We speak to Claire Foy who plays Helen in the BBC drama The Night Watch. Based on the novel by Sarah Waters the drama centres on the interwoven stories of four women before, during and after the Second World War. Here Claire talks about period dramas, sex scenes and working with so many of her peers
You’ve had roles in things from Little Dorrit to Upstairs Downstairs and now The Night Watch – so do you like period dramas?
Claire Foy: I like any drama that pays me to be in it! Period or otherwise! Why are people so obsessed with this I find it very funny? But yes I have done quite a few period pieces. Really I like anything that’s got a good character and a story. They do so many adaptations and remakes and are always finding literature and turning it into dramas so as long as they’re doing that hopefully I’ll do lots and lots and lots, but mix it up with some modern things as well.
Do you get offered as much modern stuff or is it just that a lot of drama is period?
Claire: Well, yes a lot of it is period and people forget that – even if it’s five years ago it’s period because it’s not now. I think because so much television is kind of period of some sort – apart from EastEnders and those things which are set now – it’s probably be a large proportion. I never get offered anything but the scripts that I read are probably more period but I can’t say for sure. It’s hard for me to say because I just like the story, so everything’s just a story to me.
Can you tell us a bit about Helen, the character you play in The Night Watch?
Claire: Helen is a very sweet and lovely person, but she’s very vulnerable and confused and a bit lost and doesn’t really know her place in the world. She makes lots of bad decisions without knowing it. She wants to do the right thing all the time, but is very concerned with what people think, with what society thinks and what’s the right thing to do – even if she doesn’t know what it is. She’s quite needy. She’s the person in a relationship that just gives and gives and gives. She wants love but doesn’t really know what to do when she gets it. It’s why her and Kay’s relationship goes so wrong. She’s a bit tragic really.
Did that make her a difficult to play?
Claire: Yes. It’s quite difficult to play someone who’s so emotionally erratic. She’ll say the first thing that comes into her head. You know when you’re in a relationship and you’re feeling a bit jealous, the adult part of your brain tells you not to ask where the other person was. Well, Helen just goes: “Where were you, what have you being doing? Please tell me, please? And tell me you love me, tell me you love me.”
And it was painful to read and especially when you read the book and you hear her in a monologue and she doesn’t want to do it but she can’t help herself. It’s because she’s so insecure. She has no confidence whereas Kay and Julia are such strong people and Helen holds onto them in order to live her life. It was difficult to play but I did like playing this character who was so desperate as it was quite easy to be the person who said everything first. I loved playing her in fact.
It’s quite rare to get a drama like this where there are so many strong female roles and an opportunity for you to work with lots of your peers – how was that?
Claire: It was amazing and there aren’t any really and if there are there’s always other people involved. It was quite nice that in this they were all female and that they were all relationships with women. It’s a strong female-led cast and the parts have got so much behind them and that is rare. I’ve never really worked with so many women before as actresses. It was a real, real pleasure and an amazing story. It was special really, really special.
Did you feel any special responsibility playing a gay character in a novel that is so sacred to a lot of gay women?
Claire: There’s always a sense of responsibility when you’re doing any adaptation from a book. Some people are of the view that you shouldn’t read the book that you’ve got to work on the script as otherwise you get too confused and you end up acting the book. And the book is not the script, as the script is a drama in its own right. So sometimes when that’s the case you wonder if you should read the book or will that just muddy the waters? But I read the book and I do love doing stuff that has a book behind it as it makes my job a lot easier and I feel a lot more assured about my performance knowing I know what the character’s thinking. So you have that responsibility anyway.
I felt more responsibility as my character is different in the book – she’s quite a lot younger as she’s written in the script to be 26 at the end whereas in the book she’s 26 at the start, so I hope people are not pissed off about that. My main thought when I approached it was I want it to be believable I didn’t want people to think: “There is someone playing a lesbian.” But I don’t think any one could ever think that and the reason it works is because it’s about relationships and all you do is act with the people who are opposite you whatever their sex. Helen’s a funny one as she doesn’t see herself as a lesbian, whereas Kay and Julia do and talk about it openly. Helen would never refer to herself as gay as she doesn’t know what it is. And that’s what I loved about her character as she didn’t need to put a name to herself. She’s in love with the person not the sex that they are. Hopefully, people will be open-minded that it’s heterosexual women playing these parts and that they’ll be ok with that and not judge anyone. But people are nice.
You do have some intimate scenes with Anna and she’s said it was much easier doing them with a woman than a man – how was it for you?
Claire: Ah it was brilliant. And it really, really, really was so much easier. If you’re doing a sex scene with a man – not that I’ve really had any – or even a kissing scene it’s so much nicer. It was just so lovely and not awkward and they’re so pretty and smell nice! We’d just have chats, and we’d have to snog each other, then we’d have another chat. It did get to the point where you could say don’t do that or do this – so you could be really honest with each other. I’ve been very lucky with the men I’ve had to kiss on screen and I’ve got on really well with them but there’s always part of you’d that would rather not do it and finds it awkward. It’s so much easier for your partner too if they’re watching it. With a woman it does make you less self-conscious. Me and Anna Wilson Jones had a whole scene in a bath and we stayed in the bath the whole time between takes. It was so cold out of the bath that it was better to stay in it but if I’d been in the bath with a man I’d have been getting out all the time between takes.
Were you surprised at landing Little Dorrit almost straight out of drama school and do you ever have to pinch yourself at how much you’ve done?
Claire: Yes, but it’s funny because like everything you do become so complacent. When I first did Little Dorritt I do think I went into shock because it was such a big part and such a lot of episodes – it was really scary. I did go into shock for about three months but since then I thought you can’t think ahead you’ve got to take every day at a time. And with the job that I do you’ve got to be confident. As soon as you worry about lots of people watching then it all falls apart.
The Night Watch is on BBC2 on Tuesday, 12 July at 9pm