By Julie Miller
I you have not yet watched Netflix’s The Crown, the upcoming holiday weekend is the perfect chance to start. The sumptuous 10-episode series, from Stephen Daldry and Peter Morgan, stars British actress Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth ascending the throne decades before she expected to. Foy does a brilliant job portraying the long-reigning monarch as viewers have never seen her—fallible, unsure of herself, and struggling to balance her domestic life with her divine duty as the whole world watches.
To celebrate the series, we spoke to Foy earlier this week about the challenges of playing Queen Elizabeth, whether or not she’s heard from the palace, and what viewers can expect when the series returns for its second season. Our edited conversation follows.
V.F. Hollywood: I have so enjoyed watching you on The Crown, and was sad to finish the first 10 episodes. Was the series as fun to make as it was to watch?
Claire Foy: It really, really was. It was definitely a feat, a bit of an achievement, because it’s so vast, and there’s so much of it, and the story goes so far in such a short space of time. But we [the cast and crew] all absolutely love each other.
We’re all so acquainted with Queen Elizabeth the public figure, but what research gave you the best insight into what she’s like behind closed doors?
The palace released quite a lot of her home videos, actually. She has that video camera [that was given to her by her father]. A lot of the home videos were actually shot by her. She has done that through her entire reign.
The palace did this thing [for the Queen’s 90th birthday] where the royal family sat down and watched the home videos together [for a BBC documentary]. William and Harry sat down and watched some. The Queen and Prince Charles watched some. It was the most amazing thing, watching them watch these home videos. A lot of these home videos are of her and Margaret and Philip and, at that point, Charles and Anne—them messing about and rolling down hills. That was very very early on in her reign . . . Those were really amazing, because even then she had such a reserved quality. She wasn’t, obviously, as frivolous as Margaret.
There are documentaries of her now, in her 70s, 80s, and 90s—that’s really useful. But you have to realize she’s not the same at 90 as she was at 25. As good as that is, to see her and how she moves and how she is with people naturally, you have to imagine her as a seed of a person as opposed to full character.
Peter Morgan has told the Queen’s story in other mediums—the 2006 film The Queen and the 2013 play The Audience, both of which starred Helen Mirren as the monarch. Did Peter put you in touch with Helen before filming to get her feedback on playing the character?
I would have loved that! I would have loved it if he’d said, ‘Would you like to come meet Helen Mirren?’ I would have been like, ‘Yes.’ Not even to talk about the Queen necessarily . . . but to talk about life. I think we should all have a private audience with Helen Mirren.
No, but The Audience was still [in production] with Kristin Scott Thomas on the West End [when I was cast]. [Peter and Stephen] were like, ‘Let’s go see it together.’ And I said, ‘I really want to see the show but I don’t think it would be a good idea now to see Kristin Scott Thomas play the Queen, because I might feel slightly intimidated.’ I steered clear of that. But I did watch The Queen again when I first found out I got the job. I pretended I was doing research.
Did you speak to anyone who had worked with the Queen in preparation?
We talked to people who’d worked for the palace, but it’s a funny thing: people are very loyal and [what happens inside the palace] is very shrouded in secrecy. They are very professional, and it was difficult to get behind the veneer.
Was there anything they told you that was surprising?
Unfortunately not. But I was surprised with how strict they still are on protocol and on people observing the etiquette. [The palace is] a pretty modern household now, and I thought they would be, ‘Oh no, you don’t have to call me that,’ or, ‘Don’t curtsy. How embarrassing.’ But they’re very, very strict on it still. I think they see protocol and etiquette as not something to be revered or anything like that, but it’s very important to the continuity of the monarchy.
I think there is very much a sense of once you served, you always serve, in a way.
Has your posture improved since playing the Queen?
I think it has. I’d just had a baby when I started filming, so I had to wear a proper corset because I was about five dress sizes bigger than I normally am. The corset helps you not slouch. Now we’re doing the second series. I’m not wearing it anymore, but it stays with you, that posture, and being a lady.
The scenes between Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret (played by Vanessa Kirby) are especially hard and heart-wrenching to watch—the Queen having to hurt her sister by not letting her marry the love of her life. What was it like filming those?
It’s interesting, because Vanessa and I had never really spoken about it until a few days ago. I knew very much what Margaret felt about the Queen and how much she felt she’d been let down . . . I do feel bad [for Elizabeth] because I think nothing hurts more than hurting your own sister, and that is true for everybody, especially if you’re an elder sibling. The idea of your younger sibling being in pain and realizing you are the cause of that pain is unbearable. But in order to make her happy, Elizabeth would have had to go against everything that she held as a core belief—she would have also had to betray her father, betray God. She was no longer in a position where she was able to do that.
I think Margaret sees her difficulty, but I think she thinks Elizabeth [made the decision] to spite her. I think that breaks Elizabeth’s heart even more because that’s the last thing that she would want. But what can she do? If she went the other way, she would be overthrowing the entire monarchy. The monarchy would be a very different thing today if she had allowed Margaret to marry Peter Townsend.
But in The Crown, that is our version of the truth. No one knows actually what happened. All we know is that Margaret, Philip, Elizabeth, and the Queen mother went into a room for however many hours, and when they came out she had decided not to marry him. We don’t have any idea of intricate sort of details.
I came away from The Crown having an entirely different perception of the Queen than I did before. How did playing Queen Elizabeth affect your view of her?
After the first audition, Stephen Daldry was really pushing me to not be cynical and not be hard and not be tough, not be strong, not be any particular thing, but just be someone who was relatively naïve and kind of green. I didn’t think of the Queen like that at all. You don’t think of someone who’s unprepared, terrified, grieving, or in love . . . in the same way that you don’t think of your grandparents like that.
I think the experience has definitely made me look at her, and what she’s achieved, not just in her role, but also as a mother of four children . . . I think there can’t be anything more emotional than looking back at your family and seeing your grandchildren have children and see the dynasty that you’ve created . . . in anyone’s family that’s pretty extraordinary . . . I feel very very fond and affectionate towards her in a way that is personal as opposed to as head of state.
The Crown also shows how becoming Queen affected her marriage to Philip, and the tumultuous domestic life that followed—insinuating that Philip was not coming home until very late some nights, and even possibly having affairs. Did it feel weird to film those scenes, considering the Queen projects such a strong, unshakable image?
No. I think whenever you’re doing anything, you don’t want anyone anywhere to watch it and think that what your character is doing is ridiculous. You don’t want anyone to watch it and go, ‘Oh my god, that’s just fortuitous. No one would ever behave like that.’ That would be the last thing I’d ever want, is for people to not understand the humanity of it. I just felt like if we did those scenes truthfully and honestly, then it would show the difficulty of the situation, and truthful situations are often about [being] uncomfortable . . . I didn’t really feel strange about it.
I’m a little sad that you won’t be having any more scenes with John Lithgow, who plays Winston Churchill. Your scenes together were so fantastic and funny.
I keep on saying it, but John is my favorite person of all time. You can’t tie the man down, though. He’s like the busiest actor in the world—he’s out doing a TV show, a film, he’s writing a book. It’s unbelievable, man. Also, I just think he’s got massive balls. He just went in there, was so excited to be playing Churchill. He never had a moment where he was like, ‘I’m not sure about this.’ He just went in and enjoyed it. He’s got such an amazing approach to life and acting, and it’s completely infectious. I think everybody should have a John Lithgow in their life.
Have you heard from the palace at all?
No—I was sort of hoping I would, but I’ve heard absolutely diddly squat. I think I never will, and that sort of emanates that spirit because then it just keeps the history there . . .
Maybe they’ll binge watch it over the holidays . . .
Maybe when they’ve got the flu or something, they’ll lie in bed and watch all 10 episodes.
How far into filming the second season are you?
We are a month in. We literally pick up where we left off—in 1956. I think Peter’s taking [us up to] 63 or 64. We get into the 60s, and it is a whole other world happening. It’s really exciting, especially because we’ve had such a positive response and everyone’s been really encouraging. It just makes everybody, especially the crew, work even harder. When we first started shooting, and it hadn’t come out. We were like, ‘Oh god, what if they hate it?’ And then we’ll [still have to film a second season] knowing that everyone hated it.
What is it like filming with the corgis?
Oh my god—the corgis. I’m not much of a dog person, to be perfectly frank. I really loved them, but they’re just, in general . . . the corgis are odd. They love cheese, like cheddar cheese. Most dogs, when you’ve got them on set, they love a treat like biscuits or a little bit of meat or something like that. The smell doesn’t necessarily linger. Also, you sort of worry that they’re going to have a heart attack when you’re giving it to them. These corgis are cheesed up to the max—they’re eating like a whole block of cheddar every day. It’s scary.
That’s pretty concerning.
I know, but they love it. Also, they are like people; well, obviously all dogs are like people, but they really have such distinct characters. I always really liked the naughty one, Ella. A couple of the corgis have passed away since the previous season, which is very sad because they’re not really bred anymore, particularly because there’s not really a market for them. People don’t really go in for corgis. Maybe the show will resurrect corgi breeding in the United Kingdom.
Lastly, I was so inspired by The Crown’s Elizabeth. She manages to project strength and class and grace publicly even while going through incredibly difficult times. Has playing a character of her fortitude changed you, or inspired you?
It’s weird, actually, because I only just realized that has happened. I met Rosamund Pike the other day, and she said, ‘Isn’t it funny that sometimes you play a character and you wish you were more like them? They sort of inspire you to be better or to be braver or to be stronger or to be weaker or whatever reason.’
The Queen has stayed with me in the sense that she lets people come to her. She doesn’t feel like she has to go out. I mean, she doesn’t have to anyway because of her rank and her position, but she doesn’t have to overdo it. Do you know what I mean? She can just allow people to come to her, and to allow people’s own prejudice or whatever bounce back at them. She doesn’t have to engage. She doesn’t have to offer her opinion . . . It’s something that stayed with me in the sense that I now think maybe I don’t have to try so hard. You know what I mean?
Source: Vanity Fair