From her unconventional upbringing to her frank comments about women in film, nothing is typical about straight-talking actress Hayley Atwell. Her British mother, who’s a motivational speaker, and her American father, who’s a shaman, separated when she was two years old, so Hayley grew up in Britain but spent summers in Missouri, and from a young age she had an interest in performing, if for no other reason than as an antidote to her shyness. She studied at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and broke into the mainstream in 2007, with her role in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, and subsequent roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess won her nominations from the British Independent Film Awards and London Film Critics’ Circle Awards.
Hayley is candid and compassionate, and she does not shy away from voicing her opinions on the ills of today’s society. It’s little wonder then that she was cast as Captain America’s heroine, Peggy Carter – a strong, smart and all-round kick-ass female force in a modern action franchise, something she’s fully aware is all too rare in cinema today. So successful has her portrayal of Peggy Carter been that a TV spin-off, titled Agent Carter, is scheduled for production later this year, giving what seems to be an insatiable fan base more of what they crave.
But while the cards all seem to be stacked in her favour, Hayley’s not one to sit back and bask in her celebrity; instead she’s been wading into debates surrounding gay rights in Russia, and encouraging discussions about modern feminism. Just over two years since we first interviewed her, we catch up with one of Britain’s most promising exports.
HUNGER: YOU WERE PHOTOGRAPHED TODAY WITH YOUR BOYFRIEND EVAN. CAN YOU TELL US HOW YOU MET?
Hayley Atwell: I suppose I indirectly scouted him. I saw him at a party and thought that he had a really interesting look and a great sense of style, and I had a contact at Storm modelling agency, so I called them up. They signed him on the spot, and then I sent the pictures to Rankin to take a look at. It reminded me of early on in my career when people had faith in me and gave me a chance. It feels like it’s come full circle. I wanted to introduce Evan to people.
YOU WERE INVOLVED IN THEATRE FROM A VERY YOUNG AGE. WAS CREATIVE EXPRESSION SOMETHING THAT WAS ENCOURAGED WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
Yes, it was. I was really shy as a kid, but my mum always used to take me to the theatre and I loved it – everyone sitting in a dark room and having the same experience, going on the same journey, and things that weren’t normally said in every day life were being said on stage. I didn’t know how to get into it. I didn’t know if I had any talent for it. I didn’t even know if I wanted to do anything in front of people, but I just loved that world. My parents instilled in me the idea that we can do and be whoever we want to be if we have the right level of awareness.
YOUR BIGGEST ROLE TO DATE HAS BEEN PEGGY CARTER IN CAPTAIN AMERICA. HOW HAS IT HELPED SHAPE YOUR CAREER?
I think it’s given me a bigger platform and a taste for those kind of films, and it’s got an absolutely huge fan base. I get a lot of letters from young girls, and parents of young girls saying that she’s a really positive role model. That’s when this career opens up the potential for responsibility because young people are watching those films, and they’re influenced by the way women are depicted. To have someone in a male-dominated environment who’s smart and not running around in Spandex looking like a sex-symbol is refreshing.
AGENT CARTER LOOKS SET TO BE TURNED INTO A TV SERIES. HW DIFFERENT DO YOU THINK THE SPIN-OFF WILL BE?
I think TV is fantastic, and that’s why a lot of great directors and writers and even Hollywood actors, who mostly do film, go into TV now because it gives them a chance to do an episodic character study over a much longer period of time in which they can show a lot more depth. You can set them up in different scenarios and see how they react and overcome different challenges and obstacles. That’s what’s exciting about Peggy. I’m probably more excited about it being a series, because I think you get to show more.
PEGGY IS AN ACTION HERO FEMINIST, WHICH IS AN ANOMALY THESE DAYS. DO YOU THINK THE FILM INDUSTRY IS SCARED TO PUT WOMEN IN THE DRIVING SEAT?
Maybe. I think most films reflect what audiences want. It’s not just the industry, I think it’s a bigger reflection of society, and that’s got to change. It shouldn’t be about which films make money, they should possess a social consciousness. Two actresses and two characters who seem to be paving the way a little for modern-day heroines onscreen are actually on TV: Claire Danes in Homeland and Lena Dunham in Girls. Claire plays a protagonist who’s very smart and beautiful, but is struggling with bipolar disorder; she’s a multi-faceted character. It’s essentially based on some form of personal suffering that she has to battle with every day, while Lena Dunham is not afraid to say, “We’re making mistakes. I’m a constant disappointment to myself and the people around me because I’m always getting it wrong!”
AND SHE’S PROVING THAT – SHOCK HORROR! – WOMEN HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR.
Exactly! It’s very refreshing. I think Natalie Portman said something brilliant about modern-day female action heroes, about how even though they’re strong you need to also see the messiness of everyday life, that complexity. Even with Peggy Carter… Can we see her have a really shit day, put her pyjamas on and eat loads of ice cream and weep into chick flick? Can we have her be neurotic, hysterical, funny, depressed and all those things that we all relate to that aren’t regularly depicted because they’re not seen as sexy or comfortable for men to watch and masturbate over?
Read more of Hayley’s interview in issue six of Hunger magazine, out now
Hear more from The Night VI here