In person, Pakistani actor Humayun Saeed comes across as quiet yet charismatic — qualities that Princess Diana may well have witnessed in Dr Hasnat Khan, the Royal Brompton Hospital heart and lung surgeon whom she referred to as "Mr Wonderful".
In the fifth season of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, The Crown, Saeed stars as Khan, opposite Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki's Diana. A still of Saeed has been released, in which he wears a doctor's coat and an inscrutable expression. Diana viewed Khan as the one person who would never "sell her out", and one gets the sense that Saeed is similarly solid and reliable.
Portraying a famously private character from Diana's inner circle in the 1990s, about whom relatively little is known, meant Saeed had limited source material to work with. “Dr Hasnat is very private, and there is not much available on him in the public domain,” he says. “You will only find his paparazzi pictures online. The production team had researched and shared some of his interviews and candid photos from the 1990s, which was very helpful. Before filming started, I had a workshop with a surgeon to help me understand the nuances of a doctor in an operating theatre and hospital environment.”
Saeed is already much loved as a Pakistani romantic hero, but this is the first time he has played a non-fictional figure. “This is a romantic role as well,” he says. “But for the first time, I am playing a real-life person on screen. Everyone knows Dr Hasnat Khan. It was a huge responsibility to portray him right. He has this underlying simplicity that attracted Princess Diana towards him, and to get that right was a difficult and different experience.”
There was the added pressure, initially, of keeping the casting quiet. “The first thing Hamid Hussain, my talent agent, made me do was sign an NDA, even before he told me about the show. As things progressed from audition to actual filming, the pressure was on. I had commitments of appearances, and suddenly I was telling everyone I was sorry, but I have some work in the UK, and I can’t make it. People were very inquisitive about that. It was such a relief when the official announcement came out.”
Saeed hopes that having a Pakistani actor appear in a large-scale international production such as The Crown will open up new opportunities for him and him and his peers. “I think Hamid has done a great job in presenting South Asian actors and especially Pakistani actors to casting directors, producers and directors internationally, and introducing the idea of considering artists from Pakistan. Now that so many actors like myself have worked on international projects, there is a level of awareness, it will hopefully open the door for more artists.”
The process of filming a critically acclaimed Netflix project was different from what Saeed is used to, but he says it is unfair to compare as “we work on a different scale in Pakistan".
“Working on The Crown was a learning experience. Everything was so organised and well-planned that the entire filming process felt effortless. I was most impressed by my co-star Elizabeth Debicki. She is an amazing actor with a great body of international work. She was there on set, always on time, preparing her lines, ready for rehearsals, working as hard as anyone else around her; her commitment to the role and project was on another level.”
In turn, Debicki has said that Saeed was "lovely" to work with. “She is a kind and amazing person," says Saeed. "My first scene was with her, and before that, we were asked to rehearse. I was nervous, and she sensed that and started talking to me. She told me that everyone feels nervous when working with a new team for the first time, and even she was a little nervous until she met me. This talk helped. Elizabeth is such a dedicated actor that you cannot help but work harder to deliver your best.”
So what’s next for Pakistan’s most bankable superstar? “I am looking at projects at the moment for TV and films,” says Saeed. “I am also auditioning for international roles. I don’t know what is next, but I am sure whatever it is, it will be good.”
Scroll through more images of The Crown's latest season below