Queen Elizabeth has been played by numerous actors over the years — three in Netflix‘s The Crown alone. But tracking not far behind when it comes to onscreen depictions of major British figures is former prime minister Tony Blair. Among the names to have stepped into the shiny brogues of the divisive politician are the likes of Damien Lewis, Robert Lindsay, Toby Stephens, James Larkin, Ioan Gruffudd, Stephen Mangan, Harry Enfield and Pierce Brosnan (as a version of Blair in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer). Michael Sheen has also famously played Blair three times.
Joining this illustrious list is Bertie Carvel, the star of stage and screen who joined The Crown for its final outings in seasons five and six. While he’s mostly a supporting bystander in season five, the sixth and final season of Netflix’s hit royal drama — which centered its first four episodes, now streaming, around the death of Princess Diana — sees the statesmen step into a main role position, especially in the sixth episode when the two-part season releases its final episodes (on Dec. 14). Carvel says Blair starts at the “peak of his popularity,” but ends as it begins its sharp descent.
The casting adds yet another political heavyweight to the British actor’s growing resumé, having already played Donald Trump (on stage in Mike Bartlett’s The 47th), former U.K. deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (in Channel 4 drama Coalition) and Rupert Murdoch (in James Graham’s play Ink, for which Carvel won his second of two Olivier Awards — the first was for Mrs Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical). But fans of The Crown who missed these performance may still recognize the actor, who now becomes the first to be given two roles in royal series after having had a brief part in the second season as noted British political broadcaster Robin Bell.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Carvell discusses the importance of not trying to deliver a “carbon copy” of Blair, why casting directors keep turning to him to play such larger-than-life figures, and how he hopes his unique status as the only person to have pulled double duty on The Crown becomes a pub quiz question.
How does it feel when you’re offered a role like Tony Blair? Is it daunting that so many people have played him before, or exciting in that you might be able to bring something new to the part?
It doesn’t daunt me that other people have done it. In a way, it confirms the legitimacy of what one’s doing. I feel like there’s a legitimacy to telling a story about a real figure. The people that we’ve told lots of stories about are people about whom we should be telling stories, because something needs to be processed. Of course I’d like to think that I could bring something else to it. I didn’t know what the story was going to be when I signed up. I just said yes, because The Crown’s a great show and it sounded like it was going to be a good part. I’ve played quite a lot of real people, so I suppose I feel some confidence that I know how to approach that.
As you say, you’ve played several major international figures already. Does that make it easier to step into the shoes of another?
I actually find it easy to transform myself into someone who is unlike me superficially. Whereas I’m probably a little bit closer to how Tony Blair was in 1997 — similar age, similar build, similar coloring. Actually, it’s much harder to persuade people. We did amazing work with Cate Hall, the hair and make up designer, in deciding what to try and get right. She has this great phrase when she’s designing where she talks about the “bastard love child.” You’re not trying to deliver an absolute carbon copy, but you’re trying to work out what it is about that person that interests you dramatically and dial that up. Give an audience enough and then let the drama work.
You obviously haven’t gone for the exaggerated open eyes and big teeth, which is so often used by people portraying Blair.
Yeah, I’m not drawn to caricature. I’ve played a lot of characters who, I suppose, one might describe as larger-than-life. But my approach to that is, they’re larger-than-life because of their behavior. One never wants to feel that the actor is commenting on the character by becoming a cartoon. I think I’ve made clear decisions about where I am doing things more like Blair than me, and they’re consistent. But the volume is turned down quite low on them. So I hope an audience will receive something of him without feeling they’re being kind of hit over the head with it. It’s that bastard love child thing. An actor’s biggest fear is being found out not to be who they say they are, which is ludicrous because none of us are.
As you said, you’ve also played Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch and Nick Clegg. What do you think it is about you that sees you cast as these figures?
I guess that the problem with being an actor, if you want to have range, is that people see you do something and will ask you to do it again. My magic trick has always been to just be so different from role to role that nobody can quite pin you down. And then you get a name for doing that, so people think, “Who on Earth can we get to play Donald Trump? Well Bertie seems to do that stuff well.” Which is nice. But maybe also because my family were political journalists, so I have some connections and I’m interested in current affairs. But I do other stuff stuff too — check my CV! But you do get a name doing a certain time of thing, and I enjoy it. To blow my own trumpet, I think I manage to do very good research like a journalist would, but then also something on top, which is more of the artist. So I feel I’m like a portrait painter.
You’re the first person to have played two people in The Crown, having portrayed [noted British political TV and radio journalist] Robin Day in season two.
I am! My grandfather was a great friend of his. He was a political broadcaster, as was Robin obviously, and they used to mock up their interviews. Robin Day would give his [Margaret] Thatcher and my grandfather would interview him as Thatcher. He actually gave my granddad’s eulogy at his funeral. So when I got that call to make that cameo, I just thought, “What an amazing honor to be able to play my granddad’s great friend.” I really enjoyed it.
So when the call about Blair came through, did you just not remind them that you’d been in it before?
No, I crowed it from the rooftops. I take it as a badge of honor as the guy you go to to play very different people. In a way, it does my PR for me — what an actor of amazing versatility! I said to Peter [Morgan, creator] that I wanted the quiz question to be, “Which actor has been in The Crown twice?” and everyone to go, “I know this one, it’s Bertie Carvel.” I mean, I should I be so lucky that anybody knows who I am. But the actual answer would be none, if Peter would have given me a third part. I was constantly trying to get into the back of other people’s shots. I didn’t quite have the guts to photobomb Jonathan Price.
The Crown is currently streaming season five, part one and releases part two on Netflix Dec. 14.