May 14th, 2019   Author: Nick   Interviews

In the Marvel films, British bombshell Peggy Carter needs no super powers to vanquish her enemies. But Hayley Atwell, the 37-year-old English actress who plays her in the most lucrative franchise ever made, certainly seems to possess something special.

When we meet, Atwell has just endured two and a half hours of emotional torment as the tragic heroine in a new West End production of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Yet here she is signing autographs for fans at the stage door, wide-eyed and fresh as a sea breeze, looking as if she’s all set for a day’s work. Surely that’s a super power?

“I’ve never felt so energetic,” she tells me as she leads me to her dressing room in the Duke of York’s Theatre. “I think it has a lot to do with having experienced adversity. You know, moments of failure in my career. But then, once you’ve been around the block you can let go of the person you think you’re supposed to be. My friends in their thirties and forties are much happier now because of that. I mean, there was a reckless thrill when you were younger of working s— out and making horrendous mistakes, but now I feel I am driving my own life.”

If Atwell’s CV contains such mistakes, they are overwhelmed by her successes: an enviable combination of high-end television adaptations, a prolific stage career and, of course, the Avengers films and her own Netflix spin-off, Agent Carter.

To her performances, Atwell brings both a crisp-vowelled Blitz spirit and a forceful modernity, a contrast that has served her well in some of her biggest period drama roles – as the progressive Margaret Schlegel in the 2017 BBC adaptation of Howards End, and as Julia Flyte in the big-screen version of Brideshead Revisited (2008).

She was 27 when she won the role of Peggy Carter in Captain America: the First Avenger (2011), a wartime siren who fights alongside her superhero lover to thwart the plots of diabolical masterminds. “I have grown up with that franchise,” says Atwell. “It made my experience of Hollywood very positive. They were good to me – and kind. They let me be me and never tried to over-sexualise me or anything. It was a wholesome experience.”

For the recent finale Avengers: Endgame – which broke box office records by taking over $2 billion (£1.5 billion) in its first two weeks – Atwell had to keep all the plot lines secret and was hidden from the rest of the cast in a trailer for weeks on end. It was worth the wait. The producers gave her the film’s final shot, as it is revealed – spoiler alert! – that Captain America (Chris Evans) has decided to stay in the past to be with his sweetheart, Peggy. “I cried when they told me that,” says Atwell. “But it was such a delight.”

Atwell is relentlessly upbeat company, with a megawatt smile and tendency towards the Panglossian broken only by the occasional hint of dissatisfaction. She tells me she regrets one TV show that she doesn’t name, but I suspect it’s the American legal drama Conviction, which was cancelled after one series in 2016. “There was a corporate sense to it which felt formulaic and quite difficult artistically,” Atwell says. She got through it, but “made the clear decision to seek good projects”.

Rosmersholm certainly fits the bill. In Ian Rickson’s revelatory production, Atwell gives a truthful, open-hearted performance as Rebecca West, a woman who has rejected Christianity and its moral code. Despite a degree of philosophical liberation, the character lacks the means to embark on a life alone and is left languishing on the estate of Rosmer (played by Tom Burke), a pastor with whom she is in love. The play begins after Rosmer’s wife has taken her own life, presumably disturbed by the latent passion between her husband and Rebecca, her best friend.

Part of Rebecca’s tragedy, says Atwell, is that “she was a bit too before women’s suffrage. Those drives, those passions, those beliefs, were not there for her. You kind of think ‘what a waste’. If only she had been born at the right time.” Atwell, who describes Ibsen as “a feminist in his bones”, has hung portraits in her dressing room of Christabel Pankhurst and Germaine Greer.

“A lot of my male friends are feminists now,” she tells me. “They are starting to be curious about the female experience, but there is also a sense of ‘Oh, thank God! Can you just take over for a bit?’ The patriarchal society doesn’t serve men either. If you are not born alpha, it is a real struggle to find dignity when you’re a beta male.”

When I ask Atwell whether she worries about getting older, she looks at me as if that were a ridiculous question. “No! I’m on a different trajectory now. It’s much more about character. When I was in my twenties, I was going for the ingénue, the girlfriend, the beauty, but that’s all changed. And things are shifting for older actresses.”

Ian Rickson describes her as a “gorgeous golden retriever in rehearsals, generous and brave in her approach”. Of course, bravery is the sign of a good actor but Rickson also pinpoints something more unusual – Atwell’s ability to absorb all sorts of information and use it in her performance. “If you talk about a play or an exhibition, Hayley’s seen it; or if it’s a book, she’s read it. She uses all that, and also, I think, the difficulties she had in early life.”

Despite her apparent poshness, Atwell’s upbringing was not straightforwardly privileged. Her American father and English mother were both motivational speakers who separated when she was two, and she was raised by her mother in social housing in Ladbroke Grove, west London. She was sent to an expensive prep school, Hill House, and then, in leaner times, to an all-girls comprehensive in North Kensington. She has always had a strong social conscience, and has worked for Justice4Grenfell supporting the survivors and bereaved families of the 2017 tower-block fire that occurred so close to her childhood home.

“I always had a cause as a kid. I really felt the imbalance in the world from a young age,” she says. “Hill House was a gift. I remember going to the Grosvenor House hotel ballroom for the Sultan of Brunei’s nephew’s eighth birthday party. Timmy Mallett was offering round the cake and then the Royal Marines sang Happy Birthday and we were all given a My First Sony on the way out. Then I’d go back to my social housing where no one had money.

“Then there was the American side. I’d spend my summers in Kansas City [with her father] where there was just an abundance of everything. People had more clothes and more food, probably because it was cheaper. But they looked richer. All of that was obvious to me as a kid.”

As a child, Atwell felt her mind open up after reading William Raeper’s A Beginner’s Guide to Ideas. It turned her into a committed autodidact. Had she not been accepted at 18 to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where future Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker was a classmate), she says she would have liked to study philosophy and politics at university. That intellectual drive has never left her: she pulls back a curtain in her dressing room to reveal a bookshelf with volumes by Virginia Woolf, Nell Dunn and Dorothy Parker.

It’s hardly a surprise that the cerebral Atwell isn’t on Twitter. She talks about big-name actors “narcissistically taking selfies and tearing down the status of a movie star… Everybody can be a celebrity now and that sheen has gone.”

Is that a shame? “In a way, but my favourite performers are character actors who convey something that is messy and human.”

She does put images of her work on Instagram, but only for professional purposes. “I do not share the most valuable part of my life,” she says. “I know what the boundaries are.” (Indeed, she won’t tell me whether she has a boyfriend, although it seems that she is in a relationship with a doctor whom she has known since primary school.)

Rather, Instagram lets her “reach out” to fans. “I can interact with a girl who is growing up in social housing as I did and who loves theatre and I can demystify it and say, ‘Yes, it is for you. You can break out of the class system that Britain is still saddled with.’”

That kind of pep talk seems all in a day’s work for Atwell. Her evident personal strength is, I suggest, unusual, given that the children of bohemian parents so often fall by the wayside.

“Bohemian is quite a reductive word,” she says, firmly. “The Bohemians had this romantic idea of living in poverty and shirking responsibility, but that wasn’t my childhood. My parents loved people and I was exposed to this rich, multicultural environment where everyone talked about their ideas. And that’s the same in rehearsal rooms now. I love that side of things. It’s in my bones.”

She pauses. “But also I know it’s only a job. At the end of the day I’m just human shaped.”

Human shaped, yes, but with a touch of superhuman strength.

Rosmersholm is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2 (0844 871 7623) until July 20 [Source]

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