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Meghan Markle Lets Her Guard Down: On Grieving Queen Elizabeth, Producing With Harry and Returning to Hollywood

The Duchess of Sussex is in mourning. But we’ll get back to that. First, let’s go to the day we met, this past summer, at the venerated San Ysidro Ranch in Montecito, Calif. The ranch is a low-key old luxury resort with simple bungalows tucked into a mountainside overlooking the Pacific coast. It’s the kind of unpretentious but protected place wealthy locals and L.A. transplants come to be treated like royalty. On one witheringly hot day in late August, however, they got to mingle with the real thing.

That morning, the Duchess of Sussex, known more commonly by her maiden name, Meghan Markle, sped past a group of 60-something women who’d made the trek to Montecito to celebrate a milestone birthday. Teetering on the dusty cobblestone walkway in their wedges and kitten heels, the group stopped dead as Meghan waved and smiled from a golf cart delivering her to her Variety cover shoot. “Can you imagine?” said one of the women wistfully after the duchess had passed, perhaps talking about the life she has led thus far — an American woman meeting and marrying a handsome young prince beloved by all the world — or maybe, as we were there to discuss, the life she’s leading now.

It actually is hard to imagine. For most of her public life as the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan has been described as many things: disingenuous, calculating, determined, relatable, even Diana-like. But spend a day with her, and you’ll witness a side that the public hasn’t seen: the nerdy American mom. Meghan talks about how she loves to watch “Jeopardy!” and do Wordle in bed with a glass of wine. She absentmindedly raps her son’s favorite song (a track about the Tyrannosaurus rex from “Ask the StoryBots”) and talks enthusiastically about Beyoncé (specifically, how “Cozy” is her favorite song from the new album).

And what about all the photos you’ve seen of her with that guarded smile? At the shoot, she couldn’t have been more at ease as she shook the hand of every crew member, stylist and photographer’s assistant. She shrugged off the pop singers of contemporary radio in favor of her own “1970s road trip playlist.” She addressed questions about the past few years head-on. She burst out laughing at the drop of a hat, almost like a princess in a Hollywood movie. When asked what she wanted most out of life, she said, “Joy. That’s really it. It’s everything that we can work toward for ourselves, our friends, our kids, those around us — that would feel so good. And we do feel joyful.”

Meghan was set to be honored in the 2022 class of Variety’s Power of Women, celebrating notable achievements in entertainment and media by women throughout the year. She was to be feted for both philanthropic and creative work — including a podcast called “Archetypes,” of which she is the host — routed through Archewell, the company she shares with her husband, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex.

Nearly three weeks before press time, though — eight days after she stopped the birthday revelers in their tracks at the San Ysidro Ranch — the prince’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, died at her Scottish estate Balmoral. The world watched and mourned as the longest-reigning monarch in British history was laid to rest and celebrated for what Meghan says was the “shining example” of female leadership.

Following the official period of mourning, Meghan agrees to sit again for a lengthy discussion about her road to the present. She worries that any comments about the queen or her in-laws will be “a distraction” from continued mourning, but presses on to celebrate the icon. She grows animated talking about the warmth and support she received from the thousands of citizens she interacted with during her time in the U.K., not to mention the two significant content deals she and Prince Harry struck with streaming giants Netflix and Spotify; the two young children — Archie Harrison, 3, and Lilibet Diana, 1 — at the center of the Sussex household; the singular mission behind Archewell; and how tenaciously she has fought to build the life and company of her dreams.

The world has been mourning the loss of Queen Elizabeth. How has this time been?

There’s been such an outpouring of love and support. I’m really grateful that I was able to be with my husband to support him, especially during that time. What’s so beautiful is to look at the legacy that his grandmother was able to leave on so many fronts. Certainly, in terms of female leadership, she is the most shining example of what that looks like. I feel deep gratitude to have been able to spend time with her and get to know her. It’s been a complicated time, but my husband, ever the optimist, said, “Now she’s reunited with her husband.”

Has anything come up for you in your relationship with the queen since her passing?

I’ve reflected on that first official engagement that I had with her, how special that felt. I feel fortunate. And I continue to be proud to have had a nice warmth with the matriarch of the family.

How have you processed this loss as a family?

In big moments in life, you get a lot of perspective. It makes you wonder what you want to focus your energy on. Right now, we feel energized and excited about all of the things we’ve been building toward. We’re also focused on our foundation. So much of the work we do includes the philanthropic space.

You’ve done two major interviews since returning to America — one with Oprah Winfrey and the other with New York Magazine, which some found to be snarky. What has it been like to open up about your life now?

The [New York] story was intended to support “Archetypes” and focus on our projects. I’ve had some time to reflect on it. Part of me is just really trusting, really open — that’s how I move in the world. I have to remember that I don’t ever want to become so jaded that that piece of me goes away. So despite any of those things? Onward. I can survive it.

Part of what I’m doing with “Archetypes” is looking at the nuances around the women who come on the show. I’m not a journalist, but I want a candid, real conversation with them. I’m talking to some really textured, colorful, layered, dynamic women with strong histories. And that comes with a lot of pieces you can choose to include or not; I choose to include something that I feel is fair to them and also uplifting. And something we can all learn from.

What were the days like after the Oprah interview aired on TV before an audience of 18 million people?

Even before the interview, I hadn’t been out because I was so pregnant. The one thing I really remember was Gloria Steinem’s birthday, a few days after it aired. I really wanted to celebrate her at what I thought was just going to be a small and intimate birthday lunch. I envisioned it being us eating sandwiches in this cottage she was staying at. Instead, it was an extravaganza — by the way, as she deserves. But I hadn’t really seen people in a long time, and the interview had come out maybe a week before. Walking into a room alone is never easy for me, and I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable. But before I could let my uncertainty linger, Pamela Adlon came up to me and greeted me with such warmth and kindness. She toured me around the room, and at every turn, more generosity and love was felt. Maybe it’s just a testament to the kind of company Glo keeps, but I also think these women were extraordinary to ensure I felt so welcomed. It’s like they knew exactly what I needed to feel in that moment. It meant, and still means, so very much to me. The power of sisterhood and female support can never be underestimated.

What can we expect from Liz Garbus’ docuseries on you and your husband?

It’s nice to be able to trust someone with our story — a seasoned director whose work I’ve long admired — even if it means it may not be the way we would have told it. But that’s not why we’re telling it. We’re trusting our story to someone else, and that means it will go through their lens.

It’s interesting. My husband has never worked in this industry before. For me, having worked on “Suits,” it’s so amazing to be around so much creative energy and to see how people work together and share their own points of view. That’s been really fun.

You’re in the midst of a successful first season of “Archetypes.” The show breaks down harmful labels put on women. What are the biggest misconceptions about you?

I think that what happens, looking in from the outside, when there is this much noise, is that you become dehumanized. But if you remember that someone is a human being, then you don’t treat them, talk about them, look at them the same way. My hope for “Archetypes” is that people come out thinking, “Oh! She’s a real person! She laughs and asks questions and approaches things with curiosity.”

Who has been the most challenging interview so far?

I spoke to Paris Hilton last week. I told her at the beginning that I was the most nervous about her interview. I was embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve had a judgment about her that’s based on everything I’ve seen, and I don’t like to come from a place of judgment. But I also didn’t grow up pretty.

You didn’t grow up pretty?

I grew up as the smart one. So much of what I ended up thinking about, when I thought about Paris, was envy and judgment — two of the most dangerous things. But then you hear about her trauma and her life and her buying into this persona. Ultimately, I told her, “I’m really sorry that I judged you.” I wanted her to be safe and comfortable. I told her I wasn’t looking for a “gotcha” moment. I want a “got you” moment, where we get you.

But that episode is not framed as a defense of Paris; it’s the humanization of her. And that’s true for everybody. I don’t care what situation you’re in — if a 16-year-old boy or girl, or a woman in the workplace, feels objectified or dehumanized because their character is misrepresented, I hope everyone listening with an open mind could come away thinking, “Could I just actually consider for a second that there’s a person there?”

I’ve done a lot of internal work — I’m from California, it’s in the water — and whether you’re exercising or meditating, you’re sometimes asked to picture a person that makes you angry. You think about them, you get it all out, and then you’re asked to think about them as a 6-year-old child. Can you forgive them? That ’s how I contextually approach that.

What does Hollywood, as a concept and a business, mean to you?

The industry has shifted quite a bit since I was a part of it.

How long has it been?

I left “Suits” right after the 100th episode, in 2018. I didn’t think I’d ever be in the entertainment industry again. But the entire culture has changed; streamers have changed things. The ability to create zeitgeist moments like we had in the ’90s — where everyone would tune in at the same time for a show or gather for one moment? — that doesn’t happen anymore. When I was doing “Suits,” that character, Rachel Zane, was in your living room with you while you were in your pajamas eating Chinese takeout. That’s how connected the experience felt then. But to create a cultural moment or conversation requires something different today. Podcasting has been really interesting in that way. It might be one of the only remaining forums where people are alone to listen. Where else do you have that opportunity?

It’s almost meditative.

It is. What I love, too, is the access to international content that people didn’t have before. It’s a big departure from what it used to be.

Before you left the industry, how palpable was the toxicity that we collectively uncovered in movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite?

We didn’t have a name for it at that time. There were just certain things that were accepted. If there was any discomfort, you just dealt with it. It forced a lot of women to live with this idea of staying silent, not being disruptive, not giving voice to the things that might create concern or discomfort.

For me, I had tried for so long to land on a show, filming all these pilots, wondering if they would get picked up. All of Season 1 on “Suits,” I was convinced I was going to get recast. All the time. It got to a point where the creator was like, “Why are you so worried about this?”

Would you ever consider going back to acting?

No. I’m done. I guess never say never, but my intention is to absolutely not.

Going through the process you did with the monarchy and then becoming a private citizen again, are those institutions similar?

Every business has a model. I worked for NBCUniversal and the USA Network, and that was all part of a very large organization. Bonnie Hammer was my mentor. Very early on in “Suits,” she took me under her wing, and that was invaluable to me. Talk about a woman who can balance being a mom, creating so much in the industry and having a very strong sense of self! I would sit at breakfast with her, studying what she ordered, hanging on her every word.

For me, it was always about being able to find your North Star within that model. Find someone who believes in you. As complex as any organization might be, there is always some thing in it that I think is positive. It’s important to focus on that. Some industries are very different, and yet, business models for a lot of things — they have a bottom line. That bottom line needs to be held, I suppose.

What is an ideal project for Archewell?

So much of how my husband and I see things is through our love story. I think that’s what people around the world connected to, especially with our wedding. People love love. I’m not excluded in that sentiment. And our definition of love is really expansive: Partner love, self-love, the love of community and family. We use that as the baseline of the kind of shows and documentaries we want out there.

For my husband, the Invictus Games have been such a huge piece of his life and his work, having been in the army for 10 years and working for the rehabilitation of wounded vets and their families. We talk about emotional injuries that come from those types of experiences. Those are love stories. For scripted, we want to think about how we can evolve from that same space and do something fun! It doesn’t always have to be so serious. Like a good rom-com. Don’t we miss them? I miss them so much. I’ve probably watched “When Harry Met Sally” a million times. And all the Julia Roberts rom-coms. We need to see those again.

Anything you don’t want on your slate?

I don’t think you’ll ever see us doing a horror film.

What would you say if one of your kids came to you in 10 or 15 years and said, “I want a career in entertainment”?

I would say, “Great!” When you become a parent, you genuinely want your kids to find the things that bring them complete joy. They’re our kids, obviously, and they’re part of a legacy and a tradition and a family that will have other expectations. But I want them to be able to carve out their own path. If it’s the entertainment industry, great. And also, good luck. There are so many people that will talk about what opened the door for my children. But it still takes talent and a lot of grit. We’re creating multidimensional, interesting, kind, creative people. That’s who our kids are.

Is it odd, as an actor, to know that other actors will probably play you in the future?

I haven’t given that much thought, to be honest. It’s all weird. You have to compartmentalize. Anyone talking about me or casting an actor to play me, that will be a caricature of me that has been created for a business that makes people a lot of money. Once you can separate that out, it’s much easier to go: “OK. That actually has nothing to do with me.” It genuinely doesn’t. It’s a hard lesson to come to grips with.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give an actor 100 years from now who is cast as Meghan?

I hope that in preparing for that role, she finds the softness and the playfulness and the laughter. The silliness. I just hope she finds the dimensions. Also, she can call me!

You mentioned you just went back to your high school, Immaculate Heart?

I talked to a few of the girls who had just graduated for “Archetypes” — they were so incredible. I was so proud of them. And then I surprised some girls at volleyball practice.

I saw my picture in the yearbook that a friend sent me the other day. For your senior-year portrait, you had to choose a quote to accompany the picture. At 17, I chose Eleanor Roosevelt saying, “Women are like tea bags, they don’t realize how strong they are until they’re in hot water.” I don’t think I’m a soothsayer, but there is something a little prophetic about that.

How important is it to you to be understood by other people?

That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me that. I can only speak for myself, but I think feeling understood and seen are really important. That has been a common denominator that has come up in “Archetypes” and the work I do with communities of women. People just want to be seen. That is also where representation comes into play.

What is an average workday for you and Harry?

We share an office. We work from home, as most people started to do during lockdown. It allows us to have significant time with our kids at this really special moment in their lives. We’ll never get this time back. I make breakfast, and we get the kids set for the day. We do a lot of joint calls and Zooms, but also try to divide what we can focus our energies on so we can accomplish even more. My husband is on a 24-hour time zone, where half of your life is waking up as the other half is going to sleep. It’s kind of the reverse of what I went through living in the U.K. He’s very good at responding on text. Me, I try to be as fast as possible on email. I’ve always said, if it takes less than five minutes, do it now.

Who takes the most snack breaks?

It’s funny. People sometimes think we live in Los Angeles, but we’re a good two hours outside of it. We’re commuters. We drove down recently for a day of back-to-back meetings , equipped with chocolate chip cookies the size of my toddler’s head. Also, my husband’s favorite is In-N-Out. There’s one at the halfway point between L.A. and our neck of the woods. It’s really fun to go through the drive-thru and surprise them. They know our order.