Hayley Atwell may have made a name for herself among American television audiences when she joined the Marvel universe as Peggy Carter in “Agents of SHIELD” and “Agent Carter,” but that is far from the London-born actress’ only period drama. In 2010 she starred in “The Pillars of the Earth” and now she is taking on the role of Margaret Schlegel in “Howards End.” But for Atwell, who also will soon appear on the big screen in “Christopher Robin,” as well, the concentrated effort is not to focus on historical periods but just to chase the strongest writing.
How familiar were you with the book or film version of “Howards End” and were either a big part of the draw to the Starz limited series?
I hadn’t read the book but I had seen the film, and I had very strong memories of Merchant Ivory and Emma’s [Thompson] role in it, and as soon as I heard the words “Kenny Lonergan and ‘Howards End’” together, I just thought it was a slam dunk — in terms of the experience, in terms of having the opportunity to tell a classic story together — because it deals with human things that transcend time, and Kenny writes humans so well and so naturalistically. I just felt he was the most amazing person to bring it to life. So I read the book when I came to it [but] I didn’t see the film again — Emma had said, “Don’t watch what I have done, make her yours. You are she and she is you. If you are going to do any prep for it, read books on physics.” She said, “She has such a big brain, just always keep her active. She’s a naturally inquisitive character.”
Is there pressure with “Howards End” to live up to an expectation audiences who read the book or saw the 1992 film version may have?
I didn’t feel pressure [and] I think it comes from theater. Coming from theater, as an actor you have this canon of great roles, if you’re lucky enough to get a bash at something — whether it be Lady Macbeth or Hedda Gabler or Cleopatra or Nora in “A Doll’s House.” And Margaret Schlegel was just a great role for a woman. So, you don’t say, “Judi Dench played Lady Macbeth and don’t want a stab at it [too].” The work is better than you are so you’re just trying to go toward the work and what the character and story requires of you. Good writing, for me, steers my performance, and I get out of the way. I was talking to Matthew [Macfadyen] and we were actually quite chuffed about it because we were walking the path that had been walked by Emma and Anthony [Hopkins], and we were having a go at it as well, and it did feel like there was an open ownership of it. Like with any classic role, there isn’t a definitive version of it. They hit for a particular moment in time and resonate with an audience and have an impact — but you can’t know what they are. So for me, there was just so much to focus on in terms of the character that I didn’t worry about me.
What aspect of Margaret did you connect with most, and conversely, what was the biggest challenge to portraying her?
First of all, when she’s having this kind of conversation with Helen, who cannot understand what she could possibly see in Henry Wilcox — and she’s crying and upset that I’ve accepted this proposal — Margaret says this incredible speech that’s taken directly from the book. She says, “There are heaps of things in me that he will never understand and equally there are many things about him that i won’t know. And you could even say that he is not as morally honest as I am, but I will not use his soul as raw materials to fashion an idea of what I want him to be — that would be contemptible and unfair. Only connect, that is the whole of my self — only connect the passion and the prose and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.” And away from the literary language of that, what she’s basically saying is that she believes that human love is at its greatest when you can be fully accepting of the limitations of that person and the mysteries of that person that you will never know. And she also says, “I don’t expect any man or any woman to be and know and have all of me.” And the level of compassion in that without it being earnest, the space that she has for people to be themselves — and the space she has for everyone to develop and grow and be contradictory and hypocritical and full of flaws and also full of great qualities, I just thought that scene, for me [revealed] an amazing, evolved human being.
And then the other one, where she appeals to Henry later on [when] he won’t let Helen sleep in his house because she’s pregnant with an illegitimate child, and that’s like committing social suicide, and he doesn’t want to be a part of it because what it will look like for him. When she has that confrontation where she says, “You are criminally muddled” — to have this amazing story whereby you see her being so compassionate, so accepting, so willing to forgive him about his past, let Helen develop into who she is, let Tibby be the strange little eccentric character that he is, and yet, when it comes to protecting her sister, she does confront him. But she confronts him in a way that’s not petulant —she appeals to his better self. To say, “The way that I have forgiven you, forgive Helen” [and] asking him to have compassion for this woman, she does it in a way that’s appealing to him rather than critical of his character. So that was the challenge — going, “Can I try and change them without feeling like I am attacking them?” And that was hard!
How helpful was the collaboration process with Kenny or director Hettie Macdonald in pushing past those hard spots?
It’s a conversation with Kenny about how he wrote it and what he’s saying and what he feels the tone of it is — he writes specifically and there are commas there for a reason. Hettie said, “He’s written that with a comma at the end, it’s not a full stop yet, so let’s honor that.” She was very specific. And being specific, it feels that Kenny’s telling me how to do it. With him, it feels, as you’re saying it, that it makes sense psychologically and emotionally, and it takes you to these places. It’s very easy to emotionally connect to his writing. We did [the scene] it many times, and it’s a conversation with Hettie [too]. She would tweak it here and there, but mostly to take emotion out of it. Because I thought, “Oh this is her breakdown” so at one point I got very emotional about it, and I was crying, and it was very hard to speak to him. And at one point she cut and said, “That’s not as interesting — because you’ve given up.” It’s sort of like at those crucial moments in life when change is going to happen, or not, based on what you do in that moment, it’s sometimes more interesting, instead of breaking down in that moment, to try not to. The tension that the audience sees of you trying not to is what makes them cry.
Is there a particular attraction you have to period dramas that keeps you coming back to the genre?
No, not really. I’d love to take Margaret and put her in a different story [too]. Of course the audience can see the aesthetic of a period drama and the sensibility can be so different to now, but I kind of see it as just the story. I think, also, there’s a kind of misconception I had about period drama acting that you’re brought up watching — that there is a stiffness to it that makes it seem quite earnest and wistful and sentimental — this nostalgic view of what the past was like. And I don’t think the book is like that. It’s really passionate, and the women are really passionate. And they’re big thinkers and they take up space, whether it’s with their voices and their ideas and their opinions, or it’s with their love and passion. And I think the thing that was useful was we had these photographs that we found in this archive that were action shots — which you don’t normally see because back in Edwardian and Victorian [times] everyone had to [be stationary] in order for the camera to be still enough to take the picture. So maybe we got this idea that everyone was really stiff back then [with] all this formality [from them]. But in these actions shots there are women striding down, books under their arms, heads back, cigarettes, laughing, and you go, “They were alive! Let’s be alive! Let’s make it really stick.” I love language, so I think when I work, I’ve tended to go for what I think is really good writing. And it tends to be more literary adaptations because there’s a reverence for the art and style of writing and language [there].
When you reflect on your roles so far, what comes to mind as particularly personally resonant?
Probably “Black Mirror” because I’d done big emotion like that on stage, so I knew I could do it, but I hadn’t done it on screen. And there was no need to look a certain way, there was no need to use sexuality as a currency, I was allowed to be vulnerable. And I think I have a natural default position, as we all do, which is I’m confident, and I just felt like when I could relax into the fact that I’m not [always]. I think it was also being able to trust that I could deliver emotion like that without it seeming indulgent. Dealing with that sort of heavy material was important to me.
And then there was “The Pride,” which was a play I had done in the West End, and I got an Olivier nomination for it. It was such a beautiful mix of playing a modern day girl and a girl in the ’50s — I kept having to swap. And she [too] has a breakdown, and she taught me the power of what can be conveyed without saying anything. It’s a scene where she’s confronting the man that she knows is having an affair with her husband, and the way that she does it is they meet in the park, they’re talking about the weather, they’re very quiet — it’s everything that’s not being said kind of thing, the air is so heavy. And she says, “I was changing the sheets in the bedroom the other day, and I found something. I think it’s yours.” And she picks up this gold pen, and she just holds it out to him, and there’s the longest pause. And in that moment you know they both know, and if he accepts the pen he’s going, “Yeah you’re right.” But it’s so powerfully held, those big emotions — the sort of “I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to have this breakdown.” It’s nothing about him — it’s not shaming him — it’s understanding human beings, including herself, sometimes things can’t be said. Anyway, long story short, I just connected to that emotionally, and I found it to be a very fulfilling experience.
You clearly have a great memory — how long do your roles really stay so fresh in your mind?
They come back to me if I talk about them. I think it’s more that. I’m really good at compartmentalizing. You’ve got to let things go all the time — all the time. I just did a play in London and as soon as the curtain came down it’s [snaps her fingers]. I went out to dinner with friends who didn’t know about the play, didn’t care about the play, don’t give a s— that I’m an actor, “Stop talking about yourself.” So feed the dog, go to the gym, do the laundry — do something that has nothing to do with what you’ve just done. And I want to be that kind of actor. I don’t want to take my work home and inflict it on other people. I’m not method at all.
What does it take to get into the right mindset for any given role then?
As soon as cameras roll, I have to engage, and that’s about a lot of breathing and centering myself in that emotion. And sometimes I would find if I thought about something — like in “Black Mirror” it was very much about having lost my grandmother a few years back and the idea of what she would say if I could speak to her. Remembering those things, you kind of re-traumatize yourself in a way, and it’s hard, but I want to be good at my job. I really, really care, and maybe to my detriment, the atmosphere that I’m creating on set. These people work really, really long hours and are there before me and there after me, and they want to get on with the job, and I want to be respectful of that. They’re respectful of me when the cameras are rolling, so I really struggle with the balance with wanting to play and chat but also going, “If I do that, then on ‘action’ I won’t be there.” In a play it’s different because you work through that in rehearsal, and usually once I’ve done it sort of half-way through, then I know I can react with the emotional memory — and doing a play is chronological, so you know where you’re going to.
What added element did the stunt work on “Agent Carter” do to the way you worked on that set?
The stunts come in with, I think, my drama school education. You learn the basics of unarmed combat and about coordination and choreography. So there’s no difference for me in learning fight sequences than dance sequences — you do it safely for the technical side of it but you use it like a dance, really. And it is quite fun to kind of turn off the thinking side of it and throw myself into the physical side of it.
What advice did you receive early in your career that you still utilize today?
When I left drama school, “Hedda Gabler” was my final piece and I had just gotten an agent and it was really exciting, and I was kind of like, “Wow, I’m going to auditions already, this is really amazing!” And my teacher came up to me, and she pulled me aside and she said, “I believe after these three years of working with you, your biggest strength is how flexible you are in taking direction — you’re very good at listening and then doing what the director asks and taking the idea and running with it. However, the limitation is you’re going to go out in an industry where a lot of times the director isn’t going to give you anything.” And I found myself scared I wouldn’t know what to do — improvisation didn’t come easily for me at the beginning. I felt like I was a blank canvas out of school — like I was only ever as good as the direction I was receiving — and a lot of time in the industry you don’t get a lot of direction, so you’ve got to offer something. So she said, “Any audition you go into, just make a strong choice.”
Is there a cause — social, political, or otherwise philanthropic — that you care most about right now?
Grenfell Tower, which is social housing community in the community I was brought up — I was also brought up in social housing. June 14th of last year there was an electrical fire and because of clotting that had surrounded the tower that was flammable, the whole tower went up in an inferno and 72 people died and no one has been brought to justice. And because that is the community that brought me up and I went to school with one of the survivors, it just very much resonates with me. It’s not about the fire, which in itself is a tragedy, but it’s about the people — it is about how one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest countries is not taking care of people who don’t have money. They should be better housed, and they should be taken care of, and safety checks should be in place. It’s also about race — there was a heavy Muslim-Moroccan population, and there were so many things that point to institutional racism, disparity, and a disregard for people in social housing as being like the “other.”
How important is it for you to work on projects that take on such causes or other kinds of topical social commentary?
If I’m going to be socially and politically aware, I want to make sure my emotions don’t get the better of me — of course I’m also going to be emotionally engaged, but that also has to link to an informed and growing and developing narrative, thought-process, that also I have the right to change and to be challenged by other people. I feel like everything that I respond to in terms of storytelling is absolutely part of the conversation of where we’re at now. That’s why I engage with it. And I think that’s what classics do — the classics, when they’re done well, do transcend the circumstance. That’s just good storytelling, irrespective to the time period.