Lifetime

On May 19, the most publicized wedding of the year will be telecast worldwide, and millions will tune in to watch as the British royal family openly accepts its first member of African descent, Meghan Markle.

Of course, for royal-watchers, no contemporary marriage of this magnitude would be complete without the attendant Lifetime movie to chronicle and dramatize the union—see 2011’s blockbuster TV movie William & Kate (reairing on the network next week, if you’d like a refresher).

The improbable love story of Prince Harry and now-former Suits actress Meghan Markle (who met on a blind date) is no different, and accordingly inspired its own biopic, Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, which premieres this Sunday.

So how do you find the ideal actress to play an actress-turned-future princess (OK, duchess)?

Following the official engagement announcement, casting director Kerrie Mailey had a mere three weeks to find the pair of actors who could best embody one of the world’s most-talked-about couples, telling the Lifetime cameras: “As a casting director, what you strive to find is someone that gives you goosebumps, someone that you know is gonna rock this role. … So yeah, the pressure was on to find the perfect people.”

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The perfect actress to play Meghan Markle turned out to be Parisa Fitz-Henley, widely known to small-screen fans through her role as Reva Connors in Netflix’s Marvel hits Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, as well as for her starring role as Fiji Cavanaugh on NBC’s fantasy drama Midnight, Texas.

Parisa Fitz-Henley in 2018
Photo: Courtesy of ImPRINT PR

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Full disclosure: Parisa Fitz-Henley and I first met and worked together about 15 years ago as models. In the years since, I’ve watched her growing profile as an actress, and immediately reached out when I heard she’d landed the coveted role of Meghan Markle (for which she seemed perfectly cast, in my opinion). After much squealing and excitement over reconnecting, we settled in to chat about why she wanted to play this role; the responsibility she feels portraying such a public, real-life person; and how she hopes her portrayal will be received by the public—and, perhaps, the palace.

Funnily, Fitz-Henley isn’t a royal-watcher; in fact, she tends to eschew celebrity culture altogether. But something strange happened when, at the urging of friends, she watched the real-life couple’s almost unbearably adorable post-engagement BBC interview:

When I saw it, I was just so intrigued by the way that [Meghan] presented herself, and the way that they seemed as a couple. And so I said to my manager, “If they ever make a movie about her, I’d love to audition for it.”

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That initiative would pay off for Fitz-Henley when she won the role of Markle (in a very meta moment, Markle’s agents included Markle herself on the list of actresses who could portray her in the film).

Like the woman she portrays, the Jamaican-born Fitz-Henley is not only an actress but also a mixed-race woman and humanitarian. Also, like Markle, she is typically very private about her private life—an empathy that perhaps makes her uniquely suited for this role, as she told us:

I definitely could relate to her at the beginning of this, because we’re both biracial—we both have similar kinds [of] feelings about that, and about the way the world has perceived us—and we’ve had some similar experiences in life; similar interests in our careers. ...

We have these similarities, and then, being part of this project just adds to it; because there’s been so much attention on them, it bounces onto our project—it meant that within days of us starting production, we had paparazzi on set—immediately, people were speculating that my relationship with my co-star [Murray Fraser] was more than professional [some outlets even erroneously reported that the co-workers are engaged]. ... So you start to see how people intrude, and see how people use your real life as their very precarious foundation for their stories about you. ... It’s been really interesting walking in her shoes for a little bit.

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Walking in Markle’s shoes also meant choosing her research carefully; while Fitz-Henley read much of Markle’s own writing and absorbed as much content and footage as possible, she refused to rely on the more sensationalistic aspects of Markle’s recent publicity to help form her vision of the woman she’d be portraying:

Listening to people who claim to be someone’s friend [or family] dishing their stuff about them means that they’re immediately not trustworthy, and I can’t really take anything that they’re saying seriously as research for myself. So, what was important for me was just to observe her as much as possible ... this is really just an homage to her and to them as a couple.

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As casting director Mailey noted: “I think with Meghan, it was mostly just seeing her vulnerability. A lot of people see her as this strong, independent woman, and sometimes, it was nice to see the vulnerability come out, which was so vital to the movie.”

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Fitz-Henley agreed, saying:

I want to play roles of fully fleshed-out, interesting human beings. ... We haven’t shied away from any of the challenges they’ve faced; whether it’s family, or the public, or even the challenges they have within themselves. I mean, that’s the thing: Human beings are not perfect, and we don’t show either of these people as perfect human beings ... we get to see them as full people, and we see their experience as a full experience ...

My excitement wasn’t just about playing Meghan Markle, it was about addressing the story in a way that I respected, [and] the script did that for me. ... When I read the script, I was really moved by how straightforward and accurate it felt, and how much goodwill there was in it.

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But believe it or not, this isn’t the first member of Britain’s royal family Fitz-Henley has portrayed. In Tina Andrews’ stage play Buckingham, she performed the very real-life role of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III (recently immortalized in the musical Hamilton; ironically, Charlottesville, S.C., is named for his queen). Queen Charlotte was purportedly descended from a black branch of the Portuguese royal family, and is believed by many to actually be the first mixed-race woman in the royal family, which, if true, means that her descendants are as well. As Fitz-Henley noted:

In one way, [this] feels like a full-circle moment, and in keeping with the movements of the royal family in general, they seem to be—in all their grandeur—regular human beings, and regular human beings all around the world right now, many of them are choosing to move more towards the idea that we’re all one family, and that distinctions are much less important than we thought they were.

But the significance and controversy over Markle’s race is in no way lost on the actress portraying her; Fitz-Henley admits to also being grateful for the “gross stuff” that has surfaced, saying, “These conversations need to be had; people need to be showing out in public so we can see what’s going on in the world. ... This is an invitation for people to show their behinds, and I’m grateful for that.”

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She’s also not naive about her own presence as a biracial actress in Hollywood, and her place in the growing discussion about decades of colorism within its ranks. She admits to feeling conflicted, even as she is playing roles she enjoys.

It’s a—forgive the pun—mixed experience ... I definitely look and get frustrated when I see the level of colorism that we have in our industry. ... I do think there’s more awareness around it, which makes me happy, but I’m tired of seeing biracial women exclusively playing roles as black women. I’m tired of seeing people think that the lighter your skin is, the straighter your hair is, the thinner your nose is, the more acceptable you are; the more relatable you are. I don’t like that; I get bored. ... I don’t see enough difference on-screen, and that’s not good for me. ... We need to see all of us, or we will always have an incomplete picture of what our reality is.

And should Markle ever watch Lifetime’s tribute, what does Fitz-Henley hope the newest member of the royal family will think of her portrayal, and the network’s own inevitably incomplete picture?

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“I hope that she would feel like I approached her respectfully, and I hope she would laugh at everything we didn’t get right,” Fitz-Henley said. “I hope she would have a good time—she deserves it.”

Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance premieres Sunday, May 13, at 8 p.m. EDT on Lifetime.