It is an appropriately serene afternoon in Regent’s Park: hazy golden summer light, long shadows and the smell of cut grass. We walk, Claire Foy and I, from a long, chatty lunch in Primrose Hill towards the West End, where she is due to drop off a signed contract with her agent. The brown envelope in the small hemp carrier bag she is swinging commits her to an upcoming project: Damien (La La Land) Chazelle’s First Man perhaps, playing the wife of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong, or Fede Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web – the fourth in the Millennium series – in which she will play Lisbeth Salander.
One thing is absolutely certain. This brown envelope does not contain a contract committing her to a third season of The Crown, Netflix’s £100 million drama series written by Peter Morgan, in which she gave a masterfully poised Golden Globe-winning turn as Queen Elizabeth II. Foy’s commitment was to only two series – the second of which is released next month. By the end of this forthcoming season, which spans the years between 1956 and 1963, the monarch will be approaching middle age and Foy will therefore, in the interests of authenticity, be replaced by an (as yet unnamed) older actress. “To say that Claire is going to be a hard act to follow is an understatement,” says Morgan. “Everything – everything – pivoted on her performance, which was faultless, by the way. Without someone as technically brilliant and as hardworking as Claire at its centre, a show like The Crown would have completely disintegrated.”
Disintegrate it didn’t. If the naysayers needed proof that long-format television series were capable of filling a hole which a quick-fix society has left in our souls, The Crown was it. Clever writing, sumptuous production values and truthful performances gave it a core strength and solidity not unlike the 65-year reign of the woman whose life it follows – whether you support her or wish to depose her – and that has also threaded through the tapestry of our lives.
On paper, there is nothing to link the two women – one a jobbing actress from Buckinghamshire, the other a jobbing monarch from the mid-20th century – and yet… There is an essence, a certain poise, which chimes. It’s there in the face, in the pretty plainness that simultaneously distinguishes and disappears, and it’s behind it in the sense of a spirit, a silent strength which speaks – from somewhere beyond that blue-eyed gaze – of a certain knowing.
Bubbling and chatting and sharing jokes, as a lunch companion Foy, in dressed-down, fresh-faced mode wearing a blue denim Citizens of Humanity boiler suit, silver Converse All Star hi-tops and with her hair loosely braided back from her face, behaves like an old friend. But behind the jokes – the stories of her two-year-old daughter, Ivy, thinking that every stately home or town hall they ever pass is “Mummy’s work”, and her entire extended family trying to use her as a means to get to Matt Smith (her co-star in The Crown) and “basically lick his face” – there is a secret self that is harder to reach. This self is the one whose parents divorced when she was eight, whose single mother then struggled to make ends meet, whose early teenage years (more on which later) were marred by a battle with juvenile arthritis, and whose later teenage years were shattered by the discovery – and subsequent treatment with steroids – of a benign tumour growing behind one eye. Little wonder that, when asked if she had anything in common with the Queen, whose elusive combination of delicacy and steeliness she portrays so flawlessly, Foy was reported to reply, “I guess we can both be tough old birds.”
Making The Crown has required Foy to draw on all her deepest reserves of resilience. Famously hardworking – professional and uncomplaining to the umpteenth degree – she started filming the first series a mere four months after giving birth to her daughter. “On the first day of filming, I found myself halfway up a Scottish mountain, with engorged boobs and no way of getting down to feed my baby,” she remembers. “I had to ring my husband [the actor Stephen Campbell Moore, whom she met on the set of Season of the Witch] and tell him to give her formula. It was like someone had stamped on my heart and, as I sat in a Land Rover trying to get a broken breast pump to work, I felt I’d made the worst mistake of my life.” In retrospect, Foy – who had a very traumatic birth involving haemorrhages and blood transfusions – thinks her hormonal exhaustion might have served her well. “Because I was so tired, I just played each moment as each moment,” she explains. “I didn’t over-think it, and I genuinely didn’t have the energy to invent any emotions that weren’t there. It was just one steady bulldozer of emotion pushing me all the way through.”
For season two – in which we see the Queen entering middle age, with all the accompanying crises (particularly within her marriage) that that might entail, and her sister Margaret embarking on an explosive relationship with society photographer Tony Armstrong Jones (Matthew Goode) – Foy had a different kind of hardship to contend with. As well as the pressure of the success of the show, and always being “mindful of complacency”, she had to juggle the demands of her work – a rigorous, sometimes six-day-a-week shooting schedule sustained over nine months – with the needs of her family. Ever the company player, Foy – who, for the most part, had Ivy with her on location (“she’s basically in love with Matt [Smith]”) – took it upon herself to speak up for everyone when, on occasion, the demands of the production became too much. “Because I was number one on the call sheet, I was in a position to stand up for my department and say, ‘I don’t think you can work people on a Sunday. And no, I’m not being antsy and I’m not being tricky. I just think it’s out of order and we all need a day at home with our families.’’’
While on the one hand the success of The Crown spurred cast and crew on – “Everyone upped their game,” says Morgan – on the other, it played against them. For Foy and Smith, in particular, days off from filming were spent promoting the first series around the world. “Eleven-hour flight there, blah, blah, blah about the show, 11-hour flight back and straight back on set saying, ‘Oh, that was glamorous.’ Not! And now I’ve got an eye infection…” By the time filming finished in May, Foy was a physical and emotional wreck. As the director called “Cut!” on the final scene – an exchange between her and Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret) – disco lights started flashing and a spontaneous party was held on set. “And I didn’t cry or laugh or feel anything particularly. All I could think was, ‘I need to go home now.’’’
To say that The Crown has been life-changing for Foy is an understatement. Little more than a year ago she was relatively unknown, aside from her complex portrayal of Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. Now she is a Vogue cover girl (“Who would have thought it? Claire Foy on the cover of Vogue!” she laughs), the star of a show that has been watched by tens of millions around the globe. “I know, it’s completely mental, isn’t it?” she says. “I can’t really get my head around the fact that people like Elton John and Helen Mirren actually know who I am because of my acting.”
An unlikely pairing, Elton John and Helen Mirren, and one that makes Foy laugh – as she does frequently and uproariously throughout our interview. But that’s just the madness of it. One minute she was a quietly jobbing actress, the next she was getting letters of admiration from Mirren – “incredible stuff that she really didn’t need to say” – and accepting Golden Globes in a shimmering pale pink sequined Erdem gown. “Genuinely the weirdest experience of my life,” Foy remembers. “There I was, standing in a sandwich between Stevie Wonder and John Travolta, having a completely out-of-body experience.” For a moment, at the after-party, Foy started to feel utterly overwhelmed. “All I kept thinking was, ‘Um, I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know what to do with this thing that’s happening to me.’ But then I had an espresso martini and WhatsApped my family and friends with all the gossip, and then I felt fine.”
If there’s a certain guilt that comes with Foy’s new-found fame – “I really cannot see why this has happened to me and not to someone else” – there is also a healthy cynicism: “I’m under no illusions as to how fickle success can be. I’ve been on the outside of it enough to see it come and then see it go. If this had happened to me when I was 23, I think I would probably have spun into a vortex but I genuinely have enjoyed the past year for what it is. It’s great that people like the show. Really amazing. But I have never, at any point, thought, ‘Yes. This is where I should be,’ because, dear me, if you do think that then you’re going to have some serious problems further down the line.”
The world that Foy grew up in was a world away from the one she now inhabits – “I didn’t even know these people existed. I’d never met an actor.” The youngest of three, she was born in Stockport but moved to Buckinghamshire when her father, a salesman for Rank Xerox, got a job there. Foy endlessly forced her older brother and sister to stage plays in which she usually cast herself as the star. Aged 11, she joined her siblings at the local grammar school, where she gravitated more towards sport than drama. But at 13 she was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis and taken off games indefinitely. “I didn’t really register that I was ill,” Foy recalls. “I was simply annoyed that I had to be on crutches while the other girls were running around, and that my knees were swollen while theirs were being shown off in miniskirts.”
If it was at this point that Foy’s interest turned towards drama, her ambition crystallised five years later when she was struck down by another auto-immune condition, this time the tumour behind her eye. “It was horrible and debilitating, but it made me realise that I needed to grab the life I wanted,” she says, matter-of-factly. “If that hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to throw my cards on the table and say I wanted to study drama.”
After gaining a degree in drama and screen studies at John Moores University in Liverpool, Foy studied acting at the Oxford School of Drama. Success was by no means a given and Foy worked hard – “for a film catering company, in a hat-making factory, you name it” – to support herself between bit-part acting jobs. Her big break came in 2008 when she was chosen to star in Little Dorrit, a BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel. “What stood out was her fragility and her extraordinary eyes,” remembers director Dearbhla Walsh. “Big saucer eyes that were like a window into her soul.”
By the time Foy went to audition for The Crown some seven years later, she had built up an impressive CV made up of mainly television roles – Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise, Upstairs Downstairs, White Heat and Wolf Hall – and was six months pregnant with her first child. “I’m sure that’s why I got the part,” Foy remembers. “Because by that point in my pregnancy, I was so distracted.” Peter Morgan remembers it differently: “She was electric, even in composure and silence.”
Several months before our interview, Foy filmed a banquet scene at Wilton House near Salisbury, set during John F Kennedy’s presidential visit to England in 1961. In it, she and 60 other actors, including Matt Smith, Michael C Hall (JFK) and Jodi Balfour (Jackie Kennedy) are in their full finery, but it is Foy who stands out – not for anything she says or does, but for all the things she doesn’t say or do. As she walks through a majestic backdrop, head high, saying nothing, it is, above all, her stillness that resonates. “Claire has a very powerful ability to do very little and speak volumes,” says director Stephen Daldry. “It’s an incredibly powerful combination which serves the role perfectly. On the one hand we, the audience, feel that we know her Queen, but on the other hand we don’t feel that we know her at all. When in doubt, I just put the camera on Claire. Even in silence, she can say a million things.”
When Foy acts, she does so with her gut. “She instinctively knew things about my mother that even I, the person who arguably knows her best in the world, didn’t know,” says Jonathan Cavendish, the producer of Breathe, the tear-jerking true story of his father’s refusal to be cowed by a paralysing bout of polio and his mother’s unbreakable love for him, in which Foy stars opposite Andrew Garfield. “Claire didn’t mimic my mum. She felt her way into her. It was extraordinary to watch.”
Despite her self-deprecating insistence that “it could all be over in five years”, Claire Foy is indisputably here to stay. Yet she puts her chameleon powers to good use, as a means of disappearing into normality. She lives a grounded, consciously unstarry life in a small house in Wood Green; her greatest extravagance is a second-hand Bechstein piano on which she can hardly ever play because the only space for it is directly underneath her daughter’s bedroom. But this is the way she likes it – keeping life simple, maintaining her integrity, and staying invisible when she needs to.
“I’m telling you, nobody recognises me at all, ever,” she insists, when I question whether she can really travel by public transport unnoticed. “I think it’s because I look normal, like someone’s sister or cousin.” As she says this a woman approaches – a polite, middle-class, middle-aged woman who will surely have watched The Crown – and asks the way to Baker Street. “Oh, crikey, now you’ve got me,” says Foy, getting out her phone to help. I watch, delighted, waiting for the passer-by to register that she’s talking to the Queen and watch, deflated, as she walks away. “You see?” Foy smirks triumphantly, amusement dancing in those majestic clear blue eyes, as she puts her phone back in her bag and walks purposefully on.
“Breathe” is in cinemas from October 27.