‘The Queen is really rather like Madonna!’ Actress Claire Foy reveals how her role in The Crown has given her a rare insight into the royals
By GABRIELLE DONNELLY FOR WEEKEND MAGAZINE
The strangest part about having left The Crown, says Claire Foy, is seeing her former cast mates going off to play different parts.
‘It’s a bit weird,’ she says, wrinkling her nose, seeing, for instance, Matt Smith who played Prince Philip go off to star in the action horror film Patient Zero, or Vanessa Kirby who appeared as Princess Margaret join the new Mission Impossible movie.
‘With The Crown we all did something together that was really engrossing and special and mad, and we all became incredibly close as a result. And now on the one hand I can’t wait to see what everyone will do next, but on the other I want to say, “Stop! Why aren’t you making The Crown anymore?”’
Nevertheless, she admits that as much as she’s enjoyed playing the young Queen Elizabeth in Peter Morgan’s sprawling series about the monarchy, after two seasons – the second begins in early December – she felt it high time to hand over the reins to the yet-to-be-named actress who will take Her Majesty into her middle years.
‘I need change,’ she told the Los Angeles Times recently. ‘I need to play somebody who’s able to communicate on a more open level. And that’s not Elizabeth.’
Today, relaxing in a Beverly Hills hotel during a brief visit to Los Angeles, this friendly, vivacious young woman from lower middle-class Stockport – ‘I’m definitely a massive commoner’ she tells me proudly in her light northern accent – could hardly behave less like the reserved monarch if she tried.
‘I’ve been released!’ she announces gleefully. ‘I’m no longer her so I feel like I’ve escaped!’
Claire, 33, says it was for practical reasons that she only signed on to do two seasons of the series.
‘There’s a huge difference between a person when they’re 21 and when they’re 85, so I have to forget playing this part any longer because you have to change at some point – you can’t have a woman of my age playing an 85-year-old!
‘And the change was especially marked for the Queen, because as the years have passed she’s changed massively, both physically and vocally.
‘In the beginning she was very unsure of how the whole thing worked, what her line was between family and duty and so on. But as she grew older her confidence grew, and I should imagine the way the institution is now is exactly how she would like it to be.’
Claire thinks one of the ways the Queen has managed to work matters to her liking is by finding down-time.
‘There were moments while we were shooting the series when I really understood that she was trapped where she was, that she couldn’t get out. But she’s a very practical woman and I think that at some point during her reign she thought, “I have to carve out some time for myself to do what makes me happy.”
‘That’s why she spends six weeks at Balmoral every summer, where she rides and tends her horses and does the things she enjoys. She’s made time for herself and I think that’s how she’s made it work for her.’
Ask her whether she approves of all of the Queen’s choices and she diplomatically avoids the question. ‘I like Peter Morgan’s Queen very much,’ she says slyly. ‘Some of the decisions she makes, I struggle with.
‘But I think that through making this amazing show I will always have a small understanding of her, but also a huge amount of respect for her because of what she’s had to go through, and how difficult times have been for her. How she’s kept it all together and kept the show on the road. That’s an extraordinary thing she’s done.
‘Although I don’t know if the Royal Family will always carry on, and if they don’t I don’t know that I’d be out there waving a placard saying “Saive The Monarchee!”’ she laughs, affecting a sentimental cockney tone.
‘I don’t know whether I’d personally be doing that at all! But from doing this show, I have been given the opportunity to look at the positive things they do and, as it stands, I’m for them. I think a monarchy only works if it’s a source of good, and the British monarchy has done very well at realising that they’re there to serve the public.
‘Of course they have no real power, but they can represent the people’s wishes to the government, and if you watch any of the Queen’s audiences that have been filmed, she’s always saying, “Well, how would this decision affect these or those people?”
‘She’s sort of timeless and bias-less, which is how she needs to be. In order for her to carry on being so, the whole monarchy has got to be on its toes – continue to modernise and change, which is what they’ve always done in order to survive. A bit like Madonna, really!’
None of which suggests for a second that she’s ungrateful for the opportunities that playing Her Majesty has afforded her. ‘It’s changed my career,’ she says, thankfully.
‘I haven’t changed for ten years but this has completely changed how people perceive me, and that’s lovely. In this industry you get so used to doing things and they get released and people are like, “OK, yeah, that was all right.”
But to do something like this, and for people to say, “We love watching that!” – it’s just really magical.’
The daughter of a sales consultant father and a second generation Irish office worker mother, Claire was the first in her family to go to university before attending the Oxford School of Drama.
‘We were given a very, very realistic idea of what the acting industry is like,’ she says. ‘You weren’t there thinking, “Oh, I’m going to be a movie star and have everyone look at me!” That wasn’t something they built you up for at all.
‘We were told that if you want this career, you have to want it for the right reasons – because you want to tell stories and you want to express emotions.
‘We were told that we have to work really hard and that we should expect to fail, and I’m so grateful for that because it’s given me a good basis of how to approach this career. I left drama school with the expectation that I wouldn’t be able to make a living as an actor.
‘I’ve grown up always knowing that in order to survive you have to eat, and in order to eat you have to make money. So as soon as I left drama school, I worked, worked, worked, worked at any job I could get until at a certain point I started to be able to stop working and start having acting become my main income, which it now is and it does still feel a bit strange!’
In her first few years out of drama school she took any job she could get. ‘Really I’ve done everything you could think of, apart from medical stuff. I did telesales. I gave out magazines at Tube stations. I worked at Wimbledon as a security officer. I worked at a pub. I was a piano teacher for a while, I worked in sales, which I loved.
‘And for a long time I worked at Tesco, which was actually a dream job because I’d always wanted to work on a till – seriously, when I was younger I used to sit and look at tills in the Argos catalogue, I was so obsessed with them – so when I started working at Tesco, I was thinking, “OK! Here we go! Ping! Ping!” I loved it!’
When she was working at a call centre she got called by a casting director from BBC3.
‘I was six months out of drama school and out of nowhere came a call from Di Carling, a casting director who had seen me in my showcase at drama school, saying, “We want you to come in and read for this part.” I thought, “What?” I’d never done an audition before in my life and had no idea how they worked or anything.’
The show was the 2008 pilot for the supernatural comedy-drama series Being Human. Claire was only in one episode – playing the former fiancée of George the werewolf – but it was enough to attract the attention of the makers of the serialisation of Dickens’ Little Dorrit, who snapped her up for the title role.
‘‘Everyone else was incredibly established and amazing,’ she says of her co-stars Tom Courtenay, Matthew Macfadyen and Andy Serkis. ‘It was just me who didn’t know what I was doing!’
Nine years – and a handful of TV projects like Upstairs, Downstairs, Wolf Hall and The Crown – later, she’s just been directed by Serkis in his new film Breathe.
‘He was really, really kind to me when we worked together,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t seen him for a while, but I bumped into him in a park in London and we had a nice old catch-up and then a week later he asked me to come to his office to talk about Breathe. I think Andy is amazing. He’s the most big-hearted, kind, full of energy, generous person you could meet.’
Breathe is the true story of the parents of Serkis’s business partner Jonathan Cavendish. Robin Cavendish (played by Andrew Garfield) was paralysed from polio and given three months to live at the age of 28, but went on to become a tireless advocate for the disabled.
His redoubtable wife Diana, 25 and pregnant with their only child when her husband was struck down, stuck loyally with him until his death 36 years later.
‘Their situation was just about the worst you could have,’ says Claire. ‘I can’t imagine having a child when you know your husband is going to be paralysed and on the brink of death every day.
‘People look at their story from the modern perspective when the options are endless and they say, “Oh, well, she could have chosen to leave him.” But if you really love someone you can’t do that. And she did love him – he was the love of her life – and she was always going to be there for him, and she still is. He died in 1994 and she’s never remarried.
‘The crazy thing is she doesn’t think her story’s remarkable at all. She’s absolutely no nonsense and so deeply strong. She’s the most incredible woman, and she helped me enormously, just by being around to talk to. She’s amazing.’
Claire says she prefers not discussing details of her own family life – her marriage to fellow actor Stephen Campbell Moore and their small daughter, whose name she has somewhat impressively managed to keep private for two and a half years now.
‘I don’t want to say her name,’ she explains, ‘because she can’t yet say her name herself, so I feel bad saying it for her.’
But she does admit that between promoting Breathe, working on the new Steven Soderbergh movie Unsane and preparing to play Stieg Larsson’s fiery Lisbeth Salander in The Girl In The Spider’s Web, she all too often struggles to find the perfect balance of life and work.
‘My home life is a lot about washing and online shopping,’ she laughs. ‘My favourite evening is probably spent indoors by a fire with a glass of wine and a book or Netflix. That’s lovely. But right now those days are few and far between, I’m afraid.’
Maybe she should follow the Queen’s lead and carve out some more time for herself.
Breathe will be in cinemas from 27 October.