All of the Actresses Who've Played the Inimitable Princess Diana Through the Years

Kristen Stewart is the latest actress planning to shed insight about another aspect of the late Princess of Wales' still unbelievable story

By Natalie Finn Jul 01, 2020 7:00 AMTags
Related: Kristen Stewart Cast to Play Princess Diana

Certain towering public figures have been portrayed numerous times by actors in movies, TV and theater.

Such is what tends to happen when a person leads a life of great import, someone who changed history, who is complex or, at times, downright inscrutable.

Princess Diana, who would have been 59 today, checked all of those boxes. She lived for only 36 years yet has been portrayed by more than a dozen people, mostly in productions centered around her (though sometimes as a supporting player) and always as an object of rapt fascination.

And now, more than 22 years after her death, yet another actress—although perhaps the first who's experienced the sort of paparazzi mob that the Princess of Wales faced off against constantly—has been cast in yet another Diana film, one that aims to get beneath the surface and re-humanize the iconic People's Princess.

Stars Playing Real People

Kristen Stewart "is one of the great actors around today," Pablo Larraíne, who plans to direct the actress in a biopic called Spencer, told Deadline last month. "To do this well, you need something very important in film, which is mystery. Kristin can be many things, and she can be very mysterious and very fragile and ultimately very strong as well, which is what we need. The combination of those elements made me think of her."

Similar to his 2016 film Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as first lady Jacqueline Kennedy navigating the days following her husband's assassination, Spencer will focus on a few pivotal days in Diana's life in 1992 when she had to decide what to do as her marriage to Prince Charles continued its irreversible downward spiral. 

Portman was nominated for an Oscar. If Stewart garners such honors, it will certainly be a first for a Diana movie, none of them so far having been able to rise to the occasion that the late royal's hauntingly powerful—and yes, inimitably juicy—story remains to this day.

But here are the actresses who have embraced the daunting role nevertheless:

Caroline Bliss

In hindsight, it seems as if an eternity went by—14 months after their wedding!—before Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story premiered on ABC in 1982.

But at least audiences got to watch the royal wedding of the century, held July 29, 1981, at St. Paul's Cathedral, all over again.

Nicola Formby

In 1992, the British tabloids were ablaze with headlines about Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, whose marriage to Charles' brother Prince Andrew was also headed down the tubes. The Women of Windsor tackled them both.

Serena Scott Thomas

The 1993 NBC movie Diana: Her True Story was adapted from Andrew Morton's biography of the same name, which utilized tapes the princess made talking about the high and low points of her life as a royal. David Threlfall played Charles.

Julie Cox

A few months before Diana and Charles' divorce was finalized in August 1996 came the made-for-TV movie Princess in Love, co-starring Christopher Bowen as the Prince of Wales. The CBS movie was based on the 1994 book of the same name by Anna Pasternak, which claimed to be the authority on Diana's affair with Capt. James Hewitt (which was first revealed in Andrew Morton's 1992 biography and which she admitted to during her 1995 Panorama interview).

Amy Seccombe

Airing in the U.K. in 1998 Diana: A Tribute to The People's Princess focused on the last year of Diana's life, including her relatively short romance with Harrods heir Dodi Fayed that ended when the two of them were killed in a car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.

Genevieve O'Reilly

The 2007 TLC movie Diana: Last Days of a Princess was promoted as a documentary-style (with artistic license) account of her final days leading up to her death in a car crash in 1997, incorporating real news footage and interviews with scripted dramatic scenes.

The additional inquest demanded by Mohamed Al-Fayed, Dodi's billionaire father, was still ongoing and wouldn't conclude until 2008 with the finding that they were unlawfully killed due to "gross negligence" perpetrated by their driver, who also died in the crash, and the paparazzi who gave chase to their car as they left the Hôtel Ritz in Paris.

Lesley Harcourt

The Scottish actress has a brief appearance as William's late mother as he's watching her in a television interview, which sets the stage for Hallmark Channel's William & Catherine: A Royal Romance.

The fairly pedigreed cable movie (Victor Garber as Charles, Jane Alexander as the queen and Jean Smart as Camilla) aired in August 2011, a few months after Prince William and Kate Middleton's wedding, and was co-written, co-produced and directed by Linda Yellen, who had previously worked on Charles & Diana: A Royal Romance.

Naomi Watts

The 2013 film Diana focused on her complicated relationship with heart surgeon Hasnat Khan and subsequent coupling with Dodi Fayed, which wasn't as serious to Diana as the engagement ring on display at Harrods as a shrine to the ill-fated pair would have one believe.

Asked what compelled her to take on the role, Watts told reporters before the release, "Ultimately, the reason I wanted to say 'no' so much became the reason I wanted to do it as well. I was intrigued by the challenge. I mean, in the beginning I thought, how do you possibly take on the most famous woman of all time when everybody feels they know her so well? How do you take possession of that character? So that was daunting, to use a word of hers…"

Watts, who is originally from the U.K. but spent some formative years in Australia, said she didn't know much about Diana and Khan at all before she read the script, which was based on Kate Snell's 2001 book Diana: Her Last Love.

She also thought twice about accepting due to "the sensitivity of i—how will people feel about this?" Watts continued. "But I realized this story was bound to be told at some point, and how often do we stumble across such fascinating characters? They're quite hard to find as a woman, and one who embodies so many different things—the fragility, but also the great strength, unbelievable charisma, great beauty, wisdom, compassion and empathy. I thought about it and I thought, well I can't say no to this why not seize the opportunity?"

Reviews were not kind and the movie never received an American theatrical release, an experience Watts later shared with her dear friend Nicole Kidman, whose Cannes-to-Lifetime film Grace of Monaco received a royal share of ridicule, too.

Bonnie Soper

The New Zealander appeared in two Lifetime movies about Prince Harry's love life, 2018's Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, which aired about a week before the royal wedding; and 2019's Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal, a melodramatization of the couple's first year of marriage.

Different actors played Harry and Meghan Markle in each, but their Diana was a constant.

"I didn't pay attention to the whole Royal scene—I was a little southern girl," Soper told New Zealand site Stuff in 2018. "However, I do very much recall seeing her in the magazines and seeing this woman hounded by the press. I remember being very interesting by her. Then of course, with the accident, I remember being shocked like the rest of the world and feeling sad, so sad."

Playing Diana was a "pretty amazing experience," she said, and she got an inkling that she might have nailed the audition when another actress there told her she just looked like the real deal.

"She looked at me and was like, 'oh my God, you're just like her. I'm going to read that you were cast,'" Soper recalled. "Then when I went into the room, they were like, 'wow, you're just like her.' Sure I was in character, but it was so nice to have that positive affirmation."

Jeanna de Waal

After two years of preparing, the Bavaria-born, Britain-raised daughter of a South African father and English mother was just beginning previews of the Broadway musical Diana at the Longacre Theater when their run was indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (The show had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in California in March 2019.)

"So, this show is about this once-upon-a-time princess called Diana," De Waal told Theater Mania at a cast event in February 2020, "and she met her fairy-tale prince, who was called Charles. But unbeknownst to her, he had a love on the side who was called Camilla. And the story is the workings of that relationship in a very public spotlight and what came to pass."

De Waal, who's 6 inches shorter than Diana's 5'10", read Andrew Morton's 1992 biography of the Princess of Wales and spent hours studying YouTube videos to get her voice and mannerisms, including her finishing-school-caliber posture, just right.

"When you're trying to portray a painful moment at home, or nursing a baby, you don't want people to be, like, 'She looks like she's in stripper heels,'" De Waal quipped to the New Yorker in early 2020. As to what she observed watching the princess in action in old video footage, the actress noted, "She's fighting, she's surviving, but she's doing those things with her shoulders completely relaxed, and smiling for the cameras."

Asked why she felt Diana's story remained worth telling, De Waal, calling it a "dream role," told Broadway Inbound, "I think the reason people will want to see Diana is because she's still such a huge part of our zeitgeist and a part of our awareness. And I think we want to celebrate her."

Emma Corrin

The British actress joined the upcoming fourth season of The Crown on Netflix and, according to Josh O'Connor, who plays Charles, she was getting along famously before they had to hit pause on production due to coronavirus.

"I mean, there's obviously nothing I can say about the story, but in terms of filming, we just had a great time," he told Harper's Bazaar in November 2019, "and Emma's doing a brilliant job, and it's breathtakingly accurate; she looked the spitting image [of Diana], and it's kind of extraordinary. So that's kind of spooky. We're well into it now.

"We've got many months left, they've got a few episodes in, so it's really exciting. And I think it will be the best yet, actually. I'm really looking forward to finishing that and then getting to share it sometime in 2020, I guess."

"Diana is such a powerful icon, where millions and millions of people, not just women, but many people around the world felt empathy toward her in her life," Larraíne told Deadline. "We decided to get into a story about identity, and around how a woman decides somehow, not to be the queen. She's a woman who, in the journey of the movie, decides and realizes that she wants to be the woman she was before she met Charles."

The director continued, "We believe that this is a movie that could create interest around the planet. This is a beloved, iconic women and we have everything in front of us to do a beautiful movie and we are working very hard to get it made."

Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

At least there will always be a place for a closer look at Princess Diana.

"You would be amazed at how many people have no clue about this story," Erin Davie, who plays Camilla Parker-Bowles in the musical Diana, remarked to Theater Mania at a cast event in February. "I cannot tell you how many times I've told somebody 'I'm working on the Princess Diana musical' and they go, 'Yeah, who was she again?'"

We are amazed, actually. But if there's anything that the litany of Diana-inspired productions have proven so far, it's that there is always more to this story.