Telling the story of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign in The Crown was always going to be a massive undertaking from a research perspective. But the decision to swap out the actors portraying key cast members every two seasons added an extra layer to the production, specifically, to Robert Sterne’s role as casting director.

“I’m proud of the show, because the casting has been such an important part of it,” Sterne tells The Hollywood Reporter. “To be a part of that has been a great thing, but it is a bit nerve wracking.”

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Though Sterne understood the task ahead of him from the outset, explaining of the casting of Claire Foy, Olivia Colman and Imelda Staunton to play the queen at varying points of her life over the course of the Netflix series, “We knew that we weren’t going to have Claire Foy in ever-increasing layers of makeup and she knew that, too.” Still, finding multiple actors who could not only encapsulate the fictionalized personas of the real-life individuals they’d be cast to portray, but successfully continue on the tone and characterization established by the actor who came before them was no easy feat.

“There is the thing that you don’t know if you’re going to find them,” Sterne admits in the conversation below. “You just know what you’ve got to find, and you think that person will be out there somewhere.”

One of those great finds, he notes, is Elizabeth Debicki, whose performance as Princess Diana in seasons five and six he designates as “one of the perfect Crown performances.” Yet it’s the entirety of the cast throughout all six seasons of the series that he says has been a major contribution to the success of the drama overall.

“The actors have an awful lot to do with it. They’re embodying these characters, and that,” Stern says, “makes a big difference.”

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You knew from the outset that you’d be casting and recasting for the main roles every couple of seasons. How stressful or exciting was that prospect?

It’s a really unique challenge. You normally do a job and you cast it, and then there are new characters coming in and you keep going. But you never have to go from scratch every two years. We knew that we weren’t going to have Claire Foy in ever-increasing layers of makeup, and she knew that, too. So, it’s been really challenging and one of the most brilliant things about doing the job, to be honest.

When do you start casting from season to season?

We normally start about nine months before it shoots. And then between every two seasons, there’s a break because they’re writing and that’s all changing. There are lots of characters in it. For this last season, there are 300 characters on the sheet, so it’s quite a lot. And then time is also taken up if you’re looking for teenagers and young people. In this one there was quite a lot of that.

We had to find two different versions of William and Harry, younger and older, and so that takes a bit more time because you’ve got to get out there in the field. It’s not the kind of standard avenues that you’re pursuing to find these people. You’re out there on social media and in schools and going around sixth form colleges and that kind of thing because you don’t know where they are, and you don’t know if you’re going to find them. There is the thing that you don’t know if you’re going to find them. You just know what you’ve got to find, and you think that person will be out there somewhere. I felt a great wave of relief just now that we actually have done it.

Luther Ford as Prince Harry, Ed McVey as Prince William

Luther Ford as Prince Harry with Ed McVey as Prince William in season six. Justin Downing

Were there other characters who were particularly difficult to find, or for which there was a longer casting process?

It’s difficult to say because some of them, you think, “Oh, that’s going to be hard,” and then you suddenly find them. And then there are other ones that you just think, “well, that should be straightforward,” and then you don’t find an actor who makes a connection with the role. All of the characters are based on real-life people. So even with the smaller politicians, we really put a lot of thought into who they are, and how they’ve got to look right and sound right and be right. The casting of the Al-Fayeds, I’m really proud of as well. I think they’ve done an exceptional job. The relationship between Salim Daw’s character and Khalid Abdalla’s character and what they do in that kind of father-son relationship is really special.

What were you looking for in auditions?

We definitely don’t look for impersonations, because we find that when people come in and do impersonations, they are kind of closing themselves up to the process because they’re saying, “I’m going to show you these three things about the character.” And I’m going to stick to that. It’s a limiting thing. What you want is people to be open because they’ve got to work with other people, and get in a relationship with the writer and the script and how the dynamics of each of the scenes work. So if people are coming in and doing impersonations, we are very keen to say, “Let’s not do that.” When they get the job and they start working with the whole team of voice and movement and research, then they get loads of support to work out how they want to make the specific choices about how to do things. But in the casting stage, you don’t want it. You want it to be much more free.

What did you see in Elizabeth Debicki that let you know she was the right actress to portray Princess Diana?

We just knew. It was Elizabeth Debicki. We had met her for another part about five years ago and I was in the room, and I was looking at her and I was thinking, “We cannot cast her in this role because if we do, we will really regret it because she has got to be Diana.” This was years before, but I knew it was going to come. I remember saying to the director, “Please don’t cast her because we’ve got to have her.”

There was a conversation then that we had, and when it came to it, we were so blessed that she said yes because she’s amazing. Prince Harry, in his book, when he’s describing his memory of his mother, he describes her being like a dazzling light. He said there was something that she lit up every space that she went into. And there is something about what Elizabeth Debicki does that is such wattage. I find it pretty breathtaking. I do think she’s one of the perfect Crown performances, because she’s got all of the technical stuff and the voice and the movement sorted out and done so expertly, so brilliantly. But then she adds something else to it on top to do with vulnerability and emotional intelligence. It’s something that evidently has got to have come from herself somehow and I don’t know how she does it, but she does take your breath away.

The Crown Season 6

Imelda Staunton as Queen Elizabeth with Jonathan Pryce as Prince Philip in season six. Netflix

Suzanne Mackie spoke about the trepidation of being able to live up to Claire Foy’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of the series and being so grateful to then find Olivia Colman and now Imelda Staunton. What have each of those actresses brought to this role?

I think that Claire Foy had the most difficult job, because she had to set the whole thing up. We had a script, we had the ideas, the team knew that we had this amazing job, this amazing script, but to actually land somebody to bring it to life the first time, she did an amazing job. She set the standard, I think, because it was the most difficult thing to create it.

And of course, the qualities that she brought to playing that character are the qualities that informed who we cast as the years went by. Claire Foy’s version was very much an ordinary woman in extraordinary circumstances. An ordinary woman who wanted a simple life found herself in a situation that she had to deal with, and all these forces were operating, politically and personally, to tear her family and her life apart and she was keeping them together. She’d rather be with the horses and the dogs somewhere out of the prime light, and I think those are the qualities that made everybody watch it.

And that then determined the actors that we had following on, that had that kind of accessibility — like Olivia — to know how she’s thinking and feeling. It’s not a grand monarch; it’s an ordinary woman where you can wrestle with her difficulties alongside her. And then Imelda, who is one of the greatest that we have over here, when she said that she would do it, that was just brilliant.

The Crown is now streaming its sixth and final season on Netflix.

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