To say Salim Daw is overjoyed with being cast in Netflix's The Crown is an enormous understatement. “Every day I arrived on set full of energy,” says the veteran Palestinian actor, whose recent credits include HBO movie Oslo and the Nasser brothers’ movie Gaza Mon Amour.
“I’m so happy, I’m dancing, I’m laughing, I make people laugh around me because I’m happy. I’m so lucky. How much I can say that? How much? How many times?” he grins. “You can have this chance once in your life as actor — to do a character like this.”
Speaking over Zoom, he’s sitting with his arm around his "son", Egyptian-British actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner). Together they are playing the Egyptian-born billionaire Mohamed Al-Fayed and his offspring Dodi Al-Fayed, two of the highest profile additions to Netflix’s premier drama about the British royal family. Season five focuses on the 1990s era, when Dodi dated Princess Diana after her divorce from Prince Charles and when, tragically, both were killed in a car accident in a Parisian underpass.
The Al-Fayeds’ arrival in the show begins in episode three, when Daw’s Mohamed is seen trying to cosy up to the British establishment by purchasing Harrods, the luxury London department store. Dodi, meanwhile, is a budding film producer, having already helped bankroll (with his father’s money) the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. But, as Abdalla puts it, Dodi is more of a mystery than his father.
“He’s a person who we’ve heard spoken about. And he’s been on people’s lips for 25 years, but people know very little about. And the only word that sort of follows him around is ‘playboy’, which is not in any way how I see myself. I went into my meeting with Peter [Morgan, the series creator] crucially trying to understand something: ‘Is this going to be a character who’s represented as a token figure that just sort of passes by?’”
Thankfully, the answer was "no". This season of The Crown — which sees Imelda Staunton replace Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II — takes its sweet time. Abdalla only briefly shares one scene with Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, an uncannily strong casting choice as Diana, when they first meet at an equestrian event. It’s Daw who enjoyed more screen time with her, as Mohamed and Diana playfully discuss how they see themselves as outsiders. “Honestly, we became friends. From the first meeting,” Daw says of his co-star.
“They’re there, the two of them, at the horse show and they have this magnificent scene together,” adds Abdalla. “I was there on the day just watching them ... jealous! And then there was just this really weird moment, frankly, where Elizabeth was looking at me. And I was like: ‘That’s Elizabeth playing Diana. She’s looking at me. What’s she doing looking at me? This is weird.’ But a beautiful prefiguring of everything that’s come to pass in season six.”
Both Daw and Abdalla will be returning for the sixth (and final) season of The Crown, which rather gives away the fact that the Diana/Dodi narrative isn’t concluded in the fifth season.
“We can’t tell you how many episodes it is but we’re certainly coming back,” says Abdalla. “There are plenty of us there. How else could you tell the story? There have been lots of paparazzi photos of us on boats.” True enough, although it’s not all just swanning around on luxury yachts.
Both men dived into the research The Crown’s team presented them with. Daw admits he was "a little bit lost" with the documents and videos.
“So I have to be serious, and to be respectful … to be able to do this character," he says. "I have to learn more and more about him, more and more, because it’s a big responsibility for me as a person.” While Mohamed Al-Fayed has been a relatively visible presence since the death of his son, Abdalla had much less to go on when trying to understand Dodi, whose life put him on a parallel course to Prince Charles — another son weighed down by expectations.
Abdalla says Dodi wasn't allowed to see his mother for most of his life. He says: "He went to boarding schools, and he had this very complex, complicated relationship with his father, who was a larger than life character. And in a way that is thematically resonant for The Crown [his father] wants him to be something that maybe he doesn’t want to be himself. And so how does he navigate that?”
Certainly, it seems that Peter Morgan’s promise that Dodi and his father won’t merely be token characters is genuine. How else will we feel the loss of Dodi when he dies?
“Similarly to what happens to Diana, in terms of your journey of understanding who she is, you have the similar thing happened with Mohamed Al-Fayed and Dodi,” adds Abdalla. “You can’t do that without the core parental relationship, which was so central. You won’t be able to explore the grief, you won’t be able to explore any of it.”
It all suggests that final season of The Crown is going to be a real weepie.
The Crown's fifth season is available on Netflix from Wednesday.