With a drink and a smoke, playing ‘glorious’ Princess Margaret was thrilling, Lesley Manville says

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Lesley Manville as Princess Margaret in a scene from Season 5 of “The Crown." (Keith Bernstein/Netflix/TNS)

Meredith Blake

Los Angeles Times

(TNS)

Fans of Princess Margaret — and Lesley Manville, the actor who has played the late Countess of Snowdon in seasons 5 and 6 of “The Crown” — have had to wait patiently in the final stretch of the Netflix series as it dramatized the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and its long, painful aftermath.

But “Ritz,” released with the final batch of episodes last week, gives lonely, lovelorn Margaret a beautiful farewell, while paying tribute to the complicated bond she shared with her sister, Queen Elizabeth II (Imelda Staunton).

Written by series creator Peter Morgan and Meriel Sheibani-Clare, the episode cuts between two timelines. In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Margaret’s health is in decline as she suffers a series of increasingly severe strokes. Largely ignoring the advice of her doctors, she continues to drink, smoke and live decadently — partying in Mustique, gobbling up jam tarts and at one point snapping at her sister, “I’d rather die than do exercise.” In the emotional climax of the episode, Margaret gathers the strength to put on some heels and trek to the Ritz Hotel in London to celebrate her 70th birthday — and listen to a moving, empathetic tribute from her sister.

Meanwhile, on V-E Day in 1945, the young sisters sneak out of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the end of World War II with a night of dancing at the Ritz. The dutiful future queen, still dressed in her military uniform, enjoys a brief, blissful moment of normalcy, while Margaret, in hindsight, appreciates the freedom her sister later sacrificed. (The charming tale is rooted in fact: On the 40th anniversary of V-E Day in 1985, the queen shared how she and her sister slipped out of Buckingham Palace to celebrate with the crowds.)

“Ritz” has arguably become the standout episode of the final season because “it’s not about a queen and a princess,” Manville said in an interview last week. “It’s about two sisters who’ve been on this amazing journey in their individual lives. They were so close when they were young and then they were thrown into this situation that neither of them thought they were going to be thrown into with Elizabeth becoming the queen … The wonderful thing about the episode is that it just looks at the love they have.”

Speaking by phone from Luxembourg, the Oscar-nominated actor, who maintains a brisk work schedule and recently starred in the period piece “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” reflected on Margaret’s approach to her final days and the mood on set when Queen Elizabeth II died last year. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

What was your reaction to reading this script? It is such an all-you-can-eat buffet for an actor.

I like to say “meat and two veg,” which is a very British thing. [laughs] Of course, I was thrilled. It’s a really challenging, emotional episode where you have to dig deep. It’s what you crave. “The Crown” is a very complicated job to be involved in. Because it’s an ensemble piece, every episode can’t be about Margaret. There’s a lot of time that you spend at home, wondering if you’re ever going to be called in again. I can’t really find the words to say how thrilled I was when I saw this episode. Oddly enough, you think I’d be craving to be in my 20s, 30s, 40s again, to play her in her youth. But to play somebody who’s had that vibrant, colorful, very liberal lifestyle, who is then dealing with not being that person anymore — to play a woman who had all of that, is all of that, then has it taken away from her, is actually a very thrilling prospect. I relish it. We’re actors, we want to read scripts where we go, “OK, she’s going to have three strokes in the course of a one-hour drama.” And you need to do it carefully. There was a lot to get excited about.

Did you relate to her approach to her looming mortality, which was to basically not give up the things she loved?

Of course, I understand it. I think Margaret made a life for herself. She did love escapism, and a kind of eccentricity and living on the edge. She enjoyed that and it defined her. I think if anyone says, “Right, well, you can’t do those things that define you now,” it must be an enormous challenge. To say you’ve got to cut down cigarettes and eating so many chocolates, for her, those things were all symbolic of a lifestyle that she loved and nurtured. She wanted to be up at 4 in the morning, singing at the piano, being outrageous, funny and glorious. It’s who she was, and people were hungry for her company.

Margaret, at this time in her life, didn’t have so many duties. She was less wanted, she was getting older, and there were younger members of the family who were taking her place. Princess Diana was very much a replacement for Margaret. (When she was younger,) Margaret had more newspaper coverage than Diana. She was a socialite beauty. If you can imagine when you get into your 60s and you’re not that person anymore, people don’t want to put you on the front pages of the magazines anymore. If you have a certain amount of insecurity or, like Margaret, you’re without a partner and you’re lonely and your diary isn’t as full as it used to be, it’s all very painful.

I reveled in the glory days of Margaret that Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter got to play, even though there was always this massive layer of complexity about her. I thought it was rather thrilling to play a woman who’d been all of that and was now facing the enormous challenge that that was not her life anymore.

You have to portray Margaret after she has had a stroke. How did you prepare to do that?

It was quite challenging in terms of drama to do three strokes within an hour. I gave it due diligence and went to meet with various people who had varying degrees of strokes. What became clear is that a stroke is a sequence of medical events, but everyone’s stroke is different, so there’s a certain amount of dramatic license [we took]. I did some research and had help from our dialect coach, William Conacher. You have to do the homework and absorb it and not oversell it, not undersell.

“The Crown” is known for its meticulous research. Did you come across anything about Margaret that was very useful to you as a performer?

The research team gives you absolutely everything you need. I read lots of books, which was a joyous thing to do. Then you get the scripts and you have to do what we do with any other job, which is you make the words on the page come to life. You hope that you’ve done all the research and gotten her right, but none of us are impersonators. Neither should we be, because otherwise you would never get to the heart of the characters.

The queen died right in the middle of filming this season. How did that affect you on set?

Imelda and I were actually filming one of the scenes from Episode 8, when the queen died. We’d heard on the news around lunchtime that clearly things were not good and the children had been called to her bedside. We finished shooting the scene, and it was one of the scenes when Margaret’s in hospital and Elizabeth comes to visit. We finished the scene around 4:30 p.m., and I remember getting home around 6 and putting the news on and around 6:30 it was announced the queen had passed away. It’s very hard to find the words, really. By sheer coincidence, Imelda then had a 10-day break from filming. And we all had a break from the filming as a mark of respect. We were filming [some of the Mustique scenes] in Mallorca when her funeral happened, and we took the day off and sat quietly watching the funeral together. But it’s hard to say that we felt it more because we were filming “The Crown.” I think the whole nation was feeling very moved and shaken by what had happened. This formidable woman had passed away, a woman who had turned up to work every day and did her job. Nobody could ever fault her in that territory. How people were feeling globally was very reflected on the set. You cannot not be aware of the fact that you’re making a drama about this woman, who’s the longest reigning British monarch, and you’re filming it as she passes away. It’s going to be a strange time — and it was.

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