In big-picture terms, Season 2 of “The Crown” – which begins streaming Friday on Netflix – opens as a military crisis rapidly escalates around the Suez Canal.
The very first scene in the season premiere, however, is more intimate: an uncomfortable confrontation between Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) and Prince Philip (Matt Smith), immediately following his five-month absence on a 1956 royal tour.
Their manner is hostile, the dialogue chilly and formal, as the pair assess a marriage that seems to be irreparably broken. Divorce is out of the question, but things cannot continue as they are.
“Philip was sent away very much against his will,” Smith says of his character. “We pick things up immediately after that, then start to explore the difficulties in their marriage that are caused by that distance. They definitely go through a period that's very rocky. I think any couple would find dealing with that kind of separation very challenging.”
While Philip is the villain in such scenes to some “Crown” fans, both Smith and writer-creator Peter Morgan have taken pains to show why Philip is so hurt and bitter about how his marriage to the queen has turned out. Smith says playing the role has dramatically changed how he views the real-life Philip.
“Astronomically, actually,” he says. “Partly because I've learned so much more about him and his life, of course, but also on a personal level. One of the great virtues of the show for me is that I learn about these little pockets of history. Particularly after Season 2 of 'The Crown,' I just have a much greater understanding of Philip and what he's about, really – where he's come from and the things that have shaped him.”
Smith says many preconceptions about Philip turn out to be misconceptions, like the notion that he's somewhat foolish.
“Actually he's a very astute, clever and witty man. He also has a very rich emotional makeup as well. I find him really fascinating.”
While Smith and his colleagues don't try to mimic their real-life counterparts, the actor incorporated some of Philip's vocal and physical quirks into his performance.
“I tend to start physically with any character,” he explains. “You'll notice that Philip has a very particular gait, and he's always got his hands behind his back. There are also little cadences and rhythms to his speaking that you try to take on board as you play him. There's a clarity and a wit and a defiance to him, and he's just a very male character, for want of a better description.”
The roles of Elizabeth and Philip, along with other characters, will be played by different actors starting in Season 3, a creative choice that Smith thinks will help keep “The Crown” running for several seasons.
“In a perfect world, I think you've got sixty hours of television, with different actors playing the Elizabeths and the Philips and the Margarets and so forth,” he says. “When you actually think about all the really interesting cultural and political events coming up, you've got Thatcher and the Clintons, Princess Diana and Charles, so many big moments.
“It will be a huge challenge, because it's difficult to keep the quality up on things, ... but I have really high hopes that 'The Crown' will be a piece of TV history.”