Claire Foy tells it like it is

Portrait image of Claire Foy sat on a bench outdoors smiling to camera wearing yellow trousers, a red jumper and a brown coat

One of our newest members talks to Laura Craik about her latest projects, following her instincts, and why men need to step up in the fight for gender equality

Words by Laura Craik    Art Direction by Samuel McWilliams    Creative Production by TIAGI    Photography by Willow Williams    Video by James Whitty    Styled by Nicky Yates

Such is people’s ongoing obsession with The Crown that it hardly seems possible Claire Foy has been off our screens for three years. But now she’s back with a bang – or rather, two bangs – with the film The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain (playing Emily, wife of inventor Louis) and the TV drama A Very British Scandal, which documents the infamous 1963 divorce of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. Their vituperative uncoupling led to a case that included a photo of the Duchess giving oral sex to an unidentified man. The Duke won. The Duchess was slut-shamed. The public was scandalised. 

Foy plays Margaret, Duchess of Argyll; back to the role of a posh person again. ‘I was a bit “oh no” about that,’ she admits. ‘I had to really think about it. I wasn’t expecting a part like that to come along so quickly after playing the Queen, although really it wasn’t quick – it was five years. You don’t want to invite comparison. This sounds awful, but I’m not really interested in aristocratic people. I’m interested in people.’ 

On the left is a black and white image of Claire Foy walking outdoors with her hands tucked in her underarms as though she is cold
Quote by Claire that reads "you can have really good karma and a lot of luck in your life, but it's not going to turn out well unless you invest in it."

Which is why she’s so forensic in her preparation for every part, even compiling Spotify playlists for every character. Her diligence has paid off: since graduating from the Oxford School of Drama in 2007, she’s barely stopped working, appearing in Being Human and Little Dorrit, playing queens Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth II in Wolf Hall and The Crown, followed by a stint in Hollywood as Ryan Gosling’s screen wife in First Man, the Neil Armstrong biopic. Yet despite having won a Golden Globe, two Emmys, two SAG awards and multiple BAFTA nominations, Foy is pragmatic about her success. ‘What’s that quote: “luck is hard work”? You can have really good karma and a lot of luck in your life, but it’s not going to turn out well unless you invest in it. You have to question yourself and push yourself; be open and curious, and interested.’

She says she questions every part she’s offered. ‘I have hesitation about everything I do now. I am indecisive, but I’m not indecisive with my instinct. Although you have to have doubt, because what gives you the right to think that you can play that person?’ She was uncertain about taking the part of Emily in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, but loved the director, Will Sharpe, and wanted to help tell Wain’s story. An Edwardian artist and illustrator, Wain (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was a brilliant man who battled depression, and who today would be considered neurodiverse. ‘It felt important to make a film about someone who is seemingly suffering from some sort of mental health issue, but instead of categorising him, making it about discovering how extraordinary his brain was. And also,’ she smiles, ‘it had lots of cats in it.’

A quote by Claire Foy that reads "female relationships are so complex. There are so many different layers, and therefore they're very rich. All my female relationships are so full of colour and life." In the top right and bottom left corners are images of Claire to accompany the quote. Top right she is sat cross legged in a denim one piece by a fire, and bottom left she is sat on the floor with her legs extended wearing a grey suit with her back leaning against a white wall

Indeed it does. With his kitsch drawings of felines in funny poses, Wain basically invented the cat meme. ‘Until Louis came along, people thought they were disgusting little rats.’ Is she a cat fan herself? ‘Well, yes. But I don’t want to live with one. I think they’re amazing in much the same way as the Egyptians did. But I feel very judged by them. I’m not very good with superior people or superior animals.’

If any couple had a superiority complex, it was the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. ‘He wasn’t really capable of love,’ says Foy. ‘From what I read about him, he was an alcoholic, and could be very abusive. He was also really damaged from the war. I have a problem with saying someone’s good or evil; I’m not really in life for that. But I would say he had sociopathic tendencies. He’s not a catch.’ But Margaret married him anyway. ‘She had a very immature view of love affairs. She went into things blindly. She was engaged five times before she even got married. Hurt people hurt people. If what you put in is what you get out – if someone is treated terribly – it’s very likely that they will treat someone else terribly in their life.’ She smiles ruefully. ‘The more people I play, and the more people I get to know, [I realise] everyone is f**ked up.’

Margaret’s crucifixion by the media feels as raw and relevant as it did 60 years ago. ‘It happens all the time, women being punished, accused or judged,’ agrees Foy. ‘The simplest and easiest way to degrade or discount them is by talking about their sexuality, or them not being the “right” sort of woman, whatever that means. The world is terrified of angry or emotional women.’ 

She thinks the Duchess of Argyll was misunderstood. ‘There’s an instinct to want to make Margaret a feminist icon who went to great lengths to stand up for her right to be a sexual being. But she wasn’t doing that. She was saying, “this is wrong, and I’m going to say so, but I’m never going to be heard”. So few women get heard. They don’t get an apology. They don’t get justice. The system is f**ked. A woman’s sexuality shouldn’t be used as a weapon. But it has been, since the dawn of time.’

Quote by Claire Foy that reads "so few women get heard. They don't get an apology. They don't get justice. The system is f*cked."
Claire wearing a grey suit outdoors leaning up against a black metal fence and looking to the right. In the background you can see a clear blue sky and lots of trees

As for what women can do to achieve equality, Foy sighs: ‘Maybe we’ve done enough. I don’t really know what else we can do, apart from repeat ourselves. Now they’ve got to step up. And that means all men. A real societal shift needs to happen, in the same way that it needs to happen for Black Lives Matter, and for equality for all people, all races, all colours, all genders. There’s a reckoning, and you can’t take it back. But I’m not naive. I think [change] is going to take generations. We need to not have people in power who say they’re going to put more police on the streets, as if it’s a helpful thing for women. Wow, that’s going to stop it,’ she says sarcastically. She is equally scathing about women having to bear the burden of their own safety. ‘Walk home in groups, like we’re flamingos or something. What’s that about? Just stop hurting us.’

She dislikes the work/life balance question. ‘You feel like you’ve got to have an answer, and I just don’t know. Lockdown was tough. I think the whole working from home thing is going to help. But at the same time, we live in a very patriarchal, archaic system where children go to school from nine until three, yet people go to work from nine until five. That was created in the days when women stayed at home and didn’t have jobs. And now we do go to work, nothing’s changed, except the fact that the women have to think about how the f**k to live their lives. That doesn’t necessarily mean I think that our children should be in school longer. The work situation is what needs to be changed. People have kids to spend time with them. That’s sort of the idea. But also, you have to be able to fund your very expensive life because we live in a very expensive country. I mean, it’s all f**ked, basically.’

Claire Foy leaning against a light pink wall smiling to camera wearing yellow trousers and a red jumper
Claire Foy leaning against a light pink wall with her hands up to her chin wearing yellow trousers and a red jumper

Foy’s next project is Women Talking, based on the novel of the same name, in which she stars alongside Jessie Buckley, Rooney Mara, Ben Whishaw and Frances McDormand, who’s also the film’s producer. ‘It’s really special,’ she smiles. ‘It’s about women, and shot by a woman. I haven’t worked on anything like that before. Female relationships are so complex. There are so many different layers, and therefore they’re very rich. All my female relationships are full of colour and life.’ She is especially close to her sister, Gemma. ‘She’s everything. That relationship is the one I cherish most in my life.’

As for romantic relationships, she won’t be drawn. ‘None of your business!’ she laughs. ‘Or anybody else’s. I never get asked that. I think people just think, “you’re over the age of 30 and have a child – you don’t have a romantic life”. Or else they’re too scared to ask.’ Or else they assume she’s far too busy being a brilliant actor – one who’s deliciously unafraid to speak her mind.

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