Instep Today

Crowning glory

Instep Today
By Sameen Amer
Sun, 11, 22

Humayun Saeed talks to Instep about his appearance in the latest season of The Crown and navigating success on both the big screen and the small

The actor made his international debut this year in the fifth season of The Crown, portraying Dr. Hasnat Khan, the boyfriend of Princess Diana. (Photo credit: Netflix)
The actor made his international debut this year in the fifth season of The Crown, portraying Dr. Hasnat Khan, the boyfriend of Princess Diana. (Photo credit: Netflix)

It’s the year 1995. Relations between Prince Charles – the heir apparent to the British throne – and his estranged wife, Princess Diana, are becoming increasingly strained. What started with a fairytale wedding is now inching towards a nightmare divorce. The very public airing of dirty laundry is giving the House of Windsor a splitting headache, and Queen Elizabeth has supposedly advised that her eldest son and his bride of nearly a decade and a half officially part ways. Amidst all this royal drama, Diana has formed an attachment with a British Pakistani heart surgeon, Dr. Hasnat Khan. Their friendship soon blossoms into a relationship. 

It is one of the most highly-publicized romances of the princess’s life, and now, nearly a quarter century later, it is one of the storylines in the latest season of the massively popular Netflix series The Crown, a show that has taken the endless supply of drama that spills out of the British monarchy, plumped it up with a generous dose of imagination, and turned it into riveting television.

Netflix’s crown jewel

Centered primarily on Queen Elizabeth II, the series has charted the life of the now-late sovereign and her family from the 1940s onwards, with wholesale recasting every two seasons. Now in its fifth and penultimate season, the show has arrived at the ‘90s, a challenging decade for the British royals, when tumult and scandals were frequently rocking the monarchy and gossip mills were in perpetual overdrive.

It’s the latest 10 episode batch – not yet released as I write these words but out by the time you’re reading them – of Peter Morgan’s series, and the entire cast has, once again, been overhauled. But perhaps what is most pertinent this time around, at least from a Pakistani perspective, is the presence of a very familiar face: that of the great Humayun Saeed, one of the most prominent names in our industry. He is portraying the aforementioned Hasnat Khan, the doctor who won the Princess of Wales’ heart and had a two-year relationship with her that ended just weeks prior to her untimely death in 1997.

It’s a relatively short but vital role – Humayun appears in episodes seven and eight of season five – and one that gives the performer an excellent chance to make an international mark, a chance that came about when talent collided with serendipity.

A right royal role

“It all started with a call from Hamid Hussain, who is now my talent agent,” the actor tells Instep. “I knew him from before. He used to manage Bollywood star Nargis Fakhri, and some time ago, before the COVID pandemic, I was planning to work with her on one of my projects.” That project did not pan out, but Humayun and Hamid remained in touch. An altogether different opportunity eventually presented itself. “One evening, out of the blue, I got a call from Hamid, who was in London then, and he told me he wanted me to audition for a role. Before he could tell me about the part, I was required to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), and then when he shared details, I was pleasantly surprised.”

Then came the audition. “I had not auditioned after my first project, so recording my audition was a unique experience this time,” Humayun reveals. “Soon after this, I had online reading sessions with the director and then Elizabeth Debicki [who portrays Diana]. After this Hamid disappeared for a good ten days and I assumed that maybe the role went to someone else, but then I got a call from him on the tenth day confirming my selection for The Crown!”

And so he landed a role on one of the most critically acclaimed shows in the world, and with the part came the challenge of portraying a real life person on screen. Did he feel any extra pressure or added responsibility, given that the character was based on an actual person? “As an actor, this is the first time I am playing a character based on a real life person and it is challenging to pick up someone’s persona and to portray that person accurately on screen,” he replies. “Dr. Hasnat Khan is known to a lot of people due to his connection with Princess Diana. Everyone has their own feelings about public figures and a sort of attachment to them, so portraying a real life character always builds extra pressure as you are always thinking, what will people think about this, what will the real Dr. Hasnat Khan think about this?”

Humayun describes Hasnat as “an ordinary looking, introverted man who was the total opposite of Princess Diana,” and feels that it was his simplicity that brought the two closer.

To prepare for the part, the actor had to learn more about the man that inspired his character. The show’s creatives shared their research with the performer, and Humayun even had to attend a workshop with a real life surgeon to understand how a surgeon would react and behave in a hospital setup and operating room. He also had to alter his appearances and style to match that of the person he was portraying. “For this role, I look completely different,” he says. “I have a specific hairstyle. The way I talk and act is all based on what I understood from the research material. I even put on some weight for this role.”

It also helped that the actor was performing alongside the very talented Elizabeth Debicki, the Diana to his Hasnat. “She is an amazing co-star,” Humayun gushes. “Most of my scenes in the show are with her and the director had done a joint online reading session with us to see our chemistry before I was confirmed for the role, so we had already interacted with each other before we met on the first day on set. She is so particular about everything, and the effort she puts into her performance and preparing for it totally amazed me. In our conversations, I spoke about Pakistan and she wanted to know more about our culture, our people, and also our entertainment industry.”

King of the hill

Speaking of our industry, how different was the experience of working on a foreign show like The Crown versus working on local projects? “It is never fair to compare a production like The Crown to Pakistani productions as they work on different scales,” the actor answers. “Having said that, there is definitely a lot for us to learn,” he concedes. “I feel that the perfection that I saw on The Crown‘s production was on the next level. There were so many people on set, but everyone knew what they had to do and they were doing it all effortlessly. We need to learn and bring this level of professionalism to our industry.”

Humayun has unique insight into the workings of our entertainment industry. Not only is he one of the reigning stars of both film and TV in Pakistan – having appeared in movies like Bin Roye (2015), Jawani Phir Nahi Ani (2015), and Punjab Nahi Jaungi (2017), and television dramas including Uraan (2010 – 2011), Dil Lagi (2016), and Meray Paas Tum Ho (2019 – 2020), and winning numerous awards along the way – he also runs the Six Sigma Plus media production house and has witnessed the evolution of our industry firsthand over the last three decades. “From the 1990s to now, the industry has evolved. We have definitely come a long way. But there is still a lot that needs to be done,” he opines. “This year has been a good year for the film industry and I am hopeful this will give producers the courage to make bigger and better films. Our digital OTT (over-the-top) landscape is still in its nascent stage and that will also need to be developed to open more opportunities.”

As for which medium he prefers to work in, the actors says he finds movies and television both challenging and rewarding in their own way. “I have never felt that one is more rewarding than the other,” he explains, “and thus I have always maintained my relationship with both. Also, it is difficult for me to choose as my fans have loved me on both mediums and given me just as much love for my TV series as they have for my films. And at the end of the day this love and appreciation is the biggest reward.”

That is precisely how he defines success – he thinks it lies in the love, appreciation, and recognition he and his work receive from fans and people in general. “I don’t do work with the intention of how successful that project will be or how successful I will be after that. I do work that I feel strongly about. It’s the same case with The Crown. It is a guest role, but I felt strongly about it and thus I went ahead with it. I didn’t want to see how many scenes I will have or how many dialogues I will say; I did it as I felt strongly about it. And fortunately this thought process has always worked for me and people have loved my work.”

What’s next for Humayun? He is looking at some interesting projects at the moment, he tells us, and has also done other international auditions recently as well. “I am not sure what will be next,” he says, “but I know one thing for sure: whatever I do, it will be really good!”