When an actor gets a role as a figure in history—especially someone who is still alive and running a country—the pressure to deliver can be downright debilitating.
Over the past year, Claire Foy has become intensely aware of this kind of stress since the English actress was chosen out of hundreds to play Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s new series, The Crown. Reported to have cost more than US $100 million to make, this 10-episode series is all about when Elizabeth inherited the throne after King George’s death in 1952.
Foy plays the monarch with ease, bringing a contained and concise hand to her scenes. It is almost as if she took advice on how to behave from characters who are counselling the Queen in the actual script (since half the series focuses on how her family and co-workers tell Elizabeth how to present herself). A line from Queen Mary—Elizabeth’s grandmother—sticks out as something Foy would have taken to heart before she step foot on set: “To do nothing is the hardest job of all, and it will take every ounce of energy you have. To be impartial is not natural, not human.”
In person, Foy is completely natural and open about her star turn in The Crown. During a quick break while on set filming the series, she answered a few fast ones on being cast as Queen.
What kind of research did you do to prepare for this role?
I read some books. The thing is that if you’re English, you’ve grown up with her. You’ve spent so much of your life with her being there at all these major events. We’re so aware of her. You take that for granted a lot of the time. For me, in a weird way, the public aspect of her life I felt like I knew quite well. I knew how she behaved on public occasions. In this program, that’s a very small part of her life. But what’s happening behind closed doors…you don’t know about that. You’ve never known about that. I couldn’t do any research about that because there isn’t anything. There are books by [Marion Crawford—Queen Elizabeth II’s nanny] about her when she was little, that helped immensely… but there are very few reliable sources. Apart from researching politics at the time—and what was going on in the world—I tried to find as much as I could, but there’s unfortunately not much. When it came to do the speeches, I obviously had to get the voice right. I had an amazing accent tutor, who’s just been brilliant. He’s really helped everyone and the continuity of all the different voices. Other than that there are not huge reams of research. I don’t think it would have been helpful, to be honest.
Did you find any attributes that you discovered about the Queen that you didn’t know about?
My respect of her obviously has grown while doing it. The more I learn about her, the more I respect her in the sense that the job she’s done is extraordinary. There are very few people alive that have been around through so much political, economic, and social change. She’s seen it all, really. To have such access to the leaders of the world…she’s been in the thick of it without really having an influence. She’s absorbed it all. For me, the thing that I…not that I admire it, but on a human level the thing I feel for her or understand as much as I possibly can is that she lost her father when she was so young. With that came huge responsibility and a huge job she wasn’t prepared for or expecting. She had two young children and all of a sudden the weight of the world was on her shoulders. She couldn’t really grieve for him. Her life was cut short in a way. I suppose a lot of people would say, “You became the queen of England! Hurrah!” I think there’s something quite unsettling about that to me. I feel alot of sympathy for her about that. I think she’s amazing. She’s strong and witty and a mother of god knows how many children. She’s really brilliant. I think she’s a right cracker.
Was it daunting to take this on? Did you feel nervous about portraying someone who is your country’s leader?
In a weird way, I thought, “what have I got to lose?” I wasn’t going to go in and do an impersonation. I’ll be embarrassed. They’ll be embarrassed. The scenes weren’t written like that. They were personal scenes between a family member. There was so much going on in the scenes that I didn’t feel like if I walked in and did a queenly impersonation…it would have just been against what it was about. I thought, “Sod it.” I’ll just go in and not be me, because that would be a really bad idea, but I’ll try to get some essence of her as a person and hope that comes across. I don’t think that necessarily helped or didn’t help but I think it was much better than me going in and being like that. It was daunting because Stephen Daldry was there and Peter Morgan was there. When are you ever going to be in a room with those two? They also know her pretty well at this point. It’s Peter Morgan’s version of the queen. He knows her so well so that was quite scary. I thought, “Life’s too short, isn’t it?” I just sort of got on with it. I’ve sort of feel like I’ve had to get on with it ever since, really. If you think for a moment, “Right. Really sit down and try and understand that you are playing the queen. This is really serious.” I’d never get out of bed in the morning!
You know she’s going to see it, right?
I’m sure she will. I’ve got no idea if any of them will watch it. You have to remember that their life has been in the public eye forever. It’s no stranger than having your face on the front page of the newspaper or having someone write something about you in the newspaper. I think, to be honest, they’ll take it all with a pinch of salt. If they do watch it, lovely. If they don’t watch it, lovely. I don’t think we’ve made a TV program for the royal family to watch or with an eye that they will. That’s up to them.
What do think about the royal family watching you acting as Queen?
I don’t really have an opinion on it. If you’re playing anyone who’s living…I’ve only done it once. That was scary enough. I did a film called Rosewater. It was about Maziar Bahari who was an Iranian prisoner. I played his wife, Paola. That was ridiculous. She was Italian and I’m me. That was just ridiculous. I suppose she was like, “you’re nothing like me. Off you go.” There are all these situations that people have been in and you have a responsibility to that person to be truthful and not put too much of what you think is happening on it. That’s the same as if you were playing a scene and someone at home is watching…it’s like doing a birth scene and someone at home has given birth. They don’t want to see you as an actress doing it. They want to see someone doing a realistic portrayal otherwise they’ll be sat there watching it saying, “That’s not what it’s like!” You go into it with good intentions and hope that no one thinks you’ve ripped it to shreds.
How much did costume inform your performance?
Her casual outfits—her wellington boots, skirts, parkas, and headscarves—really informed it for me. I felt very sturdy and solid. Weirdly all the glamorous ball gowns and things informed it in a way that I don’t necessarily know how…from everything I’ve read, she’s wasn’t massively interested in fashion. That informed it in a sense. I felt a bit uncomfortable when I was dressed up to the nines anyway. I don’t think she relishes it—not in the same way Margaret does. The characters in the story, anyway. That all really helped. She’s also a young woman. There was a certain element of frivolity and things like that. Obviously when I prepared with Scott I felt very mature. It’s a period piece as well so all that helps. Wearing all the underpinnings really helps.
Was there a scene where you felt weighed down by the power and majesty of the Queen’s occupation?
The coronation. I don’t know how she did it. We shot it for five days. All and all, everything in included, all the pickups and that sort of stuff. The dress that Michelle’s got is an exact replica and weighs a ton. When you wear something like that, there are four different underskirts to it. Wearing all that for such a long time and having the crown put on your head that weighs a ton, having all the coronets and all the things pinned in…it’s like getting married times ten. Then having the composure to walk through the entire abbey of dignitaries and heads of state while you’re this young woman being anointed and connected to God. It’s takes huge gumption to do that. That was in part being patient. It’s not physically hard. It’s not that difficult. Being patient with all the fiddling…you need the loo, you’ve got a crown no your head. You have to be patient.
Was that when you felt what an extraordinary young woman she was?
Oh, yeah. To have that composure…it’s one of those things that makes you think, “Who else can do that?” Who else could have taken that responsibility on, questioned it so little, and done the job really well for such a long time? She never answered back or never complained. It’s really amazing.
What stands out the most about working with [producer] Stephen Daldry and [co-star] Matt Smith?
I love them both. Stephen’s a genius. I think he’s a genius. Everything you do, he skews it in some way and makes it original and different. He’ll give you a note that no one else will ever give you and suddenly it changes the whole scene. He’s really open to what you think about things, which is lovely. Often, it’s so much not about you. It’s about someone else in the scene that has a tiny part or is a small part of the event. How they do it is so significant. I think he’s a genius. Matt Smith is the best thing ever. He made this job so fun for me. I love him and think he’s a great person and brilliant actor. I can’t imagine anyone else being Prince Philip. He’s just great.
How is the relationship between Elizabeth and Philip represented in The Crown?
I don’t want to give it all away. It’s a marriage. That’s what I really like about it. It’s not a sort of…all this is a couple of years ago so everyone looks glistening and lovely, people aren’t complicated…it’s going to be tough at times. They’re under huge amounts of pressure the series. Their marriage is put under a huge amount of pressure. Their parents put them under a huge amount of pressure. How they respond to that is really interesting. By the end of the series, I think you’ll see which way they go. At the beginning, there’s the first flush of love. She’s absolutely madly in love with him. He really loves her as well but he’s really playing it cool. It’s lovely in a way to see people at the very beginning of their relationship. With the journey of the show, you’ll see how their married life continues. I think it’ll be really interesting, hopefully. Ultimately, underneath it all, there’s that real love for each other. They enjoy each other’s company and find each other funny which is great. It’s complicated.
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