It takes a minute or two to adjust to the sight of Claire Foy sporting cropped hair and body tattoos, charging about on a motorbike and knocking seven bells out of numerous assailants. This, after all, is the woman who gave us The Crown, and a portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth so refined and lady-like it would make a geisha feel uncouth.
But Foy is utterly convincing as the psychologically damaged Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, offering further proof of her rare talent, and range. Since she finished shooting The Crown early last year, Foy has concentrated on film, and appears to have the happy knack of choosing projects well.
She played Andrew Garfield’s heroic wife in Andy Serkis’s moving biopic of polio victim Robin Cavendish Breathe, and was a revelation as a woman wrongfully incarcerated in a mental asylum in Steven Soderbergh’s gritty thriller Unsane. And she can currently be seen in your local multiplex in Damien Chazelle’s First Man, a sweeping recreation of the Apollo 11 moon landings in which she plays Neil Armstrong’s long-suffering spouse. Her performance, and the film, are sure to figure largely in what American commentators like to call ‘the Oscar conversation’.
Her latest film, though, is definitely a change of pace. “Well that was part of the allure really,” she tells me, “because I knew if I took it on that I would be pushed into doing stuff I hadn’t done before. You want to keep learning really, and testing yourself, and this film definitely gave me that opportunity!”
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the fifth movie built around the character of Lisbeth Salander, originally the protagonist of the late Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm-set crime novels. In 2009, Noomi Rapace played her in an acclaimed and very disturbing trilogy of films, and in 2011 Rooney Mara starred in a David Fincher remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This film is a kind of sequel to that, though it effectively stands alone. What, I wonder, was it like to take on a role so memorably played by others?
“I had watched the other films, as a civilian as it were, and I’d read all the books, and I knew that you can’t try and be anyone else, you can only be yourself, so I didn’t re-watch them – I just knew it wouldn’t be a very nice thing to do to myself, there was nothing much I would have learnt. So really it was the books, I think that was probably the same for Rooney and Noomi, because that’s where she existed and that’s where I got all my information.”
Salander, for those unfamiliar with her, is a moody and reclusive Gothic avenging heroine, a survivor of sexual violence who detests and targets abusive men: she’s also a brilliant computer hacker, which greatly helps her in her work, and in the original stories she joined forces with a campaigning journalist called Mikael Blomkvist to out high-ranking bullies.
“The other films did focus a lot on Lisbeth’s past because that’s what’s important about the character, the amount of tragedy and pain that she’s been through. But her childhood was never really investigated, and so I think this film looked at the possibility of exploring her childhood to show how what you’re like as a kid decides who you are as an adult.”
Lizbeth has problems all right, finds it very hard to relate to others and is worryingly keen on resorting to violence. Was she hard to get a handle on?
“I think the thing to remember is that you know why the character’s acting like that but they don’t, and I mean Lisbeth would be pretty unself-aware. Self-exploration is not something that she ever is likely to want to do because it’s too painful. So you just try and be aware of all that, and then forget it.”
In Spider’s Web we find out that Lisbeth had a sister, who hasn’t turned out all that well, and in one of the film’s more moving moments, they meet. “With that scene on the cliff, that wasn’t necessarily how it was going to go, there were different versions and I didn’t know that one was going to end up in the film.
“I was very surprised by my response in that scene, because getting all that emotion was not something I thought would happen, but in doing it I realised she was faced with the person who understood her background more than anyone else, with someone who she now realised she loved more than anyone else, and only then did she understand how much she’d hidden it all, and suppressed it.”
Does she tend to work in the moment like that? “No! I’m a real preparer, I really believe in doing your work. But you never know what’s going to happen on the day, and that’s the beauty of it, that is what I love so much about what I do for a living, and it challenges me to be more like that as a person. So you have to be incredibly prepared, but also open to then throwing that out the window and just going with what’s happening at that moment.”
Born in Stockport, Lancashire in 1984, Claire Foy began acting seriously while at university and got an early break when she landed the lead role in the BBC’s 2008 adaptation of Little Dorrit. Critics commented on her stillness, and a rare ability to convey strong emotions while saying nothing. These qualities were on full display in Wolf Hall, where she brilliantly portrayed the haughty and embattled Anne Boleyn.
She won a BAFTA for that, and Wolf Hall also helped her land an audition for Netflix’s big budget period drama, The Queen. Over two seasons, Foy marvellously inhabited the slender frame of the young Elizabeth II, as she battles with bullying politicians and her husband’s boredom to establish herself as a dependable and dutiful monarch. Does she miss that all-consuming role?
“I don’t ever really miss my characters, which sounds a bit heartless doesn’t it? I miss the experience, but I don’t long to play the person again. If I do it’s because I haven’t really done something that I wanted to do or, you know, that there were bits that I regret. By the end of something I’m normally very much like, it’s time to go.”
Filming the series was, at times, rather surreal. “There were definitely moments where you would have an out of body experience: you’d be shooting a scene about, say, the significance of Ghana within the Commonwealth and you’d look at yourself in a dress, in a wig and go, ‘What are you doing?’ It could have been absolutely farcical if we hadn’t all committed to it, and we were very, very lucky that viewers accepted what we were doing and wanted to watch.”
Claire is proud of her strong links with Ireland. “Both my mother’s parents were Irish. My nan and grandad lived over here in England but they were always hosting: my family is huge, and all our Irish relatives were always over, and we were always having parties and things like that. But it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I came over really, and I went back to Naas and I went to Dublin, where they’re all from.
“Ireland and being Irish is something that’s very important to me. I’m entitled to an Irish passport, which is something that fills me with hope!”
‘The Girl In The Spider’s Web’ is in cinemas on November 21
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