Warning: This post contains spoilers for a major scene in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Already a powerhouse dramatic actress, as evidenced by The Crown and First Man, Claire Foy gets an action movie makeover in the new thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Directed by Fede Álvarez, the film kickstarts the adventures of Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander, last seen on the big screen seven years ago in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Hollywood’s first attempt to turn Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium series into a feature film franchise. (Larsson, who died in 2004, wrote the first three books, which were adapted into a trio of Swedish movies starring Noomi Rapace; Spider’s Web is based on the fourth novel, penned by David Lagercrantz.)
Rooney Mara wore Salander’s signature leather ensemble in that 2011 film, which emphasized the character’s detective skills, rather than combat prowess. But Foy’s version of Lisbeth is closer in spirit to Jason Bourne or even Batman; from the opening minutes of Spider’s Web, she’s in a constant state of motion — running, dodging, and trading blows with wave after wave of goons and gangsters.
Salander nimbly races through this obstacle course without slowing down, but there’s one moment that leaves her — and the audience — breathless. Toward the end of the film, she’s captured by the mysterious figure pulling the strings of the movie’s master plot: her long-lost sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks). And Camilla has shown up for this family reunion with a terrifying gift in tow. With Lisbeth uncharacteristically immobile, her sibling places her inside a rubber sex bag designed for extreme S&M couplings. After a person is inside the bag, the air is vacuumed out, leaving them tightly constrained and gasping for breath. “It’s a fetish — a form of torture for sexual gratification,” Foy explains to Yahoo Entertainment about this intensely claustrophobic moment, which has been teased in the film’s trailers.
Lisbeth trapped in the rubber sex bag
It’s also a scene that isn’t in the original book, instead emerging from Álvarez’s desire to come up with a new spin on the standard action movie trope where the hero is kept restrained while the bad guy launches into a monologue at him. (See also any James Bond movie, from Goldfinger to Casino Royale.) “These stories usually lead to one place: The hero tied up to a chair with the villain standing in front of it, saying a bunch of s***,” the director says, laughing. The story of Spider’s Web demanded a similar moment, but the last thing Álvarez wanted to shoot was Lisbeth tied to a chair. “[Co-writer] Jay Basu and I were thinking of what hadn’t been done before that would make sense in the context of this story, and Jay said, ‘What about a sex bag?’ And I was like, ‘That’s the right answer!'”
Right away, Álvarez recognized the visual possibilities of that particular device. “It’s really powerful visually,” he notes, adding that he’s observed test audiences go silent and still when Lisbeth is trapped in her latex prison. “In all of my movies, there’s one particular scene that’s always disturbing — when you feel so oppressed and scared, and believe the character will die. And then I bring the thrills after that. The closest I can get you to that place the better, because the turnaround is that much more exciting.”
Basu and Álvarez also laid the thematic groundwork for that climactic moment by tweaking Lisbeth’s origin story: Early on in the film, it’s revealed that, as children, she and Camilla were sexually abused by their father, who kept a sex bag among his collection of fetish objects. While Lisbeth escaped his clutches, her sister wasn’t so lucky. “She wants Lisbeth to experience what she did as a kid,” the director says.
Lisbeth dreams of the young Camilla trapped in the bag she’ll be imprisoned in herself
It’s no accident that Salander assumes the fetal position when she’s trapped inside Camilla’s childhood prison. When Lisbeth does force her way out of the bag, Álvarez wanted the audience to understand that she’s emerging as a different person. “It’s the perfect kind of visual device to dramatize how a character is rebirthed. After everything she hears in that scene — the truth about what happened to her — she comes out of the bag a new character. That’s another classical moment in stories like this: the death and rebirth in the third act.”
The moment where the “new” Lisbeth takes her first breath outside of her latex womb is also the only part of the sequence where Foy was in the sex bag herself. The actress says that she was offered the chance to spend more time in the bag — which the Spider’s Web crew created for the shoot — but it was an offer she quickly refused. “It was very clear early on that for health and safety purposes, I could never be in the bag myself, because I would have had to be suffocated over and over again all day.”
And the one shot that did require her to be inside it convinced her that she made the right choice. “It was a relatively traumatic experience,” she says simply, praising her stunt double, Cecilia Diesch, for having taken on the rest of the scene. “It’s a very important scene for an actor to have an open discussion [with the director about], because it’s a traumatic thing to film and a traumatic thing that people go through. So it’s important to handle with care.”
No doubt aware of his star’s trepidation, Álvarez only shot one take with her in the bag. “That was all I needed. It’s so tough to do, you don’t want to put her through it too many times. What we got was fantastic — she gives a great performance.” Asked whether she was acting in the moment where Lisbeth’s face emerges from the bag or if she was genuinely relieved to be breathing oxygen again, Foy pauses before replying, “It was a combination of the two.”
Álvarez makes it clear that safety was his top priority throughout the scene. “You can literally die doing this — it’s very dangerous! And you have to keep in mind that when the actor is inside the bag, and you say ‘Action,’ they have to pretend like they’re choking. So how do you know if they’re actually choking or just pretending for the camera?” The director relied on his stunt team to come up with a plan that would allow Foy and Diesch to signal if they were in actual distress, but that didn’t make the sequence any less nerve-racking to film. “There’s no happy way to do it, but that’s what it takes to put the audience in that space. If everyone was having fun behind the scenes, you’d notice — you’d feel something in the air that it was all just pretend. And I definitely tried not to do that; I tried to make it as real as you could get.”
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is currently playing in theaters. Watch an exclusive scene:
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
- Wyatt Russell on why he left hockey for acting — and the crucial lesson he learned from his famous parents
- How ‘Boy Erased’ confronts the controversial practice of gay-conversion therapy
- Where no women have gone before: How ‘Star Trek Discovery’ represents a historic change for iconic franchise (exclusive)