Hayley Atwell Central

After a stint playing a Marvel heroine the actress has come back to the UK to brighten our Sunday nights in a new take on Forster’s novel

In all but one way, the role and the actress are a perfect match. Hayley Atwell, like Margaret Schlegel, the heroine she plays in the BBC’s immaculate new classic serial, Howards End, is clever, morally alert and strong-willed. Like Margaret, Atwell has mixed heritage, although Atwell is Anglo-American rather than ancestrally German. Being half an outsider, she thinks, makes you “nosy” and curious about people. Yet both Atwell and Margaret speak cut-glass received English, so the natives never guess that they are spying.

Professionally it is a good fit too. Atwell comes to the part after a spell in America, where she stunned as Marvel’s Agent Carter, but where her next TV series flopped. Her return from Hollywood is its loss and our gain. “I was clear,” she tells me over lunch in a London restaurant, where beneath our table snoozes her pet chihuahua, Howard, “that this was the kind of work I wanted to do and these were the kinds of people I wanted to work with.” These people include Matthew Macfadyen, who plays Margaret’s widowed suitor, Henry Wilcox, the series director, Hettie Macdonald, and Kenneth Lonergan, the writer and director of Manchester by the Sea, who adapted EM Forster’s novel.

My only caveat is that Atwell, besides being, at 35, a few years older than Margaret, doesn’t really fit Forster’s description in his novel of a woman of “meagre” figure whose face “seemed all teeth and eyes”. Atwell has the figure and face of a star from Hollywood’s bulb-popping prime. It is a matter of pride to her that she has been defined by neither, and nor is her Margaret.

“I think with Margaret Schlegel, she’s quite an evolved human. She is able to say, ‘Henry Wilcox might not be as morally honest as I am, or he might be a bit confused and he might have his values a little bit skewed — but I’m not going to seek to change him in any way.’ She’s not going to use his soul as raw materials. That would be contemptible and unfair.”

It is easy to see why the moneyman Henry would want Margaret for his wife. Why, though, would Margaret consider him? “I think it’s something she has to figure out as well,” she says.

It is not, I check, that Margaret fancies him. “She likes him. She’s not in love with him, but she suspects that she will be able to be. Margaret’s not driven by lust and desire. She’s deeper than that. She’s more practical than that.”

It is unusual in literature, let alone television, I say, to find a relationship not propelled by desire. “I think romance has a lot to answer for in the misunderstanding between intimacy and intensity,” Atwell says. “A relationship that’s built on obsession and love and lust and desire, the almost self-indulgent longings of romance — it’s something for the very young. I was totally blinded by romance when I was younger. As I’ve got older I suspect actually that there are other ways, much healthier, happier ways to live one’s life with another human being.”

British audiences are not surprised by Atwell’s casting in Howards End given her early presence in classics at the RSC and the National Theatre (she returns next year to the stage in Dry Powder, a psychological three-hander set in Manhattan finance), her television roles in Mansfield Park and Any Human Heart, and the films Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess. In America, however, “it is all about Peggy Carter”, a period part (Second World War), but a very unclassical one.

Atwell’s audition for the role in the Captain America movie may have been successful, she thinks, because she mastered an unarmed combat scene in 20 minutes, and her fist blow to a GI grunt is, literally, the punchline of her first scene in the film. Although a massive time leap deprived her of much to do in the film’s sequels, Carter lived on in 18 episodes of Agent Carter on ABC TV. Atwell is pleased that her part was not “over-sexualised” and that Carter survived by force of character, not superpowers. Girls came up to Atwell at conventions repeating Carter’s tagline, “I know my value.”

Yet, after two seasons, ABC cancelled the show (Atwell does not rule out Carter making a return somehow, someday) and found her another vehicle. She calls Conviction, in which she played Hayes Morrison, a legal hotshot and a president’s daughter, “an example of network television”, full of post-commercial-break exposition. I say that, given Atwell’s reluctance to exploit her sex appeal, I was surprised that Hayes stripped to her underwear in front of her colleagues in episode one.

“What I’ve said is not that I would never use my sexuality, but if my sexuality and my beauty were my only currency then I — as most women — would get very anxious when that started to change as I got older,” Atwell says. “Also, I don’t find it that interesting. In that scene it’s not Hayley Atwell taking her clothes off. It’s a character, Hayes, making, in a very bold, brash way, a statement about control over the people in her office.”

I press on, expressing genuine puzzlement that, although she is dressed for lunch in an all-covering sparkly sweater, she arrives on red carpets and, indeed, at the press screening at the BFI the night before we talk, in gowns typically described the next day by MailOnline as “plunging”, “revealing” and displaying “her ample cleavage”. A private joke? A homage to grand dames? A publicity wheeze?

“No, I just think I look good in them. I’m not trying to be provocative. I think they’re elegant. You know, I can’t deny the fact that I have the body of a woman. That’s how I look. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s nice to be wearing something different. Margaret Schlegel has severe hair, no make-up, a lot of high collars, and I’m not her.”

And if the pictures are all over the net the next day? “Oh God, I don’t read that kind of material. It’s not a game you can win. I haven’t seen any derogatory comments about outfits that I’ve worn because I don’t look for them.”

The commentary is not derogatory, just slightly pervy. “Well, you know, there are perverts out there. If I see them commenting on Instagram I’ll block them.”

What struck me, when we said hello the night before and she was in that dress, was the strength of her handshake. At that moment, I knew she was not to be messed with.

“Oh my God! It’s not intentional. I played rugby at school, so it might be to do with that. I’ve always been very strong. My dad said, ‘You are the strongest person I’ve ever met.’ He meant person. He didn’t mean woman. ‘You are the strongest person I’ve ever met.’ ”

Atwell attributes her strength of character to her parents’ unequivocal love for her even though they separated when she was two. Her father, Grant, a photographer and self-declared shaman, returned home to America. Her mother, Alison, who was at the BFI screening, was a motivational speaker.

One recent story about Atwell’s strength being tested, however, is not true. It is that on the set of Brideshead Revisited Harvey Weinstein said she looked like a “fat pig on screen” and was soundly rebuked by her co-star and now friend Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for playing Margaret in the 1992 Merchant Ivory Howards End). Didn’t happen. Nor, she assures me, did anyone at Miramax talk to her that way. The headlines nevertheless upset her.

“I woke up the next day going, ‘How boring that now my weight is the topic of conversation.’ And that is a form of sexism. When we talk about women and their body image, it is a form of control. It is a form of shaming a woman. Because the visual arts are so geared towards trying to have this sense of perfect self, women will crumble when they’re brought down on their body weight.

“You don’t talk to a woman about their body weight or their age. It’s rude,” she says. “But I’m not one of his victims. And I so lucky that I wasn’t.”

But there are victims. “Oh yeah. And I share in their grief and I will support them.”

Atwell understands fragility. “Throughout my twenties there were periods of depression. Someone said to me there’s a cost to being awake. There’s a cost to living a conscious life. There is a cost to living a life of rigorous honesty, because we always fall short of the qualities we think we have. I was very sensitive and I would go inwards. My anger or upset — I’d use it against myself.”

I suspect, I say, that people make assumptions about her. That because she is successful, beautiful and has made money, she has never felt vulnerable. Actually she was bullied (perhaps not too badly) at school for being academic (Oxford gave her a conditional offer) and plump (“Hayley Fatwell”).

Another misapprehension, because of her voice, is that she is posh. In fact, after two years between the ages of five and seven at the private Hill House school in Chelsea, when her mother’s business was on the up, she was educated by the state, mostly at an inner-city comprehensive, and went to Guildhall drama school on a grant.

Money at home in a social-housing maisonette in west London was not plentiful. When Atwell went to the homes of her friends, some the children of ambassadors, she would ask to borrow their Barbies. She is not, in fact, sure where her vowels come from. She speaks exactly as her mother does, and she was from Manchester. “She was always a very good public speaker.”

Atwell is an example, she says, of a self-made actress competing in what can seem like a posh kids’ profession, although she concedes her misleading accent may have opened some doors.

It is not a comparison she makes, but in terms of income and intellectual thirst the Atwell household does not seem so far from that of Leonard Bast, Howards End’s culturally aspirational clerk on the edge of the “abyss” in London in 1910. The critic Lionel Trilling wrote that the book’s big question was who would inherit England, the struggling Basts, the thoughtful Schlegels or the confident, moneyed Wilcoxes?

I ask her who did. “Money wins. Money won. But I’m still an optimist. I still think it didn’t grab my soul. It didn’t win me.”

Instead quality British television, albeit in an American co-production, has won her. She calls this a fresh chapter in her life. She is back in London, renting in Battersea, and has a new boyfriend with whom she expects to settle and have children.

“He’s a doctor. A medical doctor, so he’s not in the industry and I’ve known him since I was ten.” They were reintroduced by his sister. “I’ve finally met someone I want to share my life with,” says the woman who once said that her relationships came and went in two-year cycles.

I congratulate her. “I’m very happy, but, as Margaret says, I don’t expect any man or woman to be all my life. I think that’s such a beautiful thing to say and it’s true. You can love someone tremendously, but if you get lost in someone, it’s the end of the relationship anyway.”

It’s clear that these two highly evolved women, Hayley Atwell and Margaret Schlegel, are unimprovably matched. [Source]




 

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