Claire Foy on juggling motherhood with her career and playing famously steely women

She shot to fame playing the Queen in The Crown and now Claire Foy is tackling another steely lady, the wife of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

After a long, eventful and faintly mysterious life as the wife of the first man to walk on the moon, Janet Armstrong died of cancer in June at her home near Houston, Texas.

Among those who felt a pang of loss was Claire Foy, the rapidly rising English actress who portrays Janet in a new film marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

The two women had arranged to meet but on the scheduled day a hurricane smashed into Houston, and in Space Center lingo, it was necessary to abort the mission.

“We were filming on a very tight schedule,” says Claire,

“With just this one small window when I could have gone. It’s something I’ll always regret. I think Janet in her way was an inspirational character. She had been through a lot with the moon and NASA and Neil, and there was loss and tragedy in her life. When a person goes through that at a fairly young age they learn quickly what life can throw at you, and so I think she must have had a backbone of absolute steel.”

Claire as young Queen Elizabeth in The Crown opposite Matt Smith

Steely women have become something of a speciality for 34-year-old Claire, the youngest of three children, born in a down-on-its-luck industrial town in northern England.

As a child she barely knew that such a profession as acting existed, and found her way into drama at a relatively late age.

Since then, things have moved fast, and roles such as Henry VIII’s doomed wife Anne Boleyn in the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, and the young Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix megadrama The Crown, have propelled her, blinking in slight disbelief, from the “don’t call us” depths of the casting pool to the cusp of Hollywood stardom.

Cult filmmaker Fede Alvarez, in whose forthcoming Girl in the Spider’s Web Claire plays the sociopathic supersleuth, Lisbeth Salander, hails her as “a rare and incredible talent”.

Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown, says, “Without someone as technically brilliant and hardworking as Claire, the show would have completely disintegrated.”

Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land), who picked her for the part of Janet Armstrong, says no one else could have been better for “this difficult, complex role”.

All of which leaves Claire rather groping for the right words.

“Well, yes, it’s been a busy time,” she finally splutters.

“Working, travelling, doing the publicity. Phew! I’m looking forward to some downtime and getting back to real life, frankly.”

The complications of her sudden stardom aren’t lessened by the demands of her two-year-old daughter, from her now-ended marriage to British actor Stephen Campbell-Moore.

In Wolf Hall as Anne Boleyn with co-star Damian Lewis

How does she cope?

“I suppose as every mother has to,” she says. “You just get on with it, don’t you? My hours might be a bit different from other people’s, but in the end you go to work, and you come home, and you do your best.”

She was five months pregnant when she landed her part in The Crown, and admits that for all the regal calm she displays in the role, the series took a heavy toll.

“In England,” she says, “it’s not made easy for women going back to work after having a child. Childcare costs a huge amount of money, and you’re sort of made to feel like it’s very difficult to go back to work and be a mother. It’s just really, really hard. And that’s the role of the mother. So it’s a really interesting thing to go through.”

In The Girl in the Spider’s Web as Lisbeth.

Her arrival in the movie big league comes at one of the more turbulent times in the industry’s history, with the aftershocks of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal and the rise of the #MeToo movement.

She is optimistic, if cautious about what comes next.

“In my time I’ve seen a revolutionary change in the way the industry is discussing things, but it’s too easy to say that that’s all we need to do. The whole of society needs to change in the way that it thinks about and behaves towards women, and that’s going to mean a much bigger conversation.

“It’s not just about the film industry, but for now we are at the forefront of this and it’s encouraging people to ask questions, which need to be asked by other industries, so there’s a chance to put right some of the wrongs. Women have been jumping up and down about these issues for many, many years and just been ignored.

“If you look back, there have been women pushing for change since the 1960s, but now there’s a young generation of women who have got to the point where we just won’t accept this kind of treatment, and to me that’s amazing because I wasn’t educated that way, but I very much intend to educate my own daughter that way.”

Among these women of the 1960s was an attractive Illinois doctor’s daughter called Janet Shearon who, at the time she met Neil Armstrong, saw no need to conceal her primary ambition of being a good wife, mother and homemaker.

The couple’s friends were, nevertheless, surprised by their marriage, for while Janet was talkative and sociable, Neil was almost Zen-like in his reclusiveness – something that his later celebrity seemed to exacerbate rather than cure.

Well, perhaps opposites really do attract, they reasoned. But it wasn’t quite like that.

First Man, in which Claire stars alongside Ryan Gosling, doesn’t set out to be a portrait of a marriage but it touches on a remarkable, and in some ways, disturbing episode in American social history, when the wives of NASA’s star astronauts became – in the words of Lily Koppel, author of a book about them – “the first TV reality show”.

“What the wives went through was extraordinary,” says Claire. “It was beyond anything anyone who has lived a normal life can imagine. They were expected to live up to this idea of perfection – of the American dream and the American family – and so these young women became the poster girls for what was seen as the perfect 1960s wife, and none of it was real or attainable.”

Claire with Ryan Gosling in First Man

Janet and the wives were packaged by NASA and the TV networks into the Astronaut Wives Club, and even given a group banner reading “Proud, Happy, Thrilled”, with which they would pose beside mocked-up rockets.

Behind the exultant headlines, many of their marriages were rapidly falling apart, destroyed by stress, absences and infidelity (the legions of space groupies, known as the “Cape Cookies”, were a particular menace).

Janet and Neil, who died six years ago, stuck it out until 1994, when she divorced him after many years of distance and loneliness. “Silence is Neil Armstrong’s answer to everything,” she once said. “The word ‘no’ is an argument. He is a very solitary man.”

Neil and Janet Armstrong with their two sons

It is the on-camera coolness, the sense of a mind constantly at work, that lets Claire play these complex roles.

The execution of Anne Boleyn could easily have descended into gore and bathos, but Claire played it with her eyes, radiating both the queen’s calm acceptance of her fate, and her belief that she had done nothing to deserve it.

Her task in The Crown was to keep Elizabeth both exalted and human, and to this she added wit and guile.

There was nothing regal – or rocket-powered – about her arrival as an actress.

Her father was an office equipment salesman, her mother a housewife, but by the time Claire was nine they had divorced, and she found herself at an all-girls school where, she huffs, “I was really pissed off most of the time.”

For the 2018 Britain Academy Television Awards Foy wore a white Rosetta Getty gown adorned with a Times Up sticker.

She dabbled in school drama, but says, “It never really occurred to me until I was about 20, that it was something I could do, really being an actress. I never thought it was a life or a job or anything that was accessible to someone like me. So it was only when I went to university, and kind of got a bit of confidence that I considered it, I suppose.”

She went to drama school in Oxford, supporting herself through part-time jobs and such meagre scraps of stage work as she could find.

Her first real part, as a werewolf’s girlfriend in a British TV show, failed to impress the director, who shouted at her, “It’s time to start acting now, darling!”

Which, with increasing success, is what she did. She says that she still doesn’t understand how things have gone so well, but the answer is likely to be a mixture of hard work, rare talent, and – for the star of an astronaut movie – keeping her feet on the ground.

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