Netflix’s The Crown has a new Queen: meet Viola Prettejohn

Viola Prettejohn plays the teenage Queen in the final series of The Crown. City A.M. speaks to her ahead of the episodes landing on Netflix

Interview: we meet Viola Prettejohn, the fourth and final actor to portray the Queen on The Crown when it returns to Netflix on 14th December

Growing up, Viola Prettejohn’s grandparents had the same old royal calendar positioned on their kitchen wall year after year. In 2013, when she was ten, her parents took her to see Kate Middleton leave The Goring hotel in her wedding dress. “But I’ve never been a royalist,” she says. “I’ve never had any strong opinions about the royals. It’s weird ‘cause every time people hear you’re doing The Crown, they expect you to feel really strongly.”

Prettejohn is stirring an americano with hot oak milk in a popular vegetarian restaurant she recommended in Kensington, a ten minute walk from where she lives at home with her parents, TSB chairman Nick and mother Claire, a lawyer.

She will be the final actor to play the Queen in a forthcoming episode of The Crown, joining a fine pedigree: Imelda Staunton with her pursed lips, Olivia Colman with her darting eyes, and Claire Foy with her youthful assertiveness. Prettejohn’s Elizabeth will be, for the first time, shoulders-back, portraying Her Majesty’s (allegedly) carefree teenage years.

For 20-year-old Prettejohn, the limelight awaits, but she creases her face at the thought of stardom. “I never intended to be an actor,” she says. “It kind of happened accidentally.” Aged 14 and attending the fee-paying St Paul’s Girls’ School, her drama teacher put her up for an audition as part of an open casting call for Tim Burton’s Dumbo. She didn’t get the role, but they suggested she should think about getting an agent. “My drama teacher knew an agency and asked them if they would meet with me. They sent me on an audition as a sort of ‘let’s see how they do.’ I was in Berlin filming two days later, which was crazy.”

Auditioning for the Queen was the fourth time Prettejohn had gone for the royal drama after talent agents came into her school to look for young versions of Princess Anne and Diana. “When this came around it kind of felt like, ‘Okaaay,’’ Prettejohn laughs: “This is the last one. If I don’t get it this time…”

She had tried for Diana, which went to Emma Corrin. “I was obviously far too young,” she says. “When the Diana audition came about I was so excited but I also very much knew that it was the longest shot ever – they were very clear they needed her to be from seventeen to when they’re getting a divorce and she’s had children. I was 16 and I wasn’t an old-looking teenager. I basically knew I wasn’t going to get it.”

Prettejohn says that “weirdly” playing the young Queen “didn’t feel very pressurising, like at all,” thanks to all the time spent in The Crown’s audition rooms. It also helped that her scenes are “just fun, nothing too emotionally challenging,” a world away from her lived experience of the late Queen in the 21st century. “I grew up with the old Queen, with the white hair and the same colour outfits and everything – it just felt very separate. You don’t really think of her as a 19-year-old. I didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of what that looked like. It was nice.”

She says director Alex Gabassi “allows for so much creativity and experimenting,” which was a nice surprise. “I thought dealing with real people and such important figures might be a bit more restrictive but it wasn’t at all. It’s lucky because I was playing her at nineteen and on this specific night that no one has any documentation of. There’s very little footage of her at that age, so I had a bit more licence.”

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I got messages from friends when the Queen died. I had to say ‘I’m fine’ – I’m not the actual Queen!

Viola Prettejohn, the fourth actor to play the Queen on The Crown

It’s fair to say her teenage years have been unusual. Prettejohn’s career so far includes a leading role on two seasons of The Nevers and a small part in Netflix drama The Witcher. Next year she’s a lead in an eccentric-sounding satire called Generation Z for Channel 4, and she’s excited about other projects she can’t talk about yet.

Filming Generation Z for four months in Cardiff recently, Prettejohn had her slice of student life. She describes a night out along the city’s main drag of St Mary’s Street. “It’s a really good, trashy night out, which I love. I like starting with nice cocktails and then slowly going more divey until I’m really at a trash place.”

Prettejohn seems fun – certainly moreseo than her famously formal real-life counterpart. She describes a rather loose night before a Crown costume fitting when, after a flight delay, she invited an American stranger back to her house who had been stranded at Gatwick with her. “We got to Blackfriars and decided, ‘you’re not going to a hotel, I’ve got a house, so we went back to my house and I made coffee for us and we sat in my kitchen and watched the sunrise. I arrived at my costume fitting wired on coffee and adrenaline.”

She hopes to move out next year to somewhere in east London. “It’s very niiiiice in this area,” she says of Kensington, slowing her voice. “I just want to experience a bit of a different vibe. Just something else, and separation from my parents. Much as I love them.”

Prettejohn seems mature beyond her years in other ways too. She counts the 61-year-old journalist Anthony Lane as a personal friend, and says filming makes her miss the simple things; walking the one-hour-twenty-minutes from her house to the Curzon cinema in Bloomsbury, listening to podcasts on the way and drinking coffee after: “I love that ritual”.

Everyone behind the show really loves these characters. They realise we’re dealing with real people, whose families are still alive

Prettejohn’s storyline in The Crown is a flashback to V.E. Day in London, retelling the ‘true’ story of the night the Queen and Princess Margaret snuck out of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the end of the war. They partied with ordinary civilians on a night that is thought to have been formative for the Queen. Records say she was watching couples kissing in the parks and doing conga lines at The Ritz. It’s clearly ripe for fictionalisation. No spoilers, but the displays of hedonism are going to shock, showing the Queen in a light we haven’t seen before. They’re also probably more hedonistic than the actual reality of that night.

Prettejohn is well-rehearsed when I ask how she feels about the show portraying accurate representations of the royals. As ever, new episodes have been called sensational for their portrayals of the royal family, and in particular, Diana and her relationship with Dodi. “People have in the past made statements before they even see the show, which is unfortunate – maybe watch the show before you make a comment,” she says.

“But, erm, I think obviously there’s going to be a bit of licence because we don’t know exactly what happened with these private conversations, we weren’t there, so Peter [Morgan, the lead writer] had to create a drama with an entertaining narrative. But there’s always a respect for the real people – I don’t think there’s ever been an intention of malice or of painting these people in a bad light, particularly with this storyline – it’s such a fun episode. Well, apart from Margaret dying, that’s not, but our parts are really uplifting and joyful. Of course we don’t know exactly what happened but ultimately it’s a fictional show, it’s a drama.

“Everyone behind the show really loves these characters. They realise we’re dealing with real people, whose families are still alive, and that’s obviously a sensitive subject matter. These are some of the most famous people in the world, of course people are going to have opinions.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/Cu62qBzM9du

Prettejohn has another hope: that the young Queen provides the public a new image of the monarch they haven’t seen before. For one, Her Maj gets more than a little lusty. Chaotic party scenes contrast with atmospheric shots of the future monarch strolling along a wide open, deserted Mall early in the morning. “It was very freeing and fun,” she says.

Her scenes were shot in Victoria Park weeks after the real Queen’s funeral. “Yeah,” she says, slowly and deeply. “I got some messages from friends who knew I was doing it. It’s weird, people were messaging ‘Are you okay?’ People thought I would be particularly sad about it. ‘I’m fine’, she says, laughing. ‘I’m not the Queen!’”

It was an odd way to begin filming, she says. “Our first day on set was at The Savoy hotel, which is very close to Hyde Park where people were laying flowers, so we were near to where everything was going on. I think it must have felt strange for Imelda in the get-up of the Queen as we know her now. I had some separation ‘cause I had dark hair and a military uniform, which didn’t feel like the Queen as I think of her.”

Much of The Crown’s crew have been on the show since the beginning. On set, “it was a bit solemn,” she says. “There was a weird atmosphere where people were quite upset. They’ve in some ways spent a lot of time with this person.” The death of Elizabeth II influenced the script for the final season; she remembers creatives thinking about “how to end it with that in mind.”

As she did in life, the young Queen spends much of her time in the episode with Princess Margaret, who – as she was in life – seems more carefree than the first-in-line. Would playing Princess Margaret have been a better role? Prettejohn thinks for a while. “On the surface she’s more fun. At the beginning of the episode Elizabeth is uptight and doesn’t want to do anything but by the end of the episode she’s really enjoying herself. I think that’s a nice little journey.”

So what’s next? “I just want to keep working, keep the momentum going,” she says. “Generation Z has been so amazing for me in that it’s so different to anything I’ve done, so completely bonkers. I just want to keep doing projects like that where you feel constantly excited and inspired to really give it everything.”

The Crown returns on 14th December on Netflix

All portraits are by David Reiss; The Crown stills are courtesy of Netflix

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