Eventually, the photographs of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed on the wall of the makeup trailer started to invoke more than cosmetic inspiration.
"They were up there and you're familiar with them," Khalid Abdalla, who portrays Diana's final suitor in The Crown, exclusively told E! News ahead of the Nov. 16 premiere of the Netflix series' sixth and final season. "But then gradually, as we keep filming, I'm like, 'Oh, I've been in that outfit' and 'I've been in that place.' This is becoming my family album. I've got this body memory of all of it."
As if playing one half of the doomed pair wasn't already daunting enough. Abdalla and Elizabeth Debicki, Emmy-nominated for her turn as '90s-era Diana in The Crown's previous season, joined the acclaimed series knowing what was coming—if not how, exactly, series creator and writer Peter Morgan was going to handle it.
Suffice it to say, playing Dodi and Diana meant Abdalla and Debicki were uniquely tasked with bringing the couple's unknowable private moments to life, while also starring in a depiction of one of the most dissected public tragedies, the Aug. 31, 1997, car crash that killed them and their driver, Henri Paul.
And as Abdalla felt more and more connected to Dodi, he recalled, the weirdest part for him was when he looked at Debicki and saw "the real Diana."
Meanwhile, though he appeared in a couple episodes of The Crown last year, he didn't really get to know the "extraordinary" Australian actress until production began on the final season.
"I was quite intimidated by her," Abdalla said with a smile. But when they got the scripts that delved into Dodi and Diana's whirlwind romance, the lead-up to the accident and the aftermath of their shocking death (on TV, conversations with the departed can continue), "we had this first conversation with one of the directors about what we were about to do. And that conversation was such a relief."
With that out of the way, he continued, "suddenly we were on the same page and we went on an incredible journey together, one that was so intimate in our exploration of these two."
Abdalla, who was 16 when Dodi and Diana died, admittedly "knew virtually nothing" about the Egyptian film producer and son of billionaire business mogul Mohamed Al-Fayed, who previously owned the famed London department store Harrods and the Hôtel Ritz Paris (and who just died on Aug. 30 at the age of 94).
"All I knew was that word 'playboy' that hangs around him, and I kind of imagined him as some Hugh Hefner type," said Abdalla, who was born in Scotland to Egyptian parents. "Which he's not, and I'm not."
Until he knew how Morgan envisioned Dodi, the actor continued, "I had the expectation that he would just be portrayed as one of those passing, irrelevant characters. But I had that first conversation and I also began to do my research and understood the complexity. And I'm proud that, finally, after 26 years, we get to know him a little. Hopefully, we get to love him a little. And then we can finally mourn him."
For its purposes, The Crown leans into the reasons for the dueling narratives about the true nature of Dodi and Diana's courtship. According to Mohamed, they were engaged to be married (the massive ring Dodi bought for her in Paris was on display for years in the basement of Harrods, part of a shrine to the pair), while others who professed to know what was in Diana's heart downplayed the seriousness of their romance.
Debicki's Diana undoubtedly feels affection for Abdalla's Dodi, but she also has no interest in remarrying so soon after her 1996 divorce from then-Prince Charles. And Dodi may not have even thought of proposing—hours before they died—if not for the insistence of the domineering father he's so anxious to please.
There's a "high degree of complexity to that relationship," Debicki said earlier this year in a Netflix interview. "There's both something very, very delightful and unexpected and surprising, and a kind of mirroring of a need, or of a mutual curiosity...There's the pieces of the relationship where things really work and it's kind of joyful, like it is when you meet someone where you really just want to be around them."
Thinking about the stomach-churning depictions of Diana and Dodi being pursued from location to location by photographers, she noted that it was "the media invasion into that relationship, the way that Peter's written it, that just so destabilizes their ability to keep connecting at that level."
But what level was it, exactly?
"The phrase I return to is that it's not our job to answer questions, but it's our job to ask them as intensely as possible," Abdalla told E! of their dynamic in The Crown. "He clearly had a complicated relationship with his father, but it was very important to me that that relationship was presented lovingly. Many of us have complicated relationships with our families."
Likewise with Dodi and Diana's relationship, he continued, "I had this big question, which is not really just about them, it's about the way that we all love. It's complicated, it's messy, and it's tender and it's beautiful—it's all sorts of things."
Abdalla zeroed in on the seven minutes of CCTV footage captured of the couple before they left the Ritz for the last time, purposefully going out a back entrance in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to avoid the horde of paparazzi waiting for them in front of the hotel.
"They're nuzzled together and holding each other's hands behind their back and there's such tenderness there," Abdalla reflected. "And that's the thing, right? You explore. What I was more fascinated by was, rather than the famous image of the kiss, was actually the images of them where his hand is on [her cheek] like this, and hers is on him like this, and it's finding these details which are so precious. They allow everyone to be humanized."
His and Debicki's "attempt to honor that time they spent on this earth," Abdalla said, "will remain for the rest of my life a very precious journey that we shared."
Part 1 of The Crown's sixth season is streaming on Netflix. Part 2 premieres Dec. 14.
Keep reading for more sneak peeks at the Emmy-winning series' sixth and final season.