from The Sunday Telegraph / by Daphne Lockyer
She’s on the verge of period drama stardom. But Claire Foy isn’t acting famous, says Daphne Lockyer
When the producers of Little Dorrit first clapped eyes on 24- year-old Claire Foy, they were delighted. At just 7st 12lbs, the hitherto unknown actress who leads the starry cast of BBC1’s new costume drama is so petite, she looks as though she might weigh less than a copy of the Dickens novel. But who better to play a girl whose very name refers to her smallness?
“There were three possible actresses for the part,” says Andrew Davies, who adapted the novel about escaping the misery of debt into 30-minute chunks (tonight’s first episode is an hour-long treat). “But, physically, Claire was perfect. She was the youngest-looking and the smallest. And then we discovered other marvellous things about her” – not least her lack of starriness.
Born in Stockport, Foy grafted hard at acting school, taking factory work to supplement her grant. Today, with her career on the verge of lift-off – Vogue put her top of its annual list of 40 new talents – she still shares a house with five other young actors.
For the latest milestone adaptation of a classic Victorian novel, Little Dorrit’s producers were looking for an actress of the calibre of Anna Maxwell Martin or Ruth Wilson – who, like Foy, had both been ingenues before their award-winning period drama roles.
“When I thought about those actresses, I never put myself in the same bracket,” says Foy. “Mostly, I was thinking: ‘They just don’t give a part like that to someone like me.’ ”
Foy’s language is far from Dickensian, with frequent use of words like “jammy” (as in, “How jammy am I to get this part?”). Later, she declares that one of the best things about working on an Andrew Davies script is “his amazing way of cutting through all the s—,” before adding quickly: “not that Dickens is s—. But Andrew just turns the whole thing round so that it’s relevant for a modern audience.”
Though Little Dorrit is one of Dickens’s less well-known works, it has all his hallmarks. The Dorrit family’s journey from rags to riches and back again deals with themes of disappointment, unrequited love, redemption and social injustice. Specifically, it’s a broadside against the jailing of debtors. It is also a riot of corsets and bonnets. “The corsets were pretty uncomfortable,” Foy admits. “It was especially awful after lunch.”
Today, she cuts a disconcertingly modern figure in her skinny jeans, pumps, and an oversized blue-grey cardigan that reflects her enormous eyes of cornflower blue.
Davies says he found himself wanting almost every shot to be “a big close-up of Claire and those huge eyes and that wonderful straight gaze”. The cast may feature many esteemed actors, including Tom Courtenay, Sue Johnston, Andy Serkis, Matthew Macfadyen and Amanda Redman – but, he says, “Claire just fits perfectly at the absolute centre of everything, which is exactly where her character belongs”.
When we first meet Amy Dorrit and her father (played by Tom Courtenay), they reside in the Marshalsea, a debtors’ jail based on the one in which Dickens’s father was imprisoned. They meet an array of colourful characters on the way, but it’s Amy who powers the story.
For all that, according to Foy, playing her didn’t come naturally. “In all honesty, I’m not like her at all,” she says. “She’s quite reserved and together and has an amazing, still quality. I’m the reverse; stillness is something I struggle with.”
Even at school – an all-girls grammar near the Buckinghamshire village where she moved when she was six – she was hyperactive. “I was always throwing myself about the place and getting injured. I could never sit still for a minute. So when I got the part I thought, ‘Dear Lord, I’m going to have to work really hard here.’ ”
Not that she’s fazed by hard work. After all, as a little girl she trained to be a ballet dancer (“That’s what I wanted to do most in the world”). Then, at 13, she developed juvenile arthritis. “It was serious enough for me to end up on crutches for a while and I needed strong medication. Fortunately, I grew out of it, although it’s possible it might come back. But, anyway, it was obvious I’d never be a dancer, which was when I started thinking about acting.”
Foy was raised the youngest of three siblings in a distinctly untheatrical family; her father was sales director of a security firm, her mother worked in the logistics department of a pharmaceutical company. “Both my brother and sister have proper jobs, too,” she smiles. (One is an accountant, the other works for the Cystic Fibrosis Association.) “But there is a creative side of me that needs to find some expression, and acting is the thing that does it for me.”
She studied drama and screen studies at Liverpool John Moores University before going on to a postgraduate course in acting at Oxford School of Drama. Though she only left the latter a year ago, she has appeared in three plays at the National Theatre, and in the TV drama Being Human.
Foy is all too aware that Little Dorrit could be a life-changing role. “I find the idea of having a lot of public attention unreal somehow. I don’t think that’s going to happen. Plus, I look to someone like Anna Maxwell Martin, who was brilliant in Bleak House and won the Bafta. She seemed to be very cool about her success, and was able just to carry on. If I can do the same, I don’t think I’ll have anything to worry about.”
She still dates the boyfriend that she met at drama school. “Only another actor understands your weirdness and your stresses, and they don’t go nuts if you end up kissing another person in a role, which you almost invariably do.”
In the end, she says, acting is the best job in the world. And, having had to take several jobs to supplement her student income, she should know. “I worked in a factory,” she says, “I was a security guard at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club and, for two years, I had a part-time job in Tesco. Actually, I loved that job. As a kid, I always wanted a toy till.”
Foy gives a chuckle at her own expense. She can afford to. With the kind of fame and success she is predicted, those cash registers are likely to be ringing soon.
Little Dorrit begins tonight on BBC One at 8pm, and will then continue on Thursdays and Tuesdays. See Seven for detail