If there were an Oscar for actor of the year, Claire Foy would be tough to beat.
Her previous work in “Breathe” and Netflix’s “The Crown” had already established her as a smart and soulful performer. This year, three films highlight the 34-year-old Brit’s knack for transformation. In Steven Soderbergh’s shot-on-iPhone thriller, “Unsane,” she plays stressed-out, contemporary American working woman Sawyer Valentini (“Best character name ever,” says a smiling Foy), unjustly committed to a mental institution. In Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” she plays Neil Armstrong’s wife, Janet, a ’60s Midwestern transplant to Houston. Jan struggles to hold her family together amid crises on Earth and above. Then there’s Fede Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” in which Foy dons the tattoos and leather of one of today’s most fervently followed heroines: Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander.
Oh, and she won an Emmy as Elizabeth II in “The Crown’s” second season.
“I never would have thought I’d be doing all these accents, really. It’s an odd thing that I’ve ended up playing quite a few people from quite a few locations in one year,” she says over a cup of blood orange tea at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. The refined diction of the petite beauty sometimes dips toward something rougher, the occasional entertaining profanity popping out, though she’s always polite and kind to the servers. As differently as each of her four roles speak, not one sounds like her. She chuckles: “No, none of them do.”
Her Elizabeth II is all physical and vocal precision as the young queen dealt with increasingly complex issues. Despite Foy’s success in the role, she’s glad to be moving on: “I don’t relish the idea of playing a character over and over and over again. I’d get complacent, I know I would.”
Following “Crown,” she was ready for something completely different. She says Soderbergh pitched “Unsane” as “a student film, it’s an experiment, and it’s never going to come out – lied about that.” She’s grinning, though, raving about the director’s passion. The speed of the process – 10 days shooting, sometimes 90 setups in a day – was a “real tonic.” Soderbergh wanted Sawyer’s accent to be generically American – luckily, as Foy had only about a week to prepare.
In “First Man,” however, she played a real person with a specific sound.
“Janet, her accent was really important. She was Midwestern and it says so much about people from that region, especially in that period. I learned that so much with ‘The Crown’: The way that you articulate, the sounds you use, often encourage the way you respond to things.
“The queen was very often back and down,” she says, maneuvering her jaw backward. “A lot of aristocrats, when they express joy or anything, they go back and down.” Foy’s face cracks into an absurdly controlled grin: “They’re kind of ‘Huh huh huh.’ They don’t sort of laugh out loud that way. They sort of bear down into it.”
Janet Armstrong was a pilot herself, though unlicensed, says Foy. The actress speculates that that helped her understand her astronaut husband, which may have helped keep them together despite the awful trauma they suffered (though the Armstrongs eventually divorced).
“You can’t look at that marriage without taking into account that they lost their daughter [to cancer]. I think that’s where everything changed,” says Foy. “That seismic shift in the universe … Jan was hoping for the day when they could talk about it. But life got in the way; the Space Race got in the way.”
For her next trick, Foy took on a beloved heroine whose previous portrayals are still fresh in the memory.
“What possessed me? Unfortunately, she’s that sort of character, once you start thinking about her, you can’t stop.”
Lisbeth Salander can seem indomitable, fearless, deeply incisive. But from the inside, Foy says it’s a different story.
“She’s the least self-aware person in the whole world. She knows she’s odd, she knows she has quirks,” but, says Foy, can’t connect the dots to think, “‘Oh, I see that’s why that person thinks that of me.’ She has been so deeply hurt in every relationship she’s ever had, and betrayed and taken advantage of and abused.”
The actress is nearly unrecognizable in the role: shorn black hair, leathers worn like armor, surly Swedish accent. She calls Lisbeth’s vigilantism “pathological. She’s driven by something she can’t control. It’s a fire in the pit of her stomach and she just … does it. She’s not doing it to ‘protect women’; she’s delivering justice. If she helps people, that’s a byproduct.”
Considering Lisbeth’s famous ferocity, Foy offers a somewhat surprising assessment: “She’s got the heart of a child. It hasn’t really gone anywhere since [her initial abuse]; she is that child.”
Foy still has to promote “Girl” before her 2018 streak ends. Then she can pursue her next ambition: