Hayley Atwell: Gentlemen swoon, but only on set...

One pout and leading men fall at her feet. But the star of 'Any Human Heart' says it isn't like that in real life. Susie Mesure meets Hayley Atwell

Hayley Atwell certainly knows how to stand out in a crowd. Encased in a red satin sheath dress, with a long black satin jacket and a certain pair of red-soled black patent peep-toes that match her red, red lips, she is the only Any Human Heart cast member instantly visible through the throng that has gathered in the Fitzrovia Hotel basement for the screening of the TV adaptation of William Boyd's best-selling novel.

She looks every inch the Hollywood screen siren, which is clearly no coincidence. Atwell calls it "working with what she has", in a paraphrase of some advice she got early on in her career. The result is that Freya, her character in the Channel 4 drama, has barely to glance at Matthew Macfadyen, who plays the protagonist Logan Mountstuart, before he is utterly smitten. It's that perfect red pout that hooks him, just as it hooked the Duke (Ralph Fiennes) in Amanda Foreman's The Duchess, and will hook Captain America (Chris Evans) in the Marvel Comic blockbuster she is finishing up filming now.

Rewind two days, and it's those lips I find myself staring at while chatting over coffee in a north London pub. This time they're pale pink, not red, but that's a mere detail. For Atwell, the lips have become the tools of her trade. "It took me a long time to accept that. I remember at drama school saying, 'I want to play that part, and that part', and having teachers say to me, 'You're a pretty girl, you shouldn't deny that, and you won't ever be able to play that unless you have a prosthetic nose.'"

And work with it she has, starting out with landing a plum role in the BBC's The Line of Beauty fresh out of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama five years ago. The female lead in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream followed, plus several celebrated stage roles, including Belinda in the National Theatre's The Man of Mode.

For all that she is pure bombshell, Atwell, 28, insists that real life isn't anything like her on-screen avatars might have you believe. Take her boyfriend of two years – the budding scriptwriter Gabriel Bisset-Smith. Although they have known each other for eight years, he barely gave her a second glance when they met as students at the Guildhall. And despite steamy scenes with any number of eligible leading men, from Colin Farrell to Ewan McGregor, she claims that not one has tried it on with her after the cameras are switched off.

"I remember when Keira Knightley said, 'I've never been hit on on-set', and I was like, 'Whaaaaaat! Are you kidding?' And then going, 'Actually, neither have I.' I don't know whether it's because I'm a natural flirt, so I never take any flirting seriously. But I have to be elbowed in the ribs by a friend going, 'He's coming on to you.' I'm like: 'He's not; he's just chatty. Actors are sociable beings!'"

As for Bisset-Smith, a Dominic Cooper-lookalike right down to the sultry expression he wears as they chat at the screening, she says he "hated" her when they first met. And the feeling was mutual. "I think he thought that I was a people pleaser and that I was very earnest and took myself very seriously. And I thought he was arrogant," she pauses, chuckling throatily in that actorly way, "and cocky. I remember shaking his hand and looking up and thinking, 'You're really goodlooking,' but he had no charm about him. He was just like, 'I'm not going to make an effort,' and normally I'm like 'Hiiiiii!'"

Atwell can't seem to stop herself making an effort, turning on the charm first with our photographer, promising to Google one of his previous shots, and then with me, feigning deep sincerity when she checks if I managed to find childcare given that her only available date for our interview catches me on a day off.

The new best friend thing almost has me suckered, but then an actor friend of mine who knows Atwell tells me she's renowned for it – until she never calls. Certainly, I'm still waiting for her to make good on her promise to reply to my email. And at the screening, which she enthused about me attending, I struggled to maintain her interest beyond a quick salutation and air kiss.

It's that glamorous red dress that makes her late for our meeting. Although she must have chosen the Primrose Hill pub, which is round the corner from her flat, like me she has come from south-east London (but above, not below, ground). She was there picking up an outfit or two from a Bermondsey-based atelier for her busy week: as soon as we've finished chatting she's off to Berlin for the German premiere of The Pillars of the Earth, the Ken Follett mini-series that she's also starring in, and then it's straight back for the Any Human Heart one. She couldn't resist pulling on one of the Pussy Willow jackets to jazz up her grey jeans-and-T-shirt combo, which she has paired with short, studded biker boots for our photoshoot. Yet despite looking very chic, she insists: "I'm not particularly, um, what's the word? I don't always feel well groomed. I don't always feel in the mood to wear make-up, so I don't feel like a glamour girl, really. Especially at 23, 24, coming out of drama school, I was like, 'I just want to wear black and I don't want to wear make-up.'"

Her preference for dressing down is ironic given that pretty much all her roles have involved some serious period costumes, much as she'd like the chance to do something "grittier". Even Captain America, her longed-for action blockbuster in which she plays Peggy Carter, is set in the 1940s. "So there I am, trying to do an action piece, and it's still period. Will I ever get away from it? I hope so." She laughs: "I'd love to do a film where I'm in jeans and a T-shirt. That would be so nice." Not that she'll get her wish if one of her projects comes off: she's working on producing a story about Emma Hamilton with Kate Williams, who wrote a book about Nelson's mistress. "She [Williams] mentioned that she'd like me to play her in a film, so I read the book and contacted her, and we've been talking ever since. It's lovely to be on that side of it. Just opening a dialogue with a writer and formulating a character from scratch."

She's keen to do more writing generally. When Vogue published a couple of her pieces – on the joys of the pencil skirt, and a behind-the-scenes peek at the Brideshead Revisited remake (she played Julia) – it gave her a thirst for the printed word. Writing is something she could have indulged at Oxford; she got an offer to read philosophy and theology, but turned it down. That said, she subsequently missed the grades (presumably it wasn't a two-E offer). "To get into Oxford felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I felt like it was a waste of time because I wanted to act."

Although her background wasn't thespy, it was undoubtedly bohemian. She describes her relationship with her mother Alison while growing up – her parents separated when she was two – as very Ab Fab; she was more her mum's friend than her daughter. Not that she wasn't close to her father, Grant (or Star Touches Earth, to give him his Native American name), a shaman who moved back to the States after the divorce. "We had quite a romantic, idealistic relationship when I was younger because he was kind of this god-like figure that lived in that hot country across the ocean where it never rained and everyone was happy." She says she's a mix of both parents, claiming "personality-wise" to be more like her mum. "My voice is very similar to her's. My dad is definitely very other-worldly, which is probably where I get my dreaminess from. I like to get lost in my own thoughts a lot."

Being half American, Atwell could easily do the Hollywood thing and move to Los Angeles. But she wanted to plant her theatrical roots in London first. "I'm in this for the long run, and I want to be able to be in a rehearsal room with actors who I admire and respect and can still learn from, so that I'm still here in 40, 50 years' time, and I felt that to go off to America before I'd really established that was a little bit premature."

Expect that resolve to crumble right around the time Captain America premieres next summer. For the Yanks, he's their James Bond and Doctor Who rolled into one, so playing his squeeze will be a big deal for Atwell. And after all, she's already got the Hollywood look nailed.

'Any Human Heart' starts on 21 November on Channel 4

Curriculum vitae

1982 Born Hayley Elizabeth Atwell in London, where she is brought up by her mother, Alison, in Ladbroke Grove, after her parents separated when she is two. Spends every summer with her father, Grant, in the United States.

2000 Attends Sion-Manning Roman Catholic Girls' School, then the London Oratory but opts not to pursue an offer from Oxford University in favour of studying drama.

2005 After taking two years off to travel with her father and work for a casting director, she spends three years studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Her first job on graduating is advertising Pringles.

2006 Lands the part of Catherine Fedden in the BBC's adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. Catches Woody Allen's eye and is cast as Angela, the female lead in his Cassandra's Dream.

2008 Plays Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in The Duchess. Gets together with her boyfriend, the budding playwright Gabriel Bisset-Smith.

2010 Films Captain America, in which she plays the hero's love interest, Peggy Carter. Also stars in two TV miniseries: The Pillars of the Earth and Any Human Heart.

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