Hayley Atwell: "British actresses are unparalleled"

May 14, 2013
Hayley Atwell

Hayley Atwell, the new British star ready to top Hollywood’s ‘it’ list, talks power and vanity with The Big Issue

Hayley Atwell is enjoying life in sunny Los Angeles. Having just completed work on two major Hollywood films, while she’s Stateside she’s also promoting her starring role in ambitious new ITV series, Life of Crime.

But it’s by no means all work, work, work. She readily gives a rundown of the best local dive bars – “I keep going to places that are so dark and dingy that you never know what they are called, and on the way to one you find five more to go in” – and dishes up advice on where to find the best hangover-cure breakfasts on Sunset Boulevard (Millie’s, apparently).

With a dual passport, work on both sides of the Atlantic and family in the States, it’s hardly surprising that the 31-year-old is completely at ease in LA. 

“It is fantastic. I love it. I am half-American. My dad is also in California, so it is not a huge world away for me,” she says. “You can do anything you want out here. A friend of mine says the great thing about LA is that everyone is so busy thinking about themselves, they don’t give a shit what you do or say.

“It is a good way of looking at it, especially with actors in LA. There is a whole breed of acting culture out here [in which people] wait to speak rather than listen. So if you don’t mind putting up with that, you can do and say whatever you want. I’ve been taking advantage of it.”

Since first catching the eye alongside ex-Downton Abbey favourite Dan Stevens in the excellent BBC Two adaptation of The Line of Beauty in 2006, Atwell has appeared in everything from a version of Mansfield Park to William Boyd’s Restless and Any Human Heart, and Brideshead Revisited to Captain America: The First Avenger on the big screen.

She’s currently filming Captain America: The Winter Soldier, alongside a cast that includes Scarlett Johansson and Robert Redford.

“Is Robert Redford in it? Really?” she exclaims. “Well, there you go, that shows how much I know! But now you have told me, and because I love him, I am going to call up the Marvel family, find out when he is filming, then I’ll go down to the set to stalk him. That is my privilege! Thanks for the tip.”

Her ignorance about the addition of Hollywood royalty to the cast could be forgiven, though: her character, Peggy Carter, appears only in a few flashback scenes in this sequel. But there is good news for fans of Peggy (of whom Atwell enthuses “she can do everything Captain America can do but backwards, in high heels”).

She reveals: “Fans of the first film really wanted to find out what happened to Peggy afterwards, so Marvel are also making a short film, which is basically ‘What Peggy Did Next’, which will be shown at Comic-Con [the annual international pop culture convention held in San Diego] and be on the DVD extras of the second film.

So as well as doing a bit in the new film, I’ve got a whole new spin-off short film. It has been great to be back in training with the stunt co-ordinators, kicking some butt again.”

The other film keeping Atwell out of LA dive bars is All Is By My Side, a Jimi Hendrix biopic starring Outkast rapper Andre 3000, in which she plays Kathy Etchingham, doyenne of Swinging London.

“I play this working-class, feisty wildchild from the north, chain smoking and just completely out of control,” she says with a grin. “It’s quite a responsibility playing someone who is not only a real character but is still alive as well.

"And Andre is the coolest man ever. He wears clothes that he designs and makes himself. He is a spiritual person, he is not in it for the fame game – he doesn’t know whether he is going to be making carpets in Malaysia, doing more acting or recording another album next. But he works so hard.

"His Jimi Hendrix looks and sounds incredible. He was staying in character a lot of the time. It’s really imaginative casting.”

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The last time The Big Issue met up with Atwell, on a tough shoot filming Life of Crime in Dublin during the depths of winter, her trailer was filled with so many drugs we feared we’d stepped on to the set of Breaking Bad.

She was struck down by a bout of bronchitis, with a side order of laryngitis and acute sinusitis, forcing the production to shut down for two days – almost unheard of in making TV during these days of tight budgets and even tighter schedules. “There are some scenes where it looks like I’m on the verge of tears but it’s actually because I’m a massive snotrag,” she smiles.

The series follows the life and career of police officer Denise Woods, from pounding the beat as a raw recruit to a senior position in the Met. It begins, eerily, in 1985, with Margaret Thatcher’s voice blaring out of the radio, which is quickly retuned to a station playing Culture Club.

Over three episodes, each set in a different decade, Atwell is aged (not altogether convincingly – her skin, according to the make-up artist, is too smooth), dressed in an array of unflattering outfits, and plays a character whose stellar career could come crashing down any moment thanks to a rookie error on her first case.

“You can see I am not a vain actress – there’s no question of me using my beauty and sexuality as my main currency in this role,” she says wryly. “The uniforms were so unflattering and unforgiving.

"Every time I came on set, the costume girls would start singing the theme tune from The Bill. I was saying, ‘No, I’m trying to be Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect – that’s the level I’m aiming for.'” 

Invoking Dame Helen and one of the finest British police dramas of all time? That’s confident talk… “Oh no, I don’t think Life of Crime touches it – with all due respect, this doesn’t come close to Helen Mirren or Prime Suspect at all for me,” she quickly asserts.

“There are quite a lot of unforgiving clichés in it, which makes it very hard to work with, but the premise is excellent. And the character is so morally ambiguous that I don’t even know if I like her. We look at the abuse of power – my character has the chance to take some power, which she has been denied because of her sex, age and lack of experience.”

Power, politics, plotting career paths – the parallels with Atwell’s own position within the acting world are not lost on her. “I’m not in a huge position of power… yet. I haven’t got a million scripts knocking on my door, lots of people throwing money at me and wanting to work with me… yet!” she says.

“In the last year I’ve turned down a couple of more commercial roles in order to develop a bit. Instead of just standing in front of the camera and pouting, I need more of a challenge. I would like to do more films but I don’t want to end up doing five in succession that are not particularly good.

"It is a navigation game: where are the best stories? You have to go through things with a fine-tooth comb rather than making big sweeping attempts to become famous.”

But help navigating success has been on hand from two other Young British Actors. “I am close to Jodie Whittaker and Andrea Riseborough, who are very strong, opinionated women and very good at what they do – we talk a lot about what it is like for women in this industry,” says Atwell, whose next film project sees her working alongside another YBA, Tom Hiddleston.

“I am much more interested in the choices they are making than the pretty faces who are doing well in mediocre stuff. They have been brave enough to forge their own paths.

"The actresses we have in Britain are unparalleled. Sophie Okonedo, Anna Maxwell Martin, Olivia Colman. They are the kind of actresses I want to be on the table with. They are fully rounded human beings.”

Life of Crime is on Fridays, 9pm, ITV1

Words: Adrian Lobb


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