One of this year’s biggest breakout stars — she won Golden Globe and SAG awards for her portrayal of young Queen Elizabeth II in the most expensive TV series ever made (Netflix allocated $100 million for its first two seasons) — reflects on auditioning while pregnant, playing a woman famous for hiding her emotions and growing as an actress.
“For me, the most challenging thing about it was endurance,” says Claire Foy, the 33-year-old British actress whose portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II on season one of Netflix’s The Crown earned her best actress in a drama series Golden Globe and SAG awards earlier this year and has made her the frontrunner to win the equivalent Emmy. As we sit down at Netflix’s FYSee interactive exhibition space in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast, Foy continues, “I had a small child, I had the biggest job of my life, I broke my elbow — so it was more of just, like, ‘I can do this!'”
Foy was born and raised near Manchester, England, and briefly flirted with careers in dance and cinematography before committing to acting and eventually studying it at the Oxford School of Drama. Soon after graduating, she began working on TV projects of growing prestige, including several BBC offerings — the 2008 miniseries Little Dorrit; the reboot of the drama series Upstairs Downstairs, which ran from 2010 through 2012; the 2012 miniseries White Heat; and the 2015 miniseries Wolf Hall — as well as Channel 4’s 2011 miniseries The Promise. Her performances generally won widespread praise from critics, but it wasn’t until last Nov. 4 of 2016, when Netflix dropped the entire first season of The Crown, that a much larger audience began to appreciate what a remarkable talent she is.
At the recommendation of casting director Nina Gold, who previously had cast Foy in Wolf Hall (and “who I owe my life to,” the actress says), she was invited to audition for the principal part in the drama series, which Netflix had commissioned with 10 seasons in mind, each chronicling a different chapter of the Queen’s ongoing reign. Informed that it was the brainchild of Peter Morgan, the same man who was behind the 2006 film The Queen and the 2015 Broadway play The Audience (both of which also center around the Queen, and which brought Helen Mirren an Oscar and a Tony, respectively), and that several of its episodes would be directed by Stephen Daldry (who also helmed The Audience), she was intrigued — but faced a dilemma. “I was five months pregnant,” she says with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just go in and meet them. I’m not gonna get it, but it’ll give me something to do for the next couple of weeks.'” As it turned out, her physical state was not a deal-breaker and she was brought back for a screen test and then offered the part.
Netflix spared no expense on the prestige production, with seasons one and two costing a combined — and unprecedented — $100 million. The first spans the Queen’s marriage to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), in 1947, through the resignation of Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), prime minister of the United Kingdom, in 1955. “That journey that she goes on in that first series is a fascinating one,” Foy says. “‘You think you know someone,’ is essentially the tale — you think you know someone, and actually you don’t know where they’ve come from, and don’t underestimate them, and don’t think that their life has been all wonderful and marvelous and ‘isn’t it great just’ because of the position that they’re in.” (Season two, which is expected in the fall, will pick up from there.)
For Foy, preparing to play the Queen involved juggling not only a massive script and a newborn child, but also studying biographies of the Queen, audio recordings of her giving speeches and footage of her throughout her early life, as well as working with a dialect coach. Once on set, she faced a new set of challenges. The years of the Queen’s life that she was to portray had to be shot out-of-sequence, starting with her coronation, and then jumping backwards and forwards, which was less than ideal. She also somehow had to convey the emotions of a monarch who has made a specialty of hiding her emotions. And, on top of all that, she broke her elbow mid-shoot. But the experience of making the show was never anything less than wonderful and felt less like working on a TV series than on “a very long movie,” she insists. “It more felt like a movie because the attention to detail and the heads of department and all the people that were on the crew were the best — the best of the best of the best of the best. Everyone. All the set dressers, all the costume standbys, all the makeup girls.”
As people have caught up with The Crown, Foy’s profile has grown, and many have speculated about her future. Some have inaccurately suggested that she has elected to leave the show after season two, when, in fact, it always was the plan for a new crop of actors to cycle through at that time. And she’s as excited as anyone to see what happens them: “I’ll be so interested to see how it works and what they do with it — they’re bound to do something really clever because they’re all really clever. And it is that thing of going, ‘It’s not about one person,’ because it hasn’t been — Kristin Scott Thomas has done it, Helen Mirren has done it—” and now Foy. (There are reports that one of the Queen’s sons and his wife have screened The Crown for her and that she has enjoyed it very much. Foy, who briefly met the Queen at a reception for Little Dorrit years ago, can’t help but laugh at the thought of this — but says she’d have a very different reaction if she actually saw the Queen again, having lived in her skin for The Crown: “I’d cry and I’d tell her I love her,” she says.)
As for widespread rumors that Foy may replace Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander in the sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she declines to comment, except to confirm that she wants her next project to be a major departure from the sort of period pieces she’s done recently. “I definitely don’t want to do something that’s similar to this [The Crown], just for my own sanity,” she says, before cracking, “but it doesn’t necessarily have to be me going mental.”
Meanwhile, Foy insists that outside of the industry, in the real world, not many pay her much notice at all. “No one gives two shits,” she says with a laugh. “I’m not joking. I literally would have to beg. I’d have to go out in my [Queen’s] wig. I’ve actually been out in my wig and full costume for dinner in London while we’ve been shooting, and even then people [didn’t care]. Me and Matt [Smith] walked into a restaurant together and a woman went, ‘Oh, you look nice!’ I was like, ‘Are you joking?!’ I mean, I was on the Tube — I mean, I can’t even tell you! Like, throw me a bone! Christ!”
More seriously, though, she expresses immense gratitude for the opportunity to star in The Crown and the interest in her that it has bred. “It’s wonderful to be part of something that people have enjoyed,” she says. “It’s very weird to suddenly be in a position where people think that you’re worth their attention — as in, it’s very enlightening and also lovely and also scary. But it’s a very, very interesting position to be in, and I think very few people are ever in this position, and I’m very much following John Lithgow and his sort of way of being in life, which is just, ‘Huh, this is what’s happening now? This is interesting, OK.’ And just receiving it all and just going, ‘This is lovely,’ and really enjoying that people have loved something that I’ve done. Even if at all ends from there, it’s really lovely. Really lovely.”