Her steely, understated approach won praise when playing Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall and now Foy is taking on the role of Queen Elizabeth II in a new drama
Some castings seem so obvious in retrospect. Pictures released this week show Claire Foy playing Queen Elizabeth II on her wedding day in 1947, and just as you cannot picture the older Elizabeth as anyone other than Helen Mirren, when The Crown, an ambitious 60-part Netflix drama, comes out next year, the younger version will probably be forever linked with Foy.
It is not just in the facial similarities; they both have the same tiny physical stature, but with a steely, slightly terrifying core, a thousand words summed up in a single glance.
She is not, of course, Foy’s first queen. As Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s recent stunning adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Foy had some of the best reviews of her career. Until Wolf Hall, she had been working steadily, but without the hype that many young actors at a similar point in their careers would attract. There was something quieter about her approach. She always seemed happier to be getting interesting roles, rather than boosting her own profile or becoming a ‘star ’. Her private life – she is married to the actor Stephen Campbell Moore and they recently had their first child – was similarly low key, and hardly tabloid fodder.
In interviews, she has said she is not interested in trying to break Hollywood and has never been comfortable being photographed: “I’m too conscious of looking like a dick. That’s the difference between a star and a normal person. I’ve never been someone who walks into a room and people gasp.” She is “not fussed” about exposure: “I’m never going to be a film star and I’m not chasing it. I’m very happy playing interesting parts.” It is an attitude that will work in her favour in the long run, though The Crown will almost certainly catapult her into another level of fame.
Foy was born in Stockport but grew up in Buckinghamshire. Her parents were not in the arts – her father was a salesman and her mother worked for a pharmaceutical company – but, as a child, Foy had a deep love of films. She has described herself as the attention-seeking youngest of three: “Very loud, hyperactive and excitable. I had so much energy. My brother and sister hated me. All I ever wanted to do was perform.”
She studied drama and film studies at Liverpool John Moores University, but with the intention of becoming a cinematographer, until her drama teacher suggested she go to drama school. A year at the Oxford School of Drama followed. Even then, she still doubted whether it was the right thing for her. “I was so scared everyone would be ‘musical theatre’,” she has said. “I don’t know where I got that from. I didn’t know any actors. I presumed everyone would be like in Fame and it would be awful.”
She thrived on the course. “If you wanted to say what was outstanding in her, it would be her inventiveness; she was always very bold,” says George Peck, the school’s principal, who taught Foy. “It was partly her sense of humour and the way she approached the course meant that it was very accessible to her. Often when you go to drama school, the ideas are quite new and she was able to receive those and run with them in a very creative way.”
He could see that quality in Foy in Wolf Hall: “What you saw in Anne Boleyn was a really inventive, bold interpretation of that character. You say, yes, this is a real person, she’s not somebody from the history books who has a big dress and a ruffle; [Foy’s Boleyn] is somebody with a spiky sense of humour and determined, which made it very exciting for a contemporary audience.”
Foy got her first role, a small part in the TV series Being Human, after a casting director saw her in one of her drama school showcases. Shortly after that, she was cast in her first lead, in the 14-part BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit in 2008. “What stood out was her fragility, and her extraordinary eyes – big saucer eyes that were like a window into her soul,” says Dearbhla Walsh, who directed several episodes. “It was very clear [from casting meetings] that there was something exciting about her.”
Walsh says she soaked up knowledge from the more experienced actors, such as Tom Courtenay and Matthew Macfadyen, but you would not have known that this was her first big job. “She never appeared overwhelmed by anybody or anything. She constantly gave. She would play it in the rehearsal and I’d go ‘Oh my gosh, save yourself for the take’, but she was always there, always able to access what she needed to.”
Peter Kosminsky remembers talking to Macfadyen about Foy, and he “spoke very highly of her”. Kosminsky says he saw just about everyone when he was casting the role of Erin, a young woman who retraces her grandfather’s involvement in British-controlled Palestine, in 2011 serial The Promise, which he wrote and directed.
“Casting is probably the most important part of the way I go about making films,” he says. “I was casting for the best part of six months and I think Claire has said she had about seven interviews. The role she played in Little Dorrit couldn’t have been more different from the role she was to play in The Promise. I was looking to see whether she had that range and of course it turns out she absolutely did have.”
On set, he says, she is quite different from other actors. “If you think of the classic description of a method actor who inhabits the role when the cameras stop turning, Claire is the opposite. You say ‘cut’ and she’s Claire – friendly, funny, a great person to be around. Then you say ‘action’ and this other person appears. You get that to an extent with all actors, of course, but you’re careful with their headspace because they’re trying to be in character. She doesn’t seem to need that. The characters she has acted for me are very, very different from who she is personally and yet she seems to be able to switch it on or off like a light switch.”
After The Promise, there were other good parts – Foy was in the adaptation of the Sarah Waters novel The Night Watch, as the Nazi-sympathising aristocrat Lady Persephone in Upstairs Downstairs, and as second-wave feminist Charlotte in the decades-spanning drama White Heat.
She starred opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2011 British film Wreckers about a young couple whose marriage is rocked by secrets. The director Dictynna Hood remembers her producer had said she should look at Foy, but she had thought she was too young. “Then when she came to meet me, she did the most amazing improvisation which was very different from what all the other [actors] did.”
Compared with her male co-stars, Foy did not have the same level of dialogue, but Hood says “she really holds the centre of the film and her face tells you everything you need to know. She did all that without an enormous amount of direction.” In person, says Hood, “she’s very no-nonsense, very straightforward, which is wonderful.”
It was Kosminsky’s next project, Wolf Hall, in which Foy delivered another remarkable performance, again opposite established actors such as Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. Kosminsky had her in mind, of course, having worked with her before, but Foy still had to audition. He was casting while she was in Puerto Rico, filming Crossbones, a shortlived pirate drama on US TV starring John Malkovich, and he remembers she would send video auditions from her phone, but he needed to see her in person.
“Finally at Christmas they let her come home for about a week, and we got in a room with her – myself and Nina Gold and Robert Sterne, the casting directors. Once we started working the scenes, it was obvious she was the right person for the role.”
What made her such a brilliant Anne Boleyn? “It was her bravery, really. Leading actors, god bless them, they want to be liked in the main. A lot of them have an eye on their general profile and like to play likeable people. Anne Boleyn is not likeable, and what Claire seemed to understand instantly was that the trick was to not soften her, but make her genuinely difficult and confrontational and demanding to be taken seriously in this ferocious man’s world. Claire was brilliant at trusting the writing, her performance and her own charisma – and you never underestimate the importance of charisma in an actor – to deliver the broken heart at the end.”
The final episode, in which Boleyn is executed, is breathtaking – we all know it’s coming and yet it still feels so shocking. The sudden vulnerability of the blindfolded woman, her delicate, flawlessly pale neck. “That scene is probably the sequence I’m most proud of in 35 years of filmmaking, and it’s because of the work Claire has done in the scenes leading up to it,” says Kosminsky. “Mark Rylance is stunning in that scene, and the writing is brilliant both from Hilary [Mantel] and Peter Straughan [the screenwriter], but it’s gut-wrenching because of Claire.”
Perhaps a clue to how Boleyn would be played as a more complex character than the usual telling came in one of Foy’s previous roles. In 2013, the theatre director Jamie Lloyd cast her in Macbeth, opposite James McAvoy. She hadn not done any professional Shakespeare before, and not a huge amount of stage work either, but he saw that as a strength. Lloyd says he saw about 20 actors for Foy’s part. “She was the only one who skewed the typical reading of Lady Macbeth, that she was this highly sexed, ambitious, terrible woman, which is a misogynistic reading which happened over the years,” he says.
“There was a real vulnerability in what she brought – even in that first audition we talked about [Lady Macbeth] being childless and wanting a family, and how that affected her relationship with her husband, her loneliness. She got into the truth of it, and I think that is essentially what makes her such an amazing actor – as long as she connects to it, it comes out of her.”
In her Lady Macbeth, he says: “You understood why she did what she did, not out of some weird, illogical evil. She got under the skin of the part in a way I’d not seen before. Being in the room with her was amazing because you really believed every word as if you were hearing it for the first time. You can see that on screen as well – there is never a dishonest moment.”
Born: 1984 in Stockport, north-west England.
Career: After small TV roles, Foy’s breakthrough was in Little Dorrit, followed by The Promise, The Night Watch, Upstairs Downstairs, White Heat, Wolf Hall and, for US television, Crossbones. Her films include Season of the Witch, Wreckers and Rosewater. On stage, she appeared in Dennis Kelly’s DNA at the National Theatre (2007), Ding Dong The Wicked at the Royal Court (2012) and Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios (2013).
High point: Her magnetic portrayal of Anne Boleyn was nothing short of astonishing.
Low point: Her feature film debut, the fantasy film Season of the Witch, which starred Nicolas Cage, received largely terrible reviews.
She says: “You’ve got to keep challenging yourself, and I feel bad if I feel like I’m ever doing something that’s sort of similar.”
They say: “I think she’s one of the best actresses working” – Peter Kosminsky