The Netflix star shares what it’s like to play Elizabeth II—and the career-defining roles she’s playing now that her time as a royal is over.
by ADAM RATHE
The British monarchy has been very good to Claire Foy. In the year since the actress first appeared onscreen as a young Queen Elizabeth II in the hit Netflix series The Crown, which in its first season followed the monarch’s glittering, tumultuous life from 1947 to 1955, she has become one of the most watched women in the world. Her career (respectable but not exactly on fire before The Crown) has skyrocketed, she has taken home a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Drama (as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award), and she is, at press time, nominated for an Emmy.
There’s only one small catch in regard to her relationship with Her Majesty. “I would hate the idea of her watching it,” Foy says.
Although some of the world’s finest performers have earned raves playing the queen, and the monarch’s life has been scrutinized for nearly 70 years, Foy is loath to think that her own performance might rankle Elizabeth. “When you’re playing a real person, you never want to be ghoulish,” she says. “I don’t want to pick apart a person. I want to invent someone. So I would hate for her to watch it and think I overdramatized anything.”
And despite reports from the occasionally reliable British tabloids that the series has indeed been viewed in the royal household, Foy swats away the notion, if only for her own peace of mind. “I decided a long time ago that she’d never see it,” she says. “If she ever rings me up and tells me that she’s watched, then I will think differently.” (For what it’s worth, Helen Mirren, perhaps the only other actress so closely associated with the queen, sent Foy a lovely e-mail.)
For the rest of us, watching Foy in The Crown the coming months will be very easy. In December will come back for a second season, picking up at the Suez Crisis in 1956, and in October Foy will take to the big screen opposite Andrew Garfield in Breathe, an affecting, astonishing film based on the true story of Robin Cavendish, a man who contracted polio at age 28 and, against all odds, went on to live a long life as an inventor and advocate for the disabled.
After that she’ll star in Unsane, a hush-hush project that director Steven Soderbergh reportedly filmed entirely on an iPhone, and First Man, director Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land, which tells the story of astronaut Neil Armstrong and features Foy as his earth-bound wife.
“Claire is one of the most exciting actors out there,” Chazelle says. “I was wowed by her performance in The Crown, and even more wowed by her interpretation of Janet Armstrong when she read for the role. Claire has a way of communicating unspoken depths in just a line or a gesture or a look that is truly extraordinary. I couldn’t be more excited to work with her.”
All of this has led to success that Foy did not imagine. “I’ve never been a particularly ambitious kind of actor,” she says. “I was eager to do great things, but I never was like, ‘What I have to do is become massive.’ I just thought, Maybe I’ll do a job here and there, and that’ll be nice and I’ll move on to a different stage of my life.” However, it seems that Foy, like many of the characters she has played, was meant for something greater than she might have planned.
Foy was born outside Manchester, England, in 1984 and grew up in Buckinghamshire, the youngest of three. She was eight when her parents divorced, and while the split was amicable she credits it to some degree with launching her interest in acting. “I watched a lot of films as a child, but that’s because I was being raised by single parents,” she says. “A lot of the time I was put in front of the telly with hope for the best.”
Another early inspiration was her mother’s large extended family. “I grew up in a very Irish family, with character and personality and energy and life, so if you had nothing to say for yourself, what were you going to do?” she says. “There were a lot of us as well, so you had to shout to get heard.”
Foy was a movie buff at an early age but never thought of acting as something she could do professionally. “It was something I loved but didn’t think I could do for a living,” she says. “It was what people in films had done, obviously, because they were special or someone came and found them, but that wasn’t my story.”
Until, of course, it was. While at university she studied drama with an eye toward a career in film production, but in her first year she took a role in a student play and caught the eye of one of her professors. “A drama teacher said to me, ‘What are you going to do with your degree?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ ” she says. “He asked, ‘Have you thought about going to drama school?’ And I was like, ‘Well, no, because that’s not something that I could do.’ He didn’t say anything. I just remember him raising his eyebrow and walking off. I was like, ‘Does that mean he thinks I should go?’”
Initially Foy was resistant. She was interested in politics or communications or, if she could overcome a distaste for science, medicine. “I thought that drama school was like Fame, that you had to wear leg warmers,” she says with a laugh. “I figured everyone would be incredibly dramatic and I would be like a fish out of water and hate it, that it’d be a disaster and I’d be asked to do things I really didn’t want to do—which, you know, is partially true.”
Still, it proved effective. After completing the one-year course at the Oxford School of Drama, Foy landed her first part, in the British werewolf drama Being Human (“I had a terrible time, and I was really bad in it,” she’d say later), and she appeared on the soap opera Doctors. The title role in a BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit was her first big break, and it led to increasingly weighty parts in productions including Upstairs Downstairs and Wolf Hall, in which she played Anne Boleyn.
Then came The Crown. Foy was six months pregnant when she auditioned—her daughter with her husband, the actor Stephen Campbell Moore, was born in 2015—and she didn’t expect to land the part. “There are so many talented, amazing people for every job, it’s a miracle that anyone ever gets one,” she says. “I sort of got to a point in my career where I was like, ‘You know, I’ve done some really amazing things, I really love it, and I’ve been incredibly lucky. But I’m pregnant, and if this is it, then this is it.’ I really got philosophical.” Obviously, she made a good impression.
According to Stephen Daldry, an executive producer and director of The Crown (he also directed Billy Elliot and The Hours), Foy was a natural fit. “She’s always been on my radar, particularly because of her performance in Wolf Hall, but it wasn’t really until I started auditioning her that I realized how perfect she would be to play the young Queen Elizabeth,” he says.
“She’s fiercely intelligent and she has a good heart, but, more important, she has the ability to be both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. On one hand, you think you get to know her, and then sometimes you never quite know what Claire’s going to do next. It’s so true of the queen—in a sense she’s the most visible invisible woman in the world—and I think Claire has some of that.”
Audiences agreed, and the series, which was created by Peter Morgan (who is something of a royal expert, having written the Oscar-winning 2006 film The Queen as well as the 2013 play The Audience), was a huge hit. While Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, critics swooned (“Netflix can rest assured that its £100m gamble has paid off,” cooed the Guardian), and the show and its cast (other standouts included Matt Smith as Prince Philip, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret, and John Lithgow as Winston Churchill) became regulars on the awards circuit—even if it wasn’t second nature.
“The Golden Globes were really weird—absolutely amazing, but strange,” says Foy, who keeps her statue in a bathroom. “Because suddenly, without me knowing, while I’ve been busy working, people felt like I belonged in that room. And I’d be like, ‘No, you don’t understand. I haven’t changed. It’s still just me.’ ”
Any feelings of inadequacy were short-lived, however; for Foy there was more work to do. “There was definitely a moment after the awards when I needed to be alone in a dark room to try to understand what’s happening,” she says. “I never got that moment. I got a martini instead and cracked on.”
Indeed she did. After nine months of filming The Crown, Foy took a break before her next project. “I decided that I wasn’t going to work,” she says. “I was going to have loads of time off and just be a mom.” But that didn’t quite work out. A chance run-in with her Little Dorrit co-star Andy Serkis led to her role in Breathe, his directorial debut, and had Foy doing again what has become her signature: playing a real woman whose life has been altered by fantastic circumstances—and making her completely relatable.
“I’m sure everybody in the whole world wanted this part. It’s such an incredible story, and she’s such an amazing woman,” Foy says of Diana Cavendish. “I also felt like Diana and Elizabeth were relatively similar characters in a way, obviously incredibly different but both of a certain generation of women who kept calm and carried on.
That was the challenge for me, to make it different and bring a different life into it.” That effort was successful. Breathe offers a stunning portrait of a couple who overcome terrible odds and gives Foy the chance to sink her teeth into a new character, showing an impressive range and dashing the hopes of anyone wanting to typecast her after Wolf Hall and The Crown.
“One of the great experiences of my creative life was getting to build this relationship and these characters with Claire,” Andrew Garfield says. “I was incredibly grateful and reassured every day working with Claire, because she’s so open and devoted to the truth.”
One truth that’s not so easy for Foy, however, is that the second season of The Crown will be her last. The show reportedly plans to change its cast every two seasons to depict the royal family at different points in time. “I’m in massive denial,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s over. I’m waiting for it to hit me at some point that this stage of my life is finished, but it hasn’t happened yet.”
And as far as what might come after The Crown—and her forthcoming slate of films—Foy is not certain just yet. “At this juncture I think it will find me,” she says. “I think it will be a good time to sit down and take stock of what I want to do, which is possibly not acting, or where I want to go—all of those things you don’t really have time to think about when you’re working. I’ll probably have to consider all of that at some point, but not quite yet.”
Photographs by Matthew Brookes, Styled by Nicoletta Santoro, Hair by Shon at Julian Watson Agency, Makeup by Mary Greenwell using Chanel Ombre Premiere at Premier Hair and Makeup. Manicure by Charly Avenell. Tailoring by the Pink Room. Produced by 10-4 inc.
This story appears in the October 2017 issue of Town & Country.