The movie premieres on Sunday and is based on the play by Mike Bartlett, which ran for over 300 performances on the West End and Broadway. The dialogue is written and performed in iambic pentameter, the popular Shakespearean style. Numerous cast members of the stage play reprise their role for the film, including Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles, Oliver Chris as William, Richard Goulding as Harry, and Adam James as the prime minister. Charlotte Riley steps in as Kate Middleton because of scheduling conflicts for Lydia Wilson, the play’s Kate.
Riley, Pigott-Smith, and Bartlett spoke with Rotten Tomatoes after wrapping the film adaptation of King Charles III. Sadly, Pigott-Smith died April 7 after completing press for the film. Here are eight things they revealed about King Charles III.
Charles is thrust into the leadership position and immediately makes a controversial call. More on that later, but Kate takes this opportunity to assert herself in the monarchy. The real Kate has always been self-assured in real life, but in the Charles III kingdom, she asserts herself politically.
“I guess you could see Kate in this play as almost like the CEO of a business,” Riley said. “She sees that the royal family, the monarchy is a business. It has to be run well. It has to be tight. It has to be stabilizing. Just don’t do anything that destabilizes that, and you have to create strength for the country.”
And not just for herself. This fictional Kate also pushes her husband, William, politically.
“Kate is the sort of Lady Macbeth figure, who pushes her husband on to do something he’s not completely happy with,” Pigott-Smith described. “In the end, he goes for it, and you end up with a family collapsing.”
There’s really no one else quite like Kate Middleton, but Riley comes pretty close. She’s already a classy British brunette, but the hair and makeup team went the extra mile.
“I had to have quite a long session at the hair dresser’s having hair extensions, which I wouldn’t recommend to anybody,” Riley said. “They were pretty painful.”
Kate is a fashion icon, so anything she wore had to be top of the line.
“Because this is set in the future, the costume designer had to be kind of fashion forward and figure out what she might be wearing in the next six to nine months and how that might change,” Riley said.
On stage, Pigott-Smith didn’t try to look exactly like the current Prince Charles because people in the nosebleed seats wouldn’t notice anyway. On screen, everyone gets a front row seat so he made sure to look the part.
“One simple thing we did was parted my hair on the other side,” Pigott-Smith said. “We did that and we silvered my hair a little bit. I have quite a lot of gray, but Charles is almost completely silver now.”
He already had the behavior of Prince Charles down.
“He wears a signet ring, and he [fidgets] with his hand, and he also does the same with his cuff,” Pigott-Smith said. “Another thing which he does is he stands quite a lot with his hands outside his [pockets], but he never puts his hands in. The other thing he does is pulls his mouth down to the side when he’s talking.”
The movie also had more wardrobe changes than the play.
“On stage, I wore one suit and my military rig, I should call it Naval Rig. On the film, of course, I had to have more than one suit. There’s more than one day.”
Early productions of King Charles III portrayed Prince Harry as the playboy he was at the time. As he gets older and has created things like The Invictus Games, Bartlett presented a more mature Harry in the film.
“There’s a much more thoughtful version of Harry which has emerged in the last couple of years, so we’ve tried to reflect that in this version of it,” Bartlett said.
Harry is still not as political as his brother, though.
“I think it’s fair to say that he’s trying to keep out of it as much as possible, and he’s just trying to get on with his life,” Riley said.
That may not work out for Harry in the movie, unfortunately.
“He falls in love with a commoner, with some young girl who is, in fact, a revolutionary,” Pigott-Smith said. “What he wants to do is give up being Prince and marry her and go off and have a life of his own. That story reaches a tragic denouement right at the end of the play.”
When Parliament makes a law restricting the freedom of press, King Charles refuses to sign it. Normally the king or queen signing a law is ceremonial, but it still has to be done. Bartlett believed his fiction is consistent with the real Charles, even though he’s had his share of tabloid intrusions with his divorce and affair in the ’90s.
“What you can see is that he is a man of principle,” Bartlett said. “Whether you agree with him on those principles or not, he always sticks by what he believes. From a young man, he’s gotten behind causes and stuck to it, often when they were very unfashionable. I think if he felt that something was going to happen to the country that would ruin it forever, I think he would do something about it in a way that perhaps his mother would be more reluctant to.”
“I think he’s a man of really profound old-fashioned liberal values,” Pigott-Smith said. “I think the brilliance of the play is that the plot line about freedom of the press is absolutely credible, that he just puts his foot down and says, ‘No, you’re going too far. We have to keep freedom of speech.’”
Since King Charles III begins with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, that wasn’t something the British public wanted to think about. The actors felt it was a relevant possibility to explore.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure if this was done several hundred years ago, we’d all have our heads chopped off,” Riley said. “But, I think it’s an important part of the legacy of storytelling that you explore all the options. What happens when the queen dies? What if Charles refuses to sign a bill?”
Bartlett felt they are fair game since the royals are public figures. “I think to conjecture what’s going to happen when the Queen dies I think is a very important thing to start thinking about,” Bartlett said. “For some people, it will be difficult to see that moment of the queen dying and see this family going through turmoil. It’s a very sincere exploration of what it’s like to be that family and, in some ways, to be any family. It’s a piece about fathers and sons.”
A filmed version of the funeral is a lot more real than it was on stage. Pigott-Smith said the stage version of the funeral was just a candlelit vigil and song. On screen, there’s a casket and everything.
“They did have to get special permission, and we shot it in a minister called Beverly Minster, which is in the north, a beautiful abbey,” Pigott-Smith said. “It was the perfect place to do it.”
If filming a fictional funeral for Queen Elizabeth was controversial, a scene in which the ghost of the late Princess Diana appears could be even more so. U.K. newspaper The Sunday Times reports that Pigott-Smith did not wish the relatives of Diana to have to see that.
“I don’t think it is presumptuous of us to do it or wrong of us to do it,” Pigott-Smith said to The Times. “It seems to work perfectly in line with that Shakespearean tradition of history plays, and Diana, we know, was divisive in life, so why shouldn’t she be divisive in death? But all that said, that area of the play made me feel very saddened, vulnerable.”
Perhaps a spoiler for where King Charles III ends, but Bartlett has long been thinking about a follow-up. The sequel would center on William and Kate after Charles abdicates the throne.
“There’s a question of whether there’s a sequel in my head, about what William and Kate are going to be like when they’re king and queen,” Bartlett said. “That’s quite interesting, but that would be a different thing, I think.”
King Charles III premieres Sunday, May 14 at 9 p.m. on PBS