Olivia Colman Sheds Light on Portraying Queen Elizabeth II

Upon gazing at a new, older portrait of herself intended for British postage stamps, in the opening scene of the new season of The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II says, “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.” It’s the kind of stiff-upper-lipism that has become synonymous with British sensibilities over the years. But Olivia Colman, the Queen’s new player, radiates a kind of warmth and humanity that immediately pulls you into her portrayal of one of history’s most enduring yet enigmatic figures.

Colman, the British actress who took the reins from Claire Foy for seasons three and four, knows a thing or two about playing monarchs. Earlier this year, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her unabashedly offbeat performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite. “They can’t be compared,” she says of the two roles. Sure, Anne was a reluctant sovereign with proclivities for duelling pets and consorts alike, while Elizabeth II is the longest-reigning queen in history. But Colman’s portrayals are right on the money each and every time. (The same can be said for her delightfully nasty supportive role in Fleabag, the BBC sleeper hit that recently swept the Emmys.) “I treat it all as the same,” she says. “You turn up and you want to do your job well.”

Olivia Colman behind the scenes on the set of The Crown: photo courtesy of Netflix.

In the third season of The Crown (streaming on Netflix from November 17) we rejoin the royals in 1964, at a time when the monarchy in and of itself is coming into question. Socialism, modernity, and decolonization are in, and with them comes a new cast comprising Colman, Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret, and Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, equipped to steer the ship through the latest ripples of the Swinging Sixties.

This season, viewers will find an older, more confident Queen, rather than a young monarch struggling to keep it all in balance. “It’s a character that we both have to just do our own view of, I suppose,” says Colman of her take on the Queen versus Foy’s. “I told her how incredible she was because I was completely hooked. I binge-watched [season one] and then I found out about the job before I watched the second season.”

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies, The Crown: photographed by Sophie Mutevelian.

Of course, the optics are just as central to the new Elizabeth as Colman’s portrayal itself. “We felt that her hair shape is so iconic, if we could recreate that precisely, so that the shape of the character was super familiar, then our audience would accept Olivia as their new Queen pretty quickly,” says Cate Hall, The Crown’s hair and makeup designer. To maintain the iconic shape for all scenes, Colman used six wigs on rotation, which were wet-set and “baked” in a wig oven (yes, you read that correctly) before makeup was applied. “Like so many of us, the Queen has found a hairstyle she likes and has stuck with it for many decades. This is such a help to me, as it says ‘Queen’ so very loudly,” says Hall.

Elizabeth II is known for making very subtle commentary through her clothes or non-verbal cues (in 2017, for example, she wore a blue hat decorated with yellow flowers to a hearing on Brexit, possibly alluding to her allegiance to the European Union), and as such, key signifiers of the ’60s and ’70s were also communicated through such details as colour palette and silhouette on the show. “Colour will be the biggest change,” says costume designer Amy Roberts. “She embraces fashion in a very subtle but definite way.” Pinks, lilacs, and light greens are all on heavy rotation in custom pieces specially made for each episode. On working with Colman, Roberts says, “Costume fittings with her are spent mostly laughing—what could be better?”

Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies behind the scenes on the set of The Crown: photo courtesy of Netflix.

Colman trained with copious “movement sessions,” during which she would learn how to move like the Queen and understand the correct protocol and etiquette for life within the palace walls. Seasons three and four were shot back to back over the course of eight months, but despite the production’s length, Colman was able to leave Elizabeth II on set. “I love my job. I turn up and do it as best I can, but I’m still me. I go home and I’m me,” she says.

Next year, Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher will make their debuts as The Crown moves toward the ’70s and ’80s. Newcomer Emma Corrin will take on Diana, while Gillian Anderson will play Thatcher. It’s an era of tremendous scrutiny for the Queen, yet viewers can expect her stiff upper lip to remain in place.

Through the Queen’s various iterations, Colman was struck by Elizabeth’s strength. “I am an enormous fan of the Queen. I think as a human being, she’s f–king marvellous,” she says. “I think she’s like a rock, our even keel…and [she] has really tried to make the right decisions. I think during this process I’ve become more and more of a fan.”