Claire Foy only really loses it once in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man.” Stuck at home, listening to her husband Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) during yet another test run for his imminent space flight via a squawk box hooked up to NASA’s own feed, Foy’s Janet Armstrong is horrified to discover that her audio has been suddenly switched off. The test has, inevitably, turned rough, and the NASA brass make the executive decision to cut off Janet and the Armstrong family, ostensibly to spare them from any possible trauma.
Janet is not having it. Frantic, she runs out of her house, gets in her car, and drives directly to NASA’s Houston base. There, she unleashes years of rage and frustration at NASA’s Director of Flight Crew Operations Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler). “All these protocols and procedures to make it seem like you have it under control,” Janet shouts. “But you’re a bunch of boys making models out of balsa wood. You don’t have anything under control!”
Chazelle’s fourth film is understandably occupied with Neil’s mission — and the emotional wounds that fuel both his work and his reserved nature — but Foy’s understated performance serves as a compelling counterpoint to similar “wife waiting at home” stereotypes. “I never had to fight for it, because it was always there in the script,” Foy said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I didn’t have to feel like I had to stand up for her, or give her a voice, or make that voice known.”
Foy undertook her own research of Janet, who passed away just a few months before the film debuted, and found a brave character as compelling as her famous husband. Early in the film, it’s Janet who assures a nervous Neil that his new gig with NASA “will be an adventure,” a notion she never seems to fear.
“She was sort of slightly out of the ordinary, in a sense that she lived every day on her own terms,” Foy said. “Even though Neil was doing this incredibly dangerous thing, I think she knew early on that she couldn’t be abandoned or left on her own. She had to live her own life in order to be able to stay in that world, in that marriage. She had to make sure that if she was left behind that her and her kids would be okay. She taught swimming, she was incredibly active in the community, and everyone said how much of a wonderful friend she was. She was able to take care of herself.”
While Singer’s screenplay provided a road map for Foy and Gosling’s work, an early rehearsal period with Chazelle allowed them to further shape their characters as they saw fit. “Sometimes, we’d do takes that we were completely on the book, and we’re completely doing the dialogue that was written,” she said. “Other times, we’d be using that as a kind of skeleton to hang on and that would guide our way through a scene, but we would kind of move in and around it.”
The real Janet was very much about communal engagement. In 1964, she founded and helped coach the Texas-based El Lago Aquanauts synchronized swimming team (she’d been a competitive synchronized swimmer in her college years), an achievement only hinted at in the film. “First Man” also doesn’t show Janet helping to form another key group — the KIT (Keep-In-Touch) group of astronauts’ wives — but her ability to support her fellow wives during increasingly tragic times is brought to vivid life by Foy.
In one scene, Janet remains at an astronaut’s funeral to help clean up as an angry Neil stomps off into the night. Later, Janet comforts another heartbroken wife as other members of their community literally turn away from her. At every point, Foy finds Janet’s humanity, and uses its to give the film an emotional center. While some audiences have complained that Chazelle’s film is too cold or reserved, Foy provides the story with its heart — much as the character does for the Armstrong family.
As Neil’s missions become increasingly public, so too do the demands placed on Janet and the pair’s young sons. Reporters take over the Armstrong family’s lawn, a photographer snaps away as Janet and the kids await news about Neil’s latest test, and everyone seems to want a word from Janet, peppering her with questions during one the most stressful time of her life.
Foy knows that experience all too well, as her visibility has grown thanks to her Golden Globe-winning work on the popular series “The Crown” and her transformative role in the upcoming “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”
“I connected with Janet’s experience with it, in the sense that I think that the pressure on these women and these families grew and grew and grew to be the image that NASA wanted them and America wanted them to project,” the actress said. “They didn’t want the reality, which was that they were terrified, the majority of the time, their husbands would not come back.”
The actress said she was taken with “Janet’s kind of immediate understanding that she wasn’t going to give them what they wanted, she wasn’t going to play up to it, and she wasn’t going to divulge personal information.” More specifically: “She was very private, and she remained very private, and that takes huge amounts of self-awareness and self-respect to not get drawn into that kind of exposure.”
As Foy readies for a dense awards season, she’s working overtime to stay sane. Asked if she finds it easy to shake off her characters, the Janet Armstrongs and the Lisbeth Salanders and the Queen Elizabeths, and she caught herself. “I find it very easy to go back to my normal—,” she said, and paused. “It’s not a normal life, I mean, but the work stays with me.”
“First Man” is in theaters now.