As Elizabeth II in Netflix’s The Crown, Claire Foy brings warmth and vulnerability to a role that could easily seem cold. Says a costar: “That’s a remarkable feat to watch.”
It’s 3 p.m. — so-called “happy hour” at the Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca — and that means fresh-baked macadamia cookies are being served in the courtyard.
Claire Foy takes two. The London-based actress isn’t one to demur, delivering exuberant praise with each bite. “Oh, my God,” she cries with a full mouth. It’s a far cry from the quiet containment she embodies as Queen Elizabeth II on Netflix’s The Crown.
Just two weeks ago, Foy wrapped her second and final season starring as Her Royal Highness and is here in New York doing some press before the series returns on December 8. Two days into the trip, she’s already feeling a lot less constrained.
Instead of being encumbered by stately gowns and all the queen’s heavy bling, she’s sporting a simple white sweater, high-waisted trousers, a tiny gold necklace and a no-nonsense bob haircut.
And on this warm October day, Foy is ready to indulge. After this, she muses, she’ll hit a favorite boutique and “probably spend thousands of dollars on jumpers I’m not going to wear and just walk around and go have a glass of wine.” Or maybe not. “It’s so expensive in New York, Jesus Christ.”
The previous night, Foy had an unsettling encounter with a reporter, who was perplexed by the actress’ lack of a social-media presence or high-profile personal foibles that make for good copy. “A woman told me, ‘You are boring.’ I was like, ‘Thanks. I’m ordinary and boring and conventional?’” she recounts.
“That’s probably what I felt growing up, and actually no one is any of those things. I think anyone who feels that they have the authority to comment on someone else as a person, it says more about them than it does about me.”
For those who have spent the most time with Foy over the past two years — like costars Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby, who play the queen’s husband (Philip, Duke of Edinburgh) and sister (Princess Margaret), respectively — the reporter’s assessment is, well, madness.
“She’s an antithesis of boring,” says Smith, who first met Foy during a screen test in 2015. “She’s wonderfully intelligent and she’s got a great sense of humor. What a silly thing for that journalist to say.”
Kirby goes even further. “She can drink Matt Smith under the table. I’ve seen it,” she says with a knowing laugh. “She’s kind of clumsy and brilliant and funny. She’s like the most layered, complicated, least boring person. How could you be as good an actress as she is and be boring? She has to access so many different people, and she does it not by intellectualizing it or by thinking herself into a performance.”
For her part, boredom is something Foy steadfastly avoids, at least professionally. She won’t play the same type of character twice, so don’t look for her to follow up her Crown stint in another royal drama.
“I don’t like to repeat,” she says. “I think repetition is weird.”
Also peculiar is Hollywood phoniness. “When I first went out to L.A., I met people who were like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m such a huge fan.’ I was like, ‘ What? Are you?’ I know that’s probably a good backup thing to say when you meet someone, but say what you mean and mean what you say. I’m a big girl. Just be honest.”
As Foy sips a cappuccino that is no longer hot, she offers her own candid glimpse into her psyche and relates a strange dream from the previous night. “I was looking at a bridge with gates that were on fire, and I walked across the bridge and it started to crumble and the water had melting lava in it, but it wasn’t hurting me,” she says and pauses. “Yeah, it was weird.”
In the wake of her Emmy-nominated and Golden Globe–winning turn as the resolute monarch, Foy has crossed the threshold into in-demand leading-lady territory and is now working with the likes of A-list film directors Steven Soderbergh and Damien Chazelle. How she landed the starring role in The Crown is an unlikely saga in and of itself.
After first reading Peter Morgan’s script in late 2014, she felt compelled to audition, even though she was five months pregnant. Given her condition, she didn’t think she had much chance and turned up for a first read incredibly relaxed.
Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice-president of original series, recalls seeing that first tape of Foy auditioning for creator–writer–executive producer Morgan, executive producer–director Stephen Daldry and casting director Nina Gold. “I remember being struck by this extreme vulnerability in her eyes,” Holland says, “while her face and her composure were absolute steel. They were looking at quite a lot of folks for the role.
"But we all saw that Claire was a standout and could play with a real emotional depth, just in her eyes and just with a slight change of expression. It’s a pretty brave thing to do, to take on arguably the most famous woman in the world.”
Foy was called back for a second test that included a fitting, complete with costume and full makeup. Despite her bump, she nailed it. The next step should have been to fly to Los Angeles for one final test, but by then, she was six months pregnant, and air travel was out of the question. A week before she married actor Stephen Campbell Moore, she got the phone call that the role was hers.
“I was like, ‘Do they know that I’m pregnant? Obviously, they do. How do they feel about this? What on earth is going on here?’ I was in disbelief, really,” Foy remembers. “Then I agreed to it and I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know what state I’m going to be in. I don’t know how this is going to go.‘ You sort of expect the worst when you are about to have a child.
"The fact that four months after giving birth [when filming was due to begin], I’m going to be walking — I was like, ‘I can’t see that happening. I see myself lying prone on a bed in pain.’” But walk she did, all the way to season one’s lavish coronation ceremony, from which she would duck out to nurse her daughter, now two and a half.
“In what profession am I allowed to have a child, breastfeed my child on set and have them say, ‘It’s great. Good for you. You are working and you have a baby’?” she marvels. “I was very, very fortunate they supported me in doing that.” And while many actresses might struggle to transition between the contrasting worlds of harried mum and regal sovereign, Holland remembers Foy’s seemingly effortless ability to do just that.
“We were visiting and she had just recently given birth and was going from being the queen and having a quite stirring conversation to running downstairs to deal with her child,” she says. “To see that quick transformation underscored the talent that she had.”
For the rest of this article and much more, pick up the latest issue of emmy magazine, on newsstands November 21