Claire Foy: From check-out to coronation... meet the girl who would be queen, twice
As her new film is released, Claire Foy tells Anne Marie Scanlon about paying her dues behind the till before a gilded life in front of the camera.
As someone who studied history to post-graduate level, reads history books for fun and gobbles up historical fiction, I was beside myself with excitement when I heard the BBC was dramatising Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the Man Booker Award winner in 2009.
Transferring beloved books onto the big and small screens is a notoriously tricky task, but director Peter Kosminsky’s adaptation was a unanimous hit.
The casting was superb throughout — from the bit players to Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.
To my mind though, Claire Foy, who I had never heard of at the time, stole the show as a magnificent, complicated and wholly credible Anne Boleyn.
Wolf Hall won many awards, and although Foy was nominated for several, she didn’t get one gong, when really she should have won all the awards.
In person, she is nothing like Anne Boleyn (probably a good thing) — she’s petite and bears a passing resemblance to Henry’s second ill-fated wife, but that’s it.
Foy tells me that she was as excited as I was when she heard that Wolf Hall was being made into a TV series (we both agree that Hilary Mantel is a “genius”). She speaks rapidly and speeds up as she talks. “I was like, oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, amazing, but absolutely knowing that I wasn’t right for Anne.
“I never, ever saw myself as her, but (director Peter Kosminsky) gave me a shot. Thank God, I loved it, I loved it!”
In the two years since Wolf Hall appeared on TV, Foy has found global fame playing another Queen — the current incumbent of the throne, Elizabeth II (in the early years of her marriage to Prince Philip) in The Crown. Is she deliberately cornering the market in royalty?
Foy laughs. “I don’t know how it happened. It’s a bit embarrassing isn’t it? I mean, oh God! I’ve had two coronations! How swish! I’m not royal, or even upper or middle-class, so I don’t know how that all happened. It’s odd, but I’m very grateful.”
It’s quite a shock to discover Foy is “not posh” in real life (she’s from Stockport originally rather than the Home Counties) as her latest role, Diana, in the film Breathe, is another 1950s young lady with a mouth full of plums. “I had to take the edge off her accent actually,” Foy tells me, “because I’d just finished doing the first series of The Crown and the characters are similar. They’re a similar generation — Keep Calm and Carry On.”
Breathe is based on the real-life love story between Robin Cavendish and his wife, Diana. Robin (Andrew Garfield) contracted polio at the age of 28 while Diana was pregnant with their son Jonathan (one of the film’s producers).
Robin was paralysed from the neck down and given mere months to live, but the Cavendishes flew in the face of convention. Robin refused to stay in hospital, returned home and enjoyed his life. The couple travelled extensively and with the help of an Oxford professor friend (Hugh Bonneville) designed a chair to allow Cavendish and other ‘responauts’, as they were known, to achieve a degree of independence.
The Cavendishes revolutionised the lives of many disabled people and also the public perception of disability. While Robin Cavendish passed away in 1994, Diana was very much a part of the film-making process, which was “incredibly reassuring”, Foy says. “I could just ask her, ‘What did you think about that?’ But it’s also difficult for Diana. It’s very hard for her to look back on 35 years of her life and say exactly what she was feeling, or even want to tell me what she was feeling.”
Breathe is a feelgood film and to some extent ignores or sugar-coats the day-to-day drudgery involved in caring for another human being who cannot move. I tell Foy that as I watched the film I thought I could never do what Diana did and then add, “Well perhaps if it was my child”. Foy cracks a huge smile — “You see! Well it’s that form of love. It doesn’t necessarily mean with your partner, but when you feel that strongly about someone and you love them, then you do, you find the energy and you find the time and you find the ability within yourself to do it.”
We meet the same week as the film’s premiere and the media is full of stories about Foy returning to work “too soon” after the birth of her daughter. She tells me that she was misunderstood. “I don’t think I went back (to work) too early — I think I put myself under too much pressure. I wasn’t very nice to myself and I think a lot of mothers have that. All mothers struggle. End of.”
While Foy has only one child, she is from a “massive” Irish family. “My granddad, one of 13, is from Dublin, my nan, one of 11, from Naas, and they met, hilariously, at a dance in west London. Classic!”
Foy’s grandparents lived in Edgware for most of their lives before moving up north to be closer to their children and grandchildren. “The whole street in Edgware was Irish,” Foy says, “it was like being in Ireland.”
The actress herself is one of three children, and has a brother and a sister. As a little girl, Foy had no notion of becoming an actress. “I wanted to be a ball girl at Wimbledon and I wanted to work on a till. I used to look at tills in the Argos catalogue,” she tells me laughing, “and when my brother had friends around I’d put on a tennis skirt and be like ‘I’ll get the ball’.” Then she adds “maybe because I fancied all of my brother’s friends!”
Foy realised both ambitions. “I worked at Wimbledon doing security and I worked at Tesco for five years. When I got the job at Tesco I was like, ‘This is it!’” She also had jobs in box factory and in a call centre. “When people call me I can see why I got such short shrift all the time”, she says.
Foy’s next role is Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web (based on the Stieg Larsson book). Lisbeth is a far cry from royals and posh girls. “I’m excited and terrified,” she tells me. Throughout our time together she’s been rubbing her shoulder and massaging her neck, “I’ve got to get myself physically fit. I can’t have a frozen shoulder as Lisbeth Salander. It would be a disaster!”
The final word is drawn out in a terribly, terribly posh way — disaaaasss-ter.
Well after two coronations, what else can one expect?
- Breathe is in cinemas now