Hayley Atwell is a newcomer to the event film world, and she took it to like a champ. Playing Peggy Carter, Captain America’s supervising officer and love interest in Captain America: The First Avenger was a huge role and huge break. But her performance is excellent, and she plays well off of Chris Evans’s square superhero. She’s also incredibly charming, and she gave a very relaxed interview. Check it out….
I want to know about the dress you had on, the forties fashion was incredible.
It was cut for women, the hourglass – very feminine. That was a stroke of luck and genius by Anna Sheppard, she had seen all the costumes, all olive green. It was fabulous, but beautiful. And she said (evokes a fashionista accent) “I think there should be a splash of color. She’s the love, where’s the passion?” So she created this beautiful dress that just meant that Peggy had her moment, and there’s a bit of desire in there, I suppose.
How did you feel when you were in it?
Fabulous. It’s clothes for women, it’s great. What I liked about all her costumes is that they’re strong but feminine at the same time.
Did you like that she was a strong capable woman instead of “please help Captain America!”
Yeah, f*ck that (laughs). And why not, she was in a position where if she was like that, she wouldn’t be of that position. And when she says “I know what it’s like to have a few doors slammed in my face,” I think because she’s this attractive woman who’s beautifully made up, she had to fight a little bit harder to get where she is to prove that she’s capable. And I think that’s great because there’s a kindred spirit between here and Steve, there’s an equality about them and I love that. I think of women in the forties like Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn, or my grandmother and I think “wow, they knew their power as women, so beautifully.” And Peggy in the script had that too, and I love that about her.
How did they cast you? Was it written as an English woman?
Yeah, I was looking to do something different, I had done a number of period dramas, and though “yes, I’ve got an action film… Oh, f*ck it’s a period again.” (laughs) Will I ever break away?
Better than Keira Knightley, it feels like she’s forever stuck in the 1800’s.
You think so? I don’t, she’s doing lots of new ones like Never Let Me Go. How I got the part is that I had a general meeting with Joe (Johnston) for about an hour, just talking about everything but the script. So I went away from it thinking “Well, I’ve made a friend, but I don’t know if I’ve got a job.” I think he just wanted to see if we could get on as well as cast it right in terms of acting ability and look. I think it’s very important that you know you’re going to be working with people for five, six, seven months and it’s a tiring shoot, so you want to know you’ll get along. So that was really nice, and after that I did various auditions and a screen test. They had me all day, they hired a crew, there was hair and make-up and costume, and I had to learn eight pages of dialog, and then I had a half an hour to learn an unarmed fight scene. And then I had to show loading and unloading various guns. I loved them but had never played with them before. It was like “Action” and I’m going “??? (makes gun firing noise)”
I was curious about the logistic of Chris Evans in Scrawny form, where you acting him or was it a body double?
It was both. I would do the scene with Chris, and then I would do it with Leander (Deeny) who played Chris’s double, and he would watch at the monitor every single facial expression and movement – even in terms of where Chris breathed, so every time he spoke, so you could Steve’s chest move in and out, and he was incredibly meticulous about making sure he got it right. Chris would do it first, and then go to his trailer and do whatever he did, and skinny Steve would come in and I’d do it again. Sometimes I’d have to do it a third time in which I had to look at Chris but his eyeline would be his neck, which was bizarre. One time when I turned and looked away, Chris was told to squat down, so he was just a bit shorter, so I turned back and I saw Chris do this (she shrinks her head like a turtle).
Do you approach a comic book movie the same way as a period piece?
Yeah. It was something that Joe wanted, and talked about early on. He wanted to root these characters in a kind of reality, because it is a reality to them, and if you portray them as human beings then the audience can hopefully relate a bit more than sending them up or caricature or cartoony. It was important to Joe and it was important to me as an actor that it’s rooted in something real, something you can relate to.
You mentioned screen testing, that seems like something from the 30’s and 40’s now. How often have you had to screen test? Is that common?
Yes, for big budget studio productions, because they want to see the look, how you fit into this world. Compared to coming in in jeans and a white T-shirt and just reading to the camera. They’ll put together props and sound effects and a stage and a studio and the whole works. That’s when it’s close, when it’s down to two or three.
Have you gotten close but not gotten it?
A couple of times. But I’m kind of pleased I didn’t. I feel like things turn out right, and you have your own path and your own journey. So I have no regrets. And it’s certainly made me think “I know how to do this now” a couple of times. I know what to expect a bit more, so I was probably more confident when I screen tested for this.
The film takes place in the 1940’s, and The Avengers is modern day, in the press conference they said your character may still be alive, are you in The Avengers?
I don’t know if I can give away that information. (laughs) Honestly, I don’t know, no one’s contacted me.
In your mind, what does your character do at the end of the movie?
I think Peggy would be a realist about it, she’d always have a soft spot for Steve, but she’d move on. In The Avengers, Peggy would be in her eighties, there’s hair and make-up, but you could just get an eighty year old woman.
It’s the first time you’d lost a role to Maggie Smith.
I’d say take it, Maggie.
How would compare working with Joe Johnston, with – say – Woody Allen?
Both are quiet actually, both very calm behind the camera. Woody doesn’t direct. He just films you and do one take and move on. That was my experience with him, and that’s what I’ve heard from others. Joe is collaborative, he wants to know what you think, he loves it when you give different takes. He’ll say “find another way, maybe do it like this.” And he’s just having fun, which is great. It was really to work with him, because I felt like he trusted me. It was free, and we felt free to make mistakes, too.
In terms of dealing with the forties, what was your research?
I watch a lot of older films anyway, I really like the older stuff, Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn. But there was something about that time that was incredibly stylish, and also my grandmother slept in curlers every night and put on red lipstick to get something at the corner of the road to get some milk and eggs. She looked immaculate all the time, as did the men. Men always wore suits no matter what their class was. The look was very stylish and with that comes a posture. You have to inhabit these clothes. Posture has to upright and you have to be present in the clothes, or they end up wearing you.
There was a moment right after Chris’s character transforms, and your character reaches out and almost touches him. Was that something you came up with on the spot?
I did. It was instinctive, I couldn’t help myself. I hadn’t seen him with his top off until that moment. (laughs) It was “go for the manboob.” Joe loved it, his note was “do it again.” So we did lots of takes just to see how far we could go. Then it got a little bit over the top. There was a little touch of the nipple, but then it became like a Saturday Night Live sketch. It felt like Austin Powers, really corny. But I like that they kept it in because Peggy’s a repressed character, a little uptight, and she’s trying to do the right thing. But if she was a man, she’d be Captain America, but never will, so there’s that longing. So sometimes her behavior would be quite erratic, correcting herself all the time.
Did this get you interested in comic books, did you have any previous interest?
I didn’t really, I had read a couple of graphic novels, but when I got cast I bought a couple of the Captain America ones and saw the development of the illustration, and I heard of Comic-con and Chris’s experiences there, and the love – for want of a better word – it gets as a franchise. But they are such wonderful stories. They’re – dare I say it – Greek in how epic they are, and how anything is possible but it’s essentially about good and evil. Archetypes within ourselves, and capacity for good and evil. Wanting to save the world and stand out. I could really understand the appeal.
Captain America: The First Avenger opens July 22. Check it out.