After being a muse to superheroes in ‘Agent Carter’, Atwell tries her hand at period drama stratosphere in this new TV series
No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Marvel/Paramount/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5885861au)Hayley AtwellCaptain America - The First Avenger - 2011Director: Joe JohnstonMarvel/ParamountUSAScene Still
It was Hayley Atwell who, four years ago, predicted that her 30s and 40s would not be the years when she started worrying about roles drying up, but rather the decades in which she would thrive as an actor.
“I’m meant to be an older actor rather than a teen or a 20s starlet,” she said. She is now 35. “I didn’t feel comfortable with the pursuit of that: I wanted to know who I was as a human being first.”
After years working in classy and well-received dramas — she is also well-known to Marvel fans as secret agent Peggy Carter in the Captain America films and the Agent Carter TV spin-off — Atwell is about to gain a broader audience. In the much-anticipated BBC adaptation of Howards End, which began Sunday, she takes on the role of the independent and intellectual Margaret Schlegel (famously played by Emma Thompson in the 1992 Merchant Ivory film). It says something about this point in Atwell’s career that she was offered the role, rather than auditioned for it.
The director, Hettie Macdonald, had remembered Atwell from her first big TV role in The Line of Beauty, the 2006 BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel, and had seen her on stage. “We thought she was the right person,” she says. “I think she has many qualities of Margaret — she has wit, a real interest in the world, an appetite for life, a curiosity, brains. And on the flip side, she can really access a vulnerability and clarity of emotional thought, because Margaret does go on quite a big emotional journey. We needed someone who [had] this energy and great passion, but who also had the ability to constantly reflect on that. Margaret is always criticising herself, self-doubting, and interestingly is quite horrible at times, and it just seemed that Hayley could do all those things at the same time.”
There were other things, beyond acting ability, that Atwell brought to the drama, says Macdonald. “The thing I didn’t know and was pleased by was her integrity about how she approaches a role, the amount of work she did, she was full of ideas, she had a lot to say and had a tremendous passion and enthusiasm for it. As the leading actress, she set the tone for every single person on the set, just by arriving on time, ready to go, loving it. And I can’t tell you what a huge difference that makes.”
If she was remotely daunted by the looming shadow of the film version, and Thompson’s Oscar-winning take, Macdonald didn’t see it. “We didn’t ever discuss it. We discussed the book a lot.” Atwell, however, revealed this week that she had talked to Thompson, who became a friend after they worked together on Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess, about the role. The advice she was given was: “Please don’t watch what I did. This is your Margaret.”
Atwell grew up in west London with her mother, a motivational speaker. She spent summers in the US with her American father, a photographer and Californian shamanic guru, and has described a bohemian, New Age-y childhood (hot coals were walked across, and feelings talked about). It seems to have given her a tonne of confidence, and a strong sense of responsibility, both to herself and to others. “My parents would never say, ‘You’re so pretty.’ They’d say I was smart and strong, and had something to say. They said I should speak up and out.” When one Twitter user asked, “Why are you so beautiful?” about Atwell’s appearance on the cover of a German TV magazine, she replied, “Why am I so Photoshopped?”
She has talked about the time a film producer — recently revealed to be the disgraced Harvey Weinstein — on the set of Brideshead Revisited told her to lose weight. Emma Thompson stepped in and threatened to walk off the film if it happened again. “You’re not a model. You’re an actor,” Thompson told her. “In the end, they accepted me for who I was,” said Atwell. “If I am going to be in a show, if I am going to be in the public eye and therefore be influencing what younger women watch, then I’ve got to engage in the bigger conversation.”
The arts were important in her childhood, and Atwell has described being taken to the Hackney Empire at the age of 11 to see Ralph Fiennes play Hamlet as a defining moment. Her mother, Atwell said, “thought that going to the theatre was as important a ceremonial, communal experience that a person could have. She was always very moved by the power that it had to open your mind. I found it genuinely thrilling.”
At the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, her teacher remembers her “warmth and generosity of spirit”. “You can’t always tell at drama school if someone is going to do really well but Hayley was exceptional,” says Ken Rea, professor of drama. “She had that rare quality for an actor — she could combine a sense of playfulness with a sharp theatrical intelligence. That gave her both empathy — audiences could identify with what she was doing — and an authority on stage, audiences believed her utterly. It also gave her a sense of danger — she would always surprise you.”
What did he think was driving her? “I think she was always ambitious, but then most actors who come to Guildhall are. She was very driven and I’m sure she had a good social life and all that, but she had a great sense of integrity and purpose. That sort of quality will help someone get to the top.”
Soon after drama school, Atwell was cast in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, not one of his more successful films. Parts in a slew of period dramas followed, including the 2007 BBC film Mansfield Park, the 2008 film Brideshead Revisited, and two William Boyd adaptations — Any Human Heart for Channel 4 and Restless for the BBC in 2010.
Atwell was also making progress in the theatre. She was directed twice by Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre — for Major Barbara in 2008, and The Man of Mode the year before — and in 2009 played the spirited niece in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. “I was looking for someone who was warm and vulnerable and had a strong charismatic presence on the stage,” says the director Lindsay Posner. “She fitted the bill. She’s got great generosity and warmth when she performs. I remember she was a delight to work with because she was very keen and happy to work in very close detail with the script and the development of the role. My strongest memory is that she gives a sense of spontaneity on stage and is always very truthful and won’t hide behind an actors’ technique — she’s never mannered on stage.”
But she dispelled any ideas that she was becoming a certain type of serious British actor, by going up for the role of Peggy Carter in Captain America (though she noted at the time that it, too, was a period piece, being set in the 1940s ). “The main reason I did Captain America was because I wanted to get out of my own head and stop taking my work so seriously,” she said.
The screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely first saw Atwell at her final audition, having decided they wanted to make the character British (in the comic, she is American). “It takes place in the 40s, there weren’t too many women in areas of authority at that point, and we wanted her to essentially be the most capable person on the screen at that time,” says Markus. Atwell, he remembers, “just projected so much authority and intelligence. When Hayley walks on screen, you trust her all of a sudden, like ‘a grown up has entered the room and someone responsible will take over’.”
She is, says McFeely, “the most professional actor I’ve ever met. She takes direction incredibly well, she’s more prepared than anyone else on set. If you give her small adjustments you never have to give it more than once. She understands the scene and she can use her instrument maybe better than anyone I’ve seen.” When Agent Carter was commissioned as a TV show (it ran from 2015 to 2016), McFeely says it was “a relief when we figured out she was a leader by example. Because she’s working the hardest, that sprinkled down through the entire crew and the cast.”
That said, when she’s not working, says Markus with a laugh, “she’s ridiculous. If there’s any kind of practical joke going on set she will be involved, and probably started it.” McFeely adds: “She’s serious about her job but not necessarily serious about herself.”