from The Stage / by Matthew Hemley
With both Upstairs Downstairs and White Heat being screened on the BBC this month, Claire Foy talks to Matthew Hemley about feeling surprisingly comfortable in front of the camera
Claire Foy has been busy filming that much for television in recent months, she needs a reminder about which show it is I’m referring to when I mention I’ve seen the first two episodes of her latest drama.
“Is that White Heat?,” she asks.
Yes, I respond. Although, to be fair, it could easily have been Upstairs Downstairs, which also stars Foy and which is also being broadcast by the BBC this month. Indeed, since taking the title role in the BBC’s adaptation of Little Dorrit back in 2008, Foy has rarely been off our screens.
She appeared in Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal for Sky, took the lead in Peter Kosminsky’s The Promise for Channel 4, joined the cast for the BBC’s adaptation of The Night Watch, and has recently tackled comedy with Hacks. In between, she has also found time to star alongside Nicolas Cage in the Hollywood film Season of the Witch and is now back on the BBC with a second series of Upstairs Downstairs and White Heat.
The latter is a six-part drama series by Paula Milne (who also adapted The Night Watch for the BBC) and is about the lives of seven characters, with the series spanning the 1960s through to present day. The seven characters first meet as young students who live as flat mates in London’s Tufnell Park. The series then follows them over four decades as their lives are shaped by the political events of each era – including the death of Churchill and the ascendancy of Thatcher, up to the present day.
In the series, Foy plays Charlotte, who is described as an “intelligent feminist”. However, Foy was initially called in to audition for another part.
“They wanted me to go up for another role, but I said, I think I like Charlotte,” she reveals, adding with a laugh: “That sounds bad because she is the main part, but ignore that.”
Charlotte, she says, is the “most normal” person she has played. In the series, Foy has to portray her up to the age of 40, which she says required “ageing up” (she is 27).
“At first we were all like, crikey, we have to play 40-year-olds,” she says. “But it’s not really that much of a leap. People who are 40 don’t walk with Zimmer frames. No one at the age of 40 feels like a 100-year-old. They feel just like they did when they were 18. That was interesting.”
While Foy and her co-stars play their roles up to the age of 40, each character also has an even older version of themselves in the series.
Foy’s is played by Juliet Stevenson.
“They had a hard job, because they came in and played a role we had already done,” Foy explains. “But Juliet watched what we had shot, and we could have talked about the character had we needed to. But there was no need to do that and, in a way, I hope it works for that reason.”
For her own part, Foy was meticulous about combing Milne’s script for clues about her character. This way of working, she says, is absolutely vital to her. When she was a student at the Oxford School of Drama, a director called Richard Beecham told her that an actor has to use the clues that are in a script.
“And you do,” Foy says. “If you don’t, you’re amazing, and I think it’s so brave not to. The script is the only place I get inspiration from. I am not very good at picking a character out of the blue and deciding if they have a limp or something. I am not good at that. I work better when I have got the stuff in front of you and you have to get your head around it.”
She adds: “Writers want to see you playing the character rather than doing an impersonation of it. So you really need to find something you identify with or understand. It’s important to make the effort to be the person a writer has written.”
So what did Foy learn from the script about Charlotte?
The actress says she had to “delve quite a lot” into Milne’s script, and discovered from this research that Charlotte is “politically aware” but a “calm, closed person”.
“The hint in the script for me was that she is the person who never depends on other people or goes to them with problems,” she explains. “Only when she is in dire straits will she ask for help. At the same time, for certain people, she is there for them all the time. She is very giving towards people she loves.”
Foy reveals that Milne’s story is semi-autobiographical, and that the writer lived through everything she has written about. Because the series spans decades, Foy acknowledges there may well be comparisons between it and Our Friends in the North. But she adds that there are “massive differences” between the two and that it would be “awful to be compared and contrasted”.
Even if White Heat and Our Friends in the North aren’t compared, however, then two shows that always will be compared are Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. Foy plays Lady Persephone Towyn in the former, which is back for a second outing this month, written by Heidi Thomas. All of which means TV viewers will be seeing a lot of her on the BBC this month.
Which is interesting given that Foy did not think she would have a career on screen when she first started studying drama at the Oxford School of Drama. They did do a lot of work training to appear on camera, but Foy says she was bad at this.
“And I was told I was awful,” she laughs. “It was the most shameful thing in the whole world. So I thought I am not going to have a movie career. However, when I left, most of the work came from TV really.”
Her first stint on television was for the pilot of Being Human, before landing an episode of Doctors and then the lead in Little Dorrit.
“On that, I worked with incredible directors and actors and it was like going back to school in a way. I can’t believe I had the confidence to do it,” she says. “Looking back I don’t know where it came from.”
Although obviously proud of her work on Little Dorrit, Foy says it is her work on the four-part series The Promise for Channel 4 that she is particularly pleased with. She calls this show, about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a “beautiful piece of drama” and adds that she hopes producers try and make more television like that in the future.
For now though, she admits she has nothing planned work wise. Just what she calls “a period of blackness”.
But she is keen to try her hand at something different in the future – theatre, perhaps – and expresses a desire to sing and dance in something.
“Not at the same time however,” she says, laughing. “A play with songs would be fine to begin with.”
• White Heat begins on BBC2 on March 8 at 9pm