Growing up, Ed McVey never thought he looked like a young Prince William. But while shooting the sixth and final season of The Crown last fall, the acting newcomer began to see an uncanny resemblance between himself and the heir to the British throne. “You look in the mirror when you’ve got your makeup and your hair [done] and your costumes on, and you’re like, ‘Okay, I see a bit more now,’” McVey tells Harper’s Bazaar, joking that he is already bracing himself for the inevitable side-by-side comparisons to old images.
In the last six episodes of the Netflix royal drama’s final chapter, Prince William attempts to reintegrate back into life at Eton College in the wake of the tragic death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales (played by Elizabeth Debicki). Upon graduation, William decides to study at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where he meets his future wife, Kate Middleton (Meg Bellamy), currently Princess of Wales herself. While the past five seasons of The Crown have centered on the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the end of the series focuses on the future of the monarchy and offers one of the first—and certainly the most high-profile—depictions of William and Kate’s love story.
“The whole point of [William’s arc]—and [creator] Peter [Morgan] wrote it so beautifully—is this striving for normality and trying to find the normal in the abnormal, and a lot of that was just my day-to-day life,” McVey explains. “I was working on these sets where I was like, ‘What happened?’ Overnight, you’re at this level, working with these people that are at the top of their game, so a lot of that is you’re just trying to normalize the abnormal. I was able to relate so much of that emotional energy to the script.”
Ahead of The Crown’s final London premiere, McVey—a 24-year-old who grew up on a farm in Devon, a small town in southwest England—opened up about playing Prince William from his late teens into his mid-20s, building William’s relationships with Kate and Harry (Luther Ford), and the many lessons he learned making his onscreen debut.
People who grow up in the U.K. have a unique relationship with the monarchy, because the royal family is such a distinctive part of British culture. Going into your portrayal of Prince William, did you have any preconceptions about the enduring institutional power of the monarchy?
It is such a massive part of our culture, but I was lucky in the sense that I didn’t come from a family that was incredibly anti- or pro-[monarchy]. I think my first proper memory of watching the royals was the royal wedding with Kate and Will in 2011—everyone in the world was watching that—so I was able to come at the project without having any internal battles of how I should play this person. It was very much like: You have the script, and that’s the most important thing. You do all the character work, you do all the research, and I was able to almost detach the person from the character.
When you set out to do all of that character work, how did you want to embody William’s physicality? Are there certain details from your research that we may not see or hear onscreen in the show, but that you still found informing your interpretation of him at this stage of his life?
Interestingly, he’s one of the first future monarchs to be documented from birth, so you’re able to watch him grow throughout every stage of his life. What I was interested in was his physicality from when he was younger, around 16, 17, [when he was] not wanting to take up much space, was very insular, and not wanting to be the center of attention. Then, as time goes on, you open up a little bit, you take up a bit more space, and you are more confident in who you are. I saw and connected with that, and I think that was a really helpful part of the text. I also tried to play with the voice a little bit, and have the voice more in the pitch of how I speak in the earlier episodes, and then lowering it as the show goes on, to accent him growing older and his voice getting deeper. Those are things you subconsciously notice when you’re watching someone so much.
We already had a sense from Rufus Kampa’s performance in episode four that William was struggling to process his emotions and briefly ran away from home. How did you want to portray not only William’s grief over the loss of his mother, but also the anger and resentment he feels toward his father, Prince Charles (Dominic West)?
What I wanted to do, especially in episode five, is really commit to this idea of “I don’t want to feel like I have to give anyone anything.” I did this a lot as a child—and sometimes I’ll still do it [laughs]—that energy of like, “No, I’m going to be pissed off. And do you know what? I don’t care what you have to say, and I don’t want to have to give you anything. I don’t want to have to converse with you. Leave me alone. I want to just be in my room on my own.”
[William] wasn’t allowed to grieve in private, because [Diana’s funeral] was such a public event. Everyone knew about it. So even when you are on your own or when you’re at school, people are looking at you with that knowing look of “Oh, you’ve lost someone.” Working with some incredible actors was really fun, and you feel like you need to give them all your energy, but actually, it was so much more effective for me to just sit there and go, “Make me talk to you. I don’t want to talk to you.” And that really helped me with this teen energy at the start.
With that father-son relationship between Charles and William, the people you love the most and you’re close to in your life are always the ones you’re going to lash out at in times of grief. They’re the first people that get the brunt of your emotions, especially when you’re young [and] don’t know how to process how you’re feeling, and that was really fun to play. I think so much of it was in the writing anyway [that] you didn’t really have to mine or unpack it so much, because so much of it was so raw, and it was fairly plain to see where this character’s at.
I don’t think you ever heal when you lose someone that’s close in your life. But over time—and I think it’s over the seven or eight years that I play William—you’re able to process your emotions, you’re able to understand who you are and know your own psychology a bit better, and you start to understand what your life might look like. [He’s also] coming to terms with the idea of becoming king one day, seeing the queen and what she does and how she does it, and how his father conducts himself, and I think he’s just learning from the people around him.
So much of the second half of this season is William learning how to navigate his public life, but he is also falling in love for the first time and figuring out his place within his family. You, Meg, and Luther bring a kind of youthful energy to the show that has naturally and gradually dissipated with the aging of the other characters. What kinds of conversations did you have with them in particular about building the relationships that William has with Kate and Harry?
We had lots of rehearsals in the early days—which is very uncommon for TV—around September of last year, so we were able to unpack the relationships with the directors. Luther and I have spoken about this, and Luther describes it better, but I went to drama school and had a little bit more of an understanding of what to do and how to approach text. It all went out the window when I got to set anyway, but for him not to have that [previous acting experience], I think I was wanting to look after him and take care of him [like a big brother would]. Not that I knew anything really more than he did, but I felt like that’s how I wanted to go about it. He felt very much out of his depth and so did I, and I think that brought us closer together.
With Meg, we just get on so well. And I think if we didn’t, it would’ve been a lot harder, because you really have to work harder for the relationship. But it’s a very unique experience to be thrust into this situation, and we’re very lucky to have each other.
This idea of “the heir and the spare” is certainly not a novel concept, but it has gained a lot more attention in the wake of Harry stepping back from his duties in the royal family. In episode seven, William and Harry have a conversation on the balcony at Balmoral in which they discuss their feelings. They have a kind of sibling rivalry, but they’re not exactly on the same playing field.
Having a brother myself—and Luther’s got brothers—[I think] that inherent competition seems to be always there. They’re the closest thing to compare yourself to. And the way the brothers are written in the show, they’re incredibly close. There’s so much love there, but you can’t stop the institution [and the line of succession]. That is [William’s] birthright, and there’s nothing that can be done about that competition. I think they’re both coming at it at different angles. And in that scene, William says, “Don’t you think I’d love to not have to be the responsible one?” Harry’s looking at it like he gets sidelined because he isn’t the heir. I think they both want what the other one has and they both can’t get it, and that’s where the drama comes in, and that’s incredibly interesting.
What do you think William sees in Kate, and why is he so immediately drawn to her in episode seven, despite not remembering the first time they ever talked or intersected?
When William goes to university, there’s a lot of young female attention, and Kate isn’t one of those people. I think she sees him as a [regular] person. That’s how Peter wrote it, and I think that’s what he wants. He doesn’t want to be seen as this thing for people to consume. That’s how his life has always been. I think there’s something about her not being [like] everyone else and her being unique. He’s just attracted to her, I think, for reasons he doesn’t quite know or understand.
[They deal with] the ups and downs of that relationship and how it sort of goes Pete Tong in the library scene. And until that final moment when he gets the message at the end of episode seven [where Kate asks William not to leave St. Andrew’s], we wanted the audience to have no idea how these people could get together. We know that they get together in the end, and what we wanted to do is try and put as many roadblocks in between their relationship as possible, because I think that’s normal. No relationship is smooth sailing, and no relationship is linear.
You’re a recent graduate of the Drama Centre in London, and The Crown is your first screen credit. What specific lessons were you able to learn from the actual application of acting that you weren’t able to get in that more academic environment, where the stakes are much lower?
I’m a big people pleaser, and I think even though it’s a lovely attribute, you can waste a lot of time. You want to make everyone happy, but you waste a lot of energy. I learned this from Imelda [Staunton, who plays Queen Elizabeth II]: Your job is to be fabulous between action and cut. That’s your job. If you’re talking to the crew and trying to make the crew laugh, or they’re making you laugh—there’s a time and a place to do that, but I think when you’re on set, you need to be more focused as much as possible.
You need to do the research as much as possible, but there comes a time when you need to throw it away and have trust in the actors that you’re working with, the script, your director, everyone else in the room. Because if you’re always trying to prove that you’ve done all the research and you’re trying to put it all out there, you’re trying to do too many things [and your performance] can get murky. So just let it go, listen, and be present as much as possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Styling: Krishan Parmar at Carol Hayes Management | Grooming: by Josh Knight at Caren using Patrick’s Grooming | McVey wears Connolly England and Brunello Cucinelli
Max Gao is a freelance entertainment and sports journalist based in Toronto. He has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, Sports Illustrated, The Daily Beast, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Men’s Health, Teen Vogue and W Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @MaxJGao.