Claire Foy, in Calvin Klein 205W39NYC sweater, $1,750, Calvin Klein, 654 Madison Avenue, New York. Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
Janet Armstrong, the first wife of the lunar astronaut Neil Armstrong, whom Foy plays in the film First Man, might seem like the odd character out, but she is also grappling with constraint. Janet’s sphere of influence is bound by the four walls of her home, while her husband’s is as vast as 1960s American aeronautic technology will allow. Foy, 34, plays the role of the woman who must wait on earth, caring for the Armstrong children, Eric and Mark, and grieving the loss of their sister, Karen (who, at age 2, died of complications relating to a brain tumor). The dramatic heart of the film is not, as one might expect, the moment when Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, bounces on the surface of the moon, but when Janet loses her temper with her husband, a man focused on his mission and adept at subsuming his grief.
“It is tough to be married to that kind of character, who doesn’t emote, doesn’t communicate,” says Foy on a chilly morning in London in the late fall. “But I get really annoyed when people say that Janet was just the wife, or that she wasn’t free, [or when people] make it seem like her life was terrible. How dare you say that about her? She made her choices. If you say that, you completely discredit the majority of women’s lives for thousands of years.”
To prepare for the role, Foy spoke to Mark and Eric Armstrong about their childhoods. And although Foy was unable to meet Janet due to illness (she died of lung cancer in June 2018), she listened to hours of recordings in order to get Janet’s Midwestern accent just right.
“I did have reservations about a non-American doing the role,” says Damien Chazelle, First Man’s director. “But I realized within 10 seconds of seeing her read an interview that Janet had given that she had to play Janet. There was so much humanity and emotion in what was essentially a very poker-faced, banal situation.”
Foy’s performance has been praised by critics for its precision and power, garnering her a 2019 Golden Globe nomination for best performance by an actress in a supporting role in any motion picture. She has already won awards—a Golden Globe, an Emmy and two Screen Actors Guild awards—for her performance in The Crown, in which she portrays Elizabeth in the early years of her reign (season 3 will see a new cast taking over, including the English actress Olivia Colman as the Queen). Foy’s mastery of the subtle response was very much in evidence in the series. “She has this amazing capacity to be still and transformative and communicative all at the same time,” says Matt Smith, who played the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip.
GAME FACE “I am determined to be good at my job,” says Foy. Chanel jacket, $12,900, and skirt, $4,050, select Chanel boutiques nationwide, Sonia Rykiel sweater, $580, Sonia Rykiel, 816 Madison Avenue, New York, Falke tights, $20, barenecessities.com, Prada headband (worn throughout), $240, select Prada boutiques, Sophie Buhai necklace, $450, sophiebuhai.com Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
“I don’t feel like I played The Queen. I know this sounds trite, but I feel like I played Elizabeth Mountbatten,” Foy says, which is perhaps how she was able to find humility in an individual who is perceived more as a symbol than a person.
“There is something visceral about the way Claire plays a role—you can’t look away,” says Peter Kosminsky, who directed Foy in Wolf Hall. “When Claire is on the screen, God help other actors.”
We meet for breakfast at a quiet cafe in Hampstead, where, to her disappointment, the bacon and sausage delivery has yet to arrive. She must content herself with a plate of sliced avocado and raw tomato. (A recent illness means her diet is restricted, so there’s not much else on the menu she can have.) Foy is jauntily bohemian in jeans, boots, a purple mohair sweater and a yellow silk scarf. She is also weighed down with two bags of books that she has just purchased and a bag of woolly hats from Gap for her 3-year-old daughter, Ivy Rose. “My life is very normal,” she says.
Foy and Ivy Rose live in a terraced house in Wood Green, in North London. (Foy announced her divorce from her daughter’s father, actor Stephen Campbell Moore, at the beginning of 2018.) Foy hasn’t taken on any major roles since summer but has been promoting a series of back-to-back films. “I am very confident in saying I deserve a rest,” she says. After finishing the second season of The Crown in 2017, Foy starred in Unsane, a film by Steven Soderbergh set in a psychiatric ward and shot over 10 days on an iPhone. That fall she made First Man, quickly followed by The Girl in the Spider’s Web. “I was a bit scared by it because when I finished Spider’s Web I was like, ‘I never want to work again,’ ” she says.
Foy has not committed to any new projects and is currently spending as much time as possible with Ivy Rose before she starts school full time.
“It’s lovely, completely self-indulgent. I only have a year left with her. I just can’t bear it,” Foy says. “There is a quote, and I am not sure if I am remembering it right…. ‘Having the option of doing the extraordinary makes the ordinary more extraordinary.’ That makes sense to me.”
TICKET TO RIDE You feel like you can see into her. She has this transparency. But she also has steel,” says casting director Nina Gold. Prada coat, $3,970, and headband, $240, select Prada boutiques Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
Foy’s happiest days involve being with her daughter, visits to the theater, dinners with friends, playing her Bechstein piano or putting on a fire at home. When asked how she would like to make Ivy Rose’s upbringing different from her own, Foy answers at once: “Holidays. We never had enough money to travel. [It doesn’t have to be] fancy, just swimming in a pool, a time that is happy and [about] exploring.”
Foy, the youngest of three children, was born in Stockport, England, but the family soon moved to Longwick, a village in Buckinghamshire, where Foy grew up. Foy’s mother, Caroline, an office worker, and father, David, a Rank Xerox sales director, separated when she was 8. Her older brother and sister attended the local secondary schools, but Foy did not pass the entrance exams. “So my mum went to the council and was like, ‘We’ve got divorced, please let her in. She’ll be heartbroken otherwise.’ ”
Foy did not find her secondary school years easy. “Feeling stupid is not a nice thing. I wasn’t really good at anything. I was relatively good at home economics, at making cakes, and I was quite sporty,” she says. “But I had juvenile arthritis from the ages of 12 to 15, so I was on crutches.” Her nights were spent in agony (“[The arthritis] was extremely painful,” she says); her days were spent sitting in classrooms unable to understand math; and she started to experience the debilitating anxiety that is still with her. “Anxiety was part of my life at that age, but I didn’t realize that was what it was until my mid-20s,” Foy says.
Life didn’t get any easier. When Foy was 17, it was discovered that a tumor was growing in one eye. She was treated with steroids for over a year and had a biopsy that revealed the tumor to be benign, which meant that invasive surgery would not be necessary. And although she loved drama class, she did not think that she was a good actress. “It felt so unnatural, like I was standing up and going, ‘I think I am amazing!’ That was not me, and that was not my upbringing,” she says. At school she appeared in only a few productions. “I was a guy with PTSD from World War I called David. I liked rehearsals, but on the day that we had to do it in front of people, I was absolutely f—ing terrified. I realized the only way I would make myself calm down was to walk around the room, pacing in a circle. People must have thought I was mental.”
Dolce & Gabbana dress, $2,445, select Dolce & Gabbana boutiques, Prada headband, $240, select Prada boutiques. Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
Nonetheless, she enrolled in drama at Liverpool John Moores University. But she remained so terrified of performing that she did not act until her final year, when she and some friends put on a few small plays, including Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. Soon afterward a teacher stopped her. “He said, ‘Have you thought about drama school?’ And I was like, ‘Thank you for saying that!’ I needed someone else to say it was OK.” She applied to the Oxford School of Drama, where she completed a one-year program.
Foy insists that she is not ambitious. But she is determined. “That is the only word that has ever made any sense to me,” she says. “I am determined to be good at my job.”
Determination enabled Foy to push through illness and anxiety to do the thing she loved even though it made her so scared; and her drive and courage paid off. After Oxford, she moved to London and supported herself with odd jobs—handing out free newspapers at train stations, working with a film-catering company—while auditioning for roles. In 2008, she was cast as Little Dorrit in the BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, and in 2011 she appeared as the lead in Peter Kosminsky’s four-part television drama The Promise. “It required a hugely mature performance,” says Kosminsky. “She was very focused on set. She never showed up ill-prepared, and she always knew her lines. She is a hardworking actor, not the sort to be out drinking with the guys.”
“In my early career, in order to have the confidence to do it, I did so much [preparation],” says Foy. “I wanted to get it right…. But where was the spontaneity? As I have got older and have worked more, I have allowed myself to think that I have enough experience. It doesn’t mean that you are bragging, it just means you are allowed to say, ‘There are certain things that I can do.’ ”
Concurrent with this growing sense of confidence is an increased awareness of how to deal with her anxiety. “It’s not as bad at it was, but that’s through a lot of work, doing things that I never thought I would do,” she says. She has had therapy, and for the past year she has been using a meditation app called Calm. Her problem, she says, is too much thinking, chewing over the same problem. “I know that I need to catch myself early in a process of overthinking. It’s always about questioning myself. Even though I have had a thought a million times…it will always be something I need to think about another million times that day. It will be like, ‘Shall I go for a walk today?’ or [about] massive life decisions.”
A MIGHTY FORCE “When Claire is on the screen, God help other actors,” says director Peter Kosminsky. Celine by Hedi Slimane coat, $5,900, and hat, $1,490, celine.com. Hair, Orlando Pita; makeup, Jeanine Lobell; manicure, Yuko Tsuchihashi. Prop styling by Nicholas des Jardins. Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
Decisions about which roles to take are simpler: “I don’t fanny around. My stomach normally tells me whether it’s something bad or good.”
Nina Gold, the casting director who championed Foy for Wolf Hall and The Crown, remembers the moment in late 2014 when Foy landed the part that every actress in England wanted. “She was very pregnant. We got her in the long gloves and tiara. She did the audition, and we just forgot she was pregnant. She’s just got those amazing eyes—you feel like you can see into her. She has this transparency. But she also has steel.”
The shooting schedule for The Crown was grueling. As the lead, Foy was in most of the scenes, and when the first season started filming, her daughter was only 5 months old and still nursing. “The first AD [assistant director] would ask me if we could go an hour over. So then I am just like, ‘What does everyone want to do? Do we want the overtime, or do we all want to go home because we have been working eight days straight?’ Time is f—ing precious, and making a TV program is really important, but getting back in time for my daughter’s bedtime is far more important to me,” she says.
Queen Elizabeth is about as far removed from Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed and abused hacker vigilante, as two individuals can be—one bound by duty and tradition, the other who “thinks authority is a bag of shit,” says Foy. But just as Foy found humanity in a monarch, she discovered vulnerability in Salander (previous incarnations of the character have been played by Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara). Foy felt protective of how Salander would be depicted and worked closely with the film’s director, Fede Alvarez, on how the character was portrayed.
“I gave Fede a really hard time,” Foy says. “Whenever we were doing anything where Lisbeth was being observed, I was like, ‘I can’t explain to you what it is like to be a woman, but you have to try and understand. Why are you on a low angle if you are doing a shot of [Lisbeth] in the shower, why are you creeping around a corner, why are you making it look sexy?’ I don’t make a habit of halting filmmaking, but I refuse to be part of something that I don’t believe in.”
In The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Foy played the lead and, she acknowledges, was paid accordingly. In First Man, Foy says the “favored nations” payment structure was used. “It is a tiered system,” she explains. “If you have a certain level of input into the film you are paid the same. It doesn’t matter if your profile is bigger. Everybody who is playing a similar-level part gets paid the same.” This was not the payment system used in The Crown. In March 2018, at a television conference in Israel, Left Bank Pictures, the production company behind The Crown, revealed that Matt Smith had been paid more than Foy for their relative roles in seasons 1 and 2 of the series.
“I was being paid less than Matt,” Foy says, taking a sip of her lemon tea. “It was a short, sharp initiation into people wanting you to have an opinion about something you’re involved in. You want to make sure you are saying something beneficial for a huge number of people, something that is not reductive and that you believe in, but you don’t really know enough about.”
The production company issued an apology, and there were reports in the U.K. press suggesting that Foy was back paid $250,000, which she has said were false. “People have decided all sorts of numbers that are not right, but I don’t think it’s helpful to go into that. I don’t think I need to. It is not important to anyone else,” says Foy. General outrage was expressed that the Queen was being paid less than her consort. “We were suddenly thrust into this discussion that none of us knew anything about,” says Smith. “But we had a sense of unity, and I fully support Claire.”
Part of the difficulty Foy experienced was a realization of her increasing public influence. “Especially in the last three years, with how my career has changed, how much more I am on show, I still don’t know how to deal with it,” she says.
Prada coat, $3,970, and headband, $240, select Prada boutiques. Photo: ALASDAIR MCLELLAN FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE STYLING BY FRANCESCA BURNS
This, it seems, is one of the reasons she is taking a break: to recalibrate, and to be kind to herself. “I just didn’t get life until I was 32. Now I am just awake,” she says. “It is that thing that you suddenly have your eyes opened to the way you are living your life, who you are, the healthy way you are supposed to.”
Perhaps it is this sense of self-discovery, coinciding as it did with her growing professional status and motherhood, that has enabled Foy to be brave enough to take a step back even though the offers are flooding in. “In terms of casting, Claire is now at the top of everyone’s list,” says Gold.
There is talk of working with Kosminsky again, and Foy would also like to find a charity to partner with. “Three of my best friends work in charities, so I know what they are up against,” Foy says. “I don’t want to do anything where I’m not being practically helpful. I want to genuinely be involved. The problem is I care about everything. How do you choose what is the more important issue?”
“Claire is interested in good things and good people,” says Smith. “She is f—ing brilliant; she is compelling, beguiling, interesting, irreverent. If she could hear me now she would be sticking two fingers up at me. The only challenge is trying to get her out.”
Which is not a surprise given all the books she just bought, including novels by Haruki Murakami, Colm Tóibín and Pat Barker; a book of verse called Flux, by Orion Carloto; and Eve Was Shamed: How British Justice Is Failing Women, by the human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy. “I’m an all-or-nothing reader,” says Foy. “I am either obsessed and won’t stop, or I am like, ‘Nothing is doing it.’ ”
She picks up her phone. “I’ve done a really stupid thing,” she says, thumbing at the screen. “I’ve booked myself into a fitness class. I’m not much of a class person, but I like them because you can’t get out of doing them. The other day I had some free time and had the opportunity to go to the gym, but instead I had a bath. I booked it [this time], because that way, I have to do it.”
And with that Foy gathers up her books and bags and heads off to her class. •