Elizabeth Debicki, the ‘unnerving’ Princess Diana

The actress, who was born in Paris and raised in Australia, made her name in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and has appeared in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Tenet’. She admits that wearing Lady Di’s ‘revenge dress’ was a lot of pressure

Cast member Elizabeth Debicki attends the premiere for the TV series The Crown Season 5 in London, Britain, November 8, 2022.
Cast member Elizabeth Debicki attends the premiere for the TV series The Crown Season 5 in London, Britain, November 8, 2022.HENRY NICHOLLS (REUTERS)

In The Crown’s fifth season, it is sometimes hard to believe that it isn’t Lady Di herself appearing on screen. But it’s not; it’s actress Elizabeth Debicki, the new sensation from the Netflix series about the British monarchy. The 32-year-old Australian plays Princess Diana in her final years, taking over the role from British Emma Corrin, who went from being a largely unknown actress to headline news. Debicki’s case is different: she had already appeared in movies with famous directors such as Baz Luhrmann (The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan), Christopher Nolan (Tenet, with Robert Pattinson) and Steve McQueen (in Widows, alongside Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez). She has even been part of the Marvel universe (she appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy 2). But despite her burgeoning acting career, Debicki has always jealously guarded her privacy; now that she is portraying the so-called “people’s princess” in The Crown, she has commanded more media attention than ever before.

“I’ve always been a private person. I feel like the thing I want out in the world is my work and I’ve always believed – and it’s the way I approach my work – that me and the work are separate. I think that people with social media can blur it so beautifully, and I respect that, but it’s not really how I am and I just want the work to speak and people to receive it the way they will without anything influencing it. I just want people to know me for my work,” she explained in a 2018 interview with Australian Vogue following the premiere of her movie The Burnt Orange Heresy, which also stars Mick Jagger.

We only know the details of her private life that she herself has made public: she was born in Paris in 1990, but she and her parents moved to Melbourne, Australia, when she was only five years old. There, she grew up in a European-style environment that was starkly different from the one that other children her age experienced. Both her mother and father were dancers (he’s of Polish background, and she’s an Australian of Irish descent). Debicki wanted to study history, but she began acting and trained at Australia’s Victorian College of the Arts.

Elizabeth Debicki, as Lady Di in 'The Crown,' wears a fictional version of Diana’s famous “revenge dress."
Elizabeth Debicki, as Lady Di in 'The Crown,' wears a fictional version of Diana’s famous “revenge dress."

In 2011, shortly after Debicki graduated, Australian director Baz Luhrmann took an interest in her. Two years later, she appeared in his adaptation of The Great Gatsby, a major production with a star-studded Hollywood cast. Debicki played flapper Jordan Baker; she wore a black wig with a 1920s-style haircut and quickly drew attention. The actress is 1.90 meters (6′3″) tall. In fact, in The Crown, she is taller than Dominik West, the actor who plays her husband, Prince Charles of Wales (now King Charles III), who is 1.83 meters (6 ft.) tall. But she says that her height has never been an issue for her.

Since her 2013 debut with Luhrmann, Debicki has received a steady stream of projects, but she prefers to keep a low profile. She lives in London but considers herself “a nomad”; she does not have social media accounts; and she pays little attention to public events.

Debicki’s close relationship with the fashion world is the one exception to her low profile. At the end of last year, Women’s Wear Daily broke the news that the actress had become a brand ambassador for Dior Jewelry. Debicki has close ties to the fashion house; she has attended fashion shows at the invitation of the company’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, whose designs the actress often wears on the red carpet. In fact, at the November 8 premiere of The Crown in London, Debicki posed in a black Dior dress that took 300 hours to make and featured various nods to Lady Di. On the one hand, it called to mind the famous “revenge dress” designed by Christina Stambolian, which the Princess of Wales wore in 1994, when news of her husband’s infidelity was made public; on the other hand, her dress was inspired by the Catherine Walker sky-blue evening gown that Diana wore at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987.

Elizabeth Debicki, wearing the Dior gown inspired by Lady Di's iconic looks.
Elizabeth Debicki, wearing the Dior gown inspired by Lady Di's iconic looks.

In the new season of The Crown, the costumes once again play a central role. Because of its symbolism at the time, Diana’s famous revenge dress – which the princess wore to dinner at London’s Serpentine Gallery on the same night an interview in which her husband acknowledged his infidelity was broadcast on television – is one of the show’s main characters. “The revenge dress was pressure,” Debicki acknowledged in a recent interview with British Vogue, which will feature the actress on one of its December covers. “It’s a complex dress. I let the fittings happen around me while I thought about what the dress meant. Why this dress? She’d had it for two or three years. It was super risqué at the time… She was claiming the space. The way she walked out of that car, the luminosity, the strength of her as that car door opened, she was so fast and so forward. It’s an extraordinary thing to watch. To decide what you’re saying about yourself through fashion… it was a currency. An incredibly powerful currency,” the actress reflected.

Five years ago, when she auditioned for a role in the second season of The Crown, which she ultimately didn’t get, the Australian didn’t think that she would end up becoming one of the show’s stars. Now that she has become the focus of attention, she shuns controversy (following criticism from figures like Judi Dench and John Major, Netflix added a clarification that The Crown is a “fictional dramatization”). For her part, Debicki says that playing Diana is just another role for her. “I mean, it is clearly fictional. I feel like audiences know that, because there are actors, playing parts. I never watched The Crown and thought, this is a documentary, or this is obviously true,” she said in an interview in The Guardian, when The Crown premiered earlier this month.

Maria Grazia Chiuri and Elizabeth Debicki, at the Dior spring/summer 2022 fashion show; and Debicki, with Mick Jagger, at the premiere of 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival.
Maria Grazia Chiuri and Elizabeth Debicki, at the Dior spring/summer 2022 fashion show; and Debicki, with Mick Jagger, at the premiere of 'The Burnt Orange Heresy' at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival.

Andrew Morton, Diana’s biographer and the author of Diana: Her True Story, said Debicki’s performance is “unnerving.” Morton told The Daily Beast that seeing Debicki on screen has been “like being back in the room with her 30 years ago.” It remains to be seen how the actress will handle this new stage of her career and whether she can continue to keep her personal life private (in 2016, when she was working on the show The Infiltrator with Tom Hiddleston, there were unconfirmed rumors that the two were a couple). However, it is clear that she does not want to be pigeonholed as the new Lady Di. She has already filmed the soon-to-be-released third installment of Guardians of the Galaxy with Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldaña, and it has been announced that she will star alongside Ralph Fiennes in Farnsworth House. In that film, she will play another royal character, Edith Farnsworth, the wealthy doctor who, in 1945, commissioned architect Mies van der Rohe to build the revolutionary glass house that bears her last name.

Diana of Wales's whole family in the fifth season of 'The Crown.'
Diana of Wales's whole family in the fifth season of 'The Crown.'
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