The girl in the crown – Meet Claire Foy
A few years ago, Claire Foy was a slightly famous actor in her home country of England, but totally unknown further afield. She was then cast as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. The Netflix series, which was first aired in 2016, about the British royal family has become a worldwide success. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, the young female lead has become much talked about and much sought after by Hollywood directors in particular.
She recently worked on Ocean’s Eleven director Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Unsane about a young woman involuntarily committed to a mental institution, and La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s First Man. In the latter, she plays the wife of Ryan Gosling’s Neil Armstrong.
Both are a far cry from the pomp and circumstance, not to mention the clipped royal accents, of The Crown. And that’s the way she likes it.
“I need to keep doing different things,” she says.
“I never want to do something where there’s no challenge or I don’t learn anything. I get easily bored.”
Foy is in Stockholm on the final week of shooting The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is based on the eponymous fourth novel written by David Lagercrantz in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series. It’s also a long way from The Crown. And this time, Foy plays the unconventional, asocial, computer-hacking and patriarchy-fighting Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have both played the character in earlier movies.
“I watched the films as a fan when they came out,” says Foy.
“I loved them. They stayed with me, but I can’t think about them. I’m far away from both of them. I have done lots of adaptations where suddenly I have to be that character that someone else has done before. You can only be yourself.”
We’re down by the water in a former industrial area of Stockholm. It’s been transformed into an area of luxury condominiums – plus a local movie studio with beautiful views across the water. The studio is mostly used by the advertising industry, but this week, Hollywood has moved in.
After filming the interior scenes (that are supposed to represent Stockholm) in a studio in Berlin, the film crew is now working on the outdoor scenes, complete with wild motorcycle chases and deafening explosions.
“I think it’s very important to shoot part of the film here,” Foy says.
“So much of Lisbeth is Sweden. She lives in this country and it’s important to her.”
We’re sitting at a table in a large room where both actors and crew are eating lunch. It’s a very different environment from the last time I met Foy. Then, we were discussing The Crown, and we had met at the very upmarket Corinthia hotel in London. Today’s setting is much more in keeping with her appearance as Salander. Pale, short hair, piercings, a large cosmetically applied birthmark above her right eye, leather outfit – it’s hard to recognize her. I ask if she recognizes herself in the mirror each morning. She laughs.
“Unfortunately I do. I’m used to myself with an undercut now, but it’s still me underneath it all.”
Surprisingly, she adds, she’s seldom recognized on the streets of London, even though she’s played the most famous woman in the UK in a massively successful TV series.
“People get used to your face, and when they see it out of context, they don’t react. I wear jeans and nobody recognizes me. I’m very lucky, I keep walking.”
The Girl in the Spider’s Web sees Salander involved in an international intrigue, where one of her adversaries is her own sister.
“Lisbeth is a sheer down-to-the-core survivor,” says Foy.
“She has had a traumatic, brutal life. She’s an outcast who lives by her own rules. She does what she wants. She doesn’t identify with anyone. She’s been failed by everyone and she expects to be betrayed by everyone. But she’s not an anarchist. She’s a person in every sense. Her sexuality is based on her needs and what she wants and I really love that femininity is not important. I love that I don’t have to think about being attractive. She is take it or leave it, that’s her attitude.”
Does she see any likenesses between Lisbeth and Elizabeth II? Foy thinks for a few seconds.
“Neither of them express any emotions. Otherwise they could not be more different.”
Foy has said in previous interviews that playing Queen Elizabeth II was a dream come true and that she hadn’t known if she would be able to make a living as an actress. A sports-mad child, she suffered joint inflammation that forced her to abandon her plans to continue playing sports.
“It didn’t really register I was ill. I was simply annoyed that I had to be on crutches.”
She became interested in acting instead, and when she got a tumor behind her eye when she was 18, she decided it was now or never – she was going to be a professional actor.
“I had to decide where my life was going to go.”
After drama school, she had minor roles while doing various casual jobs to support herself. Bigger and bigger roles in TV series such as Little Dorrit, Upstairs Downstairs and Wolf Hall started to get her noticed. She met Stephen Campbell Moore while shooting her first film Season of the Witch, released in 2011. They got married and when Foy auditioned for The Crown she was pregnant.
“On the first day of filming I found myself halfway up a Scottish mountain with engorged boobs and no way of getting down to feed my baby,” she said in an interview with Vogue. “I had to ring my husband and tell him to give her formula. It was like someone had stamped on my heart and as I sat in a Land Rover, trying to get a broken breast pump to work, I felt I’d made the worst mistake of my life.”
But it was no mistake. The Crown, which offers viewers a surprisingly intimate portrayal of the British royal family and a good lesson in contemporary British history, quickly became one of the most popular series on TV. Even diehard republicans liked it.
In season three, the program will make a jump forward in time, so Foy, who would have been too young to be able to play the Queen with any credibility, has passed the crown to Olivia Colman.
“I think she’s a brilliant choice,” says Foy. “She’s amazing. Both as a person and as an actress.”
Foy shows little emotion on leaving The Crown.
“It was not my life at all,” she says.
“I like to put on masks and then take them off again. I want to have fun.”
She really seems to have had fun when she created “her” Lisbeth Salander. The role of Queen Elizabeth offered no scope to play around with her appearance or her outfits. Lisbeth, however, gave her more freedom, and she spent a lot of time thinking about what motivates the appearance of the character.
“What’s outside is what everyone sees. But you can’t start from nothing. Why does she have piercings? Why does she have a dragon tattoo on her back? Why does she have a lot of other tattoos?”
Unlike The Crown, The Girl in the Spider’s Web also has lots of action.
“I’m not Tom Cruise,” laughs Foy. “I trust the stunt director. I have done a lot of fight training, but I’m not gonna be a hero in real life. It’s a movie. I don’t ride a motorcycle at top speed. And Lisbeth is not a trained fighter. She’s unfit, but she’s strong. She is a fighter, but she is not muscly. I wanted her to be normal.”
Our conversation turns to inequality in Hollywood, not least when it comes to salaries (rumor has it that Foy was paid less than Matt Smith who played opposite her in The Crown).
“Make a list of the ten highest paid actors in the world and there won’t be any women on it,” she says. “It’s not up to me to shout about pay disparity, it’s time for the people in charge to put it right. There’s a choice, it’s a moral question. But people want to see films with women and women are getting bigger parts. It makes financial sense. The studios don’t do it to be kind. It’s embarrassing that it’s taken so long for us to wake up.”
Unsane was released in the US in March 2018. First Man and The Girl in the Spider’s Web will be released later this year.
Published: October 1, 2018