How Natascha McElhone overcame grief of husband's sudden death to take on 'breadwinner' role

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British actress Natascha McElhone’s latest role seed her playing close companion of Prince Philip, Penny Knatchbull, in series five of The Crown.

The London-based star has been cast as Countess Mountbatten of Burma in the new series of the Netflix hit and her latest role looks set to catapult her to household name status.

In a career spanning four decades, McElhone has seen her Hollywood career flourish in recent years, despite the 52-year-old British actress having to juggle auditions with raising three sons alone – after suffering the tragic loss of her husband when pregnant with their third child in 2008.   

Plastic surgeon Martin Kelly died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 43 on the steps of their London home while McElhone was pregnant with their third child.

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The London-based actress stars as Penny Knatchbull, close companion of Prince Philip, in the new series of The Crown (pictured: Prince Philip and Penny at the Royal Windsor Horse Show)

The London-based actress stars as Penny Knatchbull, close companion of Prince Philip, in the new series of The Crown (pictured: Prince Philip and Penny at the Royal Windsor Horse Show)

In her personal life, Natascha has dealt with tragedy after her husband Martin Kelly, a celebrtiy plastic surgeon, died suddenly after collapsing in his Fulham townhouse in 2008 (pictured with Martin before his death). She was pregnant with their third child, Rex, at the time

In her personal life, Natascha has dealt with tragedy after her husband Martin Kelly, a celebrtiy plastic surgeon, died suddenly after collapsing in his Fulham townhouse in 2008 (pictured with Martin before his death). She was pregnant with their third child, Rex, at the time 

After her husband Martin's sudden death, Natascha was left to raise their three boys Theo (left) Otis (right) and Rex (carried by his mother) (Pictured at the premiere of The Secret of Moonacre in 2009)

After her husband Martin’s sudden death, Natascha was left to raise their three boys Theo (left) Otis (right) and Rex (carried by his mother) (Pictured at the premiere of The Secret of Moonacre in 2009)

Kelly, a cosmetic surgeon to the stars, was found collapsed in the hall of their £2.5million Fulham townhouse, just after performing a late-night operation. 

At the time, McElhone was filming on the set of TV series Californication in Los Angeles, and learnt her husband had died through his friend, Neil Randhawa.

Speaking to The Sunday Times after his death, she said: ‘I walked across the road towards my trailer and it must have suddenly hit me on some level. I did that thing I thought people only did in movies – I dropped the phone and my knees sort of buckled under me.’

Kelly’s cause of death was given as ‘dilated cardiomyopathy’, where the heart becomes enlarged and cannot pump blood efficiently. 

In the same interview, Natascha revealed the last message she had received from her husband, which she described as ‘lovely’.

One of Natascha's earliest Hollywood roles was as Lauren/Sylvia in The Truman Show, who tries to free Truman (played by Jim Carrey) from his oppressive life (pictured in the film)

One of Natascha’s earliest Hollywood roles was as Lauren/Sylvia in The Truman Show, who tries to free Truman (played by Jim Carrey) from his oppressive life (pictured in the film)

She said: ‘He left me this message, full of the joys… he couldn’t wait to come out the next week, he was so excited about the scan, so excited about the baby.’ 

The year after Kelly’s sudden death, Natascha revealed how she was managing her grief while raising the couple’s sons, Theo, then eight, Otis, then five, and baby Rex.

She told The Daily Mail at the time: ‘I didn’t have a choice. I now have twice the responsibility I had before, and I have to work for financial reasons.

‘But it’s good having responsibilities, whether it is paying the bills or feeding a baby at five in the morning. The mundanity of life becomes very important. Not coping just isn’t an option.’

The Surrey-born actress, whose real name is Natascha Taylor, is the daughter of two Irish journalists, Noreen McElhone and Michael Taylor.

After being raised alongside her brother Damon in Brighton, Natascha moved to London to study theatre at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and graduated in 1993.

Following her graduation, the actress began her career onstage in Shakespearian plays including Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was on the BBC that she made her TV debut, starring in an episode of crime drama Bergerac in 1991, when she was still a student, and also making an appearance in Jennifer Saunders comedy Absolutely Fabulous the following year.

Natascha McElhone, 52, starred as First Lady and close confidante of her husband Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) in Designated Survivor (pictured with Sutherland in the pilot episode)

Natascha McElhone, 52, starred as First Lady and close confidante of her husband Tom Kirkman (played by Kiefer Sutherland) in Designated Survivor (pictured with Sutherland in the pilot episode)

Her career continued to flourish throughout the 1990s and she began to star alongside huge Hollywood actors.

In 1996, Natascha played wife of Pablo Picasso and and mother of his children, Franoise Gilot in Surviving Picasso, alongside acting great Anthony Hopkins as the late Spanish abstract artist.

That same year, Natascha began dating her future husband Martin, who was a medical student at the time. The pair had first met several years earlier when Natascha was 16.

At the time of Kelly's death, Natascha was filming scenes alongside David Duchovny in Californication in Los Angeles (pictured: Natascha and Duchovny in promotional photo)

At the time of Kelly’s death, Natascha was filming scenes alongside David Duchovny in Californication in Los Angeles (pictured: Natascha and Duchovny in promotional photo)

Although her first film received mixed reviews, it helped Natascha into several more Hollywood roles – with perhaps her most memorable appearance as Lauren/Sylvia alongside Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.

The role helped to secure Natascha as a Hollywood name, and she went on to star in films alongside heartthrobs including Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

After Kelly’s tragic death, Natascha continued to work and had several acting credits to her name while juggling raising the three boys on her own.

She appeared in several films while continuing in her recurring role as Karen, David Duchovny’s on-and-off lover in Californication.

After the series ended in 2014, it wasn’t long before the mother-of-three landed herself another regular role as the wife of Kiefer Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman in Designated Survivor.

The pilot episode of the show sees senator Kirkman thrust into the most powerful office in the Western world as US president after Congress is blown up in a terrorist attack. After being whisked away to safety while the house sat, he was the ‘designated survivor’ asked to form a government after his colleagues had perished in the attack.

Starring alongside Sutherland, Natascha played Alex Kirkman, the loyal First Lady and confidante of an unsure new president who was under-prepared for the role.

The counselling role will no doubt have prepared her well to play Penny Knatchbull, who was a close companion of the Duke of Edinburgh during their 50 years of friendship.

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