Hayley Atwell Central

Hayley Atwell believes many British period dramas are too “stiff” and says she is delighted that her character in Howards End is not another “damsel in distress”.

The actress, 35, also revealed she sought advice from Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for playing the same role — Margaret Schlegel — in the 1992 film version.

Atwell stars with Australian newcomer Philippa Coulthard in the BBC’s new four-part take on E M Forster’s novel. She told the Standard: “I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on. It’s clever, it’s nuanced, it’s mature, it’s sophisticated without being pretentious, it’s accessible, it’s warm, it’s witty.

“Yet we steered very clear and stayed well away from it being another stiff British period drama that felt up its own arse or felt in any kind of way impenetrable.

“We made the characters feel very real and the kind of people you’d run into in the modern day.”

Forster’s 1910 novel follows three families in England, including the half-German Schlegels. Atwell said: “The Schlegels are of the intellectual set but there are also contradictions, hypocrisies, self doubt as they make their way through the world with the tools they have. It’s a dream to be given a female character that is so nuanced.

“I feel like Margaret is rare because there are few characters like her, even in literature, as the centre of the piece. She has many facets to her character and she grows and changes throughout it instead of being someone who is linear, or being the downtrodden damsel in distress — the victim of something, which so many female roles are. She’s never a victim.”

Atwell and Thompson, 58, have been friends since meeting on the set of the film adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 2007. She said: “Emma and I spoke about me getting this part at length and I went on holiday to Greece with her… she said, ‘Please don’t watch what I did. This is your Margaret’.”

Coulthard, 24, plays Margaret’s sister Helen, the role Helena Bonham Carter took in the 1992 film. She told the Standard: “It was very surreal. I went to a few acting classes when I was little, but no legit acting school by any means.

“I would have loved to have gone to drama school — I guess I was working throughout my teens. In some senses it’s great to learn on the job.” [Source]


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