On the screen before me, Emma Corrin looks as though they could be posing for a painting. The 26-year-old actor is curled up in a chair before a large bay window, illuminated by string lights, when something offscreen catches their attention, breaking their contemplative stillness. Suddenly, Corrin scoops their dog Spencer onto their lap, lavishing him with pets as we continue our chat.
“He’s watching the rain like a Tumblr girl,” Corrin says of their pooch, who is staring pensively at the volatile London sky, which is turning from a bright blue to a muddled gray in real time. “He’s thinking about his recent heartbreak, just having a moment.” Corrin made their film debut in Cesare in 2017, and proceeded to appear in television roles in Grantchester and Pennyworth, but they procured their beloved pup after landing their global breakthrough role—the Golden Globe-winning portrayal of Lady Diana Spencer—on The Crown. Any relation to their dog’s name? The actor nods bashfully, their platinum blond fringe falling over their face, obscuring their embarrassment. “I regret it a lot,” they admit. The moniker was a joke they made with their friends which, one day, wasn’t so much of a joke anymore. “He is more known as Spence,” Corrin offers.
Though they’ve only had him for a few years, Spencer has served as a grounding force for Corrin, who was born in Kent, England, since they were announced as The Crown’s Diana in 2019. Being swept up in the hubbub of a Netflix juggernaut is something most actors can only dream of. But taking on the portrayal of one of the most iconic and nuanced public figures of the last century comes with its own set of stressors—not to mention the existing difficulties of everyday life. Thankfully, though, that’s where Spencer steps in. “The moments I feel overwhelmed or depressed or that I can’t get out of bed, and everything feels too much, there’s this pull that’s like, ‘Take me outside, pay me attention.’ And it’s the best thing because you have to—you can’t ignore it,” Corrin says.
The role of Princess Di somewhat prophetically stripped Corrin of their anonymity, and thrust them into the public arena. Their profile only continues to rise with their hotly anticipated drama My Policeman. The actor is also headlining an adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, premiering on Netflix on December 2, as well as a forthcoming production of Orlando at the Garrick Theatre in the West End from November 25 through February 25, 2023.
The adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ 2012 novel chronicles police officer Tom Burgess’s (Harry Styles) marriage to schoolteacher Marion (Corrin) while he simultaneously juggles an illicit affair with their friend, curator Patrick Hazlewood (David Dawson). The story is just as much about romantic love as it is platonic love, and the ways in which we stand in the way of, and inevitably give way to our truths. “I thought that it was such a beautiful ensemble story, and it explores so many versions of what love means to different people and how love can exist. I think it’s rare that you see that in books or films,” Corrin says. “I think that, even if it’s not intentional, even if Marion wanted more, what she and Tom end up having is this deep bond of friendship and trust in each other.”
Playing a woman scorned by her husband’s affair isn’t exactly uncharted territory for Corrin. But in My Policeman, Marion’s naïveté in conjunction with the social conservatism of the 1950s has led the actor to tackle a role that is diametrically opposed to their 2022 sensibilities. In one of the most devastating moments of the film, Marion, enraged and heartbroken by Tom’s love for Patrick, mails a letter to the police that exposes Patrick’s sexuality, forcing him through a humiliating trial, and lands him in prison.
While the gravity of the moment was initially lost on Marion, it is not lost on Corrin, who, in their lifetime, has witnessed a drastic change in social and political attitudes surrounding queerness. In 1967, British Parliament passed the Sexual Offences Act, which many celebrate as the decriminalization of gay relationships. However, Corrin was born in a time when, despite some legislative progress, people were still persecuted for their sexuality. They were 18 years old when same-sex marriage was legalized in the United Kingdom. Legal recognition of gay marriage is not equivalent to full-fledged equality either. In the UK, according to Stonewall, one in five LGBTQ+ people has faced a hate crime because of their gender and/or sexual identity in the last year; two in five transgender people have faced a hate crime in the last year.
As a queer, nonbinary person, Corrin’s character’s actions fly in the face of their very existence. The actor concedes that playing someone with such backwards beliefs—even if just expressed out of hurt—felt strange. “The words coming out of your mouth are so the opposite of what you believe in, what you’re advocating for every day of your life,” they say. “But it’s so interesting because Marion is such a product of her time. I don’t think she’s had the exposure or this experience yet to come up against these beliefs, these ways of thinking that have been drummed into her.”
It was Marion’s episode of rashness and, ultimately, her inability to deny Tom and Patrick’s love that drew Corrin to the character. “In that moment, I don’t think it’s got much to do with [homophobia] at all. I think it’s a fear of losing this person that she loves. And it’s an insane amount of hurt, and pride, and the heartbreak that comes with falling, being heartbroken, and it makes everyone say insane things.” In fact, they made the choice to play the moment as a swirling internal conflict coming to a head, a realization that Marion’s innate knowledge that Tom and Patrick belong together overpowers her contrary upbringing. “I really hope this came across [onscreen], that she’s so convinced within herself, that she’s trying to persuade herself that this is wrong because she knows that it’s not what terrifies her that is real. That these two people are in love, that her husband loves someone else who is a man and she knows it’s true, and she knows that they should be together. And there’s nothing she can do.”
Though Corrin’s character begins on the wrong side of history, Marion ends the film decades down the line by inviting an ailing Patrick into the couple’s home, and leaving her marriage behind in order to give the two men their deserved shot at a life together. “It’s devastating, but also so that he can be happy at last with Patrick, and that’s a testament to fondness for both of them,” Corrin says. “I just thought it was really touching and complex.” Despite the violence against queer people and heartbreaking series of events that concern the plot, the actor looks at My Policeman holistically, and considers it a win for queer narratives. “To be part of such a beautiful queer story was really the most beautiful thing, especially one which ultimately celebrates that love and interrogates it, and interrogates what was going on at that time,” they say. “So actually, it didn’t ever feel hugely conflicting, because the message of the film is love.”
Though on the surface it seems there are light years between Marion and Corrin, the actor found a universal approach to slipping into Marion’s life. Instead of channeling the hurt and anger that Marion feels, Corrin began from a place of love: “Maybe when you experience—especially in Marion’s case—that first time you love someone. It’s so all-consuming, and I don’t think any of us ever really forget that feeling.”
While Marion’s Judas-like betrayal of Patrick, and their older selves trying to correct past misdeeds, are tent poles of the plot, Styles as Tom offers a certain innocence to the role. At this point, it feels almost obstinate not to mention Styles, particularly in connection to Corrin. The popstar has faced some eviscerating reviews for his performance in Don’t Worry Darling, and similar scrutiny has begun to surround My Policeman. But for Corrin, their megawatt costar was more than the deified musician trying his hand at acting. The two were already friends, introduced by their mutual stylist, Harry Lambert, who regularly lands both clients significant sartorial coverage. It’s no wonder that Styles and Corrin share an affinity for Lambert’s bold choices, as both stars have made waves for their boundary-pushing approaches to gender and fashion. “[Lambert has a] bravery and boldness and a huge imagination. I think he’s willing to go places that other stylists don’t, and I think that’s so much fun,” Corrin says. “Especially if you’re on such a journey of self-discovery, I felt it’s fun to have someone who puts you in things that take you out of your comfort zone.”
In 2020, during an appearance on The Tonight Show, Corrin told Jimmy Fallon that Styles once dog-sat for Spencer, but otherwise they’ve remained pretty mum on their friendship. But in preparation for their frigid aquatic scenes in My Policeman, they share that the two regularly swam together near their home in North London. Though Styles and Corrin are both avid cold water swimmers, many of the scenes set to film at Brighton Beach were cut due to dangerous water temperatures. “I go normally in the winter, which is mental, I know, but it’s quite exhilarating,” they admit. Even though the pair had to forgo their frigid dips, Corrin looks back fondly on their bonding experience with Styles. “We would go for swims in the pond and Hampstead Heath to try and get acclimatized during the winter, so we both started doing that in February,” they say. “We were like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna go every morning before rehearsals so that, when it comes to filming, we can brave the ocean.” Corrin swears by their cold water dips. “It’s kind of the best feeling. It wakes you up like nothing else. Also, the first sip of hot coffee after you’ve been in cold water is the best feeling, it’s so good.”
My Policeman isn’t Corrin’s only recent role that tackles the nuances of gender and sexuality. The actor also stars in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a Netflix adaptation of the 1928 book by D.H. Lawrence. Both the source material and the film are unflinching in their depiction of sexuality—the novel faced (and won) an obscenity trial that launched it into notoriety. “It has the most poignant and powerful exploration of female pleasure that I’ve seen, really, which is remarkable that it was written by a guy,” Corrin says.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover follows Constance (Corrin) during her unfulfilling marriage to Sir Clifford Chatterley (Matthew Duckett) and her subsequent affair with their gamekeeper Oliver Mellors (Jack O’Connell). The film, which was shot in September 2021, is one that Corrin describes as both timely and timeless. “We really wanted to put that at the forefront of a very honest portrayal of what it is to be a woman and to be denied your own pleasure, and to go on this discovery of your autonomy of your body and control over your own body, within a love story,” Corrin says. With the United States Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, the themes of sexual and bodily autonomy are even more resonant. “The goal was to make it feel like it could exist in any time, and that the characters could speak to people and their experiences today, especially women’s experiences of having power and control of their own bodies.” Lady Chatterley’s Lover joins a swelling movement in film and television to offer more incisive glimpses into female sexuality.
The notion that desire and unapologetic pleasure is still so taboo is baffling to Corrin. “For Connie (Constance), she was fighting against feeling trapped and being made to feel ashamed of what she needed, what her body needed,” they say. One of the most famous scenes from the book finds Connie and Oliver running naked together in the rain. Corrin recalls filming last October in Wales, under the torrent of six rain machines, surrounded by strangers. While the experience is intimidating, to say the least, looking back, Corrin is immensely proud of the bravery that is borne out of such vulnerability. “It’s the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life, I think, but it was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done,” they say. “To know that I can let go and do that, it was remarkable.”
Though they are portraying a heterosexual woman in both My Policeman and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Corrin was fascinated by the lens they were able to take to womanhood as a queer, nonbinary actor. “Being nonbinary and playing female characters, there’s a nice element of separation,” they say. “I feel very different from the characters I play, which also gives me license to explore that character’s journey with a lot of inquiry, a lot of questioning, and to really critique it. My queerness is not a rejection of that, but an embrace of it and everything that comes with that fluidity. It feels like being more sure of who I am.”
Corrin also brings their lived experience to the stage production of Orlando, which they are set to begin staging not long after our conversation. Virginia Woolf’s feminist mainstay follows the titular Orlando, who at the age of 30, suddenly metamorphosizes into a woman. “I think one of the iconic literary explorations into queerness and into fluidity,” they say. “This person just drifts between times and places and people and genders. It’s so beautiful, I think it’s such a celebration of queer expression and queer love. It’ll be fun to celebrate that every night.”
The past few years have been a personal reckoning into gender and sexuality for Corrin, both personally and professionally. I assumed it might be frustrating for Corrin, who has garnered a reputation for period pieces, to constantly return to an often stormy time that does not yet recognize them as they are. But the actor looks at their life as the impetus of their character choices, rather than a limitation: “Even if these characters aren’t specifically queer, I think amongst the people in the world you have the real visceral struggle with self-knowledge.”
Photographed by Federico De Angelis
Styled by Mui-Hai Chu
Written by Hannah Jackson
Hair: Cia Mandarello at P1M
Makeup: Marcello Gutierrez at Bryan Artists
Style Assistant: Ayesha Raza
Location: Casa Loma, Toronto