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Re-Casting The Crown's Lead Roles Is a Daring Experiment That Actually Pays Off

Despite many reasons not to, producers traded their leads in for new actors and elevated their show in the process.
  • Tobias Menzies, Olivia Colman and  Helena Bonham Carter star in Season 3 of The Crown (Netflix)
    Tobias Menzies, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter star in Season 3 of The Crown (Netflix)

    There are countless proverbs that might have been used as words of caution to the producers of The Crown when they chose to re-cast their leads ahead of the show's return for Season 3. Well-meaning advice about not changing horses in mid-stream, about dancing with the one who brung ya, about loving the one you're with. Having Claire Foy, Matt Smith, and Vanessa Kirby in the hand was worth double whatever other actors you might find in the bush. You get the idea.

    And yet, that's been the plan for The Crown all along. Peter Morgan's dramatization of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II was to be told across the span of six seasons, with the cast changing every two seasons in order to better depict the lives of the royal family over many decades. In the show's highly acclaimed  first two seasons, Elizabeth was played by Claire Foy with determined reservation, Prince Philip was played by Doctor Who star Matt Smith with an infuriating air of superiority, and tempestuous Princess Margaret was tackled by the vibrant Vanessa Kirby.

    In what can only be described as an act of great courage, producers stuck to the plan, replacing the show's three leads with a new generation of royals. Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia Colman (no stranger to Brit TV) steps into the role of Elizabeth, Game of Thrones star Tobias Menzies assumes the role of Philip, and international treasure Helena Bonham Carter gets to luxuriate in every delicious inch of Princess Margaret.

    Having now watched the first half of the Season 3,  I'm happy to report that the bold swap works, aided in no small part by top-shelf casting and performances to match. Colman manages to bring a studied, almost neurotic air to Elizabeth's insularity. There's always some fear behind her eyes that her dutiful stoicism won't be enough for her country. (And often it's not.) One of the most daring things about the show's return is that it picks up in the same year it left off: 1964. Many expected a time leap to coincide with the casting change, but that would have meant skipping past crucial moments in British history and their impact on the crown. So we get to see Colman's Elizabeth wrangle with new PM Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins), try to tamp down a coup from Lord Mountbatten (aka "Uncle Dickie", newly portrayed by Charles Dance), and -- most poignantly -- struggle with her inability to stage an authentically empathetic reaction to the coal-mine disaster at Aberfan that claimed the lives of 116 children.

    Tobias Menzies is a consummate pro and imbues Philip with a smidge more likeability than Matt Smith before him. But it's Helena Bonham Carter who unsurprisingly steals the show in the season's early episodes, taking Margaret on a whirlwind tour of the United States that includes a good amount of boozing and piano room crooning, and a state dinner with Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson that ought to have audiences in stitches.

    That it's paying off doesn't make The Crown's casting experiment any less daring. Claire Foy was not only beloved as Elizabeth, but it's the role that made her a star and won her an Emmy Award. It would be like Game of Thrones swapping out Emilia Clarke, Maisie Williams, and Kit Harington after the second season because they were getting older. It makes sense within the project, but once you start seeing TV shows as emotional bonds between audience and artist, it becomes a much more difficult call. That pull of sentimentality can often result in great things, like the Ryan Murphy repertory company coming together in new and exciting permutations for each new season of American Horror Story. Sometimes that sentiment, however, leads to shows holding on to characters for too long because the cast and crew all love working together. It's the business of television at its most humanistically relatable.

    Of course, leave it to the Brits and their stiff upper lips to push past sentimentality and do what's best for the crown. And The Crown. And they plan to do it again after Season 4 in order to bring the Queen up to present day. That casting announcement is a ways off, but can't you just imagine Helen Mirren waiting patiently by the phone?

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Crown, Netflix, Claire Foy, Helena Bonham Carter, Matt Smith, Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Vanessa Kirby