For years, actresses cast to play Queen Elizabeth II have struggled to get it right, and the assumptions that come with this regal role are greater than the crown jewels themselves. At the age of 91, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary — known to most as England’s monarch for 64 years — has amassed more opinions and judgments from the world than any living pop star or leading lady.
An easy route to playing the British sovereign is to interpret every situation she’s had with the reserve and bite you’d expect from a Disney villain. In other words, many actresses choose to mirror the same clichés of Liz’s queendom that the press has perpetuated, exemplifying a fierce and impassive portrait of a ruler whose life was turned upside down, at the age of 25, when her father died and left her the throne.
Luckily for Netflix — which has spent more than $200 million to make a royal family- focused series called The Crown — actress Claire Foy has never been one to take the easy road. Aside from its collection of meticulously crafted royal replicas (think china patterns and down-to-the-last-detail furnishings) and its 20,000-plus costume count, the show has been able to do more than make a mark on TV. With Foy at the helm, it has also changed the way the public views the Queen’s narrative. Foy’s skills have brought viewers to a place where they feel deep compassion for one of the most powerful women in history.
Interviewed while she was at Lancaster House in London — the opulent mansion next to Buckingham Palace and now a venue for special government and corporate events, as well as the space doubling as the Queen’s HQ in The Crown — Foy describes how her character preparation took nearly a lifetime to perfect.
“The thing is, if you’re English, you’ve grown up with the Queen,” says Foy. “You’ve spent so much of your life with her during major events. You’re so aware of her.”
Some actors would have taken this knowledge as enough fuel to fire a performance, but the 33-year-old Brit felt that more homework was needed. “The public aspect of her life, I felt like I knew quite well, especially how [she] behaves during occasions. What happens behind closed doors – you don’t know about. There are books like Crawfie’s, which I read, among other books,” she says, referring to The Little Princesses: The Story of the Queen’s Childhood, a biography written by the Queen’s nanny, Marion Crawford. “Other than that, there are very few reliable sources.”
Unlike any of Foy’s other roles — save for the time she was miscast as the Italian wife of Maziar Bahari in Rosewater, a film about the Iranian-Canadian journalist and human rights activist who ended up a prisoner in Iran (“That [casting] was ridiculous!” she admits) — the character she portrays in The Crown is still very much alive and visible. It would depend on whom you talk to, but the Queen is still seen as one of those people responsible for the United Kingdom’s welfare and safety.
“She’s amazing, and my respect for her has grown,” says Foy of her post-Crown connection to the Queen. “The more I do this, the more I realize that the job she’s done is extraordinary. Very few people alive today have been around to witness and be a part of the kind of socio, economic and political change as she has. She’s seen it all. To have such access to the leaders of the world is extraordinary. She’s been in the thick of it without really having an influence. She’s absorbed it all.”
What Foy wasn’t expecting was that her own views of the Queen would undergo a complete re-evaluation. “On a human level, the thing I 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,” Foy says. “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 [her father]. Her life was cut short. I suppose a lot of people would say, ‘You became the queen of England! Hurrah!’
There’s something quite unsettling about that to me. I feel a lot of sympathy for her.”
One of the most challenging scenes of Foy’s career is The Crown’s long coronation re- enactment, as it gives viewers an intimate look at the responsibilities the Queen assumed at a young age. “Having the composure to walk through the entire abbey of dignitaries and heads of state while you are this young woman being anointed and connected to God? It takes gumption,” Foy points out.
The thought of having such a formidable force watching you relive her memories — including the royal family’s relationship with John and Jackie Kennedy — which will be touched upon during season 2 of The Crown — would be daunting for the strongest of thespians. Yet Foy feels differently about the fact that the royals could be watching her every on-screen move.
“If you go into it with good intentions and hope that no one thinks you ripped them to shreds, then I think you’ll be ok. I didn’t feel like walking in and doing a queenly impersonation…. It would have just been against what The Crown is about.” she says. “To be honest, [the Queen] will take my performance with a pinch of salt,” she says. “To her, it’s no stranger than having her face on the front page of the newspaper or having someone write something about her in the newspaper. She’s a right cracker!”
Next up, Foy will add several films to her extensive film credits, among them, Breathe, which is based on the life of Diana Cavendish, the wife of Robin Cavendish, a British advocate for the disabled and a historic medical-aid developer who developed the first wheelchair with a built-in respirator. In Breathe, Foy felt the pull of obligation once again….
“People who are alive and watching you play them don’t want to see you doing it whimsically,” she says. “They want to see someone doing a realistic portrayal… To me, acting means you have a responsibility to that person,” she says, “and it all has to be truthful.”
By Elio Iannacci – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Winter 2017