These days, Hayley Atwell may be one of the key players in the all-conquering Marvel universe. But the British actress has a confession to make. “I hate to say this, but I wasn’t a huge comic book girl [growing up],” she admits with a guilty laugh.
Instead, the young Atwell’s idols were not superheroes but the gorgeous, yet fiercely independent screen goddesses of the 1940s. “I loved the Bette Davises and the Katharine Hepburns, women who seemed to be very modern, but in a different time. They weren’t just the femme fatale, or the ingenue, or the mother-in-law, or the evil, jealous girlfriend. There was a great weight and gravitas to them. So they were the women that I aspired to be and looked up to.”
“There’s something quite enigmatic about the women of that time,” she continues. “It’s very different to nowadays, where we over-share [and] celebrity culture is saturated with personal details.”
Thankfully, though, in the case of her character Peggy Carter, her childhood predilections come in handy. A glamorous yet dangerous 1940s secret agent cut from Hollywood’s golden age, Carter is one of the few major non-superhero players in the Marvel-verse. First appearing on the big-screen as Captain America’s sparring partner in 2011’s Second World War-set The First Avenger, she proved such a hit that her own spin-off was inevitable. Hence new TV series Agent Carter, which finally launches over here next week after many months of social media teeth-gnashing from British Marvel fans waiting for someone to buy the rights. Picking things up after the war, it sees our heroine employed by the covert Allied military agency, Strategic Scientific Reserve, as a secretary.
However, unbeknown to her sexist bosses, she leads a Superman style-double life, by night using her military training and cunning to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Chief among these is Dominic Cooper’s Howard Stark, aka future father of Iron Man Tony, after her old friend is framed for supposedly leaking plans of weapons he has invented.
As with Peggy, Atwell’s striking beauty is just one of her weapons; she also displays a wicked sense of humour. When I ask if she sustained any injuries filming the high-octane action scenes, she breaks into a hearty laugh. “None. No, just the men.” And when we talk about the theatre, she jokes, in refreshingly unluvvy fashion, that as much as she loves treading the boards, she is not about to devote herself to it: “I mean, I could, but I really like going out to dinner....”
Pay cheque aside, Peggy Carter was a savvy choice for her: the kind of populist but nuanced female role that is still all-too-scarce. “She actually likes [other] women, which is very rare in TV,” agrees Atwell. “There is a misconception that if a woman is successful, she is automatically a threat to other women. What’s beautiful about Peggy is she believes in the sisterhood.”
Atwell says she also appreciates the character’s complex sexuality. “She uses [it] when she needs to, but it’s never just for the sake of it. She uses it for the greater good and to get what she wants ... so she’s not denying her sexuality or her femininity – which I think is a very powerful thing to do. It’s just one of the many qualities that she has, that she uses to do her job.”
It’s clear also that Peggy Carter is helping to broaden the appeal of the male-centric comic-book milieu, which ever comes in for accusations of misogyny. “I’ve had feedback from girls on Twitter, just saying it’s so refreshing to see [so] many qualities in a superhero or heroine. Peggy’s saying you can use your sexuality, you can use your wit, you can use many facets to your character. But the whole point is that she is well-rounded and that she’s capable in many ways.”
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With Peggy also making cameos around the Marvel-verse in the two Avengers films and next week’s Ant-Man, the role has transformed her career after years of “next big thing” talk. Graduating from drama school in 2005, Atwell got her big break as a troubled politician’s daughter in BBC2’s adaptation of Alan Hollingsworth’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Line of Beauty. A lead role in one of Woody Allen’s London misadventures Cassandra’s Dream in 2007 proved a busted flush, but she developed a fine line in costume drama with roles in Brideshead Revisited, The Duchess, and TV’s Mansfield Park, Any Human Heart and The Pillars of the Earth.
If she is now finding her way in Hollywood, though, she’s happy to puncture showbiz fictions: only a few weeks ago, when a fan tweeted Atwell with a picture of her on a magazine cover asking “Why are you so beautiful?”, she responded “Why am I so photoshopped?
You imagine she’ll soon be puncturing many more: things are moving pretty fast for her on the road to stardom. When we speak in May, she tells me about her set-up living in a flat in London’s West End with her boyfriend of 18 months, musician and model Evan Jones. She talks brightly about their “open house” policy - “we live with a pug called Boko and a golden doodle called Rita. Because I’ve just got back from the States, I say to literally everyone I’ve ever met, ‘Do come over for a cup of tea.’ I love it. There’s a real sense of community” - and about their alternative “family” - “I’m someone who eventually wants to have kids. But at the moment we’ve got two dogs – they’re our babies. And we’re certainly taking in strays. Anyone looking for a place to stay can pretty much stay with us!”
However, subsequently it transpires she has split up with Jones and is moving to LA, where she will begin filming the second series of Agent Carter in September.
For all her success, she seems clearly attuned to life’s uncertainty. “This industry is fickle,” she says. “No matter how good you are, you could be working one minute and out of work the next. Your talent doesn’t necessarily match your achievements. That can be frustrating,” she says. However she allows herself to conclude on a note of cautious optimism. “I’m a lot happier in myself now. I’ve always been a restless person, working in an industry where you can’t say, ‘Right, if I stick here, then in 40 years’ time, I’ll be in this position.’ But I’ve got a better balance now, and doing a show which the audience love as much as we do, it feels like my life is in harmony. I haven’t always felt that, but it’s lovely. Peggy is the gift that keeps on giving.”
Marvel’s ‘Agent Carter’ starts on Fox on 12 July
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