Hayley Atwell has arrived. If one considers Hollywood fame to be the ultimate destination for any ambitious actor, then she is undoubtedly there. When Marvel singled out her feisty Agent Carter for a film short, following her winning turn in Captain America, they sent a message to the community that Ms. Atwell was one to watch. And Atwell will (SPOILER WARNING) reprise the role in the Captain America sequel, playing incarnations of Peggy in both past and present.
Her credibility as an actress has been well established with commendable performances in Brideshead Revisited, The Duchess and Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream (her first feature film) and more recently in Be Right Back – the stand-out episode of Charlie Booker’s excellent Black Mirror 2.
Now Peggy Carter’s popularity marks Hayley out as a bankable commodity too. Yet the 31-year-old star continues to make dynamic and interesting choices in the work she takes on. Having previously appeared in Alexi Kaye Campbell and Jamie Lloyd’s The Faith Machine, at The Royal Court, she was offered and took on their revival of The Pride when it returned to London’s West End this summer.
We found Hayley endearingly proud of her work on The Pride and disarmingly candid about the questions she continues to ask herself about the impact of the choices she makes and her insecurities about her place in the world.
Playing two different incarnations of the same woman – in the late ‘50s and the present day – presented an interesting parallel with the way we are soon to see Agent Carter and Hayley spoke about how she sees Peggy faring in the modern world. She is also currently at work on Cinderella with Kenneth Branagh, and we would highly recommend that you book tickets to see her mesmerizing performances in The Pride for yourself before the play’s run ends on November 9th. Our review of the play can be found here.
The Pride is a beautiful and impactful piece of work – we were still thinking and talking about it days after we came along. Your dual roles are absolutely pivotal – what about the play grabbed your attention and persuaded you to take on such a challenge?
I worked with the director, Jamie Lloyd, and the writer, Alexi Kaye Campbell, on The Faith Machine two years ago and I loved the experience of working with them. They gave me The Pride and they said “Would you play Sylvia when we next put it on in London?” so I read it and instantly found it so moving – not just specifically Sylvia but the play as a whole and I knew the star of the piece would be the play itself and I wanted to be a part of it – because I felt moved when I read it so I knew audiences would be as well. So the opportunity came about this summer and I was able to do it – it kind of felt fortuitous and destined that we would be able to do it at this time.
It has been quite a personal experience for all of us – obviously we all, as a cast, went to this gay rights protest in Whitehall and got these banners saying “To Russia, with love” which we now obviously use for the curtain call – and it just felt like the play was bold enough to stand up and say something which we all felt quite strongly, that gay rights was a human rights issue. That this was not just a play that would benefit the gay community but us as a society as a whole and against our own prejudices
Although Phillip and Oliver’s chemistry is essential for the love story, your characters felt like OUR way into the story and both incarnations of Sylvia share equal chemistry with Oliver and Phillip. How did you find a place for Sylvia between them?
I suppose we explored it in rehearsal with the director saying that we’ve got Sylvia in the 1950s, the back story is that she has been working on this book – illustrating for this novelist, this writer, Oliver – and there is something about Oliver she finds extraordinary. When she describes him to Phillip at the beginning, Phillip goes: “Sylvia says your work is extraordinary, describes you as a genius.” So she’s obviously very taken with this young man, there’s a platonic relationship there, and she is the one that welcomes him into her life with Phillip.
Even in the very disturbing rape scene he says “Sylvia knows and I think Sylvia brought us together.” There’s something within Oliver that she feels…he’s living his authentic self and all that time that she’s thinking of her husband at work she suspects that he’s deeply unhappy and he’s lonely within himself and she instinctively – being this empathetic and sensitive woman that she is – knows there is a lie being lived by Phillip. She has this almost mystical quality about her, in her intuition, in her ability to bring these two men together and I didn’t see her as a victim but as someone who truly wants her husband to find happiness within himself. And that in this case means, eventually as she does at the end of the play, the 1950s Sylvia leaving him saying, “I don’t blame you for what you’ve been, you’ve been the prisoner of your own fear.” So she’s a kind of truth seeker I suppose.
And you have the modern day Sylvia who is again a truth seeker. She’s meant to be the voice that goes “Maybe you don’t have to choose the right path for yourself, you just have to understand yourself, you don’t have to judge your lifestyle choices you just have to understand why you make those decisions in the first place. It’s okay to suck as many dicks as you want as long as you know who the dick belongs to and you choose, not the fascist dick, you choose the yoga teachers and the social workers.” So she’s the voice of the heart in both Phillip and Oliver’s lives in the ‘50s and the modern day – in them loving themselves without judgement.
One thing that struck me as so very poignant about the Sylvia of 1958 was that she was a woman out of her time not just through her selflessness but also her sheer frustration – this need she has to shake off polite constraints and cut to the painful truth. Peggy Carter too is a woman somewhat out of step with period conventions – why do women like Peggy and Sylvia appeal to you?
I think because they still resonate with modern woman and how we are. We’re still challenging…we still as woman have a long way to go before we’re fully equal in the eyes of…equal pay and all sorts of very vital things. And also we are part of the collective unconscious – the cultural psyche as it were – of women who come from an oppressed race. We were, as women, oppressed. We still to an extent – spiritually and emotionally – are. We’re still trying to understand why it’s ok for men to be promiscuous but for women to be promiscuous we’re called whores and sluts. Or we’re still trying to understand why so many women will dress in a certain way and wear makeup for other men, rather than for ourselves or for other women. We’re still, I think, asking a question about should we get married – is our role in life to be a wife and a mother – can we do all of those things now? At a time when we’re doing well in business that puts pressure on us to also be perfect mothers and perfect housewives. So we’re still trying to find our identity and how that’s evolving and how that’s growing.
And that’s something that I resonate with and battle with. Do I want to be a mother? Will I have to give up aspects of my career that will be a big sacrifice? Will I want to give up entirely to concentrate all my time on raising my own family? What is it I want – do I want to be with one man for the rest of my life or do I want to be single? I think all these questions are things that modern day woman are asking themselves. To be plain, these women who are slightly out of sync and out of step with their own timeframe just links us to where we are now as women.
Absolutely, I love the idea of that still being part of an ongoing journey, I think it’s incredibly honest and incredibly pragmatic to be able to express that…
Yeah I think so, I think it’s very important because there’s still like a loneliness and a lost feeling I have sometimes and I think it’s a cultural identity thing and a part of being a woman. When people describe me and say “Oh Hayley, you’re so strong, you’re so self-contained.” I go: well I’m actually incredibly vulnerable too. For whatever reason I’ve developed an exterior personality that projects an image of being incredibly strong – in the eyes of other woman and other men – but I wonder what that means, I wonder what that strength actually means to other women or what does it mean to be a true woman these days, what does it mean to be a strong woman these days? Does it mean that you’re a hardcore bitch, does it mean that you are impenetrable or does it mean that you are just very honest and you can stand up for your beliefs. And that’s something that’s just an ongoing conversation.
Actually, it strikes me that both Sylvia and Peggy get to live in the present. And that they will both get to ask the same questions – that contemporary Sylvia is asking in the play - about her role and those insecurities and doubts, the relationship worries and issues of self that you’ve talked about. How did Peggy cope with the modern world?
Oh I wonder how she would cope. I think that she would be relieved that finally the world has caught up with her <laughs> because she’s very capable and I think she’s probably bored out of her brain at how much she has to fight just to be able to do her job. Because you know she’s very brilliant at what she does and then in the one Marvel short film that I did, it explores that she’s in this man’s world and they’re constantly putting her down and she has to fight these secret missions on her own and win the day and just deal with them the next day going “We didn’t give you that order”. She just finds it slightly amusing that she is still having to put up with this because it just gets in the way of the work itself.
But I also think that she wouldn’t be tainted by the modern day world I think that she would just accept that…I think she’s someone who loves what she does and she knows that she’s good at it and she just wants more opportunities to just get on with her life.
The staging decisions play a strong role in The Pride’s impact – everything happens before our eyes – in our midst. However, this does leave you juggling lightening quick changes of personality AND costume. How did you maintain composure and particularly how did you maintain character under such duress? They are such quick switches…
Yes, there’s one that is six seconds! Of changing from one that is very emotional, from the pen scene, and six seconds later I’m wearing an oven glove and in a pair of glasses and I’m suddenly in 2013. It’s a strange thing to say but in fact having them both next to each other, in such a short space of time, helped me as an actor to find each of them even clearer. So the physicality of the pen scene – her feet are close together, her posture is upright, she’s in a pair of heels, she’s got this very period bag and this trench coat and I see her as quite contorted physically – I think she’s quite narrow, physically I imagined her being bound and constrained a little bit. Whereas…I take off the costume and underneath you’ve got the jeans, the barefoot, she’s got the oven glove, the glasses – she making food, she’s got this sexy Italian boyfriend coming over, she’s got this best friend who’s just suddenly turned up in her living room. It helped define each of them because I was able to see and play their opposite, if that makes sense?
It does, I mean you do see the change in her posture, that’s what’s so incredibly striking about the switch. It’s as though another actress has come on stage, it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Well thank you, that’s the goal!
At the end of The Pride you and all the cast return for your second bow with those placards supporting Russia’s LGBT community. It is such a powerful and heartfelt moment and so perfectly in keeping with the lessons of the play. How do you think theatre and film can evoke change in times like these?
I think they can be hugely affecting because you go to films and to plays partly to have an emotional experience and when you are presented with issues that are actually truly relevant today then to have that emotional reaction to something can propel you into making decisions to actively partake in this kind of discussion. I find that that’s why I got into theatre in the first place, I feel that’s the power that theatre and films can have and I feel that theatre has a responsibility culturally for us to be asking those questions, for us to go away from the play and want to engage in that conversation, want to understand what’s going on, want to feel that we have a place in society and that what we say can make a difference.
So it’s about encouraging personal responsibility and presenting each of us with these issues, but in a far more emotionally affecting way than just reading a particular style of journalism in a newspaper which can seem quite sterile or quite dry or too factual or too intellectual. But theatre, hopefully, is engaging with your soul and engaging with your heart so that you’re going to react on a much more fundamental, animalistic level that we understand that as human beings we do have an effect on each other and we must look out for each other.