Claire Foy Just Wants to Play Lisbeth Salander…and Dance
November 26, 2018
Article taken from GQ.
My mom squealed when she learned I was interviewing Claire Foy. So did my mother-in-law. So did my friend who’s obsessed with the British royal family. They all knew her from The Crown, the hit Netflix show about Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and the difficult balance of serving a changing country while also serving your family. I was interviewing the Queen.
Foy’s biggest role so far has been in a period piece about royalty, but while she carries herself with purpose, she’s distinctly modern. She’s fast and opinionated, and when she talks about her work, you can see the meticulous way she approaches each performance. She understands exactly what makes these women tick. Soon enough, though, she’ll be known for much more than being the Queen. This fall, she starred as Janet Armstrong, wife of Neil, in First Man and is taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander (from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
You might think these roles are Foy as you’ve never seen her, but maybe that’s because you haven’t been looking. For the past decade, Foy has been shifting through every possible genre, time period, and character imaginable, it seems. She immerses herself in her characters so thoroughly you don’t even realize it’s her. She doesn’t act—she just is. Foy has immense respect for her characters and at times is fiercely protective of them. Over a tea in a paper cup, she defended all of them, wanting me to understand exactly where these women were coming from and what drove them. She wants you to respect them as much as she does. But if she’s the one playing the part, you will.
GQ: Since this is for our Breakouts package, do you feel like you’ve broken out of or into anything in the recent year, in recent months?
Claire Foy: No, not really. No, I’ve been working for like 11 years. I feel like my first job will always be my first job and the most mind-blowing kind of experience. I just feel like I’m doing the same thing that I’ve been doing for a long time lately. It’s just interesting to see how, from the outside, the perception of who you are and what you can do, or what you do for a living, is available to much more people. That they now have invested interest in what they think you are or your career is. It’s interesting, but I know how it works, so it doesn’t surprise me, really.
Why do you think you are so good at playing queens and royalty?
Oh, I don’t think I am. I think it’s just a coincidence, really. There aren’t many of those kinds of parts. It’s definitely not anything that I carry in my own life, that’s for sure.
Would you say you are more of an Elizabeth or more of a Margaret?
Somewhere in between. I’m definitely not as selfish as Margaret. I’m definitely not as introverted as the Queen. So I don’t know—I fall somewhere in between the two of them. A healthy balance. Too much either way is not great.
Has playing the Queen affected your views on the royal family at all? Does it make you more sympathetic or more judgmental?
Well, I’m reluctant to say the royal family, because I don’t feel like the show is about the royal family. I think it’s about Elizabeth. I was never playing the Queen, I was playing Elizabeth Mountbatten, and so in the same way that everybody who watches the show now has a deeper understanding of them as human beings, it’s the same for me. I just see what they’ve been through in their lives and have respect for her. I didn’t previously, really.
I saw First Man last night, and in your role as Janet, you’re still playing a real person but someone people relate to differently than the Queen. How do you strike a balance playing someone who is real but who’s also led a much more private life?
I don’t think it’s your job as an actor to try and introduce people in that way. I think my main point of contact, or my main interest in that whole thing, was just making sure that Mark and Rick—their children, the Armstrongs’ children—that their childhood was preserved in a way that they were happy with. And that their mother was portrayed in a way that they thought was accurate and thoughtful.
Did you get to talk to them a lot about her?
Yeah, a lot. They were really, really kind and generous with their time. Not a lot of people know about [Neil and Janet’s] marriage or their family life because they were incredibly private, and so you also have to take that into account that they were incredibly private and respect that and not try to re-write history. You just have to be as truthful and honest as you can. I feel like my experience with The Crown led me on a good path for that because I kind of knew to treat things with a respect and time and honesty, really. Humanity.
This is a very big movie, but it also feels like a very quiet movie. You see this family struggle, and it’s not always voiced. How do you go about preparing yourself to show the family going through something as difficult as the loss of a child?
I think, ultimately, with Karen’s death, we were all really sensitive to the fact that they never spoke about it. And also to the fact that you have to understand that people who will be watching the film might have gone through that. It’s not really up to us to feel it or take it home or be there or anything like that. You just have to have an innate understanding, as we all do, of how horrific and hard that would be—and be simple with it, and kind, and not over-emphasize it or under-emphasize it. It’s a very tricky thing to do. Like, Damien [Chazelle, director of First Man] did it really well. But whatever was hard for us could in no way touch the size of what they’ve been through. Yeah, just about being careful with it.
Were you interested in outer space as a kid?
Not so much outer space. I’ve always been fascinated with the night sky, but kind of like Pluto. We didn’t have a space program in the U.K., so it’s not like growing up I thought I should be an astronaut or anything like that. But, yeah, I used to definitely go outside and just sort of stare at the sky.
Did you know the constellations and stuff?
No. I didn’t know anything. And I still can’t remember any of them. I kind of know a few, but it was more I just found it so beautiful. I couldn’t understand how something so beautiful could exist. That’s my problem probably now.
Both in The Crown and in First Man, I feel like you play these women who are very strong. Especially the Queen, who has all this power. Yet there’s still an element of deferring to these men in their lives. The Queen, with Prince Philip, has his insecurities and everything that she has to manage.
I think it’s a mistake to say the Queen has power, because she has no power. She’s very bound by that, and especially at that period of time, that institution was entirely run by men. She learned how to exercise any little power that she had in a really, really useful way, I think, which is really, really clever of her. And she also realized, I think as many women do, that men can as much as they like put you down or make you feel inadequate or belittle you, but ultimately she knew the strength that she had.
And there’s Janet, dealing with the fact that her husband might not come home from the moon.
I think with Janet, she and Neil had a very equal relationship. He knew how lucky he was to have her in his life, and they have the shared interest. She had a fascination with flying. Her father flew when she was younger, and she could fly. His career and his life weren’t something that she was ignored by. They shared it together. Janet was very adamant, almost, that she would live her own life. She was very independent, she taught synchronized swimming, she looked after the boys, she had all of her friends. She didn’t defer to Neil. I think within the time that she lived, she found an awful lot of freedom. I don’t think she was frustrated in her life. I think she was frustrated with the person that she married. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was frustrated on the whole.
This year you’ve played a lot of period characters, but now you’re back to playing some distinctly modern, present-day pieces. Does that feel like a relief at all?
I’ve been doing it all throughout my career, so no, not really. I think drama is always fascinated with a period of time because it gives you an easier way of looking at the world. Like, sometimes a lot of modern drama is avoided because we’re not ready to see it yet. So we look back in order to understand where we come from. That is something we can stomach, I suppose. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of drama is in some way in some period. But I pretty much covered every period of time now.
So you’re taking over as Lisbeth in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Are you excited that you get to play a darker character, and that more people will get to see this side of you?
I’m not really in it for anyone else but myself, really. The only reason that I played that character was purely for myself and for the challenge. I loved her as a character.
What do you feel is challenging about it?
She’s so nonjudgmental. In the books and films and in society, people continually try to put her in a box. They’ll say she’s gay, she’s straight, she’s bisexual, she’s androgynous, she’s not feminine, she’s just trying to look like a man, she’s not clever, and then it turns out she’s a genius. People try to pigeonhole her the whole time, and the point about Lisbeth is that she works outside the realms of how people want to identify themselves in society. If people say that she’s an emo or something like that—or that she’s a punk—even that doesn’t do justice to the complexity of her. She doesn’t identify with any group of people. And in that way she is incredibly nonjudgmental. She doesn’t judge people at all, which I find so refreshing.
She’s so accepting of everyone else. I think she’s seen the absolute base level of humanity. She knows how it will pay off and how she’s been a victim of that. And with anything else, she’s a bit, like, “Well, if it makes you happy.” But she’s also so unaware of her own psychological behavior. She has a vengeful attitude and wants to right wrongs. She believes in the importance of justice. She doesn’t see quite how frustrated she is in herself. I just find her inordinately fascinating.
Given that you’ve played characters from every time period and in every genre, do you have a dream role at this point?
No, because I never know what they are until they’re there. I’m just not like that, really. I’d love to do some singing and dancing. No one else would want to hear that or see that. But I’d love to do that, just for my own joy. I love dancing, so any excuse… If I could do dancing at work, that would be the dream. I have no time to do it in my free time.
Did you grow up dancing at all?
No, not really. I grew up dancing in my living room. I did ballet lessons, but not professionally or anything like that. And ballet I find a bit too restrictive. I did a lot of dancing at drama school as well. But, yeah. I just love to do that—it’d make me very happy to do that.
Are you fan of musicals in general?
Not really. I love the rhythm of them and things like that. The acting is more important than the singing. That’s the thing that always gets me.
You seem to be in role after role. Are you taking a break?
I have taken a break. I finished Spider’s Web in March and haven’t worked since then. It’s been amazing. I never really worked on the trot like that before. It was only in the past three years that I’ve done it. Before, I’ve always been very, very keen to take time off. It’s just because of the parts that I’ve been offered, that I really wanted to play, that now I feel like I’ve earned a break.