Breaking out with a Golden Globe win and an accompanying Emmy nomination for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in critically acclaimed Netflix drama series The Crown, Claire Foy has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the most well known and busiest actresses not only in the UK, but in the entertainment community at large. Recently announced to be taking over the role of Lisbeth Salander from Rooney Mara for the upcoming Girl in the Spider’s Web, Foy will vie for a chance at an Oscar this year with her turn in Andy Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe.
Based on a true story brought to Serkis by producing partner Jonathan Cavendish—the story of the producer’s own parents—the romantic drama centers on Robin Cavendish, who contracts polio while abroad in Africa, attached to a respirator for the rest of his life and supported throughout by his adoring wife, Diana.
Having just completed production on the first season of The Crown when Breathe came around, and with a new baby in tow, Foy initially was looking for a way to say no to the project, hoping to take time away to be with her family. Running into Serkis, her Little Dorrit co-star, in a café and catching up briefly, Foy soon found herself with an offer for the role of Diana—set to star opposite Andrew Garfield—and reading William Nicholson’s script for the film, the opportunity proved too great to turn down.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I just won’t read the script, because I know I’m not going to do it, because I haven’t got the time. I want to go on holiday.’ And the worst thing [my team] ever did was read the script. Bill Nicholson’s script was the most beautiful script I had ever had in my life,” Foy said, sitting down on Friday morning opposite Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione at the inaugural Contenders London event. “I just read it, beginning to end, and cried—and then I found out it was a true story, and the producer was the child in the story. Then, I met Andrew and I was just like, ‘Oh, god. I walked into this,’ and I just couldn’t not. It was just the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had, really.”
In preparing for the role of Diana, Foy found it crucial to understand the illness of polio and what is required to care for individuals who contract it, speaking first with her own family about the illness, and ultimately meeting with Diana Cavendish herself. “I talked a lot with my family because obviously it’s within living memory, and it’s still around today. I didn’t feel like it was massively important for me to go and meet people who were on a respirator,” the actress shared. “It was important for me to meet Diana, who pretty much is the expert in caring for someone who is on a respirator. It was very important for me to get the technical aspects of caring for someone like that right, but from her perspective, as opposed to polio as a whole.”
Meeting Diana, Foy quickly recognized the verisimilitude with which Nicholson had drawn her in his script. “Bill has just drawn her absolutely as she is. She is the most incredible woman, but thinks she’s completely ordinary, run-of-the-mill, didn’t do anything special—that her and Robin were just doing what the right thing to do was,” she said. “I read the script, and I just understood that love was the motivation for every single thing she did, and making [Robin] happy was her life’s work. Meeting her, she just was incredibly generous, and through her, I got to know Robin. He lives on, and I feel very lucky to know them. “
Reflecting on the production process, Foy mentioned that the film was, ambitiously, shot in a six-week period. “I don’t know how they did it—not for a period film, not for a film that required aging of the actors, so much medical equipment and things to get right. It was meant to happen, I feel like,” Foy said. The actress attributed most of the heavy lifting to Serkis and to Garfield, whose role required him to perfect the art of remaining perfectly still, given Robin’s paralysis. “Within those six weeks, Andrew did so much work,” she said. “He prepared for it more than you could possibly imagine, and in a weird way, that helped me, because he would often email me with things, conversations that he had.”
Initially, the actress didn’t know how to evaluate Garfield’s seemingly method approach to his role, though she took away from the project a deep respect for the actor and his craft. “I just have nothing but admiration for him. There was no way he could have done that [role] and not entirely surrender his body to it,” she opined.
Of her takeaways from Breathe, Foy said the experience impressed upon her the importance of taking risks and making whatever moves necessary to live one’s life to the fullest. “You can’t underestimate that [Robin] lived three minutes from death for the rest of his life, for 35 years. If you’re faced with that, with never being able to take someone for granted because they may go at any moment…They had an amazing gift, in a way, in that they couldn’t take this amazing thing for granted,” she said. “I think I learned so much from them about decision-making, and just going, Why not do it? Why not take the risk? Why not move to that country? What’s stopping you, for heaven’s sake?”