There’s this thing about Claire Foy’s face: It is constantly changing, highs and lows passing over it like a fast-moving storm. With the briefest of glances she conveys, instantly, the emotional temperature of the character she is playing. It’s a quality that makes Foy, 34, one of the most compelling actresses of her generation. Not that she’d ever admit such a thing. “I don’t know if it’s the British in her or what, but her capacity for self-deprecation is extraordinary,” says Damien Chazelle, who directed her in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man (out now). This turns out to be true: Congratulated on winning an Emmy last month, Foy demurs that her speech was terrible, her composure a shambles. “As I walked up the steps I kept thinking, ‘You’re going to let yourself down, Claire. This is going to be really bad,’” she says, pale skin pinking up at the recollection. “And then you get up there and the audience is just heads — heads with two big eyes! And you’re just thinking, ‘Oh god, I’m so sorry that I’m here. You all hate me. I’m a terrible person saying the wrong thing.’” She smiles, but she is not kidding.
Despite such deep-seated self-consciousness, Foy has an easy laugh — high and tinkly — which she deploys often over tea in a Manhattan hotel in early October. The other patrons are doing that unfazed New Yorker thing of pretending not to notice the celebrity in their midst. Or, more likely, they haven’t connected that this petite, leather-pants-clad brunette — who cheerfully says things like, “You don’t want to make a massive tit of yourself!” — is the same steely and stoic Queen Elizabeth she portrayed on the Netflix series The Crown. It was that performance, a masterclass of non-verbal emoting, that caught Chazelle’s eye while casting First Man. “I believe she can do anything,” he says with the fervor of the fully converted. “She has that Meryl Streep thing. She’s a true chameleon.”
Perhaps this empathetic nature can be traced back to her childhood: At 13 years old, Foy, who was born in Stockport, England, and raised in Buckinghamshire, was afflicted with juvenile arthritis. At age 17, doctors discovered a benign tumor behind her eye. Surgery followed, steroids prescribed and recovery achieved, but life was permanently altered. “From a very young age I had the experience of your body failing you in some way,” she says. “It’s haunted me my entire life, but at the same time it’s a blessing, because you learn to be glad to be alive. I had this urgency to get it done, get it done, get it done before I die.” She smiles. “Pain gives you an awful lot of understanding of what people are going through all the time.”
In First Man, which examines Armstrong’s life during the race to put a man on the moon, Foy plays the astronaut’s wife, Janet. It could’ve been a token stand-by-your-spaceman role. But instead it’s Foy’s Janet who brings the film back to Earth, making the action in the Armstrong kitchen — where she and Neil (Ryan Gosling) are not famous figures but parents struggling with the unspeakable grief of losing a child — every bit as intense as the dizzying spectacle of space travel. Foy, who is already garnering Oscar buzz for her performance, spent hours listening to audio of Janet, and worked with two dialogue coaches to flatten her English accent into an appropriate Midwestern twang.
Janet died of complications from lung cancer at age 84 last June, before Foy had a chance to sit down with her in person. “I’d presumed I’d get to meet her at some point, so when she passed away I felt very strange about it,” says Foy. “I never met her but I felt like I knew her. I felt incredibly emotional.” (Janet’s two sons have praised the film, and, specifically, Foy’s performance. In a piece they wrote for The Washington Examiner: “[Janet’s] bravery and poise are portrayed in the film, and when we first saw it, we watched with tears in our eyes and warmth in our heart. It is the best depiction we’ve seen of the lives of astronauts’ wives.”)
Before shooting began, Foy and Gosling and the two actors that play their children went through a sort of family boot camp — a two-week period of living together in a cabin for eight hours a day, workshopping and rehearsing, which Chazelle filmed. Their chemistry was so immediate that a lot of the footage made it into the final movie. During the shoot, Chazelle says that with every take, Foy would astound: “We’d finish and I’d be so into it I’d be breathless. My cinematographer would have tears in his eyes. Claire would just snap back into her British accent and go, ‘Oh no, that was rubbish, I apologize.’”
Next month, Foy shape-shifts into the dragon-tattooed vigilante Lisbeth Salander for The Girl in the Spider’s Web (out November 9th). It’s been seven years since the last adaptation of the Steig Larsson-created series, about a hacker and rape survivor who avenges women that have been abused. To make a massive understatement, the time is ripe for an antiheroine like Lisbeth to return to the big screen. “When we were making it, [#MeToo] was happening, and I was really pleased,” Foy says. “Like they had made this again for a reason.”
Featuring motorcycle riding, fight scenes and lots of pointing a gun in people’s faces, the role is Foy’s most physical to date, an opportunity she relished. “It required me to be in my body more than my head,” she says. “I loved the training element and I loved learning the fights. I kneed a lot of bollocks! It’s changed my life knowing that I’m not as physically incapable as I thought I was.”
But she also embraced the chance to play someone so fundamentally antisocial. Lisbeth is deeply flawed, and despite the much-deserved retribution she metes out, she can go too far over the line to be considered an entirely good guy. “She’s not doing it for women,” Foy explains. “She’s doing it to punish men. She doesn’t stand for anything! She works outside the way society believes she should. She looks at people’s computers and sees their secrets. She doesn’t judge. She has sex with whomever she wants, whenever she wants.”
It’s certainly a far cry from Buckingham Palace. “For me, it’s playing the queen of England that’s the huge stretch,” says Foy. “I veer much more toward the Lisbeth end of the spectrum.” Perhaps, but when it comes to her own personal life, like all good chameleons, Foy is fiercely guarded. As talk briefly veers to the subject of her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter (with the actor Stephen Moore Campbell, from whom Foy separated earlier this year), she politely shuts it down. She’s far happier discussing what might be next. “I want to challenge myself, to put myself in risky positions where I can’t know the outcome,” she says. “I’d like to continually shock people. Maybe I’ll just keep doing more and more mental parts and people will go, ‘What is wrong with her?’”