Claire Foy on Becoming a Mother and Trading Her Crown for a Dragon Tattoo

0
57

by Nathan Heller – Vogue

Strange as it sounds, Claire Foy knows the London canals intimately, she tells me, having once steered a boat through the longest of their tunnels and somehow come out the other side. The two of us are standing on an embankment in Camden, in north-central London, toward the summer’s end. In another age, a stroll along this waterfront would have been a gritty passage. Now it’s calm and scenic, dampened only by the weather. A refreshing cloudburst, heavy and cool, is drenching the city after weeks of lazy and uncomfortable heat.

“I went on a hen do once,” Foy says, recalling a friend’s floating bachelorette party on the canal. “No one else was brave enough to operate the barge, so I did. Ridiculous.” She bursts into incredulous laughter under the umbrella we share. In a navy raincoat, a nautical blue-and-white-striped sweater, and crisp trousers, Foy projects a hint of the Britannic polish she perfected playing Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown—the role that, in its delicate control, made her famous. (“She has incredibly keen eyes for the small details which inform the bigger story,” her costar Matt Smith says.) The tour boat we’ve been waiting for has begun boarding, and she lets a family on an ill-fated sightseeing outing pass ahead. Rain is pouring in sheets off the sides of an awning overhead as a guide named Lee murmurs over a PA.

“There used to be bikes and trolleys and, you know, the odd corpse that you’d find in the canal,” Foy notes cheerily, after the boat sets off. “Now they’ve cleaned it up.” She smiles. “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the rain.”

For Foy, now 34, the boat ride is a chance to relish London again after spending six long weeks convalescing: What had started out seeming like a simple flulike ailment had dragged on and on, transforming into an infection involving occasional, terrifying spikes of fever. Day after day, she traveled to and from the hospital for tests. Antibiotics had no effect; the doctors scratched their heads. Exhaustion had at first seemed a probable cause, if not a precise explanation. She had been working steadily since shooting the first season of The Crown just four months after the birth of her daughter, Ivy Rose, in 2015. The rush of success that followed culminated, last winter, in a period of intense physical and mental preparation for her upcoming role in the latest iteration of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander saga, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Around the same time, she added the stress of major life change by separating from her husband, the actor Stephen Campbell Moore. “You can keep yourself going for a long time, and that’s what I’ve pretty much been doing since I gave birth,” Foy explains. “My body has paid the price.”

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that doctors put her right, citing a combination of infection and fatigue. Foy and her daughter left for a holiday in France with her older sister. (On her wrist Foy wears a friendship bracelet to commemorate the trip that spells out, in beads, J-U-N-E—her sister’s nickname for her, from “Junior.” “I’d sort of much rather be called June,” she confesses.) After a long summer of darkness, Foy is coming alive again.

“Everyone is very friendly on the canal,” she says, and, like a veteran boatwoman, raises a hand to passersby, none of whom appear to register they are being waved at by the queen. (“There are days and weeks and months when nobody recognizes me at all,” Foy reports, with something like delight. “It’s mainly in airports that it happens.”) Foy, who trained at the Oxford School of Drama, tends to grow into her roles, accruing manners, accents, whole ways of being in the world like layers of makeup. (She loves to play the piano and often thinks in terms of music; she makes a different playlist for each character—for Salander, the list included LCD Soundsystem, Stromae, and the Swedish singer Beatrice Eli—and never revisits a compilation after the shooting ends.) Today her chestnut hair is cropped into a stylish pixie that’s just starting to grow out. She is not tall—five feet four—and seems even smaller with her body cast into a sinewy, athletic form.

This version of Claire Foy partly reflects the rigors of rapid and recent change. In First Man, a movie by Damien Chazelle that opened this year’s Venice Film Festival, Foy plays Janet Armstrong, wife of Neil, the lunar astronaut (played by Ryan Gosling). In the film, Janet struggles with loss and the emotional labor of holding together a family that’s increasingly eclipsed, as it were, by the moon. The role of Salander—Larsson’s socially maladaptive vigilante, engaged in a long, fearless fight against men who hurt women—was last played by Rooney Mara and is also notoriously strenuous: It required Foy to train with focus at the gym for the first time in her life. “So much of it was about being physically able to do the stunts,” she recalls. “Suddenly I was like, ‘I can do ten press-ups.’ I could run. I could lift weights.”

The part was doubly challenging because the director, Fede Alvarez, sought to minimize the use of computer effects. When Salander looks to be shivering in subzero weather, Foy herself was freezing. When Salander teeters on a cliff, Foy was really there, strapped perilously into place. “It definitely wasn’t a walk in the park,” Alvarez says.

“Sometimes in those circumstances, you’re not acting anymore,” Foy explains as we drift through eccentric Camden, whose slate-gray skies suggest Stockholmian chill. For the film, Salander undertakes a car chase in a Volvo, coordinates a small-scale jailbreak, dives into a bathtub for shelter from an explosion. “Fede is just like, ‘Go! Go! Go! Go!’ And I’m like, ‘Huh! Huh!’ ” She mimics panting. (“Actors always talk about how tough it is, and I roll my eyes,” Alvarez says. “She was a total trouper.”) “When I read the script of Spider’s Web,” Foy says with a laugh, “I did think, I don’t know anyone who would take this on.”

And yet she did. This is, one comes to realize, a pattern with Foy, who describes herself as a quailing British “fatalist” (“Disaster is always round the corner!” she chirps) but who reliably does whatever must be done. “When you meet Claire, you couldn’t think anyone was more different than Lisbeth Salander,” Alvarez says. “But when you get to know her a little more, there’s a lot of fire in her.”

That dauntless Foy was the one who, a few years ago, saved the day on this very canal. The bachelorette party was for a friend who used to work for the European Court of Justice, so the vessel was filled with “lawyers and doctors and really practical, clever women,” Foy recalls. No one wanted to steer the ship through a narrow tunnel almost 250 meters long. “It took the actor to be the one who had no shame to go, ‘Oh, I’ll do it! I’m game!’ ” She commandeered the heavy tiller and navigated through.

“At one point, we got lodged to the side, and the girls had to push off with their feet,” she says. One is tempted to draw parallels—with a shy and private woman who accedes to duty and leads an empire, say, or with a capacity to adapt to the most unanticipated challenges, such as watching a husband go to the moon.“This is the big guy, I think,” Foy says, squinting ahead as a tunnel looms into view. The sides of the canal are lined with blackberry brambles and flowering bushes. “There it is!” she cries with a mix of delight and horror. “This is the one that I steered the bloody beast down!”

Crisis and mastery have been themes in Foy’s life since her childhood. Growing up in Buckinghamshire, she was the youngest of three precocious children. Her sister, the eldest, was unruly but brilliant, frequently playing hooky from school but usually emerging at the top of her class. (“You know Jilly Cooper books—sort of soft porn for middle-aged women?” Foy says. “My sister was reading them when she was seven.”) Her brother, in turn, was “a mathematical genius.” Foy was the arty one, enamored of her piano and dance lessons. She was a glutton for the limelight: She and two of her cousins used to put on family shows, complete with original songs. “I was really loud—like, really loud,” she recalls. “I remember being told off a lot.”

When Foy was seven, her father moved out; when she was nine, her mother realized that she could no longer afford to keep their house, and transferred them to a smaller place. “We almost all killed each other,” Foy says of the close quarters. “I think Mum hadn’t seen her life going in that direction, and it felt very much out of her control. She was having to make decisions for us that she wouldn’t want.” Her sister, then a teenager, began acting out. Foy, still a child, reinvented herself as the canny family problem-solver. “I used to draw plans of what we could do with the rooms for my mum, to try to make her a bit excited about it,” she says.

Foy describes herself as an awkward high-school student: a somewhat shy goody-goody whose arthritis disqualified her from sports and whose looks, she thought, disqualified her from a lot of other things. “I looked shit, I was shit at everything, and my life was going to be a disaster—that’s definitely what I felt,” she says. She was at an all-girls school, with a boys’ school opposite: a fine recipe for insecurity. “There was so much heartbreak,” Foy recalls.

And then, instead of getting better, things got worse. During Foy’s last year, a tumor was found behind one of her eyes. She had surgery and steroid therapy while waiting for a biopsy to learn whether the tumor was cancerous. All at once, her generalized teenage anxieties focused. When I ask her what she was afraid of, she doesn’t flinch. “Dying,” she says.

The tumor ended up benign, news good enough to get her through the worst effects of treatment. “With steroids come all sorts of things an eighteen-year-old girl shouldn’t have to think about, like putting on loads of weight and this thing called ‘moon face,’ where you gain water in your face and become almost unrecognizable. And acne, and having a massive eye with black stitches in it.” She shakes her head. “I didn’t care, because I was alive.” The brush with mortality marked a turning point. She saved all the money she could, deferred university for a year, and bought a ticket to New York, where she stayed with a friend in a youth hostel in Harlem and toured the big city by foot for hours every day.

At university, in Liverpool, on a whim, she enrolled in an acting workshop. During a carpe diem moment in her final semester, she took every role she could. “We put on, like, three, four plays,” she says. A teacher inquired after her plans. “The words came out of my mouth: ‘I don’t know—I’d quite like to go to drama school,’ ” she says. “I remember thinking, I can’t believe I’ve just said that! Now I have to, because he’s going to check up on me.”

The rest was comedy, tragedy, history. Foy came into broad public view in Britain in the title role of Little Dorrit, a fourteen-part BBC adaptation that aired in 2008. But it was her interpretation of famous queens that turned heads (even as, in some cases, the queens lost theirs). In 2013, in the West End, she earned acclaim for playing Lady Macbeth not as the usual devious, power-hungry sexpot but as a woman desperate and broken after failing to bear a child. Her understanding of the character had come all at once, with certainty. “I auditioned my bum off for that role, because I only saw her one way,” Foy explains. “In my head, they never intentionally thought to kill someone. It just spiraled out of control.” Then, in the BBC’s 2015 adaptation of Wolf Hall, she played Anne Boleyn, whose confidence she found harder to understand. “I question myself a thousand times a day,” Foy says. “I think Anne really only questioned herself when she was in the tower.” She adds, “I find it much easier to play the weirdos of life.”

Foy’s current home, in Wood Green, in North London, is a two-floor terraced brick house, with flowering vines climbing around the windows in the front. When she and Campbell Moore bought it, a few years ago, she was pregnant. They were semi-desperate to find a place, but Foy fell in love with this one from the moment she saw the front door. “I was like, ‘I can’t possibly live here. This is a proper grown-up house.’ ” It had a large backyard, which Foy, a gardener who loves the sun, could make her own.

The house will need to be sold soon, owing to the separation. Foy is trying to decide whether to continue living in London (where her friends are) or move to the country (where she could garden amply and, she thinks, find peace). In the meantime, the house has been transformed into a monument to attentive motherhood. Toys fill the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. A three-year-old’s paintings are proudly taped to the walls.

It was only after Foy became a mother that her career really took off. That was not, perhaps, coincidence. Foy had approached The Crown reluctantly when the part of Queen Elizabeth was finally offered. “I was just a bit like, ‘I’m going to have a baby. That’s bigger than anything else,’ ” she says. “And the weird thing is, Netflix was like, ‘Yeah, no, we know it is.’ ”

Today, despite a very public exposure of the pay disparity between her and Smith (“I went through so many different states of being either kind of upset about it or ashamed or annoyed or angry or defensive,” she says, “but my feeling now is that something good will come out of it”), Foy speaks with esteem of Netflix, which got its queen by investing, in logistical ways, in her motherhood. “No one had ever said to me that I could ask for anything before, that I could say that I needed a trailer with a bed in it,” she says. “That was completely new to me.” Her daughter was four months old at the time, and that meant Foy “had to understand that someone else would be giving her a bath and putting her to bed, which was breaking my heart,” she confesses. “But then, on the other hand, I went back to work and I had a life outside. That was also really, really important.” In September, when Foy won her first Emmy, for The Crown, she expressed gratitude for “a role I never thought I’d get to play.”

Now, healthy and in the midst of a break in her work, Foy can spend days with her daughter—and does. “It’s amazing seeing them discover everything for the first time,” she says. “She’s very like a border collie. She needs to run outside. She loves pulling faces. And then everybody goes, ‘Oh, another actor in the family?’ ” Foy winces. “I don’t want people to put that on kids. I mean, when I was a kid I was just told to shut up—it was quite nice.”

Right after she finished The Crown, she and her daughter planted a fig tree in her garden. Ivy Rose named the tree Matt, in honor of Smith. (“He’s a fig tree, which I’m sure he doesn’t really appreciate. But he’s very abundant,” Foy notes.) Her daughter, she says, has only the sketchiest idea of her job and has never seen her mother on-screen: Foy does most of her movie-watching on airplanes and is not one to fire up streaming services at home. But Ivy Rose did come to visit the set of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, where Foy struggled to explain the goings-on. “For weeks afterward she went, ‘Mummy, your hotel exploded?’ And I was like, ‘No, I wasn’t living there. It was just pretend.’ ” Foy admits, “I think she just thinks I’m a bit strange.”

Foy and Campbell Moore trade off time with Ivy Rose to suit the exigencies of each other’s schedules. “I’m incredibly lucky that I have a child with someone I deeply love and who is my best friend,” Foy says. While she was filming the second season of The Crown, Campbell Moore was diagnosed with a brain tumor: “That’s Stephen’s thing to talk about, really, but he’s doing really well, which is a miracle.” Foy is single when we speak, and not dating. “I’m 34, and I genuinely can’t even think about anything apart from taking care of myself and taking care of my daughter, to be perfectly honest,” she says with a shake of her head. “But you never know.”

The canal’s long tunnel empties out into Little Venice, whose banks are lined with whimsically named houseboats (Ziggy) and floating doghouses: a more domestic setting. Robert Browning, the esteemed Victorian poet, lived here for 25 years, and an island is named after him. The rain, miraculously, has stopped. The morning has a brisk, expectant air.

Foy is telling me about the domestic scenes in First Man, in which her character, Janet, grapples with the pressure of trying to lead a normal life under increasingly abnormal circumstances. Neil and Janet struggle with the death of their two-year-old daughter years before the moon landing, and when they decide to move to Houston so that Neil can work for NASA, Janet is hopeful. “It’s a fresh start,” she says. The farther Neil travels, though, the more haunted he becomes. Janet “was able to understand that she was in pain, but she couldn’t understand whether Neil was,” Foy says, explaining what attracted her to the character. “Sometimes when you get to the end you’re a very different person to when you were in the beginning. And that’s what happened in their marriage, in a way.”

“Claire approaches every scene with a machete and immediately starts hacking away at the clichés,” Gosling says. “She was constantly exploring new ways to communicate not only the complex dynamics inherent in any marriage, but also the experience of someone living something so singular that it’s hard to even imagine, let alone relate to.” Her character, as Chazelle describes her, “had to have this quiet, inward conviction, but in a very unassuming way.”

On shore, we make our way toward the Quince Tree café, inside the Clifton Nurseries, a gardening shop selling potted flowers. We order tea made with fresh ginger, mint, and lemon. (Foy has been off caffeine for a couple of months.) She adds a green juice, a prawn salad, and a side of sweet-­potato wedges with chili dip. She furrows her brow. “This is probably not enough,” she says. She looks “like a skeleton” on account of her illness, she explains, and has been trying to gain weight. Halfway through lunch, she flags down the waitress and orders one more side plate of potato.

When The Girl in the Spider’s Web comes out, next month, it is likely to be received as a Time’s Up–era film: the heroics of a powerful young feminist vigilante who works to punish predatory men. Foy bristles at that idea. “The movement can’t be something just used as a tool to market a movie,” she says. “I’d be ashamed.” For one thing, she points out, such a framing is at odds with history: Larsson created Lisbeth Salander nearly two decades ago—long before the current reckoning. “It’s not ‘of the moment,’ ” she says of the film’s approach. “That massively diminishes what activists and feminists have been saying all along. It just so happens now people are listening.” For another, she thinks that Lisbeth is—well, much too weird to hang a movement on. “Lisbeth finds the world very confusing, and finds emotional relationships with people incredibly confusing,” Foy explains. “Her sense of justice is more than most people’s.”

Foy currently has no filming schedule in her sights, a liberty that has freed her up for other pursuits. This evening she’s going to the National Theatre to see Vanessa Kirby (Princess Margaret in The Crown) in the title role of Julie, by playwright Polly Stenham—a modern adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. (Foy would love to return to the stage, perhaps in New York, she says, but plans to wait until her daughter is older. Theatrical directing is also the only kind she’d ever dare to do.) She was tied up with work through the past couple of holiday seasons, and hopes to make a big deal of this one at home. “I’m going to go festively mental. I love twinkling lights. Decorate the whole house!” she says. “Christmas becomes less exciting as you become older. Then suddenly when you have a child you go, ‘You’re excited! It’s great!’ ”

For now, though, there’s the garden to think of. As we exit the Quince Tree café, into the nursery outside, Foy begins wandering among the potted flowers, fruit trees, and vines. “I’m going to be here for hours,” she says, and takes a flower in her hand.

 

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here