During her 16 years in the spotlight, Diana, Princess of Wales, was one of the most photographed women in the world. Part of what endeared her to the public and made her so irresistible to the press were her distinct, unusually expressive mannerisms — the bashful head tilt, the nervous lip-biting, the tactile way she interacted with her sons.
The challenge for any actor playing such a recognizable public figure is how to capture their essential movements without descending into caricature. For Elizabeth Debicki, who stars as Diana in the final season of "The Crown," that task was made less daunting by movement coach and choreographer Polly Bennett.
Bennett has worked on "The Crown" since Season 3, helping the cast fine-tune their physical performances and understand the origins of each character's unique gestures, posture and gait.
"We find the reasons why movements happen," Bennett said in a recent video chat from London. Originally trained as a dancer, Bennett encourages actors to be as conscious of their bodies as they are of their dialogue and accents.
"Actors spend a lot of time by themselves, taking in lots of information and not actually being able to practicalize or physicalize what they're doing," she explained. "Especially on programs like 'The Crown,' I invite them in and say, 'Tell me everything you've been looking at.' And then we work out how to actually turn that into something physical, so that you're not just stuck in your head going, 'I've got to act like I'm a famous person.'"
Most people, when asked to do an impression of Diana, probably would tilt their head or attempt a bashful gaze. Bennett's job "is to unpack that and go, 'Well, what side does it normally happen on? What is she seeing when she moves her head? What changes in her breath when she is looking a certain way?'" she said. "It is like being a private investigator of a lot of public material."
In Bennett's view, it's useful to consider the way that being as famous as Diana was might manifest physically. "Being seen by lots of people all the time changes your body," she said. "It changes how you have dialogue with people. It changes where you sit in a restaurant and how you engage with the people you love."
Bennett operates from the assumption that "everything psychological that happens to us exists in our body," she said.
The way we carry ourselves is the result of myriad factors, from the sports we played as a child to the food we eat. The goal of this method is to "create a full, rounded character," Bennett explained. "It is not about mimicking something that already exists. You're trying to find an authentic truth and a reason why people act the way that they do."
Debicki said that when she joined "The Crown" in Season 5 — taking over for Emma Corrin, whose depiction of the blushing teenager dubbed "Shy Di" was so uncanny it sparked a meme — she felt nervous and vulnerable. "It was overwhelming," said Debicki, who prepped by viewing hours of archival footage of Diana.
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