Hayley Atwell talks Agent CarterShe stole Steve Rodger’s heart in Captain America, now she has her own show. Hayley Atwell talks to The Red Bulletin at the TV festival in Monte Carlo about playing Peggy Carter in the Marvel TV series Agent Carter
THE RED BULLETIN: What was it like to get your own show?
HAYLEY ATWELL: Well, it was a complete surprise. When I did the first Captain America movie I then went back to London and did a play, so I had no expection that five years later I would have my own show. Two things made this happen: first of all the response from the audiences and the fan base, who loved Peggy and they just wanted to see more of her. They were intrigued by who this enigmatic figure was. And then secondly Marvel, they seemed to like the way that I approached the character and that I had so much more to say about her, so they built the show around me. So it is a huge compliment. It is always the biggest compliment to get re-employed by the same people, because it proves that they liked you in the first place. So it has been a dream come true, it has totally changed my life.
What made you accept the role?
I found that the story of Peggy wasn’t even close to being finished. It felt that she had a little bit of screen time in the first (Captain America) movie. And we know from the second film that she lives a very long life, because she dies at the age of 96 or 97. So I knew that if we had a show, it would be able to fill in the gaps of what happened in that life.
What do you think would have become of you if you had lived in the ’40s?
Gosh, I mean I wouldn’t be a spy, because I am terrible at keeping secrets. I think I would definitely have helped in the war efforts. I would have been a land girl, I think I would have had a lot of children and I probably would have dressed similarly to my grandmother, who was always immaculate. She would always go to bed with her curlers in, wake up in the moring and do her make up before she even left the house, without fail. That is very different to how I am now. I am more of a tomboy. So I think I would have been a lot like my grandmother.
How do you feel about being the first female leading character in a Marvel franchise?
I love it. I am a tomboy at heart. My mum and my dad always instilled in me that I was smart. They would tell me things about my character as opposed to my beauty or my prettiness as a girl, so I never felt very very girly. So It feels like a natural progression that I would then be in a show, where I am kind of considered as strong as the men and as capable as the men, because that’s kind of what my parents told me when I was growing up. But I feel very privileged. It is a shame that it is a privilege, because it would be lovely if we had more situations like this, where women were centre figures, and I think they will be in the future.
Is it true that your father is a shaman?
He studied shamanism for about 20 years and it is very much part of his kind of cultural background. And it was something that I was quite into when I was around 17. And I went on sweat lodges with him and fire walks - that sort of thing growing up. So that kind of instilled a confidence in me that I think has helped me as an actor.
So this is the native-american side of you …
Yeah, the kind of folkore and mythology and storytelling and kind of ceremony. The thing with shamanistic rituals is: the power of storytelling can be quite a transcendental thing and I think, as an actor, I have always seen storytelling as bringing communities of people together and opening up our minds to understanding how different people live, so we become more empathetic creatures. So I think in that respect it very much has infiltrated my kind of outlook on my work.
What is the most romantic thing you have ever done? Are you a ronantic person?
I used to be a romantic person. I am a lot more practical now. I was so ruled by my heart when I was younger, as most young girls are, but I was so overwhelmed with love for people that I would fall for the wrong person, I would fall for the bad boy. As I have gotten older, I have thought about just being a little bit more sensible and keeping my heart a little bit more protected before I allow myself to fall too deeply. What was the most romantic thing I have ever done? I bought someone a ukulele.
How does being a celebrity affect your personal life?
It doesn’t really. I live quite an anonymous life in that I know where I choose to go. I know that I could become a bigger celebrity if I went to certain places or if I always dressed in a certain way. But I am an actor first and I loved the careers of people like Judy Dench or Helen Mirren, who could walk down the street or get on the tube and live their lives. Being part of society, not celebrity, is important to me. Some celebrities seem to live in a bubble, where they don’t engage with every day life. And that is a very dangerous place to be, because I dont think it makes a very good actor.
What do you do to transform into Agent Carter? You mentioned that Agent Carter wears a wig, but it looks very real …
It is a good wig, isn’t it? It is amazing. I wake up early at five in the morning and get to set, and within two hours I have physically transformed into Peggy. Because the clothes are so beautifully tailored and out of time, it means that you hold yourself differently, which means you breath deeper, which means your voice drops a little bit, so it gives you natural authority when you speak. It also means you carry yourself in a particular way. You feel a lot different when wearing high heels compared to a pair of old Converse for example!
Did you do a lot of research on the women of the ‘40s?
I love watching the Golden Age of Hollywood films. So people like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis were my legends, my absolute icons. And they had sass and sex appeal but they weren’t dependent on it. They weren’t like Marylin Monroe - they were known for their intelligence, their brain, wits, power and their sex appeal as well. All of those things. And I just felt that they were aspects that I have always looked up to so I wanted to give Peggy a little bit of that – as much as I possibly could.
Is it true that there is a picture of Peggy Carter on your driving license? Kind of the ’40s agent version of Hayley Atwell?
Yeah, I had to renew my driving license and I only had half an hour because I was filming that day. So they said that I had to go in costume there. So I walked in as Peggy Carter: My costume, my hair, my wig, my nails, my make up - and they took my picture as Peggy Carter, because I had no choice. So it is now my official driving license picture.
And it worked out?
Yeah, they were pretty fine with it. They didn’t bat an eye. They thought I looked like that every day.
What was the most challenging aspect on of Agent Carter for you?
I think probably the fight sequences because they were so relentless. We had to keep doing them and doing them until we got them right. They were quite hard to choreograph. It takes a lot of stamina. So in addition to do the emotional scenes I had to do a lot of physical stuff as well. That was probably the most challenging part.
How did you prepare?
I had two stunt coordinators that would take me through basic unarmed combat and martial arts skills. And I relied very much on my training in theatre. When I was at drama school I learned a lot of things like that, so I felt I had the foundation in me to be able to do it. And then I would rehearse the day before each scene with a stunt coordinator – just the choreography and the movement. And then, the more you do it, the better you get. So you kind of get into it by just doing it every day.
Are you a sporty person?
Well, I was at school. I go to the gym three to four times a week and I do a lot of freeweights. I like swimming. I would say I am quite active.
What about extreme sports?
Ahm, can you call shark diving a sport? I like doing that.
You had an incredible first season. What are the expectations for the second one?
Well, we’re most likely going to see her in a very different position. So it is a year later, it is set in Hollywood, it is going to have an L.A. Confidential kind of feel to it. But, obviously because it is in Hollywood, there is this glamour, but then what was so popular at that time in Hollywood was this real danger, it was a very dangerous place to be in the ‘40s. There were many unsolved mysteries like the Black Dahlia, and there was this kind of underground that was very violent, lots of gangsters and that sort of thing. So there will be a darkness to the location. She has moved on from Steve Rogers, so there is going to be a new romantic interest.
Can you give us a life-changing moment in your personal life?
I remember when my grandmother was dying, and I went for a little walk around the neighbourhood where she lived and she put her head on my shoulder and she said: “I love you so much, I’d give you the moon, if I could.” And I have it engraved on my ring. And because I knew I was going to lose her, I think the beauty of life becomes more intense, when you know it is about to go. And everything comes running back of the love that she gave me in that moment. So I don’t think life gets any bigger than that, when you realize how fragile it is. And that was a turning point. I was able to have a lot more compassion for other people, compassion for myself, acceptance of what life was like and that we all have to go eventually. And it made me kind of make peace with my mortality.