Like so many others, Jennifer Morrison remembers where she was the night Princess Diana died.
"It just seemed too bizarre to be real," the "House" co-star says. "It was more like fiction. I had just graduated from high school and was at a friend's apartment, a place I had never been before. If that news hadn't broken then, I would never even remember I was there. I remember the weight of that moment, having no idea that 10 years later, I was going to be working on a project surrounding it."
As the one-decade anniversary of the fatal Paris tunnel car crash nears, Morrison helps offer a fictionalized account in Lifetime's new movie "The Murder of Princess Diana," based on the Noel Botham book and produced by the British company Working Title ("Bridget Jones's Diary," "Love Actually"). Casting Morrison as a reporter who supposedly witnessed the tragedy, the film debuts Saturday, Aug. 25, then encores the following two nights.
"I was on a plane to Luxembourg [where the film was made] within 24 hours of getting the script," Morrison recalls. "When I read it, I thought it was really well-done. Obviously, it's controversial material, but I found my character fantastic. I was like, 'All right, let's do it. Why not?'"
The plot plays off long-standing rumors that instead of being accidental, the deaths of Diana; her then-companion, Dodi Fayed; and their driver, Henri Paul, resulted from a conspiracy. The journalist played by Morrison buys into that, but the actress admits she didn't heed such speculation "until I worked on this. I knew there had been a crash and [Diana] had passed away, but I didn't know a lot about her then, and I didn't really follow any of the stories afterward.
"It wasn't until I did this that I started reading every biography and article I could get my hands on. I always try to keep my personal opinions separate from wherever I go with a character, but the fascinating thing about this is that you can take certain facts and look at them one way as just horrible coincidences -- but from another perspective, you can think maybe something weird happened. That's the approach the film takes as well. As a whole, the story makes you think twice."
Morrison had plenty of time to do that, since she was present for an elaborate restaging of the accident scene, complete with body doubles for the victims. "It was very eerie," she says. "All of us saw the pictures of the black Mercedes completely smashed in, and to see that re-created, it almost felt like you were looking at [the real thing]. It was just so similar. I think they've approached it in a very tasteful way; nothing inappropriate or offensive is seen. Still, there was just an eerie vibe."
As Dr. Allison Cameron on FOX's "House," Morrison strives to be truthful in portraying a medical professional, and she took the same tack as the reporter in "The Murder of Princess Diana." She says, "Luckily, in my industry, I come across a lot of them. I worked for a high-school newspaper, so I did some research, interviewing and reporting. That gave me a little bit of background in the interview process, which helped here. My instinct is, 'I can't ask that,' but I had to remind myself it's a reporter's job to ask."
At the same time, Morrison acknowledges suspicions that pursuing paparazzi played a role in Diana's death. "My character ends up jumping on the back of the bike of one of them. It was interesting to do something from that side of it, because as an actor, I'm always hiding from it. It's weird to try to justify it, but there are ways of justifying anything. However far from your own values, you have to find a way to connect with the needs of the person you're playing."
That might give Morrison more tolerance for personal questions now, being the fiancee of her "House" co-star Jesse Spencer, alias Dr. Robert Chase. "Neither of us is very scandalous," she says. "We don't go out to hip clubs or eat at places photographers will find us. Part of that is we work so many hours. It's the lifestyle of doing an hourlong television show, but we don't bring our personal life to the set. There, we're just actors working, and we've tried very hard to maintain the integrity of that."
Change appears inevitable for "House," which currently is up for four Emmy Awards including outstanding drama series, when FOX launches the show's fourth season on Sept. 25. Among the many harbingers in last spring's finale, Cameron resigned from Dr. Gregory House's (Hugh Laurie) team, but Morrison hasn't been locked out of "House." Far from it, she promises.
"There are different reasons to love playing a leading role and to love being part of an ensemble," she says. "I really enjoy being in both positions. Coming off three years of 'House,' it was nice to do something so different. I feel like it put me in a position to come back to the series with a fresh approach, and I loved working in Europe, so it was a really timely thing in my life in general. It was a tough schedule, but it was nice to take on that challenge."