For many of us Queen Elizabeth is a face on a stamp, someone we see every day on our money. For Sarah Gadon, the Canadian actress who plays H.R.H. in A Royal Night Out, the figurehead is “an icon and it is really always kind of difficult to humanize someone who is embalmed in icon status.”
The Dracula Untold star plays the Queen before she took the throne, when she was a 20-year-old headstrong woman known to friends as Lillibet. It’s May 8, 1945, VE Day in England, the biggest party London has ever seen and Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret (Bel Powley), or P1 and P2 as the princess sisters are called, want in on the action.
“For six years we’ve been cloistered,” says Princess Elizabeth. “Like nuns,” adds Princess Margaret.
“I fell in love so much with this script,” says Gadon. “I was charmed by the story and its portrayal of her at that point in her life. It was this beautiful coming of age story about this woman faced with her future. That is something I really related to. That feeling of when you are growing up and you have all these ideas about the world, all these ideologies you are associated with and then you are confronted with reality and you have to decide for yourself what you want. I thought that was an interesting entry point.”
The slick talking Liz manages to convince Mom (Emily Watson as the Queen Mum) and Dad (Rupert Everett as King George) to let them mingle with the real people, listen to the King’s victory speech and report back.
Royal Night Out is part royal romcom, part urban adventure, and only loosely based on real events. In truth the princesses went out, accompanied by an entourage of 16 people and were home by curfew.
“Julian Jarrold, the director, was so conscious of what he wanted the tone of this film to be,” says Gadon. “We all knew it wasn’t a biopic, and none of us wanted to make that film. It is very much a fantasy, very much an adventure chase film. Being more North American in my approach to the part, my tendencies were to indulge the humour and indulge in the slapstick moments. Julian held the reins tight and really captured the reserve of Elizabeth. He really walked that line between going off too far in either direction. The film has very real feelings but a lot of tongue-in-cheek.”
To capture Queen Elizabeth’s posh accent Gadon studied footage of the princess at that age, the movies Roman Holiday and Brief Encounter and worked with dialect coach Brett Tyne. “Brett worked with all of us,” she says. “It wasn’t just me. She worked with Bel, Emily and Rupert because even though they’re British they certainly don’t walk around talking like that.”
The dialogue coaching worked. A Royal Night Out is already open in England and Gadon notes, “The reviews were great, very generous. And most people had no idea I was Canadian! It was exciting for me.
“I was really, really nervous. To have it received so warmly was such a relief. Now, with the North American release, I’m like, ‘I’m good! I got the stamp of approval from the Brits!’”