Why Claire Foy's Portrayal of My Moonshot Mum Moved Me to Tears; We Watched My Dad Take That First Giant Step. but the Real Hero Was Sitting Next to Me, That's

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 2, 2018 | Go to article overview

Why Claire Foy's Portrayal of My Moonshot Mum Moved Me to Tears; We Watched My Dad Take That First Giant Step. but the Real Hero Was Sitting Next to Me, That's


Byline: Caroline Graham and Amy Oliver

JUST before 11pm, a six-year-old was gently roused from his sleep by his mother and carried into the living room where friends and family members were watching a flickering 26in black and white television. Suddenly a fuzzy figure appeared on the screen as astronaut Neil Armstrong sealed his place in history, making the short jump from Apollo 11's ladder and on to the surface of the Moon with the immortal phrase: 'That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.' For his son Mark - that sleepy six-year-old on July 20, 1969 - the pictures that captivated the world were a puzzling letdown. While those gathered at the Armstrong family home near Nasa's HQ in Houston, Texas, cheered wildly, and a 'squawk box' next to the TV gave them a direct audio link to Mission Control, he couldn't recognise the grainy image of a man in the silver spacesuit as his father.

'The quality of the images coming from the Moon was so poor, it was hard to tell it was Dad out there,' Mark, now 55, explains in an exclusive interview.

But his youthful confusion was nothing compared to the emotions his mother Janet was feeling: 'She must have been beside herself with worry. She held everything in to protect me and my brother Eric.

'We never felt Dad was in danger of not coming home. But Mum, of course, knew the risks. Dad was the first man on the Moon, but Mum was the unsung hero.' Mark has just seen a special family screening of the new film First Man, which opened the prestigious Venice Film Festival last week to rave reviews. It stars Ryan Gosling as the publicity-shy astronaut and British actress Claire Foy - best known for playing the Queen in the Netflix series The Crown - is being tipped for an Oscar for her bravura performance as Armstrong's longsuffering wife.

Janet died in June, aged 84, after a long battle with lung cancer. And for Mark, Foy's tribute to the woman he describes as 'the real power behind the throne', is a fitting legacy that moved him to tears.

'While Dad got all the fame and glory, my mum - and all the astronauts' wives - were the ones who held it all together,' he says.

'It's wonderful that, finally, these remarkable women are getting their due.' Foy, in her first major Hollywood role, has been described as 'outstanding' by critics for her 'heartwrenching' and 'searing' portrayal of Janet. It is a role in which she is almost unrecognisable from her glossy perfection as the Queen in The Crown. In First Man, her hair is cropped into a neat 1960s bob and she dresses simply in Janet's 'uniform' of capri pants and no-fuss blouses.

The film was a labour of love for 34-year-old Foy, who was not able to meet Janet because of her illness, but she spent hours speaking to Mark via Skype to hone her every nuance and emotion: 'She wanted to know the minutiae. Mum called me Marco and my brother Ricky. She wanted to know the balance and strength of my mother. What she was really like? 'When I saw her on screen, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Mum only passed away recently so, to see her up there, alive and so real it was incredible. Claire captured Mum's essence. She communicates so many feelings without words. I got very emotional.' Director Damien Chazelle, who was the youngest winner of a Best Director Oscar for La La Land, recreated the Armstrong family home down to the exact dining table where Janet forced her taciturn husband to address Mark and his elder brother Eric, now 61, on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission.

'I knew something serious was up because it was weird being called to the dining room,' Mark recalls.

'We never sat there except Thanksgiving and Christmas. I knew Mum was worried, in a stressed state. But neither she nor dad passed those worries on.

'Dad said he was going on a mission and he thought they had a 50-50 chance of actually landing on the Moon, but that he felt very confident in the spacecraft and support team, and while there was some risk, he was confident he'd come home. …

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