Recreating the joyful romance and deep bond that existed between Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in the weeks leading up to their tragic deaths in a Parisian car crash after being relentlessly pursued by paparazzi helped The Crown actors Elizabeth Debicki and Khalid Abdalla navigate dramatizing the sad, dark incident for the Netflix series’ sixth season.
Speaking at a Q&A session immediately following a screening of the first episode of Season 6 at the Regency Village Theater in Westwood, Debicki admitted that, as she prepared to portray the princess whom she originally played in Season 5, she was heartbroken by the series of events leading to her demise.
“I’ll be honest, I was devastated at the time,” Debicki said during the panel moderated by Deadline’s Executive Awards Editor Joe Utichi. “I remember I read all four [of the episodes] and then I took a deep breath and went and just laid down somewhere. It’s a very unusual and challenging, beautiful experience to play these characters, and we feel a great job responsibility – ‘We take it seriously’ is kind of the wrong way to explain it. It’s more that we take it deeply into our hearts and into our souls and we work from that place.”
“And so I felt the weight of what was coming, but I thought the scripts were extremely beautiful and I trusted them and I wanted to play them,” Debicki continued. “But I could sort of feel it in the air, in a way. I thought ‘This is going to be a time.’”
The season kicks off with the meeting of Diana and Fayed, and Debicki found that creating the joy that fueled the couple in partnership with Abdalla would be a critical – and enlightening – counterpoint to the impending sense of doom.
“Khalid and I were very determined that what our job in this season was to do, as we all know where we’re heading and how devastating that is, was to play against that as actors and allow these moments that you see in Episode 1 and you will see in two to be so full of joy and so full of life,” the actress explained. “And that they are surprised by one another and that they truly have a good time together. And that was really, we felt, equally our task as the task that follows that.”
For Abdalla, the central challenge, which he deemed “one of the great honors of my life,” was to deliver a fuller, more three-dimensional portrait of Fayed than the public usually receives. “Dodi, is a person who died 26 years ago, has been on supermarket shelves and the magazines, in the background,” the actor said. “People know his name and they know virtually nothing else about him. What did he sound like? What was his story?”
“There are people who still ask me if he’s alive, and that tells you a lot about the world we live in,” added Abdalla. “And I was one of those people.” Immersing himself in research, however, Abdalla said he found “a story that is entirely different to the one that is apparently summarized in the one word that hangs around him: ‘playboy.’ He was a gentle, shy person with a very intense and important relationship with his father. And one of the things that makes me proudest about playing him is that finally, after 26 years, we get to know him a little. We hopefully get to love him a little. And then finally, after 26 years, we can mourn him.”
Much like Diana’s delight in discovering a kindred spirit after a long period of loneliness and isolation, Debicki said she was deeply relieved to have a scene partner who shared her commitment to presenting the lively rapport the couple shared before the ultimate doom.
“We found in each other as actors – and we were lucky that that was being mirrored in our story – solace and a friend and somebody who suddenly appeared to help me through what at times felt impossible, heavy, devastating, terrifying,” she said. “One of the things that we also were so curious about going into this was: Who were these people to each other? And yeah, I think we learned that the love came easily, with ease, because there were maybe wounds that the other person could understand quickly.”
Abdalla pointed to a moment he spied on closed circuit camera footage of the couple just minutes before their deaths which potently informed Diana and Dodi’s connection.
“There are seven minutes in which, at the back there as they’re waiting for the car, they hold each other’s hands behind the back, gently nuzzle into each other and just very tenderly they hold hands,” he revealed. “And that tethered me. And then from there, you have then all these other scenes that you explore and you find, and they clearly had a wild, fun time. It was only six weeks from meeting until they died.”