By: Alexandra Pollard
Losing out on a Bafta for the second year in a row was, Claire Foy insists, one of the best moments of her career. She was up for best actress for her role as Elizabeth II in The Crown, and was widely expected to win – but the moment came, and it went to Happy Valley’s Sarah Lancashire instead. “Can I just say,” said Lancashire from the podium, “Claire Foy, you have given me the best 10 hours under a duvet that I’ve ever had.” For Foy, it was better than winning.
“That was, I’m telling you, one of the most ridiculous moments of my life,” she says, beaming. “I mean, I love her. I grew up watching her.” Foy is sitting opposite me, wearing a comfy-looking jumpsuit and scuffed Converse, her hair – now she no longer needs to adopt the Queen’s bouffant do – newly cropped short. “There’s nothing as amazing as a fellow actor saying you’re good.”
We meet a couple of days before Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announce their engagement, a relationship Foy has expressed approval of in the past (“I must speak for actresses,” she said, “We’re not a bad bunch. We’re all right”). She’d had nearly a decade of television roles – she first appeared on screen as a werewolf’s ex-fiancee in Being Human, then later starred in BBC dramas The Night Watch and Wolf Hall – but it was not until The Crown that, she says, people’s perception of her changed. The lavish Netflix series had an unprecedented £100m budget, but the show’s heart and soul was Foy’s compelling, devastating restraint as the young monarch. It is no easy task to play a woman whose main personality traits are, by necessity, detachment and composure, but with just the downward crease of a smile or the flicker of her enormous eyes, Foy hinted at the tumult rippling beneath the Queen’s steady surface.
There has been speculation over whether the royal family have seen The Crown – Foy finds it easier to imagine that they haven’t – but if they do gather round Netflix for season two, it might make for awkward viewing. Beginning in 1956, with the Suez crisis escalating and the British public starting to question the monarchy’s relevance, the season (which is Foy’s last; Olivia Colman will take up the mantle for the Queen’s later years) explores the parts of the royal story we are unlikely to see on a commemorative plate any time soon. We learn of the Nazi affiliations of Edward VIII, the sexual proclivities of Princess Margaret’s disdainful fiance Antony Armstrong-Jones, and – perhaps most shockingly – Prince Philip’s supposed infidelity.
“I think ultimately it would be very weird,” muses Foy, “if we made a series where we pretended that Tony Armstrong-Jones was just a photographer, that Edward VIII never had any scandal in his life, and that Prince Philip was entirely devoted to the Queen. That’s not a true depiction of these people, and not a true exploration of their characters. It would be like saying that the Queen was never away from her children.”
In fact, the way The Crown depicts it, Elizabeth was almost always away from her children. Throughout the series, her role as a mother plays second fiddle to her role as monarch. Not that Foy would dream of criticising her for it. “I’ve learned that the last thing you can do is judge another mother. She had a job to do, and if she was a man, no one would have questioned it.”
Foy cannot always let herself off so lightly. After she gave birth to her daughter five months before starting work on The Crown, the inevitable “mother’s guilt” weighed heavily. “As a mother, you’re told what you should do and how you should behave,” she says wearily. “You’re pretty much damned any way you look at it. Having a job and doing what you love is not something that women have been told is all right. Oh my God, it’s amazing how hard we are on ourselves, all the time, about everything.”
With her expressive voice and conspiratorial warmth, Foy is about as far removed from her most famous role as it is possible to be. The youngest of three siblings, the 33-year-old was born in Stockport, before moving to Buckinghamshire with her father’s sales job. When she was eight, her parents divorced, and a few years later she went an all-girls grammar school in Aylesbury. Her teenage years are difficult to unpick. She says she was “really pissed off” most of the time, but didn’t know why. “I think I’m still a deeply angry person on some level,” she says brightly. “I wasn’t a wayward teenager. I didn’t go off the rails and drink loads and snog loads of boys, and I was probably quite angry about that. I didn’t really follow my instincts, and instead did what I thought I was supposed to be doing. A lot of that anger came from not feeling like the person that you are is allowed to be out in the world.”
Why did she feel that way? “You’re told aren’t you? You’re told as a young woman what’s attractive, what’s acceptable, what’s the right or wrong way to be. I’m lucky I discovered acting as a way of expressing myself, but unless you’re given the permission to do that, you can’t get it out. So with my child, I’m like: ‘Run around! Scream! Shout! Go on!’ I wish there was a way of saying to girls: ‘You don’t have to be polite and pretty in order to survive and have people love you.’ The idea that you should be like everybody else genuinely breaks my heart. And I’m going to have to do something about it.”
The way Foy sees it, there is a rule women are expected to follow, “and the rule is only there to try and control us, because everyone’s terrified of what we’re capable of. If all the women in the world suddenly went: ‘I’ve just realised I can’t be arsed with this any more,’ then everyone would run for the hills!”
You could argue, given what is happening in Hollywood at the moment, that women are doing exactly that. Over the past few months, high-powered men – Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, James Toback, Louis CK, Pixar’s John Lasseter – have been publicly held to account for reportedly wielding their perceived power over women in a multitude of reprehensible ways. Which is perhaps why, when Adam Sandler repeatedly put his hand on Foy’s leg on The Graham Norton Show, the viewing public collectively winced. In a statement, Foy’s publicist said his actions had caused “no offence to Claire”, but that didn’t stop the outraged thinkpieces.
When I bring it up, Foy rolls her eyes into the back of her head. “The thing about that,” she says, “is who has the right to be offended on someone else’s behalf, if you don’t know them? Like, I’m sorry, but I find that to be an assault. You have no right to speak for me. How dare you?” She’s using the collective ‘you’ here. At least I think she is. “Women who have been sexually assaulted and harassed are coming out and being brave, and to then, on someone else’s behalf, put two and two together, that’s no one’s right.”
Still, when it comes to the actual accusations being made, Foy is thrilled that women are being taken seriously. “It can’t be ignored. I genuinely think we can’t go back, now people are aware of things like this. We can’t go back to the world where, ‘Well things like this just happen, so you just have to get on with it.’ No! I just don’t think that’s acceptable.”
I think the floodgates have opened now, I say. “I hope so,” she sighs. “I really hope so.”