Royals fans are likely well-acquainted with Lifetime’s movie series all about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s love story. Following two very successful installments in the franchise, Lifetime is back with part three, “Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace,” which premieres on Labor Day, September 6, 2021.
It’s safe to say that the new movie has a lot of ground to cover. Since 2018’s “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance” and 2019’s “Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal” were released, the real-life Duke and Duchess of Sussex have continued to find themselves in the spotlight, from struggling with a plethora of unwarranted negative press while carrying out their royal duties to making the huge announcement that they were stepping down as senior members of the royal family and later moving to Los Angeles. Luckily, Lifetime’s “Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace” covers all of the behind-the-scenes royal drama that’s taken place over the past two years, even exploring the couple’s groundbreaking interview with Oprah Winfrey.
Ahead of the movie’s release, Nicki Swift caught up with executive producers Michele Weiss and Merideth Finn, who have worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest flicks. Here, they talk all things royal, including whether it was difficult casting actors to play Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and whether a fourth installment of the “Harry & Meghan” franchise is on the way.
“Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace” premieres on Labor Day, September 6 at 8 pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
How the Harry & Meghan franchise came to be
How did you both get involved in the “Harry & Meghan” franchise? And do you have any thoughts on the real royal family?
Merideth Finn: Well, the first movie, actually, we got an incoming call from Lifetime, with whom we have a great relationship. We love working with them. And the executive at the time said, “Hey, what do you think about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle? Do you think there’s a movie there?” And we did a quick powwow and were like, “Absolutely, that’s a love story.” So, I mean, I’ll speak for myself. I was a very casual royal family fan. I mentioned that I had lived in London for a brief time. And so I had a little bit of an up-close experience with how important they can be, and how important they are there. And so I was always kind of a casual fan. And I loved, of course, like probably every woman our age, younger and older, Princess Diana, and watched that wedding.
Michele Weiss: Yeah. I mean, for me, I was only vague. I knew who Meghan Markle was when they first talked about it. And I was aware that she was dating Prince Harry, but I hadn’t really delved into the specifics. And of course, like most people growing up very affected by Prince Harry as a boy, and having, unfortunately, witnessed that tragedy. And so just seeing the story of these two people coming together, it almost felt like something you couldn’t write, that you couldn’t make that up. And it just seemed like a great story, honestly. And the fact that it was true was even better. … But of course, once we got involved in that movie, then we became real royal watchers, and we really read up, and really listened to and watched everything that we could as the story unfolded.
So would you describe yourself as Meghan and Harry fans?
Finn: Definitely. I mean, I think fans, but also, we fell in love with the couple, and kind of got really interested in the whole world of the family. And now we read everything we can. And I would say, throughout all of these movies, we’ve sort of kept a Google document of all the interesting stuff that we read, and then we have a link to it, which has ended up being really helpful when we go to legally annotate these scripts. We have a place where we found all of the information the past few years. But I think it’s funny … we’ve had some really big fans that have worked on the movies, actually, which has been fun. And then people who weren’t fans, even — I would say the grips. Some, they end up coming over and saying to us, “Oh, I didn’t know how interesting they were, and I didn’t understand their story.” And it does really tend to grab everybody once they know a little bit more.
Finding actors to play the royal family was challenging
In particular, the actors playing Meghan and Kate sound exactly like the people they’re playing. What was the casting process like and was anyone particularly difficult to cast?
Michele Weiss: Merideth and I have often talked about how it’s funny, because it seems like it would be difficult. I mean, it is difficult to cast, always difficult to cast, to find great actors, but often, because the people they’re portraying are so in the public eye, and people get a sense of their cadence, and how they speak, and then in addition to that, because Meghan [Markle] and [Prince] Harry look so different from each other, we’ve often found that if we find two people with good chemistry with each other, who sort of generally fit the bill and are really trying to sort of capture something about the people they’re representing, that we feel like we’ve been fortunate. And what works for us is that people have said, “Oh, this is the one that you cast that we think is the most like Meghan.” But people don’t agree on which one that is, suggesting that they each capture something.
Merideth Finn: Yeah. I would say when we first got Parisa Fitz-Henley [for “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance”], I mean, we saw a lot of actors, obviously for all of them, we’ve seen loads of Meghans for each of these films, and Parisa had this sort of voice that really captured her. And Tiffany Smith [of “Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal”] had mannerisms, and in a lot of ways maybe looks the most like her, of the three of them, possibly…
Weiss: Oh, I disagree, but yes.
Finn: Right. You can disagree. And it’s hard, because obviously Parisa was the first. So, in a lot of ways, for Miche and I, she’s always going to be the original, but they all have brought something special and different. And I would totally agree with you, that for Sydney Morton [in “Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace”], it was her voice. I couldn’t believe when she opened her mouth in her taped audition, it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m listening to her.” And also she had that quiet confidence that Meghan has and she carries with her.
Weiss: Yeah. The thoughtful way of delivering what she’s saying, you know? Our hope is always, by the way, that you get engrossed enough in the story, and interested enough in the characters, that there’s a buy-in right at the beginning, where you have to accept that this is Meghan, and this is Harry, but that hopefully, the story will — you can forget about that once you start watching these two characters.
On exploring royal brotherly conflict in Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace
Was it intentional to have different actors playing Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in each movie? Is it like an anthology series in that way?
Merideth Finn: Well, honestly, we certainly didn’t know we would be making three movies when we started. And when we cast Parisa and Murray [Fraser in “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance”], it was like, “How did we do it? How did we find people that were like them?” And then when they wanted to make a second one, we couldn’t get Parisa back because she was off making Hollywood films. And so at that point, it was like, “Okay, now it’s an adventure. Now we’re going to find another Harry and Meghan.” And then you’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe we did this again.” And then the third time, it was like, “We know we got this. We know we’re going to find people that are great.” And what was so lucky for us — I mean, unlucky for everybody was COVID-19, but we were so lucky to get Sydney Morton and Jordan Dean, because they’re both theater actors. And they would never have been in the available pool of actors normally for us. And they were so good, and we felt really lucky to grab them.
At times, it seems as though Prince William is the villain in “Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace.” Was that intentional? Are you expecting any pushback from the Palace on the way any of the royals are portrayed?
Michele Weiss: It’s interesting. Our goal was to try to present both sides. Two people with different roles to play, and different histories. And we’re empathetic to the position that William is in. He is the one who’s carrying the weight of monarchy on his shoulders. And he’s had a role to play his whole life, and he doesn’t have a choice in that role, really. Obviously it’s a drama, you want to see the conflict, but we did try to show both sides, and to show that both of these brothers are, as they say at one point, William needs to protect the monarchy and we need to protect our family, and it can pit them against each other — or their purposes against each other. But we’re fans of Will, as well.
Finn: Yeah, we are. I would say, I would agree that we don’t see him as a villain, if there is a villain. And in every good movie there’s conflict, so we really saw the villains as the press, and as the Firm, the sort of management.
Finn: The machine.
I’m probably projecting my own British opinion onto this…
Finn: Totally. And you will. And the Americans see it one way, and certain British people will see it another way. And that’s one of the fun things.
Recreating royal tension onscreen wasn't always easy
Obviously, as members of the public, we’ve watched a lot of these situations play out in real life, but you have to recreate what happened behind the scenes, in some of those private discussions. How did the writers decide what might have happened or been said? That must’ve been quite difficult.
Michele Weiss: One of the things that made this a little bit easier is that Meghan [Markle] and [Prince] Harry are so public. They’ve said so much in the press, and they speak at charity events. You get a sense of where their heads are at, and what’s going on. They’ve done interviews, that kind of thing. So to some extent, that’s helpful. And then to some extent, it’s also just sort of imagining, like when we talk about the different role that Prince William inherited, you can imagine how that conversation might have unfolded given what Harry has said, the statements he’s made in the press about feeling like he hasn’t been supported, and the position that the Palace often takes about kind of staying above the fray. So I think our writer, Scarlett Lacey — she’s also a Brit, but she lives in Los Angeles and she’s American — so she has, I think, an interesting sort of insight into both sides. So that was also helpful.
Some of those conversations were really tense to watch. Especially when the queen sits down with everybody.
Merideth Finn: That’s my favorite scene of the film. I love that scene. And kind of a fun backstory about that scene was before we had blocked that scene, those three actors had come in and were just sitting on that couch, waiting for Maggie Sullivun, our queen. And that’s where Michele and I were sitting, we’re like, “Ooh, to just be sitting on that couch.”
Weiss: Yeah. That’s my favorite thing is that we see them sitting there like school boys in trouble.
Finn: We had this humongous room, put them anywhere, and we’re like, “Oh no, no, no, they’re right there on that couch.”
Weiss: “On this loveseat.”
Finn: “… Right next to each other.” I mean, I also think, just to dovetail what Michelle said, is Scarlett [Lacey], Michelle, and I talked a lot about how ultimately these are just people in difficult circumstances. So anybody can imagine what it’s like when you have to go and meet your in-laws for the first time. Right? But imagine if your in-laws were Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Imagine if all of a sudden you were in the same family with Queen Elizabeth II. So there is the accessible part of just being a human being in a couple that people can relate to, and then there are the circumstances. So we had a lot of conversations like that. What would it be like if…?
Prince Charles was great in that scene, as well, because he was obviously so scared. It came across very well.
Finn: Steve Coulter is such a gifted actor, and he brings so much natural comedy. He’s just so … he has incredible poise, but he’s such a good actor, and he is also so fun to have on set, because he’s just naturally funny.
Weiss: And empathetic.
Finn: So everybody loves to be around him. Yes. And empathetic.
Merideth Finn and Michele Weiss have worked with some of Hollywood's biggest stars
You’ve both had really impressive careers to date, and worked on some huge Hollywood movies. Michele, you worked on “He’s Just Not That Into You,” “How To Be Single,” and “Little Children,” for instance. And Merideth, you worked on “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Hall Pass.” What are some of the standout moments from your careers?
Michele Weiss: Yes. It’s funny. My children just watched “He’s Just Not That Into You.” They were too young when it came out. And it was nice having my children be impressed by the cast of that movie, because it was impressive when we assembled that cast. And then it’s only gotten more impressive because some of those people were … I mean, some of them were very well known, but Bradley Cooper was not so known when we cast that movie. One of the things that I feel like is most gratifying is working with writers and directors who really become a team and you’re working on a movie. And that was true with “He’s Just Not That Into You,” and honestly, that’s been true through this series of movies. I mean, on these movies, we worked with the same director, the same writers, a lot of our same key crew, the production designer, the DP, and that really makes it kind of satisfying. Like a team.
And that’s quite rare to bring back all the same people again.
Merideth Finn: Yeah. You probably could tell that Miche and I both worked at New Line Cinema, and then Warner Brothers for a long time. I was there for almost 13 years. And Miche was there almost that long, and she worked in Los Angeles, and I worked in New York. And each of us tended to work — not always, but more often than not — developing books. So “The Rite” was something that I developed at New Line, which was wonderful. That was Anthony Hopkins. And then, of course, “My Sister’s Keeper” — I’m just such a huge fan of Jodi Picoult’s books. So that was such an honor to work with her. And that really is something that we both love to do. We just love to work with books, and have that primary source material that is so rich, and brings so much to it, and then find the team that will make it, give it its next life, the life of the movie. Or even “Flowers in the Attic.” I mean that was a book, of course, that was really important to us as young people. And the film that was originally made for it, the feature film, doesn’t exactly reflect the book, actually. It’s just, I think, probably a sign of the times that it was not able to really go there the way the book does. So when we had the opportunity to do “Flowers in the Attic” at Lifetime, we really wanted to do a real translation. We wanted to really represent the book. And that was such an honor to be able to do that.
Fans will have to 'wait and see' if there's a fourth installment in the Harry & Meghan series
So what’s next for both of you? Will that be another “Harry & Meghan” movie? Are you developing any other projects?
Michele Weiss: Well, we’re always looking at other projects. With each “Harry & Meghan,” we didn’t necessarily know there would be another, and this story just keeps taking so many turns that are surprising, and good stories. So we’ll see, we’ll see what happens next there.
Merideth Finn: Yeah. We were developing some television series that we’re going to be pitching, and then we always have a couple movies that we’re working on. And so, you never know what will go next and what will get bought, but we have a lot of irons in the fire, so to speak. And yeah, I would agree that [with] “Harry & Meghan,” you feel satisfied that there are three of them, because, I mean, truly after the second one, it didn’t feel like the story was over for sure, I think.
Weiss: And we had a sense of where it was going. I don’t know if you saw the second movie, but in our second movie we had a fictional character sort of loosely based on…
Finn: Piers Morgan.
Weiss: Inspired by.
Finn: Inspired by, who walked off his show, right? We had it happen [in “Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal”] before it happened. We feel a certain amount of satisfaction that we made three [“Harry & Meghan” movies], and that we feel like this story has had a kind of lovely trajectory for everybody. But yeah, who knows what will happen? It’s possible that another movie will sort of demand itself, but I think we just have to wait and see.
Is there anything else you want readers to know?
Finn: Just watch it. We want people to see it, and see the three of them. Watch all of them, but definitely watch the new one. We’re excited for people to see it.
“Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace” premieres on Labor Day, September 6 at 8 pm ET/PT on Lifetime.
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