Take a walking tour of Washington, D.C., with the Emmy winner for 'The Crown,' who now takes on a strikingly different version of female power (and the pressure of a studio franchise) as the tortured hacker in 'The Girl in the Spider's Web.'
Claire Foy is headed toward the molten center of feminine rage: Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 5, just hours before the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
The walk there is surprisingly pleasant.
The 34-year-old British actress strolls through the National Mall casually dressed in white Chuck Taylors and a short-sleeved Zara shirt. Tortoiseshell glasses perch on her face, less densely freckled than her arms. "I'm not a stander-outer," she says, humble words underlined by what Foy calls a "common" accent, acquired in her native Manchester and deftly manipulated into a Buckingham Palace-appropriate dialect for her breakout role: Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix's The Crown. "You wouldn't notice me walking down the street," she says.
Foy, who lives in London with her young daughter, Ivy Rose, has come to D.C. for the U.S. premiere of Universal's Damien Chazelle-directed Neil Armstrong biopic First Man, held the previous night at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. Foy plays Janet Armstrong, the wife of Ryan Gosling's moon pioneer. In a marigold dress that offsets her stratosphere-blue eyes, a week before her film would open to a slightly disappointing $16.6 million on its way to a likely awards-season run, Foy was very much a stander-outer.
But 16 hours later, on our unofficial tour of Washington landmarks, Foy is right: No one seems to recognize her, despite the fact that she recently won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for The Crown, is already on Oscar shortlists for her role in First Man and is about to reboot a global action thriller franchise starring as Lisbeth Salander in Sony's The Girl in the Spider's Web. "I can't imagine there's a stronger one-two punch in I-can't-remember-how-long as the duality of those two characters and those two performances," says Gosling of Foy's work in Spider's Web and First Man.
Perhaps bystanders are blanking on Foy because they are distracted by the hashtagged signs held up by their fellow citizens ("Kava-NOPE") or the many 18-wheelers parked on the Mall and festooned with banners supporting the president with slogans like "Black Smoke Matters."
"I want to key his truck," Foy says of the pro-pollution rig, then smiles. We're so used to seeing her as the Queen swallowing her anger, it's refreshing to see her get to enjoy it. She spots the phallic Washington Monument across the Mall. "All powerful! D.C. is where the giant penis of America lives … in more ways than one."
We arrive at the Supreme Court just after the Senate has voted to move ahead with the confirmation vote and settle on the outskirts of an impromptu protest featuring an anguished crowd and hastily drawn signs. There is a lone dissenter: a counter-protester holding up an iPhone and a sign that says, "#MeTooFraud." "God bless Trump," he calls out over the crowd. "God bless Kavanaugh."
Foy stares at the man. "I just want to rip it up," she mutters about his poster. Then the 5-foot-3 actress walks up to him and says, in a tone the Queen might use to ask a visiting dignitary what colony he's from, "Why have you got a media badge on?"
"What's that?" the man asks, clearly not a fan of The Crown.
"Why have you got media accreditation?" Foy repeats.
"Because I'm from the media," #MeTooFraud says with the affect of patience, as if explaining Apollo 11's lunar orbit to a child.
"What media?" Foy persists, tilting her head to the 3 o'clock position.
"KGED 1680," he responds, turning his iPhone camera toward her. "It's a radio station out in California."
"You're a journalist?" Foy asks, cocking her head over to 9 o'clock.
"I love this country," he says in what might be the most patronizing tone in the history of the patriarchy. "I'm not a journalist. I'm an editorialist. I'm an opinions journalist."
"Oh, right," Foy says, like that makes sense, and turns to me to explain: "He's got his opinion."
On Nov. 9, Sony will attempt to bring back Lisbeth Salander with Spider's Web, the second American film adapted from Swedish author Stieg Larsson's best-selling Millennium series (though the Spider's Web book was written by David Lagercrantz following Larsson's death). The reboot comes after the departure of David Fincher, who directed Rooney Mara in the 2011 American version of the series' first film, the $232 million grossing The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (there is also a Swedish-language trilogy, starring Noomi Rapace). Now the studio's big hopes to revive the entire Girl world — Spider's Web has a $43 million budget, down from Tattoo's $90 million — rest on Foy's impeccably postured back. Sony is confident that when audiences see Spider's Web, they will understand why the studio enlisted someone best known for portraying the Queen of England to play Salander's pansexual cybergoth hacker, a phrase it's easier to imagine a Windsor spitting into a napkin and handing to a servant than saying aloud.
However, very much like the U.K. monarch, Salander uses a feigned stoicism to protect her inner self from everyone but the audience. (Foy's version of Salander falls somewhere between Mara's seething vulnerability, which earned her an Oscar nomination, and Rapace's tough righteousness.) Spider's Web director Fede Alvarez, who signed on in 2016, remembers the moment in The Crown that made him want Foy to play the character. "It was the wedding scene," he says. "There's a close-up on her eyes, and she's looking at Prince Philip. You can see how nervous, excited and scared she is — she might be regretting it right there, but she's trying to stay smiling. We know so much of how she's feeling when she's trying for you not to notice."
Unlike the queen, Salander doesn't have an empire to allow her to assert control and maintain order. So, she finds another way: revenge. "Her objective is to make men pay," Foy explains of her character's history of transferring the contents of abusers' bank accounts to the women they've wronged and tattooing the chest of her own assailant with the phrase "I AM A SADISTIC PIG AND RAPIST." "Lisbeth puts them in a position where they know what it's like to be vulnerable," Foy says. "She does it by questionable means a lot of the time, but her morals are so clear: If someone does something to another person that's wrong, they should come to justice." Foy shares the emotion behind the vengeance, if not the impulse to enact it: "What's wrong with being an angry person if it's anger toward something we are terrified about?"
We leave the demonstration and walk toward the Washington Monument, but Foy is still thinking about the callousness of the "editorialist." "How dare you write #MeTooFraud on a placard?" Foy says, her eyes wide with disbelief. "It just breaks my heart, how other human beings just care so little about people. That person must not have any idea of what those women have been through. I have a real problem with people not understanding the effect that they have on other people."
Foy considers what could make a man angry enough at women to bear a sign like that. "They feel vulnerable because women are becoming more powerful," she says, "so they want to put us in our place to let us know we're weak and we're feeble and we're emotional. Why do we need to be controlled? Why are we so dangerous?" She posits a theory: "We are really powerful. We can bring people into the world. We have the capacity to hold children in our bodies. They can't do that. I admire men and think they are amazing. So why does it have to be a competition?"
(It is worth noting that this year, it came out that Crown co-star Matt Smith was paid more than Foy for his supporting performance as Philip. A series-long gap of $200,000 and per-episode discrepancy of $10,000 have been reported, but Foy's publicist calls those figures inaccurate. Though it was widely understood that the producers of The Crown — which was proudly marketed as the most expensive television series of all time — had given Foy back pay, she said this year in an interview with Al Arabiya that is "not quite correct." In May, Foy told The Hollywood Reporter that the pay issue is "something that I feel really strongly about," but when asked about it for this story, she declined to get specific on the numbers or outcome. Her publicist now says, "Neither Claire, producers Leftbank Pictures, nor Netflix have ever formally commented on the pay discrepancy figure nor back pay [nor] whether the pay gap was addressed/whether it was satisfactory, and have no plans to.")
Thinking of that large man with his taunting sign and condescending smile, Foy's inner Lisbeth Salander pokes out, just for a second. "That makes me want to violently hurt him," she says, quickly adding, "Which is obviously bad. I can't. Because he's a lot stronger than I am." Plus, she says from our moral high ground atop Capitol Hill, "It would completely undermine my position."
Alvarez points to this space — the center of the Venn diagram of Foy's rage and Foy's control — as the source of her power. "Eighty percent of Oscar clips are a scene about someone repressing an emotion," Alvarez says. "Why? Because repressed emotion makes for the best performances; someone really, really angry pretending not to be. And oh boy, Claire's great at doing that."
She may be presently outraged, but Claire Foy isn't always angry. She's warm and charming and unexpectedly funny — we stop at a concession stand, and Foy expresses shock that a "small" order of American French fries comes in a container the size of a cereal box. She suggests splitting an enormous hot dog, a la Lady and the Tramp. In lieu of either, Foy purchases a bottle of water with cash retrieved from a Coach NASA wallet she bought as a stress-reliever when she found out she got the role in First Man and became convinced she would die just as her dreams were coming true.
This kind of anxiety is not new. "I was a very fearful child," Foy says. She had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, an eye tumor that was diagnosed when she was 18 and a penchant for conformity. "I definitely did things because it seemed like I should be doing it," she says. "I went to an all-girls school, and there was this brochure in the career development room for a tour where you went to Galapagos for a month and did conservation. I really wanted to do it. But none of my friends wanted to, and I was too fearful to go on my own." In her attempt to fit in, Foy says, "I always felt like the odd one out. Just so emotional. Someone tells me a story and I'm, like, crying."
When she went to the Oxford School of Drama, suddenly it was OK — critical, even — to show emotion. "People — men especially — are like, 'Emotion is manipulative,'" Foy says, "Like, why does it have to be a bad thing? I'm really tired of people being like, 'Women are too emotional.'" She brings up Serena Williams, who lost the U.S. Open final after being penalized a point for allegedly being signaled by her coach, and then a game when she protested the first punishment. "Serena Williams is allowed to get emotional. It matters to her. Maybe we need more emotion. Maybe we need more people fighting for what they believe in."
At Oxford, Foy no longer had to suppress her feelings or do things like pretend to be into death metal, which was, unfortunately, very popular in the southern English village where she lived with her single mother and two siblings in the late '90s. She could simply be the work-in-progress she was. And still is.
"I always think of myself as the villain," Foy says. "I always think, 'I must be the wrong one.' For example, people like Ryan Gosling meet someone, don't hear their name and say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name.' I don't say anything because I'm worried they might judge [me]. I just keep quiet and hope maybe someday we'll be able to catch up, and then I have anxiety over it at nighttime." Foy explains the process of how her nocturnal brain chews the cud of her neuroses: "If I have an instinct, I question the instinct, then I question myself questioning the instinct. And that means I'm probably just going to never move from this spot ever again, and I'm hopeless and pathetic."
First Man director Chazelle describes what it's like to experience the self-horror of Foy, who in his film is the achingly human counterbalance to Gosling's emotionally clenched Armstrong. "She'd be deep into the character and wow us all in a prolonged take," Chazelle says. "I'd be breathless. My director of photography would have tears in his eyes. And as soon as we stopped rolling, she'd be back in her British accent utterly excoriating herself for having totally screwed it up: 'Oh my guhd, that was so awful. I'm so sorry!'"
But surely after her quick post-Oxford success on the British series Being Human and Little Dorrit and her breakout as Anne Boleyn in the miniseries Wolf Hall and all those awards for The Crown and on the brink of two major movies, Foy's overcome her overwhelming sense of mortification? "I'm in the wrong business if I don't want to be mortified, really," she says. "I am all the time." Perhaps it's not surprising that Foy lists going to therapy as one of the three most consequential decisions of her life, after attending drama school and having a child.
In the shadow of the Washington Monument, we talk about that most consequential decision, now 3½. "No one is good at parenting," she says. "Everyone's a disaster."
Foy, though, seems to be doing motherhood all right. The now-single actress has managed, at least, to maintain the kind of post-breakup relationship with ex-husband Stephen Campbell Moore that allowed them to live together in Atlanta during the filming of First Man. Foy met the actor 11 years ago on the set of Season of the Witch, a Nicolas Cage fantasy film (very, very) loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Foy was 23 and young enough that "I had hair extensions," she says, "At the time, I was like, 'I'm really serious.' And looking back on it, I'm like, 'Jesus Christ.' I don't know what I was doing. It was a disaster."
Foy is able to lovingly co-parent, she says, because she knows what it's like when you don't. "My parents divorced," she explains. "I know what it means. Also, the older I get, the more I realize love doesn't go away — you can't make yourself hate someone. People can hurt each other, but I think ultimately you've just got to let it go in order to have a beautiful, amazing, wonderful child."
Being with her daughter, who is about to start preschool, is part of the reason Foy is about to take a long break from acting, just at the moment in her career where she surely has the most opportunity. "I have no intention to go back to work [right now]," she says. "If I do something, I want to be really there. I want to really enjoy it. And with First Man and Spider's Web, I know exactly why I did it and how I felt and what I learned. If I did anything now, I wouldn't know why I was doing it."
From the perimeter of flags surrounding the shaft of the monument, Foy spots something in the distance.
"Is that the White House?" she asks, surprisingly surprised for someone on a walking tour of Washington government buildings. "I don't want to go there. I don't want to go there because he's in there." Foy reconsiders: "Actually, isn't he doing his weird rally somewhere?"
I suggest — gently — that, despite their vast differences, it's possible that the president is holding a rally for the same reason someone becomes an actor: external validation.
"That's obviously why I did it," Foy says, laughing. She turns away from the White House. Foy's had enough anger for one day.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.