CLAIRE FOY: from The Crown to the moon

She shot to fame play­ing the Queen in The Crown and now Claire Foy is tack­ling an­other steely lady, the wife of as­tro­naut Neil Arm­strong. Wil­liam Lan­g­ley catches up with the busy work­ing mum.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

Af­ter a long, event­ful and faintly mys­te­ri­ous life as the wife of the rst man to walk on the moon, Janet Arm­strong died of can­cer in June at her home near Hous­ton, Texas. Among those who felt a pang of loss was Claire Foy, the rapidly ris­ing English ac­tress who por­trays Janet in a new lm mark­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of the Apollo 11 land­ing.

The two women had ar­ranged to meet but on the sched­uled day a hur­ri­cane smashed into Hous­ton, and in Space Cen­ter lingo, it was nec­es­sary to abort the mis­sion.

“We were lm­ing on a very tight sched­ule,” says Claire, “with just this one small win­dow when I could have gone. It’s some­thing I’ll al­ways re­gret. I think Janet in her way was an in­spi­ra­tional char­ac­ter. She had been through a lot with the moon and NASA and Neil, and there was loss and tragedy in her life. When a per­son goes through that at a fairly young age they learn quickly what life can throw at you, and so I think she must have had a back­bone of ab­so­lute steel.”

Steely women have be­come some­thing of a spe­cial­ity for 34-yearold Claire, the youngest of three chil­dren, born in a down-on-its-luck in­dus­trial town in north­ern Eng­land. As a child she barely knew that such a pro­fes­sion as act­ing ex­isted, and found her way into drama at a rel­a­tively late age. Since then, things have moved fast, and roles such as Henry VIII’s doomed wife Anne

Bo­leyn in the tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of Wolf Hall, and the young Queen El­iz­a­beth II in the Net ix megadrama The Crown, have pro­pelled her, blink­ing in slight dis­be­lief, from the “don’t call us” depths of the cast­ing pool to the cusp of Hol­ly­wood star­dom.

Cult lm­maker Fede Al­varez, in whose forth­com­ing Girl in the Spider’s Web Claire plays the so­cio­pathic su­per­sleuth, Lis­beth Sa­lan­der, hails her as “a rare and in­cred­i­ble tal­ent”. Peter Mor­gan, cre­ator of The Crown, says, “With­out some­one as tech­ni­cally bril­liant and hard­work­ing as Claire, the show would have com­pletely dis­in­te­grated.” Os­car-win­ning direc­tor

“It’s not made easy for women go­ing back to work af­ter hav­ing a child.”

Damien Chazelle ( La La Land), who picked her for the part of Janet Arm­strong, says no one else could have been bet­ter for “this dif cult, com­plex role”.

All of which leaves Claire rather grop­ing for the right words. “Well, yes, it’s been a busy time,” she nally splut­ters. “Work­ing, trav­el­ling, do­ing the public­ity. Phew! I’m look­ing for­ward to some down­time and get­ting back to real life, frankly.”

The com­pli­ca­tions of her sud­den star­dom aren’t less­ened by the de­mands of her two-year-old daugh­ter, from her now-ended mar­riage to Bri­tish ac­tor Stephen Camp­bell-Moore. How does she cope?

“I sup­pose as ev­ery mother has to,” she says. “You just get on with it, don’t you? My hours might be a bit dif­fer­ent from other peo­ple’s, but in the end you go to work, and you come home, and you do your best.” She was ve months preg­nant when she landed her part in The Crown, and ad­mits that for all the re­gal calm she dis­plays in the role, the se­ries took a heavy toll. “In Eng­land,” she says, “it’s not made easy for women go­ing back to work af­ter hav­ing a child. Child­care costs a huge amount of money, and you’re sort of made to feel like it’s very dif cult to go back to work and be a mother. It’s just re­ally, re­ally hard. And that’s the role of the mother. So it’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing to go through.”

Her ar­rival in the movie big league comes at one of the more tur­bu­lent times in the in­dus­try’s his­tory, with the af­ter­shocks of the Har­vey We­in­stein sex­ual ha­rass­ment scan­dal and the rise of the #MeToo move­ment. She is op­ti­mistic, if cau­tious about what comes next. “In my time I’ve seen a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in the way the in­dus­try is dis­cussing things, but it’s too easy to say that that’s all we need to do. The whole of so­ci­ety needs to change in the way that it thinks about and be­haves to­wards women, and that’s go­ing to mean a much big­ger con­ver­sa­tion.

“It’s not just about the lm in­dus­try, but for now we are at the fore­front of this and it’s en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple ask ques­tions, which need to be asked by other in­dus­tries, so there’s a chance to put right some of the wrongs. Women have been jump­ing up and down about these is­sues for many, many years and just been ig­nored.

“If you look back, there have been women push­ing for change since the 1960s, but now there’s a young gen­er­a­tion of women who have got to the point where we just won’t ac­cept this kind of treat­ment, and to me that’s amaz­ing be­cause I wasn’t ed­u­cated that way, but I very much in­tend to ed­u­cate my own daugh­ter that way.”

Among these women of the 1960s was an at­trac­tive Illi­nois doc­tor’s daugh­ter called Janet Shearon who, at the time she met Neil Arm­strong, saw no need to con­ceal her pri­mary am­bi­tion of be­ing a good wife, mother and home­maker. The cou­ple’s friends were, nev­er­the­less, sur­prised by their mar­riage, for while Janet was talk­a­tive and so­cia­ble, Neil was al­most Zen-like in his reclu­sive­ness – some­thing that his later celebrity seemed to ex­ac­er­bate rather than cure. Well, per­haps op­po­sites re­ally do at­tract, they rea­soned. But it wasn’t quite like that.

First Man, in which Claire stars along­side Ryan Gosling, doesn’t set out to be a por­trait of a mar­riage but it touches on a re­mark­able, and in some ways, dis­turb­ing episode in Amer­i­can so­cial his­tory, when the wives of NASA’s star as­tro­nauts be­came – in the words of Lily Kop­pel, au­thor of a book about them – “the rst TV re­al­ity show”.

“What the wives went through was ex­traor­di­nary,” says Claire. “It was be­yond any­thing any­one who has lived a nor­mal life can imag­ine. They were ex­pected to live up to this idea of per­fec­tion – of the Amer­i­can Dream and the Amer­i­can fam­ily – and so these young women be­came the poster girls for what was seen as the per­fect 1960s wife, and none of it was real or at­tain­able.”

Janet and the wives were pack­aged by NASA and the TV net­works into the As­tro­naut Wives Club, and even given a group ban­ner read­ing “Proud, Happy, Thrilled”, with which they would pose be­side mocked-up rock­ets. Be­hind the ex­ul­tant head­lines, many of their mar­riages were rapidly fall­ing apart, de­stroyed by stress, ab­sences and in delity (the le­gions of space groupies, known as the “Cape Cook­ies”, were a par­tic­u­lar men­ace).

Janet and Neil, who died six years ago, stuck it out un­til 1994, when she di­vorced him af­ter many years of dis­tance and lone­li­ness. “Si­lence is Neil Arm­strong’s an­swer to ev­ery­thing,” she once said. “The word ‘no’ is an ar­gu­ment. He is a very soli­tary man.”

It is the on-cam­era cool­ness, the sense of a mind con­stantly at work, that lets Claire play these com­plex roles. The ex­e­cu­tion of Anne Bo­leyn could eas­ily have descended into gore and bathos, but Claire played it with her eyes, ra­di­at­ing both the queen’s calm ac­cep­tance of her fate, and her be­lief that she had done noth­ing to de­serve it. Her task in The Crown was to keep El­iz­a­beth both ex­alted and hu­man, and to this she added wit and guile.

There was noth­ing re­gal – or rocket-pow­ered – about her ar­rival as an ac­tress. Her fa­ther was an of ce equip­ment sales­man, her mother a housewife, but by the time Claire was nine they had di­vorced, and she found her­self at an all-girls school where, she huffs, “I was re­ally pissed off most of the time.”

She dab­bled in school drama, but says, “It never re­ally oc­curred to me un­til I was about 20, that it was some­thing I could do, re­ally be­ing an ac­tress. I never thought it was a life or a job or any­thing that was ac­ces­si­ble to some­one like me. So it was only when I went to univer­sity, and kind of got a bit of con dence that I con­sid­ered it, I sup­pose.”

She went to drama school in Ox­ford, sup­port­ing her­self through part-time jobs and such mea­gre scraps of stage work as she could nd. Her rst real part, as a were­wolf’s girl­friend in a Bri­tish TV show, failed to im­press the direc­tor, who shouted at her, “It’s time to start act­ing now, dar­ling!”

Which, with in­creas­ing suc­cess, is what she did. She says that she still doesn’t un­der­stand how things have gone so well, but the an­swer is likely to be a mix­ture of hard work, rare tal­ent, and – for the star of an as­tro­naut movie – keep­ing her feet on the ground.

First Man opens in cin­e­mas on Oc­to­ber 11.


From left: Claire as young Queen El­iz­a­beth in The Crown op­po­site Matt Smith; in Wolf Hall as Anne Bo­leyn with co-star Damian Lewis; in the up­com­ing The Girl in the Spider’s Web as Lis­beth.

Claire with Ryan Gosling in First Man;(above) and at its pre­miere in Venice (left). Neil and Janet Arm­strong with their two sons (right).

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