Hayley Atwell is best known for Marvel’s Agent Carter, the short-lived spin-off that centered on her Marvel Cinematic Universe character. As Peggy Carter, Atwell punched, drank, and finessed her way through the male-dominated field of espionage. She still holds her spy character dear, but Atwell has taken up the fight for justice elsewhere, including the now-defunct legal drama Conviction, and more recently, in the BBC adaptation of Howards End.
The first part of the lush Edwardian miniseries from Kenneth Lonergan and director Hettie Macdonald made the trip across the Atlantic to premiere on Starz on April 8, with three more installments set to run through the month. Lonergan’s transferred the themes of E.M. Forster’s classic novel to the small screen, establishing the cultural divide between the progressive Schlegels—including Atwell’s Margaret—and the conservative Wilcoxes, including period-drama regular Matthew Macfadyen as the uptight Henry. Under Macdonald’s direction, the famed manor is by turns expansive, like Margaret’s mind, and as narrow as the social conventions she’s instructed to follow.
The A.V. Club spoke with Atwell at the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour, where we were treated to only a glimpse of the faithful adaptation almost a year ahead of its premiere. The onetime (and hopefully future) MCU player discussed going outside your “bubble,” taking control of her social media activity, what made Lonergan the right writer for the miniseries, and of course, reboots.
The A.V. Club: E.M. Forster’s book explored social conventions, class, and national identity, so does it strike you as being pertinent to our current cultural conversations?
Hayley Atwell: Absolutely. You have three different families, from three different segments of the middle class. The Basts are at the very end of that tier, teetering on the abyss of destitution. The middle of the middle, which is Helen and Margaret, have the privilege of being intellectuals—that’s their luxury, to have the time to read books, rather than have to work to eat. And then you have the Wilcoxes, who are the industrialists, the capitalists, money makers—you know, the self-made businessmen. The story’s very much about how they affect each other’s lives and how responsible they are for each other.
Then you have my character, Margaret [Schlegel], in the center of this, trying to connect with them all and trying to find the common humanity. So, it’s a story, ultimately, about hope and the humility that one must have and adopt, to understand that you’re not the center of the universe, given the pocket you exist in, and that what you say and what you do, has an effect on the other people around you. And the people outside of your own socio-economic world. So, yeah, very timely.
AVC: The Schlegels were sort of stand-ins for the Bloomsbury set, the group of English intellectuals and artists that included Virginia Woolf and Forster himself. We hear a lot about progressive intellectuals and “coastal elites,” including those in Hollywood these days, mostly from certain pundits, but would you say there’s a modern-day equivalent?
HA: I wonder, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was Hollywood. I would say probably the New York literary elite. Hollywood, to me, has become franchises—at the moment, superhero franchises. It seems like it’s the golden age of television, where a lot of the talent that would have been initially in feature films is coming to television to have a longer arc, longer amount of time to tell a story. And it’s just that, there’s so much content, it’s saturated with content that I think Hollywood or the film industry and television industry is not as elite as the Bloomsbury group was. So, I would say there’s certain projects that, of course, are that kind of high-brow property, but I think Hollywood’s so saturated, with so much, that you have to kind of navigate your way through it to find the quality or the kind of stories that speak to you.
AVC: How familiar were you with Kenneth Lonergan’s work before you joined the miniseries?
HA: I was a fan of his work—I saw Manchester By The Sea a couple of days before I was offered Howards End, and the main pull was when my agent said, “An offer’s come in for you, for Howards End with the BBC.” And I went, “Great, oh, lovely. Margaret Schlegel, E.M. Forster, fantastic.” And then he went, “Kenny Lonergan’s adapted it.” And everything changed for me in that moment, because there’s a great story of Colin Callender, who is the head of Playground [Entertainment, a production company], who also produced this. He was on the phone to Kenny going, “You need to adapt this book. We want you to adapt it.” And Kenny came up with all these reasons why he shouldn’t adapt it. And Colin went, “All of those reasons are why you should adapt it.”
The reasoning was that [Lonergan’s] not reverential, he’s not English, he’s not coming to it with a sentimentality or a Romanticism or the idealism that it has to be this period drama—that he has a very accessible naturalism to his work, that he has a dark wit to him, that he’s not pretentious, that his work is believable and relatable. So he’d take something that in the wrong hands could be mannered, stilted, seemingly dated—another repetitive period drama in a world where there’s lots of dramas. But you have someone like Kenny come in, and he demystifies the whole world.
AVC: On the other hand, you have Hettie Macdonald, who’s worked in British TV for a while, including directing one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.
HA: I wasn’t as familiar with Hettie’s work, but when I met up with her, I was so impressed with how calm, clear, open, consistent, intelligent her vision was—intelligent without it being, I don’t know, condescending. And that she wanted to maintain the integrity of what E.M. Forster was saying and what Kenny Lonergan was bringing out of this, by making it a genuinely interesting thing. It interested her, and so we would do things like, we did a bit of rehearsal beforehand and she made sure that if there was any whiff of lazy acting into period drama—“I said my line, then you say your line and we sound very posh and we all look very pretty and we all go home and we have pizza”—that she would cut that and she would come up to us sometimes and go, “It’s not interesting.” And we’d go, “Oh, okay.” It makes you work harder and you want to, because the bar’s set so high with this kind of material, and obviously done before in fantastic film, that if it’s not good, you’ve messed up. Because it’s a really good story, it’s a fantastic script. So you’re aware of the level of responsibility that’s both really welcome and challenging.
And Hettie’s respect for the rehearsal process—she would clear the floor so that the cast [and] crew would leave us for a little while, while we figured out the physicality of each scene; the use of the props; what was the most interesting way to shoot this; where would this come from; making sure that that’s actually a comma, not a statement with a full stop; checking the punctuation of Kenny’s lines. Or going, “It’s this word, not that word, which although sounds like it says the same thing, you’ve got to do it based on what Kenny’s written and this is actually what he’s written.” We’d have the book and we’d refer to passages in the book, and there were moments where I’d get to ask Kenny questions and he’d email me back, like, a thesis on the certain choices that he made as to where he felt the character was at any given time. And so that was really exciting. It felt like there was so much material and so much we could start from, and so the questions and the choices were being made all day, every day. Rather than going, “I like that,” and sit there looking great. It just felt like we had a lot of work to do and there was no time, really, to get our egos involved in it. We were figuring out this extraordinary, complex puzzle, and then keeping it relevant to today.
AVC: Howards End and Agent Carter are both period pieces, and in both cases, your character is straining against the conventions of the time—and they’re both named Margaret, interestingly enough. But Peggy obviously got to do some things that Miss Schlegel couldn’t. Were you at all concerned that the Forster adaptation would be too confining?
HA: The social etiquette of the time is there to enforce certain rules, but within that you can breathe, you can flow, and you can put your legs up on a chair and put your arms back, despite the fact you’re wearing a corset. And we wanted the whole thing to have life to it so it felt engaging, it felt real. We’re invested in the characters, and Kenny’s detail of each character in giving them all their time and giving them all a very clear narrative, and the different rhythms in which they all spoke—which is all in keeping with the soul of what the book was about—meant that it doesn’t feel like a period drama. There’s some people that I know that have been in Starz at the moment, especially the millennials who have been watching it, and they’re so engaged with it, because ultimately, it’s characters and it’s humans and it’s people talking to each other and affecting each other emotionally, on the backdrop of this Edwardian England. That’s kind of secondary to the relationships.
AVC: Reboots and miniseries—or limited series—are very much in fashion right now, but the extra runtime is almost necessary for something like Howards End.
HA: I’m also not sure a film like that could be made at the moment, just because I think the money goes into franchises, and sequels, and prequels and sequels and remakes of, you know? This is kind of the time of the superhero. There are very few people who are leading—I look at the box office at the moment, and I go, “Well, a lot of films are just repetitive of a similar formula that’s just done before.” Same genre, same formula, same story really, ultimately, but just better technology and bigger sound effects. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, there’s just so much of it.
AVC: Well, speaking of superhero movies, you’ve kind of campaigned for an Agent Carter movie in the past. Is that something you’re still interested in doing?
HA: Yeah, I mean, I really love the people that I work with in Marvel. I’ve known Louis D’Esposito for eight years now, and Kevin Feige; they’re really good fun, and they’re good guys. And it’s a franchise that works because it has that tongue-in-cheek element to it that I think Joss Whedon also brought in. When I kind of look at anything now, I look at it in terms of the genre and the context and who its audience is. And I feel that Marvel have their winning formula at the moment of creating superhero genre that everyone wants to see. And Peggy’s such a lovely character. I am kind of playing her with my eyes closed, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t play her again, because I like what she puts out into the world. Although, it’s not necessarily high brow, we’re not talking Shakespeare here, I’ve met girls at conventions who say they’re proud of having a strong woman to look up to, who doesn’t have any super powers, who uses her intelligence and her wit to fight the bad guys—and she also likes other women. They’ve really enjoyed that. They’ve projected onto her as a symbol for some positive things. And that’s really lovely, that’s really nice to know that part of the work that you’ve done is in someway, hopefully, in a very, very small way, contributed to someone having a good time for an afternoon.
AVC: Do you think given the ways in which women are coming to the foreground as creators of TV or the stars of shows like Game Of Thrones, Big Little Lies, and The Handmaid’s Tale, that this might actually have been a more opportune time for something like Marvel’s Agent Carter?
HA: Yeah. It’s a shame the network canceled it and wanted to put me in something more mainstream. You know, Marvel didn’t want it to end. There’s lots of online campaigns to bring her back. Fans loved her. I think it was just a network economical thing: “Let’s put Hayley Atwell in something more mainstream that’s less genre-specific and see if we can get higher ratings.” And unfortunately, that isn’t, as an actor, anything I’ve got control over. But maybe, in small ways, characters like Peggy Carter very slowly pave the way for it to be possible for other female-led narratives to exist. We’re all part of the same conversation—I think Margaret’s also part of that. Margaret just says it in I think a more detailed, character-driven way. It’s not guns, but it’s the mental weapons, it’s psychological warfare.
AVC: You mentioned being a part of a larger conversation. You left Twitter a while ago—
HA: Yeah, 2015.
AVC: You got out before it became a total shitshow.
HA: Oh really? Is that what it is now?
AVC: Well, you’ve got the president essentially issuing executive orders from a smartphone.
HA: [Laughs.] Well, I’m on Instagram now, which I came to quite reluctantly. I had about a year of breaking from social media. I really liked that, ’cause I felt that it was—it’s again, a mine field. And I thought, “I just wanna be away from this for a bit.”
My [online] presence was so tied into Peggy, and it led to all kinds of admissions from people on social media, and I just thought, “I’m not a doctor, I’m an actor.” So I was struggling a little bit with what my actual presence should be, and I also admired so many actors who seem to be so cool and were not on social media at all. And they’re so amazing at what they do, and I just thought, I didn’t know how I sat with it. So I came off of it and then I gave myself a list of rules, which I stick by. And now I’m on Instagram and I have much more fun with creating funny videos or funny pictures. And I don’t read the comments, and things like my rule would be, “Don’t engage, don’t read the comments.” Yeah, and it feels like I can have much more of a… more on my terms, really. And I think it’s just better than it was.