Star quality: It’s that ineffable trait that makes an actor pop off the screen. When a performer has it, you become entirely absorbed by the characters they play, the scenes they seem to so effortlessly inhabit. Anyone who’s witnessed actor Elizabeth Debicki’s astonishing work as Diana, Princess of Wales in The Crown knows that the Australian actor has star quality in spades.
Taking over the role from Emma Corrin, Debicki brings a more mature Diana to the fifth season of creator Peter Morgan’s prestige drama, which unfolds during the early 1990s. It’s a period when Diana is attempting to chart a new and more independent course for her life, but every effort she makes to have her voice heard — whether cooperating on a covert biography or granting a candid interview to the unscrupulous Martin Bashir (Prasanna Puwanarajah) — only brings more intense scrutiny. The public spotlight is unrelenting.
Portraying one of the twentieth century’s most iconic women, Debicki understood that her performance would be carefully examined. “It’s an enormous amount of pressure as an actor,” she says, “because you don’t usually have to play [a role] that someone else has just played so excellently. Then, of course, there’s the responsibility that you feel to do this person’s legacy justice. They’re two quite different pressures, but they both work in tandem when you start doing this job. That was, at times, pretty overwhelming.”
Fortunately, Debicki isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. She came to The Crown after delivering a decade of impressive performances dating back to her breakthrough in 2013’s The Great Gatsby. Notable turns in television (The Night Manager) and film (Widows, Tenet) followed, showcasing her versatility and range. “You have to sift through what Diana’s become — because people need her to become a certain representation or symbol — to get to the real-life person,” says Debicki of how she began to practically approach the creative challenge that lay ahead of her.
Debicki shared with Queue her personal recollections of the former Princess of Wales, the experience of inhabiting Diana’s psyche for so long, and how one well-timed glass of champagne helped launch her career.
Krista Smith: I first saw you in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, playing Jordan Baker, the incredibly chic professional golfer. Your co-stars were Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire, and you were the discovery in that film.
Elizabeth Debicki: I was out of drama school for, I think, two months when I got to do a screen test for Gatsby. I was in Melbourne where I’d just finished school. I went to [an] almost religiously theater-based training school. The methodology was very physical, lots of clowning, lots of Shakespeare and Chekhov. We were told very clearly, “You are lucky if you get a job, period, and it will only be in theater,” which is what I was aspiring to at the time. So, I didn’t know how to do a screen test. I went in there, and I was nervous as hell. There was a camera and a lovely reader who read very, very quickly, which made me drop my lines. I mean, I felt like I did it 12 times. I probably did it four times. Somehow, that [audition] tape magically found its way into Baz’s [hands]. I honestly don’t even know how you get Baz to sit down, so it was incredible that he sat and watched it. And then they flew me to L.A., and I did a screen test with Tobey at the Chateau [Marmont], which was one of the strangest and most memorable experiences of my life.
I’d never been to L.A. before. Tobey and I read the scene, Baz is filming us, and my hair’s in this fake little bob. We staged the whole thing. We go around the table, and we sit on the couch. He’s just following us like a puppy dog with this camera. Then we go to the bedroom and there’s another scene. I’m lounging around on the bed, and I’m just talking the whole time. I have no idea what accent I was doing. It went for about an hour and a half. The entire time I thought, I literally have nothing to lose. It was an incredibly freeing thing because I thought, I’m probably never going to see these people ever again. I went downstairs, and I remember thinking, We’ve got two hours or something until I have to leave for the airport. I’ll have a glass of champagne in the sunshine. I think I was 20 at the time. Is that legal? [More at Source]