White hot! Little Dorrit and Upstairs Downstairs star, Claire Foy, stars in new BBC drama. Is there no stopping her
Claire Foy leaps onto the bench opposite me, momentarily forgetting she’s wearing a teeny miniskirt. ‘Uggh,’ she exclaims passionately as she tugs at her skirt, doing her best to maintain some dignity. ‘There have been quite a few tricky moments with this outfit and I hate my legs. I can’t wait for the Seventies to start so I can get some trousers on.’
We are on set for Claire’s latest television show, White Heat. She plays a strident feminist called Charlotte in the drama, which follows seven flatmates from their rebellious Sixties student days up to the present. She’s also sporting red hair, which she likes more than the miniskirts. ‘I’ve always wanted to go red so it was great to have to do it for a job,’ she says. ‘But it’s only now that I’ve discovered my hair grows very quickly, so I have to get it dyed ginger every other week.’ Then she laughs so raucously she needs to tug at her skirt again.
Claire Foy plays a strident feminist called Charlotte in White Heat. It follows starring roles in Little Dorrie and Upstairs, Downstairs
Claire, 27, the fastest rising actress on television, is known for her still elegance playing period characters such as the title role in Little Dorrit and the fascist Lady Persephone Towyn in Upstairs Downstairs. In the flesh, though, she is boisterously modern and immediately engaging. As we chat in the buffet coach in an unglamorous car park outside the former carpet warehouse where White Heat is being filmed, she manages to both chomp her way through a huge sandwich – ‘I love food and thank God I’ve got a fast metabolism’ – and talk at 100 miles an hour.
‘When I first saw the script I thought I can’t do it, I have to age from 18 to 45 and we often go from one age to the next in the same day. It’s quite terrifying,’ she says pausing for breath. ‘At first I thought that maybe I should develop a stoop, but then I realised how ridiculous that would be.
‘I like Charlotte. She’s a funny one; she’s opinionated but quite cool with it. She’s driven by the idea of making a difference; one of the first waves of feminists. But she makes a mistake we all know about. She falls in love with her landlord, Jack. He treats her so badly but she thinks if she waits around long enough he’ll change. It shows that even for a woman who talks about not wanting a man to define her, it’s easier to say than actually do.’
Hot new show: Claire, second from left, with her co-stars, from left, Sam Claflin, Lee Ingleby, Myanna Buring, Reece Ritchie, Jessica Gunning and David Gyasi
Claire admits she’s struggled to get
to grips with how different life was for women just 50 years ago. ‘To go
to university, to go on protests, they were massive things to do then
and it makes me feel extremely bad I haven’t thanked the women who went
before me for all they did for us. As a modern woman you take it all for
Claire could take a lot for granted but she doesn’t. She won her first major role as Amy Dorrit as soon as she left drama school; writer Andrew Davies said he wanted every shot in Little Dorrit to be ‘a big close-up of Claire and those huge eyes and that wonderful straight gaze’. She hasn’t stopped working since, with roles as diverse as a newspaper boss in Channel 4 satire Hacks to a medieval girl accused of witchcraft in the Nicholas Cage film Season Of The Witch. ‘I did go into shock for three months after Little Dorrit but then I decided you can’t think ahead – you have to take a day at a time.’
The daughter of a Rank Xerox salesman, Claire was born in Stockport but spent most of her childhood in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. The youngest of three, her parents divorced when she was eight but stayed in the same village. As a youngster she trained as a ballet dancer. ‘Then, when I was 13 I developed juvenile arthritis, so I couldn’t do it any more. I grew out of it, but it was obvious I’d never be a dancer. That’s when I turned to acting, although I never really thought I could do it.
'Wonderful straight gaze': Claire (centre) won her first major role as Amy Dorrit as soon as she left drama school
‘I was an attention-seeker at home and
used to put on shows, but at school I was never the prettiest or the
most talented. It was always an uphill struggle against lots of
intelligent, well-off girls who were very beautiful at 13. I definitely
felt like the ugly duckling, the one who didn’t have any money or go on
holidays. I just thought everyone else was better than me.’
Aged 17 she developed a benign tumour in
one eye. She has said she felt she looked like ‘a Cyclops’ and told how
she was on steroids for a year which made her put on weight and suffer
from acne. She now credits her illness with giving her perspective on a
business which is largely based on looks.
Another period drama: Claire with Ed Stoppard in Upstairs Downstairs
It also gave her the confidence to take drama and screen studies at Liverpool John Moores University. She was planning to be a cinematographer but fell more in love with acting and won a place at the Oxford School of Drama. Her tutors there gave her enough self-belief to think she could make it. ‘I realised I had been putting off what I really wanted to do. You’ve just got to have the guts to go for it. So I did, and it’s worked out very well.’
Very well indeed. If ever you need proof you’ve made it, then appearing in two very different prime-time dramas on the BBC at the same time must surely be it. She is currently back on air as Lady Persie in Upstairs Downstairs and as controversial as ever. In the first episode she passionately snogged her brother-in-law Lord Holland. ‘She’s completely precocious and wayward and does whatever she wants,’ says Claire of her Upstairs Downstairs alter ego. ‘That’s one of the main reasons I like playing her so much. Sometimes it’s difficult to get your head around things she does. But I think she’s brilliant.’
In real life Claire has been dating The History Boys actor Stephen Campbell Moore since meeting him two years ago on Season Of The Witch; the pair share a flat in Notting Hill and have shot the pilot for a medical comedy called The Pulse together. Next up she has a large role in the Hollywood film Vivaldi about the composer’s experiences as a music master in a school for the illegitimate daughters of Venetian courtesans. She’s also just been taken on by the same LA agent who looks after another girl-of-the moment – Dragon Tattoo actress Rooney Mara – and she’s planning to give Hollywood a go.
There’s already plenty of interest but she insists she will remain the down-to-earth girl television producers over here have fallen in love with. ‘Keira Knightley and Sienna Miller, for example, are normal girls but their lives as celebrities are very far removed from what I want,’ she says. ‘For the first time in my life my bank account isn’t overdrawn, but I’m very aware all this is probably not going to last.’ Several million people may beg to differ.
White Heat starts on BBC2 on Thursday at 9pm.
Upstairs Downstairs, BBC1, tomorrow, 9pm.