20 Celebrities Who Played Real-Life Royals & Nailed Their Roles

20 Celebrities Who Played Real-Life Royals & Nailed Their Roles

Naomi Watts in Diana (2013)
Entertainment One

There have always been movies and TV shows about royalty, but it seems like audiences are more interested than ever before about the lifestyles of the rich and famous and blue-blooded. Over the years, Hollywood has indulged our fetish with productions that weave stories around royals' big personalities, quirks, plentiful scandals and affairs, power plays, weird rules, and historical impact. These productions star actors who take on one of the most difficult tasks: Play a well-known figure, who could still be alive, and nail it so they don't get skewered by audiences who, chances are, are familiar with the real-life person. Although the results haven't always been great, plenty of actors have risen to the occasion. These are acting gems that have made for unforgettable movies and TV shows, and have often even won awards.   

So what does it take to absolutely perform the portrayal of a royal to perfection? Well, it definitely helps if the actor looks like the historical figure. It's the first thing we think about when we hear about an actor being cast in the role and when the first trailer is released: Does she look like the queen? Are we buying him as the duke? But it's often surprising how completely viewers can become engrossed in a film or TV show where the actor is not quite a doppelganger, doesn't quite have the same body type, or, ahem, doesn't even share the same eye color. 

After all, that's what wigs and makeup and contact lenses are for. 

Way more important than being an exact physical match is getting the essence of the person right. An actor can imitate the royal's mannerisms, way of speaking, and moving, but if they don't understand who the person is or was, we're instantly pulled out of the story. For actors, it's a high-wire act, but when it works onscreen, it's magical. Here are 20 stars who nailed their real-life royal roles.   

  • Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in 'The Favourite'

    1

    Before she took over as Queen Elizabeth II in season 3 of The Crown, Olivia Colman won a much-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of batty Queen Anne in The Favourite. Her no-ego performance as a woman who is frail in body and mind who's caught in a friendship triangle with some serious overtones is one for the ages. 

    ... and it probably helped land her the lead role in the Netflix show.

  • Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Queen'

    2

    It will be hard for anyone portraying an older Queen Elizabeth II to top Helen Mirren's spot-on portrayal. In the The Queen, set in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, Mirren shone as a leader and grandmother struggling to adapt to a changing world in order to respond (better late than never) to a tragedy that so many around the world considered personal. She got an Oscar for the 2006 role.   

  • Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in 'The Crown'

    3

    The fact that Claire Foy got paid less to play Queen Elizabeth II than the actor who played her prince consort is still infuriating. Foy did an enormous amount of research and rehearsal to play the young version of the world's longest-reigning ruler, and it paid off. She nailed the upper crust accent and the growing confidence of a young woman who steps into a leadership role at a time when even a queen had to fight to have her voice heard in a world dominated by men.  

  • Colin Firth as King George VI in 'The King's Speech'

    4

    Colin Firth honed his trademark sensitivity on iconic roles such as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Love Actually, and he brought it to the role of King George VI, father of the United Kingdom's current queen. In this film, the monarch is supposed to give a speech that will be heard throughout the world, but the catch is, he's got a big-time stutter for which he seeks out help.

  • Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth in 'Shakespeare in Love'

    5

    She spends a total of eight minutes on screen in Shakespeare in Love, but it's one of the film's biggest highlights. As Queen Elizabeth, complete with white powdered face and stained teeth, the already regal Dench gets the wittiest, most cutting lines of the movie and delivers them with razor-sharp precision. She may have worked very little on the film, but it was enough to earn her an Oscar.

  • Tom Hughes as Prince Albert in 'Victoria'

    6

    Turns out that stodgy Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert, was a pretty forward-thinking guy. He was anti-slavery, proposed modernizing England's infrastructure, and was OK with being relegated to playing Mr. Victoria. Tom Hughes' portrayal of him in the PBS show Victoria captures his braininess, his thoughtfulness as a partner, and in addition to all that, makes him into quite the sexy, romantic figure. (We don't know how true-to-life that last part was, but the couple did have nine kids together!)

  • Naomi Watts as Princess Diana in 'Diana'

    7

    It's a tough job trying to play Princess Diana, one of the most cherished figures in recent history who showed the world that being royal is not all it's cracked up to be. But Naomi Watts was up to the task in Diana. She may not have been a dead ringer for one of the most photographed women in the world, but from the breathy voice to the famous hair, Watts did an admirable job. She illuminated the little-known story of her time with the man she considered the true love of her life, Dr. Hasnat Khan.

  • Zaris-Angel Hator as Sarah in 'Victoria'

    8

    Victoria tackled a barely discussed part of the queen's life -- her patronage of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a young West African Yoruba girl born into African royalty, captured by a different African royal house and given to Queen Victoria as a "gift." Hers is a heartrending and complex story that should be made into a stand-alone film. Until then, we have Zaris-Angel Hator's brief but beautiful turn as an intelligent child trying to make sense of her new reality.

  • Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth in 'Elizabeth'

    9

    Cate Blanchett has had such a brilliant career that it's hard to remember that she wasn't always a star. Watch Elizabeth to see her in the role that made her just that. She plays the young Queen Elizabeth as a brilliant, forceful woman trying to solidify her power without giving in to fear-mongering men who want to force her to get married and produce heirs. Blanchett was born for the role.

  • Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Mother in 'The King's Speech'

    10

    She may play Princess Margaret in season three of The Crown, but Helena Bonham Carter has played royalty before. As a young actress, she took on the role of Lady Jane Grey, who ruled for just nine days. Her biggest highlight, however, was as the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth's mother, in The King's Speech. With a plummy upper crust accent and impeccable manners, she never raises her voice but makes sure the audience knows who is running the show -- and the king. The power behind the throne, indeed.

  • Emily Blunt as Queen Victoria in 'The Young Victoria'

    11

    Making a film about the legendary romance between Queen Victoria and Albert, the cousin who becomes her prince consort? A movie studio couldn't do better than casting the luminous Emily Blunt in the lead role. Blunt definitely leaves an impression. The mix of strength and vulnerability that it takes to portray a woman in power and in love comes through beautifully.  

  • Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret in 'The Crown'

    12

    Vanessa Kirby's performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown's first two seasons is probably one of the most underrated. She handles the royal sister's transformation so subtly, it comes across as completely natural. Margaret goes from Elizabeth's self-appointed rival for their father's affection, to a lovestruck young woman involved in an impossible love story, to a lonely lady desperate to be loved by someone, anyone. 

  • Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra in 'Rome'

    13
    Lyndsey Marshal in Rome
    HBO

    Cleopatra was famously played by a pale and dainty Elizabeth Taylor, but in reality, the Egyptian pharaoh was an ethnic Macedonian with a big honker of a nose. The HBO series Rome got the casting just right with Lyndsey Marshal, who has a striking beauty and an interesting nose, and more importantly, played Cleopatra as a savvy seductress whose love affair with Anthony threatened to destroy the Roman Empire.   

  • Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in 'The Tudors'

    14

    Better known now for her turn as three-time royal bride Margery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, Natalie Dormer first rocked the role of a royal as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors. As the brilliant noblewoman who leads Henry VIII to create an entire religion just so he can get divorced and marry her, Dormer uses a mix of intelligence and seductiveness to bring the doomed queen to life.

  • Jonathan Rhys Meyers as King Henry VIII in 'The Tudors'

    15

    Critics rolled their eyes at all the lovemaking on The Tudors -- though, we don't know why, given that the man went through eight wives -- but fans ate it up. And Jonathan Rhys Meyer was 95% of the reason why. The gorgeous, full-lipped star transformed Henry into a dynamic, power- and sex-driven, red-blooded royal in cutoff leather shirts. And that beats looking at the real life paintings of the thin-lipped, squishy-faced original.

  • Jodie Comer as Elizabeth of York in 'The White Princess'

    16

    Jodie Comer, who won an Emmy for playing an off-kilter assassin in Killing Eve, is so good that she could play a toothless medieval peasant and still be impossible to look away from while on screen. But in The White Princess, she plays the opposite: Elizabeth of York, queen to Henry VII, mom to Henry VIII. The story of how the Tudor family came to power may not be hugely familiar, but it doesn't matter when we're watching Comer play the game of thrones after she's forced to marry a man who was essentially a political enemy.

  • Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette in 'Marie Antoinette'

    17

    Director Sofia Coppola didn't necessarily go for a slavishly accurate version of Marie Antoinette for the film of the same name. She went for the feel. What would it be like to be a queen as a teen, spend time partying and eating and traipsing around in beautiful clothes -- and have no clue about anything outside the palace doors? Kirsten Dunst, who was only 24 when she made the film, captures the exuberance and cluelessness, and actually makes one of the most reviled women in history human.

  • Parisa Fitz-Henley as Meghan Markle in 'Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance'

    18

    Granted, she's in a Lifetime movie, which means that there's a certain level of cheesiness and there are certain rom-com tropes -- such as a dramatic airport scene that surely never happened in real life, baked right into the script. 

    But ... but. Hear us out. 

    In Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, Jamaican American actress Parisa Fitz-Henley actually does a good job of capturing the essence of Meghan Markle, the intelligence, wit, and warmth that we've seen on videos an in pictures. So we're saying she nailed it.

  • Timothee Chalamet as Henry V in 'The King'

    19

    The young actor gets a lot of love from critics, but never as much as for his role in the historical action drama The King, with one reviewer calling him a young version of Daniel Day-Lewis. As Hal, the future Henry V in this historical drama, he brings star quality and the ability to turn a single look into something full of meaning. It's something to behold.

  • Tobias Menzies as Prince Phillip in 'The Crown'

    20

    The British actor has played bastards for pretty much his entire career in shows such as Outlander and Rome, so casting him as often jerky human and possibly wayward husband Prince Phillip in The Crown was kind of a no-brainer. His portrayal of Phillip, though, actually has more layers that the actor brings out, such as the fact that he's a man of action, trapped in a life of monotony and routine.

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