The Telegraph – In her roles as Queen Elizabeth II and Anne Boleyn, Claire Foy has demonstrated a quiet genius for conveying a multitude of emotions and thoughts without saying a word. It is all there in the face: porcelain pale, with perfect features and those startled-wide eyes.
The pauses, the almost imperceptible shifts in expression; the steely, basilisk gaze. It is hard to take your eyes off her. It is something she shares with Mark Rylance – whom she acted opposite in Wolf Hall – and which is rooted in a particular ability that may not be immediately apparent to the average viewer.
‘The one thing they do better than any other actor that I know is listen,’ says the director of Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky. ‘In real life you don’t know what the person you’re talking to is going to say next, so we listen very carefully, not least because we have to work out what our next remark should be.
‘The problem for actors is that what is about to be said is known to them – they’ve spent much of the previous day learning it. But somehow they have to make it feel that what they’re about to say flows out of what’s been said to them, and that is about listening.’
Foy in person is much more animated than her facility for silences might suggest. A petite figure, dressed in a black jumpsuit and trainers, we meet for lunch at a hotel in Clerkenwell, where she arrives precisely on time.
There has been a mix-up over booking a table, but we shan’t worry about that, so we sit in the bar, eating crisps, dips and Scotch eggs, which Foy devours – she’s not the least bit regal, and somewhat bemused by the whirl of attention occasioned by the extraordinary success of the Netflix series The Crown.
The second series of The Crown arrives on our screens in December. It is Foy’s swansong in the role. In the third series the Queen will be played by an older actor, yet to be announced. While the first series dealt with the Queen struggling to come to terms with her position, and the conflict between duty and family, the new series concentrates more on her marriage to Prince Philip.
‘They’ve had 10 years of a relationship,’ Foy says, ‘and it’s changed beyond belief from when they first met each other. Rather than just talking to each other, they’re essentially fighting the entire time, which is awful. But it’s also about her advancing into middle age.
The monarchy are weirdly a reflection of us… They are at our whim, we can turn on them in a second.
‘When she first came to the throne she could do no wrong in peoples’ eyes. Then, coming in to the ’60s, it’s more a case of, “Who are you? What are you for? Look at your hair! What on earth are you wearing?” And her going, “I feel a bit frumpy. I’m wearing the same clothes as my mother.” She is realising that she as a person is open to criticism and that the institution is, too. It’s “change or die”, but she’s in a quandary of “I don’t know how to change”.
‘I think that’s the nature of the monarchy as a whole; they are weirdly a reflection of us. A lot of people may think they are incredibly privileged, but they’re at our whim. We can turn on them in a second and you’ve seen it happen time and again, when they’ve carried on and then realised they have to catch up. They reflect public attitudes and they have a responsibility.’
For Foy herself, playing the Queen has also been a process of change, modifying her attitudes to the monarchy. ‘That’s why I think the series is so good; instead of just looking at the institution, it’s looking at them as people, what experiences and challenges they’ve had and what you can learn from how they’ve dealt with things.
‘I don’t think you can take away from her the fact that she has never had a choice to do what she wants to do. She has completely lived for her country, and she’s still working now, at her age, and I really admire that.’
We are meeting to talk about Foy’s new film, Breathe, based on the true story of Robin Cavendish, played in the film by Andrew Garfield, who in 1958 was struck down by polio at the age of 28. Paralysed from the neck down and able to breathe only with the use of a mechanical ventilator, he was given three months to live.
But a year later – against the advice of his doctors – he was able to leave hospital and, thanks to the development of a Heath Robinson-esque mobile ventilator, attain a degree of mobility that enabled him to live at home and even travel abroad.
Supporting his family by playing the stock market, he became a tireless advocate for the disabled, helping to develop numerous devices to provide independence to the paralysed. He lived to the age of 64. Produced by Cavendish’s son Jonathan, Breathe is the directorial debut of Andy Serkis, best known for his motion-capture acting roles as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and as the giant ape in King Kong, and with whom Foy appeared in 2008 in her first major role in Little Dorrit.
It is a remarkable and deeply touching film. Garfield gives an extraordinary performance (most of it lying on his back) as the indestructible Cavendish. While Foy – who is becoming something of a specialist in playing living characters – is superb as his wife Diana.
The couple had been married for only a few months when Cavendish contracted polio; he urged his wife to switch off the machine and build a new life without him. Refusing to let her husband succumb to despair, she nursed, cared for and went on to campaign alongside him.
‘She was very young when they met,’ Foy says. ‘And so suddenly meeting the love of your life, and him saying, “I’m done for,” her reaction was, “Well, you’re not. I know it’s terrible, but trust me. If you’re going to be alive, you’ve got to make the most of it.”
‘How incredible that he was able to come out of that depression and say, “This isn’t the life I wanted, but I’m going to go on living it.”’
Throughout his life, Cavendish was always just three minutes away from certain death – the amount of time he could have survived had his respirator failed due to a power cut, a blown fuse or – as happens in one particularly heart-stopping moment – a playful dog yanking out the plug.
‘That happened,’ Foy says. ‘But thankfully they had a bell that he was able to ring.’
In other emergencies, Cavendish was kept alive by Diana and Jonathan hand-pumping the respirator. True, one thinks, to Cavendish’s indomitable spirit, Serkis injects a light-hearted vein into what could otherwise have been a sombre story.
This includes the presence of Tom Hollander playing identical twins, and a knockabout scene where the family make a hair-raising journey to Spain in their converted Bedford van, to the accompaniment of Lee Marvin’s Wand’rin’ Star.
‘Andy said he wanted to make a cross between The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,’ Foy says with a laugh. Diana is now in her 80s and ‘the most extraordinary woman’, says Foy, who spent time with her to prepare for the role.
‘She doesn’t see herself as a hero at all. I asked her, “What’s the worst thing I could possibly do?” And she said, “Over-sentimentalise it and make me some angel.”
Jonathan said, “I saw my mother cry once, at Christmas, because she was given a kettle as a present.”’ Diana’s precisely modulated upper-middle class tones, and her practical, determined and no-nonsense manner inescapably calls Foy’s role as the monarch to mind.
‘There was a moment when I thought maybe I just can’t do this, because they are similar people in many ways. But there is no way I could have not done the film. ‘It’s the same kind of time period, and they’re a similar generation. They’re both very much: “Don’t complain, just get on with it, suck it up.”
I have more debt than when I was 16… I live beyond my means. My Ocado shops are off the scale
‘You say to Diana, “Did you ever get depressed?” And it’s, “Of course not! Why on earth would I get depressed?” You get up and get on with it and have a cup of tea.’ It’s the war generation. They must just look at us now and think, ‘“My God, you’re going to see a therapist?”’
The daughter of a salesman, Foy was born in Stockport and is the youngest of three – she has a brother and sister – but moved as a child to Longwick in Buckinghamshire. Her parents separated when Foy was two, leaving her mother to bring up the children on her own.
‘I don’t know how she did it. She took a job that meant she could be there for us when we got back from school. She is an extraordinary mum and an extraordinary grandmother. There is not anything she hasn’t given us.’
Circumstances were difficult. ‘I was always very, very aware of money and not having any.’ At 14 she was working for pocket money at the local pub. ‘I always knew there was no money coming from anywhere else, so it was a case of, “Well, I’ve just to get out there and make it myself.”’ She laughs. ‘It makes me sound like I was some sort of pickpocket or something.’
After grammar school, Foy attended Liverpool John Moores University to study drama and screen studies with a view to becoming a cinematographer. But following the advice of her drama teacher to concentrate on acting, she went on to drama school instead. Her first role was a small part in the TV series Being Human, which led to her being handed the title role in the 14-part BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit.
For Foy, the role was a seminal education in learning how to convey more by saying less – or nothing at all. ‘I was playing this character who never, ever asked anything of anyone, and who was a complete angel, really giving, unassuming and shy. But I was like, “That may be the way she acts, but it’s not what she’s thinking.” And I remember Dearbhla [Walsh, the director] saying, “You just need to trust you can convey what you’re thinking without having to move your face.”
‘I don’t need to make exaggerated facial gestures. If you know where your character is coming from and going to, and all those sorts of things, then you can be in the moment and let it happen – you don’t have to do any more.
‘What I love is when you’ve done a scene and you can’t remember what you did. That means you weren’t thinking about the guy holding the boom, or that your shoes were too tight, or “I can’t remember my next line”. That’s the dream – but to try and do that every time is a fool’s errand.’ ‘Trying to be in the moment,’ she adds, is her, ‘constant endeavour in life.’
On Wolf Hall, Kosminsky says the challenge facing Foy was to play a character who was initially deeply unsympathetic.
‘A lot of actors – particularly leads – are very nervous about these roles because they want to be liked by their audience. So they will either avoid them or they’ll try to make them more likeable than they are written. ‘But Claire really went for it. She was able to take you on this journey so you ended up being powerfully moved and affected by Anne, despite her idiosyncrasies.’
Kosminsky recalls talking to Hilary Mantel in the early stages of making Wolf Hall, trying to get ‘some early pointers’ about how to take on the challenge of adapting her book to the screen.
‘She said, “Please remember these people don’t know they’re in history; they’re not playing the ending. They don’t know that every child in Britain has read that Anne Boleyn is parted from her head. She believes that within the vagaries of fate, life and luck, she is master of her own fate. She’s not a historical figure – she’s living her life, just as you and I.” And I think that’s very true of Claire’s Anne – you didn’t feel at any point that she was playing the ending.’
What is also rare in Foy, says Kosminsky, is her ability to move in and out of a role almost at the flick of a switch. ‘She can be chatting quite happily as Claire Foy, then seemingly in a moment switch into character, with no sign whatsoever of any diminution of focus, attention or depth of performance. Then as soon as “cut” is called, switch right out of it.’
Foy offers the theory that as the youngest of three siblings, it was almost pre-determined that she should become an actor. ‘You find a lot of youngest are actors; they’ve been given free rein because a lot of the time with the youngest it’s a case of “take care of yourself – we’ve got a lot on”. But also they’re looking for someone to say “this is who you are”; that feedback that you don’t get otherwise.
‘It has been really weird this past year that suddenly people seem to view me in a different way: “Oh, you’ve been in a successful TV show!” I mean, I was in Little Dorrit then and blah, blah, blah – but I’ve never had that “Pow! Off you go to Hollywood” and all that. I’m just very grateful that it’s happening now, because I know how it works. If it had happened when I was 23 I would have been massively overwhelmed and probably affiliated a lot of my own self-worth with what everyone else thinks about what I do.’
Presumably, she has more pocket money now. ‘I have more debt than when I was 16…’ She would rather like a six-bed house on Hampstead Heath, ‘But unless I have, like, £8.9 million, that’s never going to happen.’ As it is, she lives in a terraced house in north London. ‘I live beyond my means. My Ocado shops are off the scale.’
She is married to the actor Stephen Campbell Moore, whom she met in 2011 when both were in the Hollywood fantasy film Season of the Witch, and who has recently recovered from the removal of a brain tumour. They have a two-year-old daughter. (Foy was pregnant throughout the shooting of the first series of The Crown.)
‘My life has changed extraordinarily since I’ve had a child, but I’ve just been working, really. I mean, I’ve had some time off, but I’m in a cycle – I’m working now, then I have time off, then work again. I always would have wanted to go back to work, but you can’t have it all. If I’d said, “I’m dedicating the rest of my life to you, darling,” then 18 years down the line, it’s, “Bye, see you later.” “What? I gave you everything!’ She laughs. ‘I think it is important to keep that part of yourself, but I wish the hours weren’t so mental.’
Her next role will be playing the astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first wife, in a biopic directed by Damien Chazelle, the director of La La Land. Foy says she ‘is in the throes of an existential crisis’ at the prospect. But at the same time, happy to move on from the role of the Queen that has come to define her.
‘I feel she’s still there, somewhere, deep down, but I can’t wait to see someone else playing it,’ she says. ‘I think it’s going to be weird watching it, and I think I will pine, definitely, but in a good way. I feel very lucky that I played her out of time, when she was younger – I’m not the “Queen Queen” that everybody recognises now.’
I disagree, I joke; she’s made it impossible to look at the Queen without seeing her as an imposter. ‘Well there you go then,’ she laughs, ‘I’m just going to have to take over.’