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Claire Foy "I didn't get life until I was 32"

A difficult early life and years struggling to find roles have finally borne fruit for The Crown actress. By Simon Evans

It is quite a leap from playing the much-loved Queen of England to a paranoid mentally-ill patient or a ruthless dysfunctional assassin, but Claire Foy, an actress whose time seems to have come at last, was anything but phased by these recent abrupt changes of role; quite the reverse in fact.

Two months after completing her final scenes as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, the role that provided her long overdue breakthrough, Claire was donning a hospital gown to play the deeply troubled Sawyer Valentini in Steve Soderbergh's Unsane. Then it was into a catsuit to play the troubled vigilante heroine of The Girl In The Spider's Web, the latest in the ultra-violent series of films based on Steig Larsson's Millennium novels.

"You would think I would go on a big, long holiday and just chill out after The Crown, Foy said. "But doing Unsane was the best possible thing I could've done, because it was completely different, so free, and short. We did it in ten days. I got to throw everything against the wall, scream a bit, and not care about the consequences. It was really cathartic."

As for The Girl In The Spider's Web, well Foy has never been one to take the easy path. "I'm not in this job for it to be easy. I love the struggle of it. I love the difficulty. I love having to push the ball up the hill quite a bit of the time."

Claire was born in Stockport in April 1984 and grew up in Buckinghamshire, the youngest of three children. Her mother came from a large Irish family and worked in pharmaceuticals while her father was a salesman for Rank Xerox.

Claire's parents divorced when she was eight and attended Aylesbury High School, a girl's grammar school, followed John Moores University in Liverpool, studying drama and screen studies. The years following her parents' separation were, Claire admits, "slightly chaotic" and it didn't help that she suffered a couple of serious illnesses in her teens, a benign tumour behind one eye and juvenile arthritis that put her on crutches for a while. 

She was put on steroids, underwent surgery and gradually recovered, but Claire says she felt the experience altered her life. 

"From a very young age I had the experience of your body failing you in some way," she told Rolling Stone magazine. "It's haunted me my entire life, but at the same time it's a blessing because you learn to be glad to be alive."

Looking back on those early years Claire recalled, "as a teenager you're supposed to distance yourself form your parents and test the boundaries. But I didn't want to upset or hurt them, I wanted to make life easy and calm."

It's clear however, that a lot went unsaid at home, and this may be one reason why she has suffered anxiety in later life.

"When you have anxiety, you have anxiety about- I don't know- crossing the road," she said, in a revealing interview with the Guardian last year. 

"It's not related to anything that would seem logical. It's purely about that feeling in the pit of your stomach, and the feeling that you can't, because you're 'this' or you're 'that'. It's my mind working at a thousand beats a second, and running away with a thought."

It was and is, she believes, a survival mechanism, a constant process of anticipating and second-guessing every possible outcome.

"It was a way to try to hold on to everything. To try to feel safe. If I knew a day was going to be ruined by anxiety, that was good in a way, because it meant I knew what was going to happen."

Acting has, however, helped Claire come to terms with her anxiety issues.

"I started to learn that the most important thing to do as an actor was not to try to pre-empt everything- to stay in the moment."

After university Claire took a one-year- post-graduate course at the Oxford School of Drama and following graduation, in 2007, picked up the lead role in the 2008 BBC adaptation of Little Dorrit, acting alongside Matthew Macfayden, Mackenzie Crook and Tom Courtenay. It was, as she said at the time, "a massive learning curve," but one she took in her stride.

The role also marked her out as that rare thing, an actress who can express deep-seated emotion with just a glance or a grimace. The Crown director Stephen Daldry described it as "a very powerful ability to do very little and speak volumes".

Claire credits Little Dorrit director Dearbhla Walsh with developing this approach to her craft. 

"Dearbhla told me: 'Everyone around you will be swinging off the chandeliers- that's what Dickens requires. But you're in the centre of it. Don't to anything. Don't try to act. No chandeliers'."

Easier said than done, of course, but it was clearly a lesson learnt. 

By now Claire had moved to Peckham to share a house with five friends form drama school. but despite receiving widespread praise for Little Dorrit the roles proved elusive. 

Auditions came and went but in a strange way Claire seemed to take some comfort from missing out on the big roles. 

"It seemed safer. I'd think: 'Give that job to that person. Then I don't have to think about my life changing in any massive way'."

Those years weren't entirely barren- there was a Nicholas Cage action movie Season of the Witch, Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios, a TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal- but not a career as such, more a succession of unconnected jobs. 

Then came a big breakthrough, being cast as Anne Boleyn in the awards-laden TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Even then, though, the old anxiety kicked in. 

"I read Hilary Mantel's novel. And I just thought: 'I'm not her. Not in any way, shape or form.' Anne was so intelligent, so alluring so able to be mysterious and have people be fascinated with her. Anne knew she was special. She spoke five languages. I just didn't see it."

Director Peter Kiminsky thought otherwise, however, and the role proved the making of her. 

Mark Rylance rightly attracted many of the plaudits for the zen-like stillness of his performance as Thomas Cromwell, but Claire was, if anything, equally impressive as the doomed Anne Boleyn. 

Kominsky later said that Anne Boleyn's execution scene was the proudest moment of his career and Foy's performance is, indeed, remarkable.

"I was weirdly angry at the time, I remember. My hormones were going absolutely crazy. I was definitely loosening my corset that day." 

It was only later that Claire discovered she had been pregnant during the shooting of Wolf Hall, being married at the time to the actor Stephen Campbell Moore (the couple separated last year).

She was five months pregnant by the time she auditioned for The Crown, newly emboldened by the rave reviews for Wolf Hall (for which she was nominated for a Bafta) but also more than a little scared. 

"I didn't know how I'd be after coming out the other end of having a child. But I said yes to it. I knew it would be financially stable. We needed to buy a house."

The audition for The Crown certainly had its challenged.

"They put me in a wig and- oh God- a wedding dress. I had really bad carpal tunnel, and a swollen nose, and my lips were just massive. I had to flirt with Winston Churchill. I remember thinking, 'I'm not sure this is going to go my way...".

She landed the main part in The Crown in 2014, and went on to appear in its first two series, winning a Golden Globe and an Emmy. 

Combining the lead role in a prestige 100-million dollar drama with looking after a baby was never going to be east, and Claire would often be found breast-feeding daughter Ivy between takes.

Fellow cast member Dame Eileen Atkins, for one, was full of admiration. "She was a trouper that girl. Looking after a baby while playing such a major role was full of admiration. "She was a trouper that girl. Looking after a baby while playing such a major role was a massive undertaking but she just got on with it." 

The show has clearly opened doors, and she filmed the highly-regarded First Man, in which she played the wide of the first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, back to back with The Girl In The Spider's Web.

The role of Janet Armstrong had clear parallels with Claire's own recent past, that of someone plunged into a strange world of celebrity, one where you are suddenly regarded as an authority on all manner of unconnected subjects. 

"What I find really weird," she says now, "is that people expect you to be an expert, and ask you questions about entire movements, huge things that are happening in the world, current affairs. And, I mean, I don't have any answers. I don't know. I'm as confused as everyone else. I'm learning like everyone else... It can't just be me spouting rubbish. 

"We laud success so much, and think that if you're successful you're special. When no, ultimately. Maybe it changes some people. But what I found really disconcerting was that it hadn't changed me at all."

For now Claire is happy to take time off to spend with her three-year-old daughter. These, after all, are the precious years, the ones you don't get back. 

"It's lovely, completely self-indulgent. I only have a year left with Ivy. I just can't bear it."

But even the old anxiety appears to be under control. "I used to think that this was my lot in life, to be anxious. And that I would struggle with it, and that it would make me quite miserable, and that I'd always be restricted.

"But now I'm able to disassociate myself from it more. I know that it's just something I have- and that I can take care of myself.

"I just didn't get life until I was 32. Now I am just awake. It is that thing that you suddenly have your eyes opened to the way that you are living your life, who you are, the healthy way you are supposed to be."

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