After a weekend of crisp autumn sun, it is a gloomy Monday afternoon in Central London. The Westminster area is already decked up for Christmas with ornamented trees, the smell of fresh pine, and stalls selling mulled cider. You could easily imagine it to be a scene out of The Crown , where the Queen is waiting at Buckingham Palace to address citizens as Christmas approaches. With Claire Foy, who slipped into the royal’s shoes for two years, it may not be the palace (any more) but it is still Corinthia Hotel, a former British government building, where she is ready to meet a few journalists from around the world.
When I arrive, I’m ushered into a room with two well-mannered, affectionate corgis for company. They appear rather familiar. A closer look and I realise they play Queen Elizabeth II’s famous pets on the show, who return in season two to charm the former First Lady of the US, Jacqueline Kennedy (Jodi Balfour). “The entire cast is fond of those two,” I am informed by their keepers, “Especially Claire.” As the show takes a time leap after the second season, one thing is certain, the cast is going to miss these two fluffy divas, Lily and Prince, the most.
With season two set to release next Friday, it’s too many last times for the current cast. For Foy, these will be her last set of interviews for Netflix’s £100 million series. Outside her room is a poster of her standing in solitude as the monarch, in all her adornment. She looks lonely, yet self-assured.
An outsider’s perspective
When I finally meet her, I see no traces of the Queen, at least at first appearance. Almost unrecognisable, she sports a pixie cut, a sleek salmon-coloured sequinned top, black trousers and pointed-toe pumps; an attire that would make Elizabeth II gasp. On paper, the actor and the royal seem to have nothing in common, yet as we sit down to chat, there’s a familiar, almost innate, sense of regal composure in her body language, one that transcends any formal training. As I ask her a question, her eyes squint and she leans in, as if to inspect my every word. She then answers at a rapid, breathless pace, a trait any sovereign would chastise. But there is surety in her words, while she speaks with her deep blue gaze fixed intently on you.
Foy insists she and the Queen are “very different people”. The 33-year-old actor’s childhood was a far cry from her world right now, let alone any semblance to the life of the monarch. Born in Stockport, she moved to Buckinghamshire where her father got a job as a salesman for Rank Xerox. She struggled with juvenile arthritis while growing up, and later attended John Moores University in Liverpool to study drama and screen studies. After graduation, she took up acting at the Oxford School of Drama and moved to London to pursue her career. “I can’t imagine what her life has been like. I can’t put myself in her position, but I can empathise with her,” she reflects. The inability to relate helped her gain an outsider’s perspective, and understand her as a person hiding behind the high walls of the Buckingham Palace.
When the going gets tough
Foy’s compelling portrayal won her the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Drama earlier this year in January, and was noticed for its restrained and guarded approach, a trait typical of the Queen. “I could never be swinging from the chandelier,” she says. “That wasn’t the role I was taking.”
What was even more challenging was to maintain her equanimity when Prince Philip (Matt Smith) and Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) were exhibiting a whirlpool of emotions — from rebellion to insecurity — in season two. “Having someone like that (Elizabeth II) in their lives and family allows them to do what they do, and behave the way they behave. If those people didn’t have her as the anchor and in-charge, they wouldn’t be able to be so free,” she observes. The temperate nature of the role also worked as a great acting lesson for Foy. “Within that kind of restraint, I found a lot of freedom, weirdly,” she shares.
- Before starting her innings on television, Foy acted in several plays like Top Girls , Watership Down and Easy Virtue. This was while she was studying at the Oxford School of Drama. Despite signing on high-profile film projects, she says she will continue to perform. “Theatre is the purest form of acting and I love it, so I will always, always do it,” she emphasises. Irrespective of the medium, there’s a pattern in the kind of roles she is attracted to. “Everybody that I play, there will always be a certain element of obstacle and restraint or block [to them],” she reveals. “That’s what drama is, isn’t it? People in conflict.”
As the second season spans from 1956 to 1963, Elizabeth II has to battle an onslaught of crisis, both personal and political. On one hand, Prince Philip goes overseas amidst speculations of philandering and Margaret enters a scandalous relationship with photographer Tony Armstrong Jones (Matthew Goode), and on the other, there are a slew of failing prime ministers and Jacqueline Kennedy’s glamorously intimidating visit to Buckingham Palace. As the drama unfolds, Foy exposes the inner conflict while maintaining the façade of being dignified. “I think being vulnerable is the biggest strength we have as human beings,” she says, adding that the Queen’s true strength lies in realising and accepting that most situations are out of her control.
Season two also questions the relevance of constitutional monarchy in modern day England. It could very well be a reflection of a post-Brexit UK, where people either wish to support or depose the Queen. Where does Foy stand on the issue? “I live in England, so somewhere deep down I must be agreeing with it, otherwise why would I be living in a country that supports constitutional monarchy?” she rattles off in one breath. After working on the show for two years, she now views the family as people rather than an institution. “But I also see what they’ve given to their country and what they’ve done for the society, and I think we can’t take that out of the equation,” she adds, calling the royal family “incredible ambassadors” for the UK.
Queens, past and present
After the forthcoming season, as The Crown ventures into the Queen’s middle-age, Foy will be replaced by Olivia Colman to maintain authenticity. “That woman is extraordinary and I can’t wait to see what she does,” she grins, adding she has no advice to pass on to the 43-year-old. “She certainly needs no acting tips.”
When Foy started filming for the series, she was a new mother, nursing a four-month-old baby. As her child turns two, the actor, who was previously known for her role in the miniseries Wolf Hall , has attained international fame. “A boy stalked me outside a hospital once saying he moved to England because he watched The Crown ,” she recalls. “That’s not really a compliment because I was concerned about him and I went, ‘Wow, that’s bold’,” she laughs.
Needless to say, she now has an indistinguishable identity as the Queen. The list of actors who have played Elizabeth II is a fairly coveted one, featuring names like Kristin Scott Thomas and Emma Thompson. Undoubtedly, Helen Mirren leads the pack with her Academy Award-winning role in The Queen (2006). “Helen has watched The Crown and obviously a lot of people who made it are her dear friends, and it got back to me that she enjoyed and liked it. That is amazing!” exclaims Foy. “Maybe we’ll all have a big sit-down and Queen chat one day,” she guffaws.
After playing Elizabeth II for two years, with packed shooting schedules, she finds herself accustomed to her mannerisms. “It’s that thing where you go, ‘Oh, I’ve been conditioned to speak like the Queen,’” she says, in a chirpy voice sounding nothing like her character. “But I’ve done a couple of things after that, so hopefully it will be a natural exorcism.”
On the sidelines of The Crown , 2017 also witnessed the release of Andy Serkis’ Breathe , in which Foy romances Andrew Garfield. She is also all set to proliferate into diverse roles — there’s Damien Chazelle’s biographical drama film, First Man , where she will play Neil Armstrong’s (Ryan Gosling) wife, and Fede Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web , where she embodies Lisbeth Salander, the protagonist in the Millennium series. Could this be a sign that she is heading to Hollywood? “No,” she says promptly. “I just know I’m doing First Man at the moment and then heading to Berlin to do The Girl in the Spider’s Web ,” she asserts.
It’s interesting to note that in her almost decade-long career, she has worked most in period dramas. Be it her 2008 break-out role in Little Dorrit , a BBC adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel, Upstairs Downstairs (2010), White Heat (2012), or the two series that got her noticed, Wolf Hall and The Crown . And so is her upcoming project, First Man , although the actor finds it odd that people distinguish period from modern-day drama. “As an actor you are drawn to stories,” she says, as the interview draws to a close. “A lot of people aren’t able to look at the present moment and tell stories, because we are too scared to face ourselves.”
The following day, the East side of London’s popular cinema, Odeon Leicester Square, is cordoned off for the world première of The Crown . It’s an appropriately cold autumn evening, with a queue of admirers lining up outside to catch a glimpse of the actor. The two corgis emerge from a black car, followed by Foy in a sequin-encrusted gown, along with her on-screen husband, Smith. She looks rather aware of this being her final appearance on the red carpet as the Queen. She walks in, signs a few autographs, and saunters down the carpet with composure to pose for the cameras. Once the photographers are done, she looks back, waves at her fans one last time and enters the Odeon. It’s time to be the Queen again, just for a few more hours.
The writer was in London at the invitation of Netflix.