By Glenn Whipp
Claire Foy has spent most of the last two years playing Queen Elizabeth for the Emmy-nominated Netflix period drama “The Crown,” wearing tiaras and tartan, acting with the utmost reserve and enduring loads of questions about whether playing a monarch improves one’s posture.
On the latter front, Foy laughs off any illusions of regality, happily slouching in a leather chair throughout a leisurely interview at Netflix’s curated Emmy promotional space in Beverly Hills. Fresh off a transatlantic flight, London to Los Angeles, Foy is famished, devouring a Twix bar, only to find, minutes later, that somehow the chocolate worked its way into the designer trousers she borrowed for the evening event, a Q&A with costar Matt Smith and James Corden at the film academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater across the street.
“I’m such an idiot!” Foy shouts. “I’ve got chocolate on my bum!”
“You know,” she adds, after a couple of minutes of light dabbing averts the crisis, “if they were my own clothes, I wouldn’t be bothered. I’d be, like, ‘Eh. Who cares?’ Personally, my main use of clothes is if I can wipe my hands on it.”
Foy, Oxford-trained, extraordinary as Anne Boleyn in the 2015 BBC adaptation of “Wolf Hall,” Emmy-nominated for her quiet, controlled portrait of Elizabeth on “The Crown,” immediately comes across as an earthy sort. Having just finished shooting the second season of Netflix’s royal drama — each 10-episode run took nine months to film — she has no immediate plans to work (“I can’t even contemplate doing anything at all”) and eagerly shares two pressing, personal goals for her time off.
“I’d really like to go rock climbing, not rock climbing like Tom Cruise hanging off a mountain, but, because I’m not physically strong or muscle-y, I’d like to take that challenge, just a wall, you know,” Foy says. “And I’m going to fly a plane for the first time. I love being in the sky, but I also have a fear of flying. So it’s a weird fascination.”
Foy clearly likes a challenge, which is why she’s happy that the producers of “The Crown” decided to recast the entire show for the third season, which will jump ahead in time to the 1970s. Playing Elizabeth for six years would have presented its own mental demands, but at age 33, Foy is more interested in exploring her range than in trying to combat the complacency that can set in when working on a long-running show.
“I need change, and, not that I think I’ll ever get a part that’s like the queen again, but I need to play somebody who expresses themselves and is able to communicate on a more open level,” Foy says. “And that’s not Elizabeth.”
Indeed. Although the queen holds the center of the story in “The Crown,” guiding the audience through the events, Elizabeth doesn’t reveal her emotions freely. You can see her mind moving a million miles an hour, thanks to Foy’s sublime ability to convey thought through facial expressions, her eyes — “big saucer eyes that are like a window into her soul,” says Dearbhla Walsh, who directed Foy in her first lead role, 2008’s “Little Dorrit” — registering nervousness, naiveté, a growing confidence and a pained resignation to subjugating desire for duty.
After 10 hour-long episodes, Elizabeth remains something of an enigma, a woman caught between centuries of tradition and a longing to fulfill the intimate promises she made to herself and her family.
Don’t look for any dramatic changes in the show’s second season, which Foy describes as Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, still chafing at his role, facing down the ’60s and the ’60s winning every time.
“It’s a torrent coming at them and they don’t know how to cope,” Foy says of upcoming episodes, which take place between 1955 and 1964. “They judge it wrongly every single time.”
Foy’s favorite episode focuses on John and Jackie Kennedy visiting Buckingham Palace in 1961, contrasting the youth of the Kennedys with the royals’ middle-aged mopes, one couple embodying a new hope, the other a stagnation.
The women didn’t immediately bond, with Jackie telling Gore Vidal that she found the queen “pretty heavy going.” But beyond the culture shock, Foy says, the women shared a strange connection in that they were both the star attractions, much to their husbands’ resentment.
“I loved the episode because it’s about these two disparate women, women who are so very observed, coming to know each other,” Foy says. “It was such fun to play.”
The only playing Foy plans on doing now is of the park-and-playground variety. She has a 2-year-old daughter with her actor husband, Stephen Campbell Moore. When she learned of her Emmy nomination last month, she was out for an evening walk in Hampstead Heath, near their London home.
Foy shoots down any and all rumors about upcoming roles. Will she be playing Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” the long-delayed follow-up to the 2011 David Fincher film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”? (“Good god, no. I’m not even in the same arena.”) How about starring opposite Ryan Gosling in Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic, “First Man”? (“He’s a very special director and I loved ‘La La Land’ and … I’m not talking!”)
She issues the latter denial with the sort of enthusiastic burst that punctuates much of her conversation. When more food arrives, Foy greets each item with unbridled joy — the tandoori chicken elicits a gasp, the onion and Stilton cheese tart is “amazing!” the cucumber sandwiches are “marvelous!” — and you can understand why she’s eager to move beyond the prim and proper queen, the woman King Edward nicknamed Shirley Temple.
Not that she hasn’t come to love Elizabeth.
“Did you know that I met her once?” Foy asks. “Years and years ago I was in a Charles Dickens program with a thousand other people celebrating the bicentenary of his birth. And then I stood in line and my name was shouted out, and I shook her hand. It was really lovely.
“But I came away going, ‘God, they work hard,’” Foy adds. “It’s 11 o’clock at night; she was 85, 86. I wouldn’t want my grandmother up, shaking the hands of a thousand people at that time. But that’s her job. It’s all so regimented. I admire her because not in a million years could I do that.”