By: Lisa Armstrong
What happens to an actress once she has played the queen? Does some magisterial DNA rub off on her? Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Judi Dench have all been appointed dames. Only Cate Blanchett, who so magnificently illuminated Elizabeth II’s namesake, Elizabeth I, is yet to receive a title. But since she’s an Aussie and thus, technically, a subject of Her Majesty, there’s still a chance. Besides, Blanchett exudes innate queenliness.
“The role can give you quite a lot back if you let it,” says Peter Morgan, who should know, since he wrote not only The Crown (for TV) and The Audience (for the stage) but also The Queen, the 2006 movie that arguably restored the monarchy’s popularity following Princess Diana’s death. “When Helen was a guest of the Obamas at the White House Correspondents’ dinner,” says Morgan, “everyone else was being mercilessly teased, but the entire room stood up and cheered her. I’m not sure Helen didn’t grow two inches.”
The glow of imminent stardom flickers like Saturn’s rings around Claire Foy, who will be back as Elizabeth Regina in season two of The Crown next month. Directors from Steven Soderbergh and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle to Evil Dead’s Fede Alvarez have lined up to work with the prolific but previously little-known 33-year-old British actress. Far from being in character when we meet for chamomile tea at the chic London members’ club Quo Vadis, she is wearing tortoiseshell glasses, her blondish hair scraped back with visible roots—the remnants of her role in her recent movie Breathe, opposite Andrew Garfield—and a denim jumpsuit from Citizens of Humanity. (There’s no such thing as a bad jumpsuit day in Foy’s book; at the Emmys in September, she arrived in a silver-trimmed black version by Oscar de la Renta.) By the time you read this, she and her jumpsuits will have decamped to Atlanta to film Chazelle’s First Man, which traces America’s determination to get its man on the moon before the Soviets. Foy plays Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet, opposite Ryan Gosling.
“She’s incredibly resilient and very physically fit,” says Foy, a knotty contrast not just with the body language required for the queen but also, she says, with herself. Janet would happily have gone to the moon, while Foy feels nervous on a crowded Tube. Then there’s Janet’s voice. The dialogue coach, she says, “keeps saying, ‘Stop! You’re doing the queen with a different accent.’ ”
Foy is used to range. She has played two queens (Anne Boleyn, on the TV version of Wolf Hall, and Elizabeth), an angelic Dickensian heroine (barely out of drama school she was cast as Little Dorrit in a fourteen-part BBC adaptation of the Dickens blockbuster), and Lady Macbeth (onstage, opposite James McAvoy). With each, she excavated layers that academics have sometimes overlooked. “She’s a lot of fun in person and has a kinetic energy,” says Chazelle, “but when you really talk, you realize how much else is going on. When we first discussed the part, she came with this idea of an interview with Janet she’d found. There was nothing in the script about it—it was astounding she’d unearthed it. I wound up putting some of it into the movie.”
With the weight of so much praise comes a burden of expectation, and Foy seems hell-bent on staying grounded. She likes to tell entertaining stories at her own expense. Today it’s about how she’s been struggling to juggle the care of her two-year-old daughter with her mother and her husband, the actor Stephen Campbell Moore, who starred in The History Boys. How she’s a homebody who likes to bake cakes and, having weaned herself off “terrible reality TV,” watches documentaries, particularly those by Louis Theroux. Foy and Moore recently bought a house in Wood Green, an “up-and-coming” corner of North London, and she spends her weekends puttering around the neighborhood shopping for rugs and cushions. “I love putting everything together,” she says, “but nothing makes sense.” She talks about how no one ever recognizes her. How her first forays onto the red carpet “were like roadkill. If it hadn’t been for Felicity Jones, who knew exactly what to do, I wouldn’t have even known you’re meant to twirl.”
But in the golden rays of a fall afternoon, it’s her pellucid blue-gray eyes, the delicate, below-the-surface incandescence—which Tina Brown, writing in The New York Times, described as “luminously ordinary”—that draw you in. For most of our conversation she leans toward me across our little table, back curved: the Conspiratorial Girlfriend Hunch. She can communicate beauty, comedy, or pathos seemingly by tilting her head, depending on whether sexual sorcery or prim, plain-as-milk sourness is required.
One Friday, a few weeks after our tea, I catch up with Foy over breakfast at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, where she is about to take part in a Q & A as part of a whirlwind promotional tour for Breathe. Tonight she will catch a plane to Zurich. On Monday she hits New York. Meanwhile, the Internet has been ablaze with speculation as to what she will bring to her newly announced role in The Girl in the Spider’s Web. If Janet Armstrong is a swerve away from Foy’s previous roles, taking on the raw, anarchic, borderline anorexic Lisbeth Salander in Fede Alvarez’s reboot of the Stieg Larsson franchise is the giant leap actresses dream of. For Alvarez, it was never a stretch. “From her first scene of The Crown, I fell in love with the way she was able to tell an emotional story,” he says. There’s already a cybersphere mock-up of Foy in Salander’s goth makeup and tattoos.
Her take on Larsson’s divisive thrillers, which she devoured, along with the movies, when they first came out, is characteristically nuanced. She doesn’t find the violence misogynistic. “I think the books show how this girl was taken advantage of by the system and by men and had chosen her sexuality,” she says. “Mind you, it’s weird when something’s written by a man. Are you just playing a woman through a man’s eyes? Then again, it’s my job as an actress to bring that missing link.”
Foy is efficiently working her way through a croissant with jam and butter. “The sugar-free thing isn’t going too well today, as you can see,” she deadpans—five minutes earlier she’d been telling me that her greatest luxury, apart from the Bechstein piano she bought post–The Crown, is stocking up on healthy food. Not many actors would be able to segue seamlessly between French baking, blonde highlights (“Being blonde changed my life. I loved it. When you’re brunette, people don’t hold the door open for you—but the upkeep!”), and devastating insights into three different characters. Four if you count Steven Soderbergh, with whom she recently worked on Unsane, a film shot in New York on an iPhone over ten days, and whom she (semi-) jokingly refers to as “a man of mystery.” Unsane was the ultimate antidote to The Crown. “There was no time to stress or overthink anything, no extraordinary lighting and cameras. Steven likes to explode reputation, and that’s completely what I needed.”
It’s probably safe to assume that professionally, Foy will not look back when she leaves The Crown after the two seasons to make way for an older actor and a more recent timeline. “Generally, there’s less pomp in the second season,” she says. “Matt”—Smith, who plays Prince Philip—“and I were always saying, ‘Can we have more domestic scenes?’ because you really, really want to see them as human beings. What’s so interesting is what slippers they wear, and those sorts of things.” As the mother of a newborn, then a baby she nursed on set during filming, Foy found the royal couple’s prolonged absences from their children hard to wrap her head around. During a Commonwealth tour in 1953–54, for example, the queen and Prince Philip left five-year-old Charles and three-year-old Anne at home for five months.
Foy’s own family—sprawling, Irish, and raucous on her mother’s side; unknowable on the other, since her father was adopted—is a tight nexus. The youngest of three siblings, she was eight when her father, a salesman for Rank Xerox, and her mother, an administrator in pharmaceuticals, divorced. Initially, despite the alacrity with which Foy performed at home for anyone who’d watch—acting, dancing, and playing piano, despite not being able to read music—she didn’t even consider a career as an actor, deterred, she says, by the prospect of “singing songs and having to pretend to be animals.” She turned to it only when her application to study broadcast journalism was rejected.
In her youth, Foy suffered from a congenital form of arthritis, which meant she couldn’t do much sport, and spent a lot of time watching old movies on TV. She’s still careful to get rest (“I’m like a child; I like to be in bed at nine”) and insists that after Spider’s Web, “that’s it. I’m categorically taking time off.” Then, at seventeen, she developed a (benign) tumor in her eye that required steroids. “It was definitely disfiguring,” she says. “Before, I had a relatively symmetrical face, and now my right eye is a completely different shape.” The sunny interpretation is that the tumor’s aftereffects somehow caused what Alvarez describes as “her ability to express a sea of repressed emotion with only her eyes.” “Maybe the muscles had to learn to work in a different way,” muses Foy. “What it taught me is that it’s human nature to get ill.”
Which means that, like the queen, for whom she has acquired enormous respect, she is stoic. Foy has met Her Majesty only once, briefly, at a Buckingham Palace celebration of Charles Dickens’s birth in 2012. They shook hands—Foy remembers the queen’s were gloved. “My overwhelming feeling was, God, it’s 10:30. She’s in her 80s, and she’s still up. How incredibly hard she works! What really breaks my heart,” she continues, switching back to the show, “is her relationship with her sister. Margaret’s so effervescent and alive. . . . I think the queen would love her freedom. But she wouldn’t do what Margaret does—which is the point.”
Foy, meanwhile, relishes not just freedom but risk-taking, which is why she’s ready to say goodbye to the queen. “I’ll probably cry when it’s finally over,” she says. “But what’s the point of doing all this if you’re going to play it safe?”