Claire Foy was as desperate to star in Women Talking as she was convinced that she never would. "It was a very special movie," she says of the script, adapted from Miriam Toews' 2018 novel by Oscar nominee Sarah Polley. The story centers on a group of Mennonite women, isolated, illiterate and endlessly faithful, who secretly meet to process the sexual violence they have experienced by the men in their community. "I just knew that it would be like everybody's dream to play one of these parts."
"I was in a position of being desperate, I suppose, to do something that I believed in and that I felt was challenging," Foy tells A.frame. Polley's screenplay, however, came to her amidst the pandemic, at a time when it felt like everyone was taking Zoom meetings for the films that would possibly, hopefully, finally be made when it was safe to return to making films. "It was apparently going to shoot in Canada in the summer. I was just thinking, 'That's never going to happen. Because let's be honest, we're in lockdown!'"
Yet, summer came and so too did the film's shoot, with Polley directing an ensemble led by Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, and Foy. The film is largely set in a hay loft, with the women gathering to decide how they will move forward together: Do they stay and forgive the men? Do they stay and fight for change? Or do they leave and start a new life outside the community? Foy plays the role of Salome, whose desire to stay and fight is literal — calling for revenge on the men, faith be damned.
"I loved Salome from the minute I read the book. I felt a real, really strong affinity with her," says the actress. "I knew that the challenge for me would be the intensity of her character — the intensity and passion with which she expresses herself — which would be exhausting on just a practical level for a three-month shoot."
In finding her way into Salome, Toews' text became sacred. "I tried to work on the things that I found challenging and hard," Foy explains of her process, "which was just her capacity to let it rip and not care about who listened. I really admire [that], and also was like, wow, that's going to be difficult for me to do."
On the page, Salome is described as having a biblical temper. One passage reads, Her rage is barely suppressed, vesuvian. Her eyes are never still. Even if, one day, she runs out of words like a woman is said to run out of "eggs," I believe that Salome will be able to communicate and to give life, fearsome life, to every emotion stemming from each injustice she perceives. There is no Inward Eye in Salome, no bliss of solitude.
"As immediately as someone says something that she disagrees with, it's like, boom. She's right there," Foy says of how she internalized that description. "She'd be quite someone to be in a room with. She's a lot comin' at ya. I knew there was sort of physicality and the way she expressed herself were things that were really important."
"Seeing these performers pull out these performances — and you would see it in real life — it really was something to behold. We were all so proud of each other and also in awe of each other."
Salome is the embodiment of righteous fury within the movie. When she learns that her young daughter was also preyed on by the men, she attacks the perpetrators with a scythe. Amongst the other women in the barn, she is apoplectic as she listens to them debate the pros and cons of taking action, or deciding to forgive the men. "She's using her rage to try and motivate," Foy explains, "which stops her from just punching everyone basically. Which is what she needs, she needs to contain it."
Her simmering rage eventually boils over in a blistering monologue about all that they have endured. "We know that we've not imagined these attacks," Salome erupts. "We know that we are bruised and terrified."
"When she did blow up, I think all the women gave her space to do that," Foy says, "because they knew she was justified in doing that."
Each of the other women, in turn, is given space to express the full range of their emotions, to share their hopes and fears and ask enormous questions with no easy answers. In the hay loft, Foy recalls Sheila McCarthy, who plays one of the matriarchs of the community, delivering her big monologue. "I could not stop crying, and that never happens. I'm very professional on set! What she was doing was so beautiful. I remember it very vividly. It makes me feel emotional even thinking about it. It was so honest and true and I was seeing into her soul." Another day, Judith Ivey, who plays her mother, performed an impassioned sermon. "The first time she did that speech, everybody didn't say anything afterwards. We all just sat in silence," Foy says. "It was unbelievable. It was one of the most beautiful performances I've ever seen."
Women Talking wrapped filming as the last days of summer in Toronto began their turn toward winter. Listening to Foy now, the experience making the film was just what she'd been longing for during those days in lockdown, isolated from the outside world and yearning for something that felt like it mattered. "There were moments of really deep care and love and attention and appreciation that we all had for each other," she reflects of her time on set.
"Seeing these performers pull out these performances — and you would see it in real life — it really was something to behold. We were all so proud of each other, I think, and also in awe of each other, of what everyone was doing," Foy says. "That was also extended to when people were having a tough time, the compassion and understanding and sensitivity of when someone was struggling with the material. Feeling like if you fell backwards, someone would catch you. That's very rare in my experience of being on a set."
The connection created in that hay loft has continued on, as Polley and her cast have gathered again for the film's world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, then again for TIFF, and again for the New York Film Festival, AFI Fest, and BFI London Film Festival. Even when the film opens in theaters and the journey that is Women Talking comes to an end, Foy imagines it will live on inside herself still. "Sometimes the experience of making the film has become more important than my own life. But that was when I was young," she chuckles. Now, she has a life that demands of her outside of her art, with a daughter of her own at home. "Sometimes it's really easy [to shed a character], because they're so different to me and their lives are so different that it's really not hard to shake it off."
"I am at a point now, I think, where I'm able to cherish the characters that I play and hopefully let them teach me things," Foy says. "Salome is very much embedded in me now, and all these women are. I feel like I take them with me for a very, very long time. I will."
By John Boone