Claire Foy’s Moment

Claire Foy in, from left, ‘Season of the Witch,’ ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ and ‘The Crown.’
Claire Foy in, from left, ‘Season of the Witch,’ ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ and ‘The Crown.’ Photo: From left: Everett Collection; Sony Pictures; Netflix

In the new movie “First Man,” Janet Armstrong, played by Claire Foy, approaches her husband Neil, who has just returned to Earth from his historic spaceflight to the moon.

They watch each other through a window, and no words are spoken. None are needed.

Delivering eloquent silence has become something of a specialty for Ms. Foy, who put that quality to formidable use as Queen Elizabeth II in the Netflix series “The Crown.” The performance not only won her this year’s Emmy for best actress in a drama series, it caught the eye of directors who wanted her to be that still center of the action on their screens, too.

Damien Chazelle chose her to play the stoic Ms. Armstrong in “First Man,” which opens Friday with Ryan Gosling as Mr. Armstrong. Mr. Chazelle said he was skeptical that any British actress could play the quintessentially American part of an astronaut’s Midwestern wife in the 1960s, but after seeing Ms. Foy’s audition, he couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.

Claire Foy won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for ‘The Crown’ last month.
Claire Foy won the Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a drama series for ‘The Crown’ last month. Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associat

“She’s got this incredibly expressive face. She’s got these eyes that just record every flutter of emotion, and you feel like you’re getting a front-row seat to every thought and every change and feeling,” said Mr. Chazelle, who won an Oscar for directing with “La La Land.” “It’s like watching a great musician. She’s able to do these explosive scenes and to very quickly dial it back in.”

Next month, Ms. Foy appears as the action hero Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” based on a novel in the series that began with Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Compared with previous “Dragon Tattoo” movies, the character of Lisbeth is even more prominent this time, said director Fede Alvarez.

He needed an actress who could carry the movie with a subtle performance, not a showy one. “You really need someone who can be what only the best actress can be, which is without too much style and without too much action, they can emote a lot,” he said.

People contain themselves in real life, Ms. Foy said, so that’s how she plays them.

Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander in ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web,’ coming out later this year.
Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander in ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web,’ coming out later this year. Photo: SONY PICTURES

“As soon as someone makes me angry, I’m not like, ‘I’M ANGRY,’ ” Ms. Foy said, raising her voice and feigning a furious look. “I’m not quick to cry. A lot of people learn that at some point in their life, your emotions are to be controlled.”

But the 34-year-old native of northern England, who has a 3-year-old daughter and earlier this year announced her separation from her husband, actor Stephen Campbell Moore, sees problems with keeping calm and carrying on, her coping method in the past.

“There’s a lot that I can shoulder, really, but I am very aware of just perpetually doing that,” said Ms. Foy.

Screenwriter Josh Singer built the “First Man” script around the death of the Armstrongs’ 2-year-old daughter Karen. Yet Mr. Armstrong, who died in 2012, remained the quiet, composed character he had always been.

Claire Foy and Kyle Chandler in ‘First Man,’ opening this week.
Claire Foy and Kyle Chandler in ‘First Man,’ opening this week. Photo: Universal Studios

“For us it was very much like, how do we get at what’s going on beneath the surface?” said Mr. Singer. “The answer, over and over again, was Janet.”

Ms. Armstrong died of lung cancer in June. Ms. Foy, who never spoke with her, had hoped they would meet. “I was very shaken by it,” she said.

One of the two Armstrong sons, Mark, calls Ms. Foy’s performance “better than any eulogy I could ever write.”

The actress has said she has an unremarkable face that has allowed her to live in London mostly unnoticed. As a teenager, she underwent surgery for a benign orbital tumor in one eye, requiring her to wear a patch—something she credits with jolting her out of what could’ve been a vain young adulthood.

“I’m incredibly grateful, weirdly, that it happened to me at that point,” she said. “Like all teenagers, I was massively self-conscious, and it taught me the importance of living and not taking things for granted and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you look like.”

Ms. Foy didn’t lose any of her vision, but the steroids she takes to control the condition exacerbate autoimmune problems that began with juvenile arthritis as a child. To ease symptoms of her autoimmune issues, she said, she has cut out bread, cheese and wine.

After studying at the Oxford School of Drama, she worked steadily, landing the role of Anne Boleyn in the 2015 BBC miniseries “Wolf Hall.” She was five months pregnant when she auditioned for “The Crown” and to her surprise got the role.

The lavish show had high standards, even for the dogs. “I once spent, like, two hours waiting to shoot a scene because they wanted the Corgis to run at the door, stop, turn around, look confused and then lie down and sleep outside the door,” Ms. Foy said. “I just sat there going, ‘Come onnnnn.’”

She won’t appear in the seasons of “The Crown” now being filmed. Olivia Colman (who plays another queen in the new movie “The Favourite”) steps into the role of the Queen in the 1960s and 1970s.

After a producer of “The Crown” revealed earlier this year that Ms. Foy was paid less than co-star Matt Smith, who played Prince Philip, the actress found herself in a corner.

“I was deeply shocked and pretty upset about it,” she said. “There was a level of embarrassment and there were also a lot of questions about, ‘Am I just upset about this because people are discussing my net worth, which I hate and makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, or am I deeply upset by this because I’m not equal to somebody that’s my dear friend?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Her new celebrity, Ms. Foy said, means reckoning with such moments. “I have to accept that if life throws these things at you and people are looking at you, then you’ve got to genuinely think about where you stand and how you feel.”

Netflix and a spokeswoman for Ms. Foy declined to comment. A representative for the show’s British production company didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The actress adopts a Swedish accent for Lisbeth Salander, with “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” marking her first major action role. She didn’t want to take on the part after admiring the performances of the previous Lisbeths, Rooney Mara and Noomi Rapace.

Then Ms. Foy spoke with Mr. Alvarez and learned how eager they both were to approach the character from a psychological, not just an action, point of view.

“Oh dear,” she recalled thinking, “I’m going to have to do it.”

Write to Ellen Gamerman at ellen.gamerman@wsj.com

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