season would tackle rumours of the duke’s infidelities, noting: “Doesn’t everyone in Britain know he had an affair?”
Various books in the past have dug into the duke’s alleged trysts with stage actress Pat Kirkwood and TV presenter Katie Boyle, among others, although The Crown prefers to make what Smith calls “subtle allusions” in scenes where the Prince is on his four-month Commonwealth tour in 1956 without the Queen or their children.
These include Philip’s private secretary writing a letter in the second episode detailing the widespread “infidelity” of the tour.
But as Smith points out, it’s careful in what it shows: “I don’t believe we did see him philander.”
It’s all rather awkward timing, given the Queen and Prince Philip just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, but Smith praises Morgan for his bravery. “I think he’s looking at this family in an unapologetic way,” he says. “They are the Royal Family, but they are fallible like any other family, and he (Philip) is a human being. He has or has not made mistakes in the past. I don’t think we’re ever gratuitous or salacious or explicit about those things. I made a choice about it as a character, and I’m intrigued to see the choice that people make as an audience.”
What The Crown certainly continues to do is humanise the Windsors. One brief scene sees Philip return to the royal boudoir, tipsy, kicking his shoes off, before making advances towards Her Majesty on the bed (the scene cuts before anything scandalous is shown). “That’s the thing, isn’t it?” says Smith. “As members of the public, we think ‘Well, the Royal Family don’t do that (have sex)!’ But they eat, breathe and sleep like the rest of us. They are royal but they are a family like anyone else.”
His early memories of Philip (who, according to sources, has not seen The Crown) were watching his puppet on the satirical show Spitting Image. “But when you delve into Philip and you study him, he’s a very interesting, funny and intelligent man.”
He compares him to Doctor Who — both are aliens in their own way, outsider-rebels who “never ask permission”.
Season two explores further his past, particularly in the penultimate episode. “He’s lived through great tragedy. He was essentially orphaned, sent to live with his uncle. He’s had quite a tough early life,” says Smith.
With next year’s third season due to move on a couple of decades, Smith, Foy and Vanessa Kirby, who plays Princess Margaret, will not return. But Smith can’t wait to see what Morgan does. “You’ve got Thatcher to come, you’ve got Diana and Charles,” he explains. “I think he will approach Diana from a really interesting place. You’ve got Blair, you’ve got Iraq. And then you’ve got Bush, you’ve got Clinton. There are so many great characters that come through it. Essentially, it will bring us right up to the modern world.”
While Olivia Colman has been announced as Foy’s replacement, Smith’s has yet to be revealed (“I’ve heard a whiff and a rumour,” he teases). But he has already moved on, recently finishing a movie about Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer known for his controversial black-and-white images including erotica and male nudes.
Born and raised in Northampton, where he first started acting after a serious back injury ruined his early dreams of becoming a professional footballer, Smith is clearly not afraid of a challenge. Every role he wants to feel “difficult”, he says. “It’s never an easy thing; I’m not coming home going, ‘I love it so much’. It’s always ... it’s a battle for me. When it feels uncomfortable creatively in the not understanding and not knowing and feeling slightly unnerved, often that’s when you’re at your best. The best season I did of Doctor Who was the first one when I felt the most unsure.”
Smith was just 26 when he became the 11th Time Lord, the youngest ever to play the role, and his casting was not exactly met with enthusiasm. “Before I’d spoken a word, I’d walk down the street and people would shout things at me — ‘Don’t break Doctor Who!’ It was tough. It was a difficult time.”
He sympathises with the incoming Jodie Whittaker, the first female Doctor Who, who faced similar hostility on social media. He calls hers a “brilliant bit of casting”, then smiles. “I’m intrigued to see what are the Daleks going to do with her.”
The second season of The Crown is available on Netflix now