Emmy-winning actress Claire Foy is in a persistent state of professional transformation. While most audiences only got hip to the British star’s talents thanks to her two-season turn as Queen Elizabeth on Netflix’s hit series “The Crown,” the star has spent the past couple of years rounding out her resume with a series of very different big screen parts, from biopics like “Breathe” to the dramedy “The Lady in the Van.”
This year, with “The Crown” behind her — Olivia Colman will take over the role next season — Foy turned her attentions to three new films, including Fede Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” which marks her biggest transformation yet.
As misanthropic hacker Lisbeth Salander, Foy is tasked with taking on a role that’s not only been played by two different actresses, including Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace, but one that requires its star to dramatically alter her appearance to match up with author Stiegg Larson’s vivid descriptions. When Foy was announced for the film in September of last year, the casting was seen as a surprise. The actress who plays Queen Elizabeth? Really? Alvarez expected that, and was eager to work against whatever expectations people already had for both Foy and Lisbeth.
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“Every time we announce some cast for some character that you saw before or you read before, it’s very unlikely that the person looks like whatever you imagined when you read the book,” Alvarez said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Plus, when it’s already been interpreted in some movie with another actor, then you compare with that actor. … When the choice is obvious and everybody goes like, ‘Oh, that’s a great choice,’ it’s because that actor has played similar characters in the past. That’s all it means.”
Foy was also unbothered by those early expectations. She just wanted to play Lisbeth. “I absolutely loved her,” Foy said. “I really relished the challenge of making the movie. … I think it’s an odd thing to want people to have a certain experience when they go to the cinema. It’s not up to me to dictate that to people. It’s just for me to listen and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting that you thought that.'”
Lisbeth, with her blunt haircut and multiple tattoos and piercings, cuts an instantly recognizable figure. Alvarez said he wasn’t impressed by actors who can just don the exterior look of a character. “The clothes and the makeup, anybody can do that. Most actors, if they’re the right age and physicality, they’ll look the part,” he said. “The hardest part is to be able to play those emotions in a fair way. In order to do that, there has to be something about you this is very similar to the character.”
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He found that in Foy, who Alvarez said was much closer to Lisbeth and Queen Elizabeth than she might appear at first glance.
“Claire presents herself in a certain way and she’s very easygoing and light-hearted, but she is in person way more similar to Lisbeth than what you think,” Alvarez said. “She has a lot of fire and a lot of passion for what she does. She says all the time, she’s very angry at a lot of things all the time, she doesn’t even know at what sometimes, but she always says herself that she’s very angry. There’s so many, many, many things that really, really connect with her. So, when it comes to play a lot of those emotions, she takes from her real experience. … I think she knows those emotions and she knows that place in the world in a way, and that’s the toughest part.”
That might also be why Foy proved to be so successful at playing young Queen Elizabeth on “The Crown,” and Alvarez sees some distinct similarities between the two roles: they’re both apart concealing emotion, but they both require an actress who is also able to let the audience realize what’s actually going on under the surface.
“It’s really about how she’s going to show you as an audience what she really feels when what she’s actively doing all of the time is concealing those feelings from you,” he said. “Lisbeth Salander doesn’t want you to know how she really feels. She will hide as much as she can her true emotions. … She’s really good at repressing those emotions. The Queen has to do that all the time. The Queen is not allowed to be herself, she’s not allowed to be angry at someone or be unpolite. She has to stay in this mask, but what makes this performance amazing is that you know exactly what’s going on every moment. You know when she’s angry, when she’s sad, when she’s happy, even though she keeps a poker face. Lisbeth is the same in a way.”
For Alvarez, that’s what sets Foy apart from the pack, and why she’s able to disappear into roles that might seem to be so dissimilar. They’re all Foy.
“There’s certain actors you can tell them, ‘Okay, I want you to be very fierce in this movie, in this scene, but I want you to be terrified at the same time,” the filmmaker said. “Most actors will go, ‘What do you want? Fierce or terrified?’ She gets it right away. She’ll play it fierce, but she’ll be terrified. You’ll see it and you’ll feel it, and that’s truly incredible to see. Not a lot of actors can do that.”
Sony Pictures will release “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” in theaters on Friday, November 9.