“We’re cool. It’s official.”
Claire Foy is looking at my fingernails; short, shiny and onyx black. She extends her hand out to show me hers; short, shiny and onyx black. It’s sort of the accidental motif of the day as she’s draped in all black – overcoat, blouse and slacks and even I’m uncharacteristically in all black. We don’t have much time but enough to relate on an aesthetic level that creates a connection or at least a sense of familiarity.
Whether it’s the headstrong Janet Armstrong in First Man, protective Salome in Women Talking, the Queen of England in The Crown or Mum in All of Us Strangers, Claire Foy possesses a strength that brings to each role, never forgetting to imbue them with potent dose of vulnerability that make them all equally as powerful as they are relatable. For ‘Mum,’ which she has affectionately named Moira, turning herself in a 1987 mother with a frizzy perm and green velvet track suit was just part of getting into her role. She also fell into nostalgia, as the film’s premise lives in deeply. “I really remember my mom had Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche,” she says “I remember everything.”
In the film, late 40’s Adam (Andrew Scott) is an orphan, a single, gay screenwriter whose life is shaken when he takes a visit to his childhood home to find that his parents (dad is played by Jamie Bell – interview here), who both died in a car crash when he was 12, are quite alive. Well, sort of. A version of them, ghostly but not supernatural or spooky, and looking the same as the last time he saw them. It becomes an opportunity to catch up, to talk about everything in his life that they missed but paramount to anything for Adam is coming out to them. First it’s Mum, over tea, who right off the bat asks if he’s married or has a girlfriend. Not an unnatural question but when Adam corrects her, informs her that he ‘doesn’t like girls, women’ and that he’s gay she shutters, pulls back. It’s in these moments that Foy runs the gamut of emotions. She’s a caring mother but shocked, worried what her neighbors will think, that it’s “a lonely life” and “what about this awful disease?” It’s a painful but illuminating moment and ultimately one of growth.
I sat down with Foy recently to dig deep about All of Us Strangers, how parental regret turns into parental hurt, working closely with Andrew Scott and even a little bit about Madonna.
Erik Anderson: It’s just been a whirlwind, the last few weeks.
Claire Foy: Yeah, it’s great in a way. It always is a whirlwind. It’s actually great because we’ve all been able to talk about the film and to see people seeing it. It’s wonderful.
EA: Yeah, I saw it at Telluride and-
CF: Did you?
EA: -it’s my favorite of the year.
CF: Oh, stop.
EA: Without any hesitation.
CF: Oh, wow. That’s wonderful.
EA: It was one of those things like the story itself where I was triggered about things that I had not thought about.
CF: In a long time, yeah. It’s really triggering for … It was triggering being in it. And I think it’s really interesting. It was triggering for a lot of the crew. And then you sort of think, “Oh, we’re onto something a bit.” If you are in the scene and you’re going, “Oh, this is a bit too close to home,” then you are doing something that may possibly have some sort of resonance with people.
EA: I think it definitely happens with this. And with a cast this small. And for you and Jamie, Paul’s not a part of your story, so your focus is just you two and Andrew.
CF: Oh, yeah. Our little family.
EA: It’s a very tight family.
Claire: It is, yeah.
EA: You aren’t a stranger to playing mothers in many of your projects. What was different about Mum for you?
CF: Moira, as I like to call her. I decided.
EA: Oh, I like that.
CF: Yeah. I think that she wasn’t a trailblazer. She wasn’t fighting a fight. She wasn’t any particular version of a mother. She was all versions of a mother, which was basically a very true account of what it is, I think, which is an overwhelming, complicated, sometimes incredibly confusing thing. Especially in this scenario where she’s getting to know her son and has felt like she’s coming in, I suppose, at the deep end in the sense that when she died, he was 12 and there’s a specific set of things at that age. And then she’s missed out on all of his life. He’s suddenly coming in and going, just so you know, I like to go out with men. And I also do this, and I’ve got no intention of doing that. And she’s like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. I used to cuddle you when you were ill.”
So, it’s a lot for her to take in, poor love. But I feel like she’s lots of women that were in my life. She’s lots of my aunts. She was in my head very much rooted in she was Irish. Her mother was Irish. Her son then moved back to Ireland. I really just very, this was very familiar to me, sort of Irish immigrant into London story. And her marriage was really familiar. And I suppose I just felt it was a really honest portrayal. She wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t this sort of perfect image of a mother who attempts to make flapjacks and do the right thing, but just could never quite get it right. It’s just a bit messy and a bit unhappy, maybe, and a bit unfulfilled.
EA: She is fantastically complex because I think over the decades we have seen lots of coming out stories. The mother is always the most sympathetic and the father is tougher. And this doesn’t just flip the dynamic because both have moments of sharpness and bitterness about it, but the love is still always there.
EA: I think if you also come from a certain generation, from my generation like in the film, phrases” it’s a rather lonely life…”
CF: Oh boy. Yeah.
EA: My husband’s mother said that directly to him when he came out to her.
EA: And that never … He’s never been able to shake that.
CF: Of course not.
EA: I was talking to Andrew Scott, and he talked about the accidental cruelty the parents have intentionally or otherwise. And as a parent myself, I don’t think I’ve felt it described in a way that was so understandable. Just the unintentional hurt.
CF: Yeah. Well, also I think in an attempt to be understood, to be met with someone else’s worries, is very much like, this isn’t your thing, or this isn’t about you. Don’t make it about you. And that was one of the things that me and Andrew Haigh talked about was that she can’t help but make it about … She thinks everything to do with her son is about her, what she hasn’t done right, which I totally get. And that phrase about your children, you don’t own your children, all that sort of stuff. But I think the feeling of ownership you have often for the mother is that feeling of you are doing it wrong. And I think she definitely feels like, “My son is gay. I must have done something wrong for this to be the case,” which I think is definitely true of that generation. And that he’s going to be wildly unhappy and why isn’t he living in a house with a nice woman and got several children.
Even though what the irony of that is that she’s not fulfilled. She’s not living in that house with her husband and child. She is dissatisfied. But it’s that weird fallacy that you sort of want your child to make the same decisions you’ve got done, but you’d want them to go further as well. You don’t want them to make the same mistakes, but you want them just to not go beyond your realms of understanding of what the world is. It’s what makes you deeply uncomfortable.
EA: Well, then you’re not needed anymore.
CF: Then you’re not needed, yeah. And also, you are excluded in some way.
CF: And I think that that’s what she … She’s in a defensive position when he essentially is discussing his sexuality with her because she feels like it’s a judgment on her and also is having to give up the image that she thought her son, the life her son would want to have. And he’s there going, “I’m happy with who I am,” but she just can’t hear it because she’s like, “But it’s not what I want for you.” He’s like, “It’s what I want for me, so it doesn’t really matter.” Yeah. It’s like when people say to you, I always find it really funny, like, “I’m worried about you,” or like, “I’ve been worrying about you.” And you sort of go, “I know that what you mean is that’s a loving thing, but I don’t need you to worry. But that doesn’t make me feel loved. That makes me feel pressurized. Or that makes me feel like I need to be worried about because I haven’t got my shit together.” Do you know what I mean?
EA: Oh, absolutely. Or, “You look tired.”
CF: Yeah, it’s all projection. That’s all of it.
EA: One of the things I really like about this is everything that takes place in 1987. There are markers, especially for Mum, the perm and the tracksuit, but they’re not over the top.
CF: I love that suit.
EA: I love the suit, too. The suit and that perm, I know it all too well. How do hair and costuming really help you find something, whether it’s the Queen or whether it’s Mum?
CF: I really felt with this character that I wanted all of the clothes that she wore to be tactile because I just had this image of him cuddling her and feeling what it felt like to cuddle that and that smell of her perfume. And I really remember my mom had Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, and I remember everything. And whenever I smell that now, I think it’s been discontinued, but I’m like … And there were certain jumpers that she had that I always wanted her to wear. I always felt like they were the epitome of what a mom is, or she felt particularly like my mom in that outfit. And my daughter is like that. My daughter is like, “I don’t like it when you do that with your hair.” She wants me to look a particular way and be a particular way. And I felt like we were in those costumes, I was what he remembered.
And I felt like that about her Christmas costume, what she wore before she left, when they obviously had the car accident, that what they were wearing would’ve been emblazoned on his mind for the rest of his life, what they wore that night. And I just felt like that velvet dress with the tights and remembering what the tights looked like and how she’d done her hair and her makeup, and the smell of her makeup, and all of those things, the costume needed to be really, really visceral for me, really, really visceral. So that we were really distinct moments of his childhood in that way.
EA: Very much. In talking with Andrew Haigh too about shooting in his childhood home, even though his experience was not the same as Adam in the film, he said he got eczema, which he didn’t have since he was a child. And even Andrew Scott developed some skin issues. Was there maybe an elevated sense of, I don’t know if responsibility is the right word, but maybe on your side, in performing, in being Mum, because it’s not his mother.
CF: Yeah. I think not so much responsibility. I just really felt like I trusted him and that therefore he would have a very clear idea of what was right and wrong. I felt quite safe in that in a way. I felt like he never really steered me in a way that was like, “That’s not right,” or anything like that. I felt like, I think he must’ve already, I don’t know, he must’ve already known, I don’t know what he must’ve already known, but I felt like he must’ve already thought I would be on the right page. And so, I definitely felt like I didn’t want to let him down, but also just felt like it was none of my business in a way.
I was a bit like, “I’m here for this. I’m here for this film. I think it’s brilliant. I think you are brilliant. And I’m just here to be what you need me to be in this moment. And I also want to know and zap all your thoughts. And what you’re feeling about this.” But I knew that it wasn’t my performance in a way. It didn’t feel like it was something that I owned in any way. And that’s why it’s weird. I’m so proud to be in it, but I also feel so like I wasn’t really in charge of what was going on even remotely. I was just showing up and letting it happen in a way.
EA: There’s a lot of trust on both sides and I think it really comes through.
CF: That’s good.
EA: I know you’re friends with Andrew Scott. Did that make it easier or more difficult to have this specific dynamic?
CF: Definitely easier. I don’t know, because if this was the first time I’ve met him, I would’ve obviously seen … In the same way with Jamie, when I heard that he was reading it, I was just like, “Oh my God, please it be him. Please let him say yes.” Because I have loved him from afar. I just knew he wouldn’t be a letdown. I knew he wouldn’t be a letdown either as an actor or as a person. I just knew. I was like, “I just need to be near you.” If I hadn’t met Andrew, given the person, you’ve met him, given the person that he is there’s absolutely no way it would’ve been difficult. But there was something really wonderful about, I don’t know, someone you respect and love that much, being professional with them is suddenly like, “Oh, this is nice.” It’s like a real moment of, I don’t know what it is, of trust or of knowing them a different way or sharing something with them in that way, which I think is just really, really … I’ll cherish it. It was really beautiful.
EA: And you have this incredible single take scene in the bedroom, which is-
CF: I forgot that was a single take.
EA: It’s so complicated because it’s shot on film too. It’s not digital. How was that moment, that scene, because it is your most intimate with Andrew?
EA: I feel like it was very easy. It didn’t feel hard to do at all. I felt really clearly that they are the sort of conversations you can only have in the middle of the night and that you could only have with someone else in the bed and a quiet and that I hope I can have with my child, which are where you suddenly ask the questions you really want to ask. And you know that it’s not going to be taken, no one’s going to get in a mood, no one’s going to storm off. It’s going to be taken you are in a safe little bubble. And I felt so physically close. We were so physically close. We weren’t told to speak louder. We could just be really quiet.
And she got to ask, he let her ask questions and say, “Where did you go?” And she’s scared of asking those questions like, “Where did you go after? Why didn’t you go and live with his mom?” And say the really vulnerable things of I hate that she got to spend that time with you, got to bring you up and I didn’t. And just that she admitted that she wasn’t mom of the year. She was sorry that she wasn’t very good. And I think the interesting thing is about that, that’s what she’s been thinking. She’s been lying in bed thinking that. And then he comes in and she’s like, “Thank God. All right then, come here.” And it is like a release for them both. Yeah, it was really, really special and also very funny to do that scene because there were actually four of us in the bed.
EA: That and the pajamas, which are-
CF: That’s the funny thing we were just saying about that, that we did not even remotely crack a smile. We didn’t think that was funny at all. We were just like, yeah, he just wearing pajamas.
EA: Yeah, he just is.
CF: I get that other people find it funny now, but I really struggled to. I’m like, “But he’s our son. Of course he’s got his pajamas on.” We didn’t even for a second find that weird.
EA: The songs have a great deal of meaning in the film, don’t they?
CF: Yes, they do.
EA: Sometimes very subtext, sometimes literal text. What are some songs from your youth that trigger that nostalgia?
CF: Oh my God, so many. Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” Van Morrison. Oh my god, so many. It’ so many. It’s a lot of Madonna.
EA: I knew we were going to get along. I almost wore my Madonna shirt today.
CF: Oh my God. So close. I really want to go and see her in concert. I would love that. I feel like that would be a cyclical moment in my life. And she might do Glastonbury. I’m excited she’s doing Glastonbury.
CF: Got to try and get there.
EA: I hope you can.
CF: But isn’t music amazing that it’s just instruments and people singing. Why does it have such a strong, visceral reaction for people? But yeah, my mom and dad listened, well, my mom especially, had records and listened to music all the time.
EA: I love it. Claire, thank you so much.
CF: Thank you so much.
Searchlight Pictures will give All of Us Strangers a limited release on December 22 and expand in the following weeks, only in theaters.