WE’RE not going to be able to avoid Claire Foy this month, which is a very good thing. The 27-year-old English actor, recently chosen by PJ Harvey as her rising star of 2012, is on our screens in two flagship BBC series. In one she is very nasty, and in the other she is very nice. Well, very normal anyway.
The first is Upstairs Downstairs, in which Foy has already appeared as Lady Persie, the bonkers, fascist, Nazi-sympathising bad egg of the “upstairs” lot. The second is Paula Milne’s new drama White Heat, an ambitious saga spanning four decades in Britain that promises to do for its young, hip cast what Our Friends In The North did for Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong and Gina McKee. This time Foy plays Charlotte, a red-haired, hot-blooded, middle-class feminist who pitches up at a north London student house in the 1960s.
“She is relatively normal, which is unusual for me,” says Foy. “A lot of the characters I’ve played are a certain way, at a certain moment. Charlotte is just a middle class girl going through life. She has a similar background to me and is even from the same area of Buckinghamshire. It’s terrifying playing someone who is very close to you. You can’t really do anything to prepare. I didn’t know what I was doing. But I’m really proud of it. I think it’s amazing. And I loved playing her. She is this normal, contradictory girl with the most massive balls.”
This is a typical Foy response: self-deprecating, a bit stunned, and teetering on the brink of hysteria. Interviewing her is a bit like running around after a puppy on its first walk. She is trying to take it all in her stride, she says, it’s just that it’s so exciting. “I don’t think you can keep walking around being in awe of what you’re doing the whole time,” she says, sounding like she’s lecturing herself. “You can’t constantly and forever be going, ‘Oh my god! That’s Nicolas Cage! Amazing!’ You just have to get on and do it.”
So what was it like working with Cage? Foy ended up starring opposite him in last year’s Season Of The Witch, her first foray into Hollywood. “Amazing,” she says. “He walked up to me. It was so bizarre. I’d just had my hair extensions put in and he came over and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this movie’.” She laughs at this apparent absurdity. Oh, and she does a mean Cage impression.
It’s all a far cry from Foy’s first major role as Little Dorrit in Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel. Foy won the part of one of the sweetest heroines in literature not long after leaving drama school. Davies said of her at the time that he wanted every shot to be “a big close-up of… those huge eyes and that wonderful straight gaze”. It’s part of Foy’s magnetism: one moment she can look like the quintessential English rose, all pallid skin and round, tearful eyes, and the next she is more odd, difficult and interesting.
“I’m not the most beautiful girl in the world and I’m happy with that,” she says. “It means I don’t go up for those two-dimensional roles where it actually says in the script ‘Someone blonde, leggy, and beautiful walks into the room’. There are a lot of parts like that where basically all that’s required of the woman is to look amazing. I’m not going to be cast in them. I’m thankful for that. I only want to take parts that convince me.”
So far, they have convinced everyone else as well. Vogue put Foy at the top of their annual list of the 40 hottest people for Little Dorrit. Screen International listed her as one to watch. Last year she starred in The Promise, Peter Kosminsky’s drama about a young woman investigating her grandfather’s role in 1940s Palestine. She has also starred in The Night Watch (also written by Paula Milne), opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in Wreckers, and as a vicious tabloid editor in Channel 4’s comedy Hacks. “I soon became a complete bastard after Little Dorrit,” she jokes. “I’m so lucky to have played someone that nice because the majority of parts aren’t like that. It’s a lovely thing because it means people presume I am actually really nice. And then they meet me and realise I’m a horror.”
The generational span of White Heat required Foy to play the same character from 1965 to the present. “I have to play 18 and upwards,” she says. “I do look quite young, which is fortunate, but I am going for older parts now. I don’t think I can get away with playing someone ten years younger any more. Mind you, I’ll go where the work is to be honest.”
Charlotte is one of a group of student housemates drawn together by virtue of being outsiders. There is a gay man, a black man, an Irish Catholic, an artist, and so on. “Charlotte is very politically aware, as the youth then were,” she says. “I had to get my head round the women’s movement and how radical it was for someone like her to go to university at all. I spoke to my mum, who was the first in her family to go to university, and it was such a massive thing. I take all of this for granted. I can go where I want, do what I want. I’m not blocked by my sex.”
Does she consider herself a feminist? “Yes, I think so,” she says. “I stand up for myself. I’m one of those people who like shouting about things. But I’m not particularly well-versed in it.”
Foy was born in Stockport, Greater Manchester, but grew up in Buckinghamshire. Her father was a salesman, and her mother brought up her and her older brother and sister. Her parents divorced when she was eight.
Foy never considered acting as an option, though she was obsessed with films. “I just loved Doris Day and Vivien Leigh,” she says. “I was in all my school plays but all my friends who wanted to be actresses were incredibly tall and beautiful and actually good at it. I wasn’t particularly.” Is she just being modest? “No,” she insists. “But at primary school I was more like that. Pretty bloody attention seeking. Very loud, hyperactive and excitable. I had so much energy. My brother and sister hated me. All I ever wanted to do was perform.”
By the time she was a teenager, she was clearly getting serious about acting, even if she won’t admit to it. She studied drama and film studies at Liverpool John Moores University and then did a year at the Oxford School of Drama. Not long after came Little Dorrit.
“I wanted to go up for Tatty Corum [a role that went to Freema Agyeman] because she was a very moody, angry character,” says Foy. “I was so flustered at my final audition, I couldn’t believe it when they called to say I’d got Amy Dorrit. I haven’t known panic like it since. It’s the abject fear of getting your dream job.”
Foy isn’t panicking any more, but she still seems blown away by what’s happened. And she is cynical about the hype that surrounds her. “I couldn’t believe PJ Harvey even knew who I was,” she says. “I was convinced she had been told to choose me. But it’s lovely. I just hope I don’t let her down.”
And what about being the next big thing? Foy laughs. “None of that has anything to do with me,” she says. “That’s what this industry is like. It’s a game. None of it is real and you can’t take it too seriously. But, still, you know, it’s amazing.”
• White Heat begins on Thursday at 9pm on BBC2. Upstairs Downstairs, tonight, BBC1, 9pm