from Daily Mail / by David Wigg
Sir Tom Courtenay calls her ‘a wonderful discovery’. Matthew Macfadyen says she’s ‘no less than brilliant.’ The trade magazine Screen International lists her as one to watch and Vogue tips her as this autumn’s brightest star.
No wonder 24-year-old Claire Foy is smiling. She has landed the title role in BBC1’s new primetime Dickensian costume drama Little Dorrit – yet a year ago she was a struggling drama student, a complete unknown.
‘How jammy can one girl be?’ she asks, her huge blue eyes widening in astonishment at her own good luck. One of the jobs she undertook to help support herself was working for a film catering company. She would serve up bacon sandwiches to hungry actors and ravenous technicians, and she says it was the most demanding week of her life.
But it was the closest she’d been to fulfilling her dream. ‘I’ve always been an attention seeker,’ she says. ‘I used to put on shows at home, dressing up and roping my cousins in to help, but I always gave myself the best parts.’
Little Dorrit – which attracted an audience of more than six million, following close on the success of Bleak House and Cranford, when it launched last weekend – is packed with two dozen established acting names, but it is young Claire Foy – the ‘angel’ of this gritty love story – who has had to be on call each day for every scene.
The story itself, a tale of crooked financiers and desperate bankrupts – inspired by Dickens’ own anger when his father was jailed for debt – is apt in these credit crunch times. But its showing this autumn is just a coincidence – when it was filmed earlier this year no one could have foreseen what was going to happen to the economy.
‘It’s uncanny how this has turned out to be a story with a very modern connection, but I hadn’t even read the book when I first auditioned because I was convinced I didn’t stand a chance of getting the part’, she says. ‘All I knew was that it was a period drama.
‘There were four auditions and for the first two with the casting director Rachel Frett I was struggling to get a grip on it all. I went in and read my lines and I got completely the wrong end of the stick. It was atrocious.’
Claire was lucky. Instead of being dismissed – as some tough casting directors might have done – Rachel Frett encouraged the young actress to try again.
‘She said to me, “You can do it.” So I spent a lot of time on it and finally read the book, which really helped because then I realised how Dickens had envisaged Amy Dorrit, and what the casting people wanted.
‘Even when I found out we had gone down from 40 candidates to just three or four girls, I still thought I didn’t stand a chance. Then I got the call saying they wanted me and I said: “Are you sure?” I thought right up until the last minute that they were going to turn round and say: “No, we’ve made a mistake!”‘
But producer Lisa Osborne explains why they gave this plum role to an unknown with only three National Theatre plays and one TV drama, Being Human, to her credit. ‘We were keen to find a girl who viewers wouldn’t have seen before so she’d be fresh and believable as Amy Dorrit.
‘I think Claire is beautiful, but the look was kind of less important. Obviously, there’s a thing you want to have in Little Dorrit and that’s a sense of littleness. She’s described as being almost child-like, and Claire is tiny, like a sparrow. We couldn’t have cast a 5ft 10in Little Dorrit, that wouldn’t have worked.’
Tom Courtenay plays Little Dorrit’s proud but rather cunning father who is locked away in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. He had nothing but praise for Claire. ‘She is a wonderful discovery. She has wonderful eyes, a truthfulness and a naturalness. Without her it would be a waste of all our time, frankly.’
Surrounded on location by a galaxy of illustrious stars, including Matthew Macfadyen, Robert Hardy, Annette Crosbie, Judy Parfitt, James Fleet, Emma Pierson, Alun Armstrong, Andy Serkis, Mackenzie Crook and Bill Paterson, did Claire feel intimidated?
‘I did worry that maybe I was going to mess it up. But if you’ve got a larger part it can be easier because there’s less time for questioning what you’re doing.
‘The way Dickens sees her, Amy is the nicest person in the world. She is as far removed from me as is humanely possible. She’s kind of timid. I am generally a bit over the top and whacky.’
Claire trained at the Oxford School of Drama after attending university in Liverpool where she focused on drama and screen studies.
‘When I was a little girl, I trained as a ballet dancer,’ she says. ‘Then, when I was 13 I developed juvenile arthritis. That’s when I began thinking about acting, although I never really thought I could do it.’
The turning point came at school – Aylesbury High in Buckinghamshire. ‘We did a couple of shows. But I was never the prettiest or the most talented girl. It was always an uphill struggle. I’ve loved drama, but somehow I just thought everyone else was better than me. Then when I went to university, I realised you’ve just got to have the guts to go for it.’
Born in Stockport, she grew up in Manchester and Leeds before moving with her family to Longwick, Buckinghamshire Her father is a sales director for a security company, while her mother works in logistics in a pharmaceutical company.
‘We’re all bonkers’, she says. ‘I come from a big Irish family and we’d always entertained ourselves at home.’
While filming scenes in West Wycombe – which doubles as Venice in Little Dorrit – Claire went home to her parents each night. ‘They are massively proud. My dad is the funniest, because he read Little Dorrit cover to cover, so now he thinks he’s like an expert on the subject and casting. He thinks they should get Cherie Blair to play one of the characters!’
We will soon be seeing the start of a romance between Dorrit and the young Arthur Clennam, played by Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks, Pride And Prejudice) as he uncovers a secret family wealth – freeing Mr Dorrit from prison, and thrusting him and his brood into the upper echelons of Dickensian society.
Claire had seen Matthew as Mr Darcy in the film version of Pride and Prejudice and was shocked when she discovered she was going to have a love affair with him in Little Dorrit.
She isn’t, however, at all intimidated by the fact that a 15-part TV costume drama series like this is going to make her famous or how she will handle the trappings of success.
‘Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, for example, are normal girls but their lives as celebrities are very far removed from what I want. They are both beautiful. But I think I’ve been blessed in a sense that the first thing people have seen me do is acting. I haven’t got anything else to offer.’
But the extra money which comes with having a hit TV series is worth it. ‘It’s a bit peculiar. For the first time in my life I’m not overdrawn! But I’m very aware that it’s probably not going to last.’
• Little Dorrit is on BBC1, Sundays at 5.30pm and Wednesdays at 8pm.