With turns in the miniseries The Prisoner and appearances in Woody Allen films like Cassandra’s Dream, hers may not yet be a household name, but after Captain America: The First Avenger, it will be hard to forget who Hayley Atwell is. As Peggy Carter, the British soldier who shepherds 98-pound-weakling through his transformation into the title character, she carries as much authority as she exudes charisma – especially when the two begin to develop deeper feelings for one another. Movies caught up with Atwell at the Captain America press day in Los Angeles, where she discussed the differences between working on this massive film and some of the more intimate projects she’s done in the past, and talked about the possibility of appearing in another Cap movie (much less Avengers) to finish what she and co-star Chris Evans started here.
Movies.com: How much do universality do you think this story has? Its title notwithstanding, do you feel like this is a story that people can relate easily to regardless whether or not they’re American?
Hayley Atwell: I think yes in that you’ve obviously got Peggy, who’s English, Hugo [Weaving] is in it, Toby Jones – and then you have all of the English characters in it. But I also think the fact that the film was filmed in England, that was something that England really embraced; some of the outside scenes were shot in Manchester and Liverpool, and the rest of it was shot just outside London. So I don’t think it’s as patriotic as the title implies, and a lot of these superheroes have archetypal stories of good and evil, and people can relate to wanting to be a hero and wanting to save the world and have special powers is something that I think people at some point in their life have fantasized about when they were kids or something. So in that respect, I think people can relate to it. It’s not making any kind of political statements or references or saying anything about America or Europe or Germany or the second World War; that’s all just a backdrop for this kind of fantastical world of pure entertainment.
Movies.com: How difficult was it to adjust to the machinery of a movie of this size, after having worked with folks like Woody Allen or on smaller productions?
Atwell: Well, it was huge, and at first overwhelming. I remember on my first day just being a big bag of nerves, until I put the uniform on. And it’s such a strong uniform and it holds you in and you’ve got high heels and red hair and the red lipstick and the wig kind of makes you get into character very quickly. And I think after awhile, what became quite obvious was that although it was a huge scale production, Joe Johnston had such a strong integrity about what he was doing, and he was very calm the whole time. Very relaxed. And that for me put me at ease, and that’s why I didn’t really focus on the pressure of what this could be or how big this franchise was and I just kind of was able to get into the role and just enjoy it.
Movies.com: This character’s story takes place in a time where not just stories but values were obviously different for women. The writers certainly gave her some opportunities to be more empowered but is it more important to make her more empowered or play it according to the gender roles of the time in which the movie is set?
Atwell: Well, I think the women that I really love, which is the Betty Davises and the Katherine Hepburns, they’re always the kinds of characters I’m interested in playing. And I think I kind of naturally bring that quality to the characters I play because I’m quite strong anyway as a person. But it was a very punchy script, and in the script she was incredibly strong in it, and she seemed to be at times, emotionally certainly, saving Steve. So it was nice that she wasn’t this damsel in distress and in fact sometimes the tables were turning. And I think she’s attracted to him physically, but it’s beyond that – she likes him from the very beginning of the film when he’s skinny Steve. She sees something that she probably relates to, which is kind of struggling to get where she is because of the fact that she’s a woman, and having to deal with people like Hodge coming onto her all of the time and punching him in the face. And in him he’s obviously struggling to be a soldier with all of the constant rejection that he gets, so they’re kind of kindred spirits, really, which is great. So I would say that she’s a modern-day woman, but I look back and think, there’s so much evidence of strong women back then that I don’t think she’s out of her time or ahead of her time, necessarily.
Movies.com: Do you think about those kinds of connections in a formalized way while you’re playing or developing a character, or does that sort of come from the perspective of seeing the finished product?
Atwell: I mean, I think it’s much easier to overthink it now because I’m not doing it and I can kind of reflect upon it. But I can say that the experience of it was far more intuitive and instinctive, really. I can that’s probably also down to the casting of it, because we didn’t audition together, Chris and I, but I think they kind of got a sense of the qualities they were looking for in Peggy and I tried my best to give that to them. And I think that they felt in their heads that would match him.
Movies.com: Tommy Lee Jones is a famously cantankerous performer. How easily did you mesh with the other cast members both in terms of chemistry and your respective creative processes?
Atwell: Well, I think starting any kind of project with new people in any capacity is quite daunting. I think you get nerves on any kind of job you do. And then especially if you’ve got any kind of expectation in your head given what you’ve heard about the reputation of certain people, I think you have to work harder not to bring that into the room so you can have a truly right first impression that’s not colored by what other people told you. But it’s still quite intimidating, and then of course there’s the familiarity because I’ve seen so much of Tommy Lee Jones’ and I’ve known of him for so long that you kind of think, “oh, I know you!” But of course, you don’t – or rather, he has no idea who you are (laughs). That was quite funny at first. But you said he’s cantankerous, and he’s not a people pleaser and he doesn’t like sycophantic behavior from people, and I thought that was great. He talked to us about opera and politics and poetry – he recited his poetry to me one day – and he has many talents. And I also think being a director himself, he understands exactly what he needs to do, and how to hit the mark and what angles he’s working with and lenses. So he’s just a very bright man and very informed about his industry – and also seemingly unfazed by it, too.
[Editor's Note: We actually have two more questions from this interview to post, but because they involved spoilers, we want to wait until at least after opening weekend to publish them. Check back here on Monday to see what the secret hubub is.]