Claire Foy: ‘My anxiety was a tool to survive’
September 29, 2018
Article taken from The Guardian.
Claire Foy has the heebie-jeebies. The actor, who until last year played a young Elizabeth II in the Netflix drama The Crown, has spent the last few hours being photographed in a studio in London. It’s a nondescript building that sits between a janitorial supply store and a tinned tomato factory, but the place carries very distinct memories. “It’s where I did my main audition for The Crown,” Foy says, shuddering. “I was five months pregnant. They put me in a wig and – oh God – a wedding dress. I had really bad carpal tunnel, and a swollen nose, and my lips were just massive. I had to flirt with Winston Churchill. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not sure this is gonna go my way…’”
We flee the weird associations to a pub not far away, where Foy, who’s been off caffeine for a couple of months, makes do with a long, pained sniff of my coffee and orders a soda water. She landed the main part in The Crown in 2014, and went on to appear in its first two series, winning a Golden Globe last year, and an Emmy this year. By arrangement, Foy and all her co-stars have surrendered their roles (Olivia Colman and others are currently on set as the Windsors, a little older) and this has freed up Foy to turn to movies. She has a couple of huge ones due: a moody, Oscar-y biopic about Neil Armstrong, First Man, in which Foy plays opposite Ryan Gosling as the spaceman’s wife; and then a noisier blockbuster, with Foy shorn and dragon-tattooed as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl In The Spider’s Web. She shot both films consecutively, Christmas through to spring, and hasn’t taken another job since, in order to spend the summer with her daughter.
We settle at a garden table. Foy wears a denim jumpsuit, collar wide on the throat that was so famously menaced when she played Anne Boleyn in the BBC’s Wolf Hall. The dark hair is short, upthrust, much toyed with – a grown-out version of Salander’s punky undercut, which suits her but which the actor isn’t so enamoured of: “I’ve just got to patiently wait it out.” She has distinctive freckles on her face and arms that must have been determinedly suppressed by the makeup teams on The Crown and Wolf Hall, and a ridiculous accent that will veer from East Midlander to north Londoner to senior Windsor in the space of a phrase. And she’s funny: Matt Smith, her Crown co-star, told a story on Desert Island Discs about how the two of them would ramp up their royal tics and posh-isms until one or the other couldn’t act for laughing.
The day we meet is the last of the summer holidays, so Foy has the slightly wild alertness of someone who has spent six weeks distracting and entertaining a child. Once she establishes that we both have young daughters, she poses one of the great questions of modern parenting: “Who would you be, Elsa or Anna?” In both our homes there has been a lot of Disney’s Frozen, a lot of introspection brought on by the ruthless 24-hour scrutiny of four-year-olds. In the garden, Foy marvels at it – how parenthood holds up a mirror, and an unflattering one. “It makes you realise, looking after a child, the holes you have in yourself.” And why not, she goes on. “You become someone’s parent – and suddenly you’re supposed to be capable? Have all the answers? Know what to do every day?” That’s never really been her way.
Foy grew up in Buckinghamshire, the youngest of three, her mother in pharmaceuticals and her father in sales. They separated when she was eight and Foy, speaking delicately so as not to hurt their feelings, says the following years were “slightly chaotic”. Her response was to try to “make everybody happy. Never be angry. Be really sweet and well-behaved. I didn’t want to upset people”.
She had a couple of serious illnesses in her teens – a benign tumour behind one eye, juvenile arthritis that put her on crutches for a while. “As a teenager you’re supposed to distance yourself from your parents, aren’t you, and test the boundaries? See who you are as a person by saying, ‘Fuck you!’ But I didn’t want to upset or hurt them, in the endeavour of making life easy and calm.” It all helped cook up a whopping case of anxiety, one that grew worse as she got older. Foy pulls a funny face to demonstrate what she was like: eager-to-please eyes, a slightly demonic grin. She tells a few jokey, belittling anecdotes about this difficult period (“My sister went to Leeds University to do broadcast journalism, and when it came to my turn, I applied to Leeds to do broadcast journalism”) but the anxiety was and is a serious issue in her life. Foy has never really spoken in depth about it; now, everything comes out.
“When you have anxiety, you have anxiety about – I don’t know – crossing the road,” she says. “The thing about it is, it’s not related to anything that would seem logical. It’s purely about that feeling in the pit of your stomach, and the feeling that you can’t, because you’re ‘this’ or you’re ‘that’. It’s my mind working at a thousand beats a second, and running away with a thought.”
What thoughts? Foy answers briskly, brushing her hand in the air: “It’s lots of thoughts about how shit I am.”
Looking back, she’s come to think it started as a form of self-protection. “It was a tool to survive, definitely. To try to hold on to everything. To try to feel safe.” She describes an endless series of anticipations and second-guesses. If this happens, what then? And what then? And what then? “If I knew a day was going to be ruined by anxiety, that was good in a way, because it meant I knew what was going to happen.”
I ask whether a career in acting has made this worse or better. “Oh, God.” She laughs. “It definitely magnified when I started doing this. Exploded. Yeah.”
She didn’t study journalism at Leeds (they said no). Instead she went to Liverpool John Moores University, to do drama and film studies, before enrolling for a postgraduate year at the Oxford School of Drama. “I started to learn that the most important thing to do as an actor was not to try to pre-empt everything – to stay in the moment.” After graduation she came out of the blocks fast, landing a small part in a play at the National Theatre, and then the title role in a big mainstream Dickens adaptation, Little Dorrit, on the BBC in 2008.
It was then that audiences first got a glimpse of Foy’s peculiar skill – a near-genius for the silent response to others. So often her dilating eyes, the flinching muscles in her jaw and neck, do more thorough emotional work than the dialogue going on around her. It’s become Foy’s thing, “a very powerful ability to do very little and speak volumes”, as The Crown’s director Stephen Daldry put it. In First Man, Foy appears in a devastating early sequence about the terminal illness of a child. Filmed closer and closer, Foy says hardly 10 words, and shows us a whole universe of grief via a few smoked cigarettes. The actor credits guidance she got at the start, from Little Dorrit’s director Dearbhla Walsh. “Dearbhla told me: ‘Everyone around you will be swinging off the chandeliers – that’s what Dickens requires. But you’re in the centre of it. Don’t do anything. Don’t try to act. No chandeliers.’”
For the next six or seven years Foy had no public profile, and although she was never long out of work (a Nicolas Cage action movie, a Peter Kosminsky drama, Shakespeare and Caryl Churchill on the London stage), there were many near-misses for big parts. This year the casting director Nina Gold, who has known Foy for a decade, told the Guardian that she was put in audition after audition, “and she was always really good, but she was never quite exactly, totally right. Or somebody else was a bit more right. She was always the second choice.” Foy says she was never too gutted – the opposite. “I didn’t mind missing out, because it seemed safer. I’d think: ‘Give that job to that person. Then I don’t have to think about my life changing in any massive way.’”
In 2014, after championing Foy for years, Gold put her up for the Anne Boleyn gig. Foy had worked with Wolf Hall’s director, Kosminsky, before but she still needed to convince him. She was on a shoot in Puerto Rico at the time, playing a pirate’s moll in a short-lived series for US television called Crossbones. “Hair extensions. Fake tan. Those were the days.” Off set, she filmed herself in character as Henry VIII’s fierce, prickly, doomed young bride. She could hardly convince herself at first.
“I’d read Hilary Mantel’s novel. And I just thought: ‘I’m not her. Not in any way, shape or form.’ Anne was so intelligent, so alluring, so able to be mysterious and have people be fascinated with her. Anne knew she was special. She spoke five languages. I just didn’t see it.”
But Kosminsky and Gold did, and Foy’s performance made the show – her Anne coming at the other Tudors sideways, sardonic and hungry, her ambition outpacing them all until the young queen is herself outpaced and sentenced to death. Anne’s arrival at her execution, played by Foy with a sort of terse disbelief, even anger, made for unforgettable drama. Kosminsky has called that scene the proudest in his long career. Foy says: “I was weirdly angry at the time, I remember. My hormones were going absolutely crazy. I was definitely loosening my corset that day.”
It was only after Wolf Hall had wrapped that she figured out she had been pregnant throughout. At the time, she was married to the actor Stephen Campbell Moore. The pair announced their separation in the spring, and Foy has said she would rather not speak about it today. Instead she talks about her memories of that pregnancy, which “upped things”, she recalls. “I felt like the game was on in life. I had to get my shit together.” Gold felt she’d be right for The Crown, immediately after Wolf Hall, so Foy waddled along to the audition. “I was reticent – I’ve always been reticent about bigness. And I was scared, I didn’t know how I’d be after coming out the other end of having a child. You just don’t know – something could happen, I could get postnatal depression, I could, I don’t know, develop a limp? So many variables! But I said yes to it. I knew it would be financially stable. We needed to buy a house.”
By now, she was seeing a therapist about her anxiety. “It got to a point where everyone I knew said go. I’m glad I did.” Sitting in the pub garden, I attempt an amateur read of the weird psychological situation she found herself in. So the anxiety, I say: that’s always told you to think about every possible consequence of everything.
While the acting insists the opposite – don’t think ahead, react.
“Yeah,” she says, “exactly, it’s very confusing. You’ve solved the puzzle. I took me 34 years to get to this point.”
By the time The Crown began to shoot, pregnancy and a challenging labour had forced her to be pragmatic. “As soon as I had the baby, I didn’t have too much time to think, to second-guess myself. I didn’t put myself through the wringer as much.”
She downplays the work she did over two brilliant series as “a lot of sitting”. And it’s true that other cast members had the better lines, providing much of the show’s chandelier-swinging energy, Matt Smith as Prince Philip and Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, especially. Foy’s Elizabeth was stiller, more watchful, half-submerged. But the show worked only because of her; she was its landscape and its weather. When she was called on stage to collect the Emmy this month, Foy’s understatement was fitting. “Bloody hell,” she said, dedicating it to Matt Smith and to the new actors who’d assumed their roles.
The new Armstrong movie has been directed by La La Land Oscar-winner Damien Chazelle, and will inevitably be a part of the coming awards shuffle. There’s a moment in the film when Foy’s character, Janet Armstrong, abruptly becomes world famous. Her husband has just landed on the moon. There are reporters on her lawn, wanting a quote. The way Foy plays it, a mask of simulated enthusiasm comes over Janet, who is now a public figure required to improvise public quips. If there have been parallels in Foy’s life – “Vague things I’ve had where I’ve felt slightly intruded on” – she says she’s learned how to deal with them on the fly, usually by failing in the first instance.
When an argument brewed this year over pay disparity on the set of The Crown (it emerged that Smith had been paid more) her instinct was to equivocate. But her gentle quotes on the subject (“I’m not surprised that people saw [the story] and went, ‘Oh, that’s a bit odd’”), given to Entertainment Weekly, were ultimately mushed into blunter, world-weary headlines about how she was unshocked by any pay gap. A story was later circulated that she received substantial back pay, but Foy has since denied this. “What I find really weird,” she says now, “is that people expect you to be an expert, and ask you questions about entire movements, huge things that are happening in the world, current affairs. And, I mean, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know. I’m as confused as everyone else. I’m learning like everyone else… It can’t just be me spouting crap.”
“I never thought I’d be in something as successful as The Crown,” she says. “And when you realise what success brings, and what people think about success… We laud success so much, and think that if you’re successful you’re special. When no, ultimately. Maybe it changes some people. But what I found really disconcerting was that it hadn’t changed me at all. Ultimately, all the same old crap is going on.”
Foy receives a text reminding her that today is school uniform pickup day. One more day of the summer holidays to go. One more screening of Frozen, tops. I think again about what she said about the two cartoon princesses – how Foy would prefer to be the less anxious Anna, while her daughter, along with just about every four-year-old girl including my own, aches to be Elsa, who is the cursed, more troubled sister. “Why would you want to be Elsa?” Foy wondered. “Elsa’s deeply miserable. She’s got a power she doesn’t know how to deal with. Elsa doesn’t want to be Elsa.”
Before she leaves, I ask her how the anxiety is today. “It’s plateaued,” she says. “All your shit – and everybody has shit – it doesn’t go away. It’s still there, but I guess I don’t believe it so much any more. I used to think that this was my lot in life, to be anxious. And that I would struggle and struggle and struggle with it, and that it would make me quite miserable, and that I’d always be restricted.
“But now I’m able to disassociate myself from it more. I know that it’s just something I have – and that I can take care of myself.”