By Adrian Lobb
Claire Foy plays Anne Boleyn in the BBC2 adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, alongside Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Mark Gatiss
Are you filming anything at the moment?
No, I’m not working. Just pottering around the house. We are attempting to sell our flat and there is crap everywhere. Oh, gosh, it is so boring. We have a baby imminently on the way as well. Perfect timing. We planned it all really well!
How much did you know of Anne Boleyn before you got the role?
I knew as much as everyone else knows, especially anyone who has been to primary school in England where you are taught the ‘divorced beheaded, died’ rhyme. She was always, obviously, the most interesting one. But we have all these ideas of what she is like, that she had six fingers, that she had loads of affairs, that she was a witch and a terrible, terrible wife. That is the impression I got as a seven year old. It is amazing that such crude propaganda lasts that long.
History is famously written by the winners, and I guess Anne didn’t win…
They destroyed so much of her legacy. They got rid of everything. I knew vaguely about her, from watching the Henry VIII with Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter, who is the most amazing Anne Boleyn. And that was everything you imagine – she was sexy, crazy, dangerous. But then I read Wolf Hall and was surprised. She wasn’t at all how she was written by history. She was mean, not very attractive – I thought she was meant to be this massive sexpot! Cromwell finds her attractive in his own way, but he sees her more as a political player than a woman. She was not a woman by his standards, she has very dark hair, she is quite a dark person – not blonde and buxom and shiny like her sister. That is why I loved the books so much, it was so exciting to meet these new people, it was like reading someone’s diary, you were discovering them.
Do you see Wolf Hall, the novel and now the series, as rewriting history or correcting it?
It is Hilary Mantel’s interpretation of what might have happened. She is not taking liberties and changing stories, she is going with the facts and events of the time. You are genuinely looking at what might have happened, and what their psychologies might have been. I was taught as an actor that you start from what you know as factual. What makes her work so amazing is that you feel like it happened. I’m playing the Anne Boleyn that Hilary wrote.
What was your take on Cromwell from the books?
When I read it, I was behind Cromwell the whole time. Only in the last couple of chapters did I start to think, oh, hang on, what he is doing is quite bad, I’m not sure I agree entirely with what he is doing. But because of the way he rationalises things in his head – which you are hearing – you go along with him. You are convinced by him. It is quite amazing.
And a new take on Anne Boleyn?
I don’t think this is finally Anne Boleyn having her say. But it’s a reminder – don’t believe what you hear. With Anne, it was so crude and it seems so obvious now – when you think they called her a witch and said she put spells on people, oh come on! The one thing they attacked was her chastity, saying she hadn’t been a faithful wife. Cromwell knew that it was the one thing that would get the English public wanting her dead. They said she was a complete harlot, a witch, she had been having sex with six different men, one of whom was her brother. It is no different today, stories are spun and people become demons or angels, because that is the story that people want to tell.
A lot of the real locations were used – how did this add to your performance?
We were in these beautiful National Trust houses. So we had tour groups coming through every 20 minutes when we were trying to do a big scene, and we weren’t allowed to sit down on the furniture! We saw the country as we travelled around. It was an amazing cast, and so big, with so many integral characters. There was a feeling of storytelling and playing games.
Did Mark Rylance have you playing authentic games of the time?
We played one called Pucket. I don’t know if it is authentic or whether it just looks it because it is wooden. It could be incredibly violent – it is just two pieces of wood with an elastic band and you have to shoot counters. But it was great. It was so frenetic and mad, and obviously Mark was amazing at it – but by the end some of the younger boys had been practicing. When they beat Mark it was a massive occasion! Me and Charity Wakefield [Mary Boleyn] had some good games – but it is harder in our massive costumes. I’m competitive, so I would swear a lot. Pucket and the National Trust shops kept us going – I’d go to buy jam and things I don’t need.
You got a close up of Mark Rylance as Cromwell (below) – what was your impression?
He just is Cromwell. Well, he is not him – Mark’s a really nice man. But he was perfect, he has such a quiet intensity, doesn’t feel the need to overplay everything, and that is why it works. He is this quiet figure and you never know when he will explode or say something inappropriate. Mark was in every scene. He was on his own, holding the whole fucking thing together with Peter Kosminsky, and he did it without even hinting he was tired.
Reading the book – you were on Cromwell’s side. It puts me in mind of shows like Sopranos or Breaking Bad, where we are on the side of people who do some pretty terrible things…
It fits with those shows. That is exactly it. With Tony Soprano, you would think, maybe he does feel like he is in charge of waste management. It’s what you believe as a viewer, and it is amazing. You are able to be charmed by the person, because they are not hiding anything from you. Peter Kosminsky shot Wolf Hall like a documentary, you only know what Cromwell knows and never precede him into the room. So you see him reacting, and a lot of the time, you are thinking ‘That is brilliant’. You are in awe of this person who can respond in a terrifying situation or with this very important person in a way that is so bad ass. You are behind them all the way, and it fits in exactly with shows like the Sopranos.
Have we moved on from craving likeable central characters…
We read a lot about likeability, but you can be likeable and a questionable human being. Nobody behaves perfectly. And I think the thing with Wolf Hall is that yes, it is historical, but they are making decisions on the hoof – and don’t know it is going to be the most important decision ever! That can be missed with historical drama. We revere every single moment because it comes to be seen as so important. But a lot of the time, they were decisions made on the spur of the moment, not knowing they were changing the course of history. That’s what makes Wolf Hall feel so immediate, modern and new.
Where does Anne Boleyn fit in with that? Flawed, but we back her a bit as well…
I don’t think any King had married a random before. They are always farmed off to a really important family in England or a European princess. Anne Boleyn overthrew an incredibly well-connected Spanish princess, who had such wide-ranging influence in Europe and caused a bloody war, and made the church be dissolved. So why shouldn’t Anne be queen? Henry loves her. He wants her. You want to believe in the mad passion they had. But Anne is sort of the underdog, but she has massive balls and is not afraid to go after what she wants. And then she doesn’t know when to shut her mouth!
Did you warm to Anne Boleyn?
The thing with Anne, I have a massive amount of sympathy for her all the time. It is said that she never cried when she lost her children, she never showed any weakness – but that is incredible convenient for people writing about her. It doesn’t mean she didn’t feel it. When you hear Anne’s response to being in the Tower and arrested – it was so human. Up until the knife swung, she would cling to the idea that she knew she was innocent and someone would say stop.
It was a very brave first episode – you don’t see the King until 55mins in…
Yes. Anne comes in on page 225 or something. You read so much before you meet the person everyone is banging on about. So you look forward to seeing Anne and Henry, they are so exciting and colourful and regal, such exciting figures. It must have been so hard, so much pressure to put in the King – we have Damian Lewis for god’s sake, where is he? We actually have hardly any bloody scenes together.
Where does Wolf Hall fit into the TV landscape?
I think it is a really encouraging thing. It is really ambitious. The cast and crew were given the time it needs, they got the people they wanted for all the roles, spent money on it. You can never have enough money for such an ambitious drama, but it is a step in the right direction. I think stuff like this has to be made and championed. We have to keep getting things made. With American shows, they make thousands of pilots each year. Throw money and bodies at it, and one might work and become a series. We don’t do that. We go on a whim, put money behind it, then it is on telly and judged. It doesn’t have to be a success every time, but we do pretty bloody well for quite a small industry with more risks attached. I hope we go further – if you put money in the hands of creative people it will be safe, and given time, they will do something great. They don’t need to be micromanaged all the time. That is what bold TV or film or any form of art is, you need the creative people in charge. It might be a complete bloody disaster – but life is too short to hope for everything to have nine billion viewers and be a critical success…
Wolf Hall continues on BBC2, Wednesdays, 9pm