Playing the Princess Royal in The Crown was a dream role and a real eye-opener for ERIN DOHERTY. As she stars in new BBC drama Chloe, she tells Hattie Crisell how fame came as a shock – and why she has ‘massive sympathy’ for the royals. PHOTOGRAPHS: BILLIE SCHEEPERS
When we meet at an airy photo studio in West London’s Notting Hill, Erin Doherty is being sweetly cheerful to everyone she encounters. It takes me a while to work out why I am a little confused. And then I realise it’s because I was expecting Princess Anne. In The Crown, Erin was brilliant as the Princess Royal– so good, in fact, I am prepared for her to be just as strong-willed and arch – but she is disarmingly charming, her clipped RP accent replaced by a warm estuary one.
Erin, 29, was born in Crawley, West Sussex, and the acting bug bit early. Her mother, a retired GP receptionist, and her father (who does something involving aeroplane transportation that Erin admits she doesn’t understand) split up when she was four. In the aftermath, she and her elder sister were sent to drama school at the weekends. ‘Obviously that was a difficult time, and I think that’s why I love acting so much now,’ she says. ‘There’s a definite comfort to it, which was born then.’
After A-levels, she studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where alumni include Sir Daniel Day-Lewis and Olivia Colman. From graduation she worked in theatre, and won small roles in Call the Midwife and the BBC’s Les Misérables. Then The Crown happened: a key part as the daughter of the Queen, who happened to be played by Colman herself.
Erin’s Princess Anne was so popular in the third season that creator Peter Morgan said people kept asking him to write more for her in the fourth. Her success has left her in the nice position of being able to pick and choose her work, and she is now back on our screens in a starring role.
Erin is a natural chameleon – she tells me she never gets recognised, and on more than one occasion refers to herself in the third person, as though Erin is just another role. Her new part, as Becky in the BBC drama Chloe, makes the most of this quality. Becky is a loner who lives with her unwell (and unpleasant) mother, and finds escape online, where she obsessively scours the social-media profile of a young woman called Chloe. When Chloe dies, Becky lies her way into her friendship group in an attempt to find out what’s happened; suddenly we see that she has an impressive ability to deceive people, shape-shift and think on her feet. ‘She is so isolated and lonely and has such a low sense of self-worth that she doesn’t believe any of her actions matter,’ says Erin. ‘She doesn’t really feel the moral implications of what she’s doing.’
While some of Becky’s behaviour would best be described as ‘bonkers’, you will root for her anyway. She displays the same audacity as the great on-screen fraudsters that have gone before her, from Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can to Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. Does Erin have a bit of that chutzpah, too?
‘Being an actor, you do have to get over yourself quite quickly – especially with theatre. When you’re about to go on stage, there’s something that happens where you just go, “Right, all my nerves have to stay in this dressing room and as soon as I leave, I’ve got to commit to what I’m doing.” I think that’s what Becky’s doing, too.’
She also relates to the character’s habit of adopting different versions of herself in different contexts. ‘Yes, especially on days like today,’ she says. ‘When I was in the taxi on the way here, I was having to psych myself up for it.’
Becky attends swanky parties, puts on a posh accent and tries– with mixed results– to blend in; Erin does a version of this, too. ‘Whenever I go to any big event to do with acting, I always think; “What am I doing here?”’ she laughs. ‘“There’s Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter – what is going on?”’
She’s similarly baffled by the paparazzi. ‘I remember being told, “You’ve been papped outside Lidl”, and I thought, “Well, I was just doing my food shop! I don’t know what’s interesting about it.”’
Perhaps it’s the idea of Princess Anne shopping at Lidl, I suggest. ‘But if Anne knew the deals that were going on, she’d be in there, getting some flippers.’ Flippers? ‘You know– for going in the sea! I’m telling you, you can get flippers, oven trays, shoes – anything.’
Despite her talk of anxiety and introversion, Erin is very funny and socially adept– our interview is repeatedly interrupted by people wandering over to chat to her. She also has a Pollyanna-ish enthusiasm for life. She doesn’t mind being rejected at auditions, she says, because ‘there are lessons in everything’ and ‘rejection is fuel’. She does, however, remember a particularly embarrassing one soon after drama school, when she was still trying out for a lot of adverts.
‘I did one for KFC, and they passed me a bag of chips and said, “So can you state your name and then just eat the chips?” And then I didn’t get the job! That gave me a bit of a complex about the way I ate my food.’
This self-consciousness was only heightened by a lesson that the cast of The Crown were given in table etiquette, overseen by an advisor who had worked at Buckingham Palace. ‘It was so awkward. He was lovely, but this was the first time I was meeting him and he scared me to death, because he kept saying, “You’re not supposed to do that.” When you eat soup, for example, you’re supposed to pull the spoon away from you.’ She mimes this for me.
‘If you’re picking up your glass, you have to sip from it and put it down – you can’t just hold it,’ she continues. ‘And when the Queen stops eating, everyone has to stop eating. Even if you’re hungry! What if you’re a slow eater?’ The Royal Family have probably learnt not to be, I say. ‘I bet they eat fast,’ she nods.
She came out of The Crown with fond feelings for the royals. ‘I have a special place in my heart for the time I spent working on The Crown I think we can all relate to what that situation must be like to grow up in. I have massive sympathy for the whole family. There are things that they have easier than some people, but they’re also growing up within a straitjacket– it must be really isolating.’
Princess Anne is said to have seen The Crown and found it ‘quite interesting’. ‘That blows my mind,’ says Erin. ‘My version of Princess Anne and the real Princess Anne should never co-exist, or the universe will explode,’ she jokes. I suggest it’s not outside the realms of possibility that one day, at some premiere, the two will meet. ‘I feel like I know her, and I feel like she’d rip me apart– but in a nice way,’ she laughs. ‘She’d say, “Well, you didn’t do this and you didn’t do this, but you did that right.” I’d like just one compliment from her. That’s probably what I’d ask: “Was there anything? Did I do any of it right?”’
The role propelled her from near-obscurity straight into TV’s most high-profile drama – an unsettling adjustment. ‘That was the biggest thing to ever happen to me career-wise, so there’s an odd process of understanding what your life is now, especially in the public eye,’ she says. ‘But I’m a huge advocate for therapy – I’ve been going since 2016. I think we’d all be better off if we went to therapy. I believe everyone has something going on that they’re maybe a bit scared to talk about– but telling people your flaws is really empowering.’
She highly recommends the book The Body Keeps the Score by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. ‘For me, it was a gamechanger,’ she says. ‘It’s about trauma, how it stays in your body and all the ways that it might manifest later on. Everyone’s got something that’s happened in their past, but there was something that I…’ She trails off and won’t elaborate. ‘I’m still working on it. But once you know that there are other people out there who are experiencing the same thing, it just decreases your stress about it.’
In Chloe, Becky copes with the tensions of her life via an obsessive relationship with social media; Erin, however, has the sense to steer clear. She uses Instagram for the purposes of promoting her work, but gives little of her personal life away. ‘When this part came along I thought, “OK, I’m going to get into it and try to live that life,” and honestly it made me really depressed,’ she says. ‘I’d scroll Instagram first thing and then right before bed, and it did just make me feel very low.’
In a parallel universe, we might have seen Erin on TV in a different context – playing professional football. As a teenager she was scouted by Chelsea, but ultimately gave up the sport to focus on drama. ‘I love the game – I have dreams about playing.’
When she was younger, she and her dad often went to see Tottenham Hotspur. ‘I remember the first match I saw was a Chelsea-Spurs game, and the only way we could get tickets was through my dad’s friend who was a Chelsea fan– so we were in the wrong end of the stadium. I couldn’t even wear my Spurs shirt because my dad was so nervous about it. There was a player called Gus Poyet who had just moved from Chelsea to Spurs, and all around us the fans were screaming, “We f***ing hate Poyet!” We lost four-one but I still loved it.’
Erin is in a long-term relationship with the actress Sophie Melville. Given that, I wonder whether she might be keeping an eye out for a good role that would represent LGBTQ+ people. ‘I’d love that – but unless it’s right, there’s no point,’ she says. ‘I haven’t always gone out with women. Sophie is the first relationship that I’ve ever had. It happened all of a sudden. But when you feel like you’re a part of the club, you want to champion it, and I’m excited for when the time comes that I can.’
The couple have been together for four-and-a-half years and have a rescue dog –a jack russell/pug mix. Since they’re both actors, I ask Erin whether they get on each other’s nerves when they’re not working and between jobs, and she starts to laugh. ‘Apparently this is a cliché fora lesbian couple, but we love each other’s company. We’re each other’s best friends. It’s embarrassing. I love sitting on a sofa with her and talking to her. It feels really special, because I’m not tired of her. I love her, and I love the way she thinks.’
When Erin was in The Crown, she and Sophie were still living in a house-share, having only recently bought their own place. (‘It’s amazing,’ she says, wide-eyed. ‘You can just use the kitchen whenever you want!’) Was it weird when she was appearing on the red carpet for Netflix’s biggest show and going home to flatmates? ‘One hundred per cent! And I think that’s where a lot of the anxiety comes in about meeting people. I don’t know who you expect me to be, but I lived in a house share in Lewisham and I shop at Lidl.’
Having spent the afternoon with Erin, she doesn’t need to worry what people will think – she’s firmly on her way to becoming a freshly minted national treasure.
Chloe is available on BBC iPlayer
READ MORE: Best BBC dramas 2022
STYLIST: GEORGIA MEDLEY. MAKE-UP: JUSTINE JENKINS USING SEEDS OF COLOUR. HAIR: NARAD KUTOWAROO AT CAROL HAYES MANAGEMENT USING UNITE. PICTURE DIRECTOR: ESTER MALLOY. DES WILLIE/NETFLIX/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK, DAVID KING, GETTY IMAGES