The Majesty of Claire Foy

How the star of Breathe finds the dramatic heart of her characters

The Majesty of Claire Foy

Written by Peter Bowen

Andy Serkis’ Breathe recounts the remarkable love story between Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), a man struck down by polio in the prime of his youth, and his extraordinary wife Diana (Claire Foy). For screenwriter William Nicholson, “the film’s about a loving marriage, and we were really lucky with Andrew and Claire.” While called on to instill hope during her husband’s darkest hour, Foy never succumbs to simplistic sentiment. Inspired by conversations with the real Diana, who the actress sees as “a woman who, once she’s committed to something, would never go back on her vows and pledges,” Foy creates a remarkably complex character whose courage is never a sacrifice. Throughout her career, Foy has demonstrated a striking talent for creating characters who insist on living life to the fullest and on their own terms.

While Claire Foy didn’t dream of becoming a movie star, she loved to entertain. “I had so much energy,” she tells The Guardian. “All I ever wanted to do was perform.” But with a father who was salesman and a mother who worked for a pharmaceutical company, acting wasn’t an obvious choice. “No one ever suggested I should put all this irritating behavior to good use by going to drama school,” she joked to The Independent. When attending Liverpool John Moores University, she pursued a degree in film and drama studies with the vague hope of becoming a cinematographer. It wasn’t until one teacher pushed her into acting and she applied to the Oxford School of Drama that she realized her life’s calling.

Foy as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown.

Recently Foy has become acting royalty as Queen Elizabeth II in Peter Morgan’s acclaimed Netflix series, The Crown. For her portrayal of a young woman assuming her place on the world stage, Foy has gained international acclaim, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy nomination. The role also demonstrates her unique skill at slowly revealing her character’s inner life. “This is a drama that revolves largely around the silent but significant looks that repressed characters give each other, and Foy is a master of such subtleties,” notes Variety. It was this skill that got her the part in the first place. “Claire manages to do what almost none of the other actors we saw in auditions could do,” Morgan remembers to Backstage. “She dared to be still.” With such reserve, Foy establishes the dramatic space necessary to craft a complex, multi-dimensional character, a figure that both critics and real people relate to. “Out of the nine people who carried [the Queen’s] train during the coronation, four of them are still alive,” Morgan details. “All of them think that Claire Foy is just sensational.”

Foy as Amy in Little Dorrit

From the start, Foy intuitively found that element that made her characters feel real. Out of drama school, Foy was cast as Amy Dorrit, the title character in the 14-part BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ sprawling novel Little Dorrit. Director Dearbhla Walsh remembers, “What stood out was her fragility, and her extraordinary eyes––big saucer eyes that were like a window into her soul.” But what audiences remembered most was the humor and pluck she brought to the story of a good-hearted young woman trying to support her father (played by Tom Courtenay) locked away in a debtors’ prison for 25 years. For the San Francisco Chronicle, her performance is “exquisite, investing Amy with tenderness, warmth and compassion without ever allowing her to be the simp she could so easily become.”

Foy as the cunning Lady Towyn in Upstairs, Downstairs.

While Foy worked in film––including a part in Dominic Sena’s medieval adventure Season of the Witch, where she met her future husband Stephen Campbell Moore––she has excelled in long-form serial television. In 2010, she was cast as Lady Persephone Towyn, the posh far-right sympathizer (based on the real-life socialite Unity Mitford) in the reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs. The next year, she appeared in Peter Kosminsky’s 2011 four-part series The Promise. Foy plays a contemporary teenager who discovers her grandfather’s diary chronicling his life as a soldier, moving from liberating the concentration camps to occupying Palestine before the creation of Israel. The Guardian singled out her performance as “excellent.”

Foy as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall

After The Promise, Kosminsky cast her to star in his next project, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Foy plays Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated Queen of Henry VIII (Damian Lewis) whose cold-blooded political fight with Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) ended in her defeat and death. Unwilling to play her as either a victim or vixen, Foy cherished the complexity of the character. “She was supposed to be silent and graceful and admired, but wouldn’t be that ethereal figure,” Foy tells the Independent. “She wanted to be in the thick of it.” Her sharp-as-nail performance next to some of Britain’s finest actors did not go unnoticed. “The surprise center of Wolf Hall is the wonderful Foy, who plays Anne as a gambler who knows that her body is her currency,” writes The New Yorker. While Foy herself grounds her performance in her physical being, it is her intelligence and integrity that makes her unforgettable.

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