LOS ANGELES – When Matt Smith heard that a TV series would be devoted to the British royal family, two words came to mind: “Who cares?”
To the English actor, they were the stuffy family that lived in those opulent “old houses” he’d visited on school trips as a young boy or whizzed past in his car as an adult.
“We know what happens, we know the story, we’ve seen the movies,” Smith recalled with a dramatic eye roll. But like a good chap, he read all 10 first-season scripts of “The Crown,” crafted by Peter Morgan, best known for writing “The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon.”
“It turns out, well, actually I care about the royal family,” he said with a smirk that capsulizes his decision to step into the shoes of young Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth, in the Netflix drama.
A tall order, sure — the Duke of Edinburgh is a living historical figure and the patriarch of one of the world’s most cherished families. But Smith is used to tall orders and cherished characters. The actor, whose early work consisted mostly of theater and run-of-the-mill TV roles, was thrust into the vortex of global fandom at 26 when he was cast as the 11th Doctor in the “Doctor Who” franchise.
“It’s been quite nice to play a towering figure in a more naturalistic world,” Smith, now 35, said.
Not that Prince Philip isn’t a bit of an outsider in his own right.
“The Crown” follows Elizabeth’s long reign while highlighting the push and pull of her private and public roles. In doing so, viewers glimpse a man wrestling with living in the shadows of his powerful wife — a depiction that, viewed through the lens of the current climate, gains a layer of poignancy.
“He’s torn between the duty to his wife and a duty to himself,” Smith said. “I found that conflict very interesting to explore. No other man in that period would kneel before his wife or walk 2 feet behind her. That was very difficult for him.”
Much of the first season, mapping 1947 through 1955, chronicled the strains on a marriage upended early on when Elizabeth ascended to the throne following her father’s death. The second season, now streaming on Netflix, opens in 1956 and runs through 1963 and further explores the marital tensions heightened by rumors of Philip’s infidelities.
Philip isn’t shown philandering on-screen; instead, the series hints at his wandering eye, and viewers can reach their own conclusions.
“It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?” Smith said. “I think Peter thinks he did. I have my thoughts, but I think it’s best to leave it open.”
In Season 2, Morgan delves into Philip’s brutal childhood — his mother’s mental health issues, his father’s money troubles, his Nazi-sympathizing sisters, his schooling, his alienation — and his relationship with heir-to-be Prince Charles.
A standout moment from this season demonstrates Philip’s complexity and Smith’s ability to inhabit it. In Episode 9, Philip gives young Charles a lecture about toughening up, all within the tight space of an aircraft cockpit.
“All of Philip’s contradictions — his strength, his weakness, his pride, his aspirations, his self-loathing of his own perceived failures — come tumbling out of him at once, directed at the most vulnerable person in his life, his 13-year-old son,” Morgan said by e-mail. “Matt renders the moment in all its horror and power. It’s a loss of control from a man who prizes self-control above everything, and it’s immensely revealing.”