Wolf Hall’s Claire Foy on Anne Boleyn: “She had bigger balls than anyone at Henry’s court”

The actress looks deep into history's most enigmatic queen

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“History has done a great disservice to Anne Boleyn,” says Claire Foy. Hollywood, it could be argued, hasn’t helped much either. While it’s generally agreed that Boleyn was Henry VIII’s most interesting wife, the ill-fated queen has suffered from typecasting, portrayed variously as traitorous witch, innocent victim or scheming seductress.

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Foy, who plays Anne in the Tudor drama Wolf Hall, believes the truth may be more complicated, and more interesting: “For the amount that she achieved, and given the limited role of women in her time, Anne really had massive balls – bigger balls, I think, than anyone at Henry’s court. If she had been born in a man’s body, I think she would have made an extraordinary ruler.”

Adapted from Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the BBC’s six-part series is a finely nuanced interpretation of historical events.

“All the facts are incredibly well researched,” says Foy, “but Hilary has written Anne as Thomas Cromwell would observe her. And that’s not particularly easy for an actor, because you can’t play what people see in their mind as opposed to what is actually going on.”

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Stockport-born Foy, 30, a graduate of Liverpool’s John Moores University and the Oxford School of Drama, who rose to prominence as the heroine of Dickens’s Little Dorrit (BBC, 2008) and went on to star in The Promise, The Night Watch and Upstairs Downstairs, relished the challenge of playing England’s most enigmatic queen.

“I had read Hilary’s book long before finding out about this job and I was already a bit obsessed with Anne. She broke with tradition in every possible way, at a time when English women had no real purpose, other than to sit around sewing and looking pretty. Anne was educated in France – she had the European sensibility – and then she came to England where women weren’t supposed to talk about anything too revolutionary. If you had an active mind- – as Anne had – it must have been incredibly frustrating. But she had an opinion and wasn’t afraid of voicing it.

“She was brave and intelligent and incredibly religious, yet, in Hilary’s version, she punches people and pinches them and screams at them. I think the pinching thing is so illuminating; she has to get her anger out on someone and she is very immediate in her responses. In the end I had to convince myself that the contradictions within her character were the thing that made her alluring. She wasn’t a saint, she may not even have been a particularly nice person, but she was really important to English history.”

Anne’s power struggle with Cromwell (Mark Rylance), whose politicking brought about the queen’s beheading in 1536, is key to the drama: “Henry wanted rid of Anne so he could marry Jane Seymour, and Cromwell made it happen,” says Foy. “I don’t think he was so terrible for doing that, because he was saving his own skin. Given half a chance, Anne would have had him killed. And how interesting would it have been if Cromwell had gone and Anne had survived?”

The execution scene, shot in front of 200 weeping extras, was an intense experience, says Foy. “I had to have a bit of a word with myself, because I was feeling very emotional about the whole thing whereas Anne, by all accounts, really kept it all together. She takes her death sentence on the chin and that’s what I find really heartbreaking. She obviously had real moments of desperation while she was in the Tower, but I think she genuinely believed that if she had been accused falsely in this life, she would find justice in the next. We used her own words, verbatim, for the scaffold speech and shot the whole thing a bit like a documentary. So for the audience it feels like you’re watching the whole thing live.

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“The most disgusting thing, in my mind, about Anne’s death, is that the charges against her were all lies. It was so pathetic that they had to chop her head off just so Henry could get away with marrying someone else. But she wouldn’t give up. She refused to go to a nunnery, she wouldn’t accept that she was no longer of use to the king, and so they killed her. She was entirely at the behest of this one man. And he did it because he could.” 

Henry VIII, as played by Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall, is a far cry from the bloated despot of popular iconography: “Damian is perfect casting, because he’s so athletic and charismatic and charming,” says Foy. “You can see why Anne would have loved Henry – in her way. Her trump card is always that she doesn’t need people. Henry followed her around like a lap dog. I think they loved each other the only way they could. But my sympathies are with Anne. I mean, not to pass the blame, but Henry was the one with the attention span problem.” 

Foy, who is expecting her first child in March (she is married to actor Stephen Campbell Moore), was newly pregnant when shooting started on Wolf Hall. Anne’s elaborate costumes were, she says, an “inconvenience”. “It was too early to tell anyone and it’s quite unpleasant when you can’t sit down or drink any water but, if I’m honest, all costumes, unless I’m in pyjamas, end up p***ing me off a bit.”

Career plans are now on hold as Foy contemplates parenthood. “The baby is pretty much the project of the moment,” she says. “I haven’t really given much thought to the whole ‘working mother’ thing. I think the less pressure you put on yourself at this point the better, so I guess I’ll just try to cope and make the right decisions when the time comes. But I’m very, very excited.”

Two major projects in a season are, she agrees, enough for anyone, and it looks like Wolf Hall is landmark television. “I’d like viewers to watch it, knowing that it’s an attempt to do something original and not patronise people,” she says. “For me, that’s as good as it gets.” 

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Wolf Hall is currently airing on Sundays on PBS Masterpiece