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Some­times you have to ask the ob­vi­ous ques­tion. So Claire, I say, to the young woman in front of me, what’s it like to have your head chopped off?

“It’s rel­a­tively pain­less, ac­tu­ally,” she replies, laugh­ing. “Peo­ple have been most in­ter­ested in that scene. Ob­vi­ously you think ‘how are they go­ing to do it?’ But they weren’t ever go­ing to CGI my head fly­ing off or any­thing be­cause it would just look lu­di­crous.”

You heard it here first. When Anne Bo­leyn gets her head chopped off (oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler; ev­ery­one knows what hap­pens to her) in the BBC’s his­tor­i­cal drama Wolf Hall which starts on Wed­nes­day there will be no ghoul­ish track­ing shot right into her blood­ied neck stump (the di­rec­tor is Peter Kos­min­sky not Quentin Tarantino, after all).

Claire Foy’s role as the sec­ond wife of King Henry the Eighth (played by some bloke called Damian Lewis) is why we’re sit­ting to­gether in a Soho of­fice this af­ter­noon talk­ing about English his­tory, Scot­tish ac­cents (she doesn’t know if she’s good at it but she knows she “bloody loves” do­ing it), pe­riod drama and def­i­ni­tions of am­bi­tion.

The ac­tress, whose CV takes in ev­ery­thing from the ti­tle role in the BBC’s adap­ta­tion of Lit­tle Dor­rit to Lady Mac­beth op­po­site James McAvoy in the West End and in­cludes play­ing a witch op­po­site Ni­co­las Cage, (an ex­pe­ri­ence she is rather droll about), is a month mar­ried – to fel­low ac­tor Stephen Camp­bell Moore and she is six and a half months’ preg­nant when we speak, and wait­ing for her life to change ut­terly. “For all I know I’ll be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent per­son,” she says, rub­bing her stom­ach.

Time, then, to get some idea of who she is now.

Claire Foy was born in Stock­port in 1984, loves Michael Palin, Doris Day and Meg Ryan (“she’s re­ally un­der­rated and un­for­tu­nately I think she’s done some­thing weird to her face”), fears she’ll never be edgy enough to work with Steve (12 Years a Slave) McQueen (even though she was once cho­sen as a face of the fu­ture by no less than PJ Har­vey) and now and again will say some­thing that will make you laugh out loud. Here she is on her role in the BBC’s ill­fated re­vival of Up­stairs Down­stairs which came in for in­evitable – and di­min­ish­ing – com­par­isons with Downton. “They were def­i­nitely played off each other. You couldn’t not. But they couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent. There was some­thing quite sweet about Up­stairs Down­stairs... apart from the fact I was play­ing a Nazi.”

Ah, yes. Nazis. That’s the thing about Up­stairs Down­stairs. It’s a pe­riod drama. She’s also ap­peared in The Night Watch, a BBC adap­ta­tion of Sarah Wal­ters’s Sec­ond World War novel. Another pe­riod drama. And, as al­ready men­tioned, she made her de­but in Lit­tle Dor­rit. Pe­riod drama. And now Wolf Hall, the adap­ta­tion of Hi­lary Man­tel’s award-win­ning novel. I’m sens­ing a pat­tern. Why are we so ob­sessed with cos­tume dra­mas, Claire?

“I don’t know. Per­son­ally, I don’t think

that Wolf Hall is cos­tume drama. I know that’s re­ally stupid be­cause ev­ery­one is wear­ing cos­tumes. But it’s not cos­tume drama in the sense that you know.”

She pauses. “I don’t know why I think that. I sup­pose it’s be­cause it’s not just kings and queens. It’s a com­plete rein­ven­tion of a pe­riod of his­tory. It’s a first-hand ac­count, it’s gritty and it’s not ‘look at the lovely build­ings, look at the lovely cos­tumes’. Peo­ple are liv­ing it and breath­ing it and hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions that you’d have now.”

Be­fore she took the part her take on Anne Bo­leyn was lit­tle more than she re­mem­bered from school. “I had the idea she had six fin­gers, warts and was a bit of a floozy. You know, a bad egg.”

Then she read Man­tel’s book and sub­se­quently adopted Thomas Cromwell’s opin­ion. “I thought, ‘God, she’s re­ally unattrac­tive and hor­rific. I just don’t get it’. And when Peter asked me to au­di­tion it seemed like an in­sur­mount­able thing to me to get past the books and what I as a reader had de­cided she was like, how to make her ap­peal­ing when she seemed to me to be such an ob­vi­ously ma­nip­u­la­tive and hor­ri­ble character.”

Still, as Kos­min­sky pointed out to her, Anne Bo­leyn must have had some­thing about her to catch the eye of Henry the Eighth. That caused a re­think.

So hav­ing played her, what’s her take on the woman? “She’s not Ju­lia Roberts. She is an or­di­nary per­son. But she has some­thing.” Re­mem­ber­ing the be­head­ing scene, she re­frames her an­swer in the past tense. “She had a way of be­ing that no one else at the time had. I think that’s the thing about Anne. She had tremen­dous belief in her­self, belief in her abil­ity and her brain and her knowl­edge and her at­tributes and her abil­ity to talk to any­one. She read loads and was re­ally in­tel­li­gent and flirted and was a bit sexy, I think.”

Are th­ese at­tributes Claire Foy could claim of her­self? Not al­ways. She cer­tainly doesn’t seem to have had a lot of self­con­fi­dence and self-belief (let’s pass on her sex­i­ness, shall we?) in her younger years.

When she ap­plied to study act­ing as part of a joint hon­ours at John Moores Univer­sity in Liver­pool she didn’t ap­ply to the full drama course be­cause, she says, “I couldn’t bear the idea of do­ing an au­di­tion. I couldn’t bear the idea of stand­ing up and do­ing a speech. It was so crip­pling. Which is ridicu­lous.

“I’d sit there and watch the other peo­ple ap­ply­ing for sin­gle hon­ours drama. They got up and they knew their lines. And I’d be think­ing ‘how are they do­ing that?’”

Yet within a few years she’d landed her­self the ti­tle role in the BBC’s big bud­get ver­sion of Dick­ens’s Lit­tle Dor­rit in 2008 and ev­ery­one from Matthew Mac­Fadyen to Tom Courte­nay were singing her praises. How does she ex­plain that? “I don’t re­ally know. I had a loss of fear in a way. I think when I was at univer­sity I just ... It was quite a safe place and I had noth­ing to lose. I hadn’t done any act­ing at all for three years and then in third year all the joint hon­ours stu­dents got to­gether and put on a play and it was great. It was only then that I thought ‘I feel good about hav­ing done it, even though it’s terrifying. I feel like I’ve achieved some­thing.’

Peo­ple told her she was good in it too. That helped. “That was some­thing I’d never had be­fore.” Next thing, she’s at Ox­ford School of Drama. Yet even then there was fear. “I was so scared ev­ery­one would be ‘mu­si­cal the­atre’. I don’t know where I got that from. I didn’t know any ac­tors. I pre­sumed ev­ery­one would be like in Fame and it would be aw­ful.”

Turns out no one was singing Think of Meryl Streep. Next thing she knew she was the new face of Bri­tish act­ing and Lit­tle Dor­rit’s writer An­drew Davies – the go-to guy for adapt­ing clas­sic nov­els – said he wanted ev­ery shot of the se­ries to be “a big close-up of Claire and those huge eyes and that won­der­ful straight gaze”.

Re­sult. Well, kind of. “It def­i­nitely wasn’t thrilling. Not even a mo­ment of thrill. When I was shoot­ing it that was thrilling. I think the majority of peo­ple I speak to have a mo­ment where they go ‘Oh re­ally? Hurray.’ And then go, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God’.

The truth is, she says, “I wasn’t re­ally pre­pared.” She’d been do­ing temp jobs for months after leav­ing drama school, and “p****** off” em­ploy­ers by dis­ap­pear­ing

I don’t think that Wolf Hall is cos­tume drama. Not in the sense you know

for au­di­tions. “So when I found out about Lit­tle Dor­rit I was like ‘no, I can’t sus­tain this. I need to go to bed. I was do­ing a play at the time and I def­i­nitely suf­fered from an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis. I couldn’t go on stage and I was ter­ri­fied and I think it’s be­cause all of a sud­den some­thing was hap­pen­ing that I thought I wanted and you’re sup­posed to be full of the joys of spring and I was just feel­ing dread and fear.

“But then luck­ily I started the job and it was amaz­ing. There were so many things about that job I’ve never ex­pe­ri­enced since.”

That re­quires some elab­o­ra­tion, Claire. “They spent loads of money and we had a whole back lot at Pinewood stu­dios. They built an en­tire London set. That never hap­pens. There was 80-odd cast.”

The only thing she’d change, she says, is she would have spo­ken up for her­self more. “Then I was ‘yeah, yeah, do what­ever you want. Yeah, I’ll wear that’. You don’t re­ally stand up for your­self when you first start work­ing and you soon re­alise that you have to be­cause no one is go­ing to stand up for you.”

Still, vo­cal or not, the part opened doors. Be­fore long she was off to Hun­gary to play a witch op­po­site Ni­co­las Cage in Sea­son of

the Witch. She starts to cackle witchily when I men­tion it. “Uu­uuh... it was great. It was amaz­ing but just lu­di­crous. I stayed in the Corinthia Ho­tel in Bu­dapest in an apart­ment. I had two bed­rooms. Ridicu­lous.”

What’s the def­i­ni­tion of lu­di­crous in this case? “There was a thing about it that seemed so frivolous. The way they spent money, the de­ci­sions they make, you just think ‘it’s bonkers’. They were so f****** ter­ri­fied all the time of mak­ing the wrong decision. ‘Peo­ple aren’t go­ing to like it’. No one can just say that’s a great cos­tume. Wear that.’ Or ‘that line’s great, keep it in’. It’s all ‘maybe we should ... What do you think?’ ‘What do you think?’ Some­one make a decision!

“I’d gone from a pro­duc­tion for the BBC where de­ci­sions were made be­cause you had to, be­cause they didn’t have the money to fanny around, to some­thing where there was all the time in the world to fanny around. Peo­ple were just fan­ny­ing around.”

Would she do it again? “Def­i­nitely. But I much pre­fer hav­ing a closer re­la­tion­ship with the work and feel­ing like you have an in­put as op­posed to ‘the writer’s not here, say the lines, stand over there. The most

im­por­tant thing is whether we have you wear­ing a fake tan or not’.”

What are the best and worst things about her job? “The best thing is get­ting to do it. Sit­ting some­where and think­ing ‘I’m in a cos­tume and I’m on a set and we’re all act­ing, all pre­tend­ing and I’ve for­got­ten that I got up this morn­ing and came to work. Here I am hav­ing a lovely time and us­ing my brain and my imag­i­na­tion ...’”

“I don’t know what the worst thing is. It is a job and you can’t get away from the fact. You work long hours, you get tired, you get p***** off, you get hun­gry, you get an­noyed that you can’t do things. It’s not this mag­i­cal, mys­ti­cal thing. You’re not go­ing to as­cend the heights of Tom Cruise and have a he­li­copter. That’s not real.”

How about the fact that you are judged on how you look? “Yeah. But no more than in nor­mal life.”

Yes, she’s had peo­ple dis­cuss her hair, her clothes in front of her, made com­ments that her waist could be thin­ner. “But I don’t re­ally care. I can’t change my face. I can’t change my per­son­al­ity.”

What does the word am­bi­tion mean to her? “I don’t know. It’s quite an ugly thing on its own. A bit weird. A bit point­less. But am­bi­tion to be happy is quite a good thing. To have am­bi­tion for your­self and those around you and to do a good job.

“But you can’t live on am­bi­tion alone. Be­cause you’d be re­ally mean. I’m am­bi­tious for my­self. I hope I’m am­bi­tious to be a good mum. But also, you have so lit­tle con­trol. For all I know Peter could have edited me out of Wolf Hall.”

Un­likely, let’s be hon­est. Any­way, she’s about to start a new role. She’s lucky, she says, that act­ing al­lows her to take time off for her im­pend­ing moth­er­hood. “I could have a year off and not have worked and it wouldn’t be mas­sively im­por­tant. I don’t think there’s any other pro­fes­sion you’d be able to take your baby to work. Not many peo­ple have that lux­ury.”

m‘ We’re a mas­sive Ir­ish fam­ily on

y mum’s side

In­evitably she’s been re­flect­ing on child­hood. The one that’s com­ing and the one be­hind her, the one spent in Stock­port, Manch­ester, Leeds, London and out in the coun­try near Uxbridge with her brother and sis­ter. “We’re a mas­sive Ir­ish fam­ily on my mum’s side and I’ve been think­ing about this a lot re­cently, the things we used to do. There would be 30 of us. Ev­ery­one would stay at my nan’s house in Edg­ware and we would have break­fast the next morn­ing. My nan and grand­dad would be cook­ing a fry up. It was the late eight­ies, early nineties, and all my aun­ties had mas­sive hair and mas­sive glasses and we were all sat around the chil­dren’s ta­ble.

“My chil­dren prob­a­bly won’t have that. We took it for granted that when we went to my nan’s house there would be 10 other chil­dren to play with.”

She can see in her fam­ily story a slice of so­cial his­tory, too. “I think how quickly my nan and grand­dad’s life – com­ing to London where the Ir­ish were stig­ma­tised and they worked them­selves to the bone – six kids in a two up, two down. And then my mum – the el­dest – went to univer­sity and you think ‘crikey, that’s not many gen­er­a­tions from work­ing class to ev­ery­one be­ing mid­dle class. It’s a tes­ta­ment to them. You hope you can en­force that with your own kids. Not every­body goes to a French villa on their hol­i­days. Not every­body has olives.”

Claire Foy goes off to have her pho­to­graph taken. Her head is firmly on her shoul­ders.

Wolf Hall starts on BBC Two on Wed­nes­day at 9pm.

Main pic­ture: Claire Foy with Damian Lewis, as English king Henry VIII, in the BBC adap­ta­tion of the Booker prize-win­ning novel Wolf Hall, writ­ten by Hi­lary Man­tel, above. Top: Foy as Lady Per­sie in the re­cent re­make of Up­stairs Down­stairs

Foy says she has had peo­ple mak­ing com­ments about her hair, her clothes and her fig­ure in front of her

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