fall preview 2018

Claire Foy on First Man, Anxiety, and Working With Damien Chazelle

Illustration: Carolyn Figel

Claire Foy is in the midst of a professional stretch so frenetic it would probably send a lesser woman screaming into the night. This fall, the star of Netflix’s The Crown and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane will play Lisbeth Salander in Girl in the Spider’s Web and Janet Armstrong, wife of Neil (played by Ryan Gosling), in Damien Chazelle’s much-anticipated La La Land follow-up, First Man.

Tell me how Damien Chazelle persuaded you to be in First Man.
[Laughs] I think it was the other way around. Damien had seen some of the stuff I’d done, but I hadn’t played a midwestern American, and it would’ve been a massive, massive leap of faith for him to go, “Sure! You’ve got the part!” So I came to L.A. and read for it, and we went and met Ryan. It was one of those situations where it should be really weird, and you’re barely able to open your mouth because you’re so honored and in such awe, but I somehow managed to not embarrass myself — I don’t think. I probably did.

You recently described Janet as an “absolute cracker.” Did you get a chance to meet her before her death in June?
I was never in a room with her. I’ll always regret that. But then at the same time, I wonder whether, when playing her, it was helpful that I didn’t meet her; there was some distance. She was very private about her relationship with Neil anyway. I didn’t want to put her in a position where she was having to talk to some random actress about her marriage. Nobody wants to do that!

The film deals with their daughter Karen’s death, with their own brush with death during their house fire, with their divorce. What was the most difficult scene to film?
Damien is a very trusting director and doesn’t interfere unless he feels like he has to. The hardest scene was Karen’s funeral. But he didn’t put us through the wringer. That felt, as much as it could have, good, in a sense.
But there was one scene, the night before Neil goes away before the launch — it was one scene, shot for 12 hours, and we improvised a lot of it. I was driving the scene quite a lot. That’s always hard, when you’re the person responsible for getting it going. At the end of the day, you’re like, Oh my God, I don’t ever want to have any emotion ever again in my life.” [Laughs.]

How much of the film was improvised?
Improvised is a general term for what we did. We were doing takes tied to dialogue and takes where Damien would be like, “Do whatever you want!” It was more of an exercise, I think. But before shooting, we did two weeks of pure improvisation. Me and Ryan and the kids were a family, all of a sudden, in a cabin. We were like, “Hi! Hello. We’re a family.”

Were you living together in the cabin?
No. Dear God, no. I mean, that’s a lovely idea, but I have a child. I can’t go disappear and be somebody else’s mom for two weeks. But the premise was that we came to work eight hours a day with each other. And that was amazing. There was no pressure; it was just us moving in and out of each other and trying to see the rhythms of their life [before the events of the movie]. We had two weeks to build the world that then gets shattered by everything that happens.

There’s a part in First Man, the Neil Armstrong biography on which the movie is based, in which Janet says she’s overwhelmed by her sudden fame. Did you ever feel that way after the success of The Crown?
Janet didn’t ask to be the poster girl for American wives. She didn’t know that by marrying a fighter pilot she’d suddenly be on the front cover of Time magazine. But up until The Crown, I’d been relatively unscathed by any of that. I’m still unscathed, because I’m still me. I’ve changed in a lot of ways, but if I wasn’t an adult, or able to see the reality of the world, it would be a very scary place to live in. But I think Janet found it more restrictive and confining, like being in a straitjacket. There’s a scene where she really gives it to NASA. She says, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re going to the moon, which is the most important thing in the world. But he’s my husband, the father to my children. Has that ever entered your mind?” But Janet knew who she was and what was happening. She had such a backbone of steel.

You’ve now played several women who are secretly stressing out while having to seem calm for various reasons. Do you relate?
I suffer really badly with anxiety. Not about work, but life in general. There’s a thing of thinking somebody’s life on the outside looks amazing, how wonderful, and that’s such dog shit. Internally, everyone’s struggling. A few weeks ago, I saw someone who was really crying on the side of the road, and I thought, Oh my God, I want to give them a cuddle.

*This article appears in the September 3, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Claire Foy on First Man and Working With Damien Chazelle