Hayley Atwell: My Captain America character is kick-ass
Whatever your take was on Margaret Thatcher, that most Marmite of politicians, she was definitely a woman in a man’s world.
That thought is playing on Hayley Atwell’s mind when considering her timely new ITV drama, Life Of Crime. It starts in 1985 – the opening scene even has Thatcher bellowing out from the TV – and follows Atwell’s rookie cop, Denise, as she battles past the kind of casual sexism that sees her male colleagues call her a ‘Doris’, before making some highly dubious decisions on her way to the top.
‘I was interested in the bad decisions people make in high positions,’ says the 31-year-old actress, who first popped her head above the Hollywood parapet two years ago as Captain America’s squeeze in the Marvel/Chris Evans movie. ‘And Thatcher was the perfect example of that. The consequences of what she does wrong haunts Denise throughout her career.’
When Atwell was researching Life Of Crime, she spoke to a female police officer who worked during the Brixton riots and knew all too well what it was like trying to get ahead amid all that 1980s testosterone. ‘She said very bluntly that a woman was either considered just a girly lady who liked to tart around the office, or that she was hard and scary – there were complete misconceptions or stereotypes,’ says Atwell.
You can’t imagine Atwell tarting up or busting balls, what with her carrying something of a thoughtful, English rose intellectual about her. But first appearances are deceptive: her English mother is a motivational speaker, while her American father is a massage therapist and a shaman, meaning her background is far from conventional.
Does she go in for altered states of consciousness herself? ‘I have a healthy sense of humour about life in general but I don’t want to belittle anyone’s beliefs,’ Atwell says with friendly diplomacy. ‘I’m saying that because at drama school I ran around in a black leotard and tights for three years with someone saying: “Let’s be the colour blue today.” I think whether it’s having a cup of tea to start your system or whether it’s something more spiritual, we need those things to refocus and realign ourselves.’
After her parents separated when she was two, Atwell was raised in west London by her mother. ‘It wasn’t a conventional upbringing but it was very safe,’ she says. ‘My mum has been a massive influence on me. She always said I could work hard and live my dream – I would never underestimate the effect that a parent has on what you believe you can achieve in your life.’
Atwell’s achievements are certainly growing, building steadily from period pieces such as The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited (both 2008) to more stretching contemporary fare such as Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror this year. In between came Captain America and, when we speak, she’s in LA putting the finishing touches on the sequel, due out this time next year.
‘I’m going to [comic book convention] Comic Con in July,’ she says. ‘I’ve never been before, so I said to the film’s producer: “What is it, like 3,000 people?” He said: “No, try 300,000 people.” They get quite obsessive. When we were filming the first one, Chris Evans went over to do a: “Hi, I’m the next Captain America, nice to meet you” thing and two fans who were dressed up ended up fighting over his seat. One of them stabbed the other with a really sharp pencil.’
According to Atwell, her role as Agent Peggy Carter, Captain America’s love interest, is a lot more kick-ass this time around. ‘I’ve been working with some stunt coordinators – I get three separate fight scenes,’ she says. ‘The training has been really tough because not only are you learning the moves, you’re also learning the power of the punch so it doesn’t look like you have spaghetti arms. On my first day, they said: “It’s going really well but you don’t have to add your own sound effects…”’
Atwell has also provided the sound effects (well, vocals) for the Captain America video game. Has she played it? ‘No, I have to curb my enthusiasm for video games because they get me into trouble,’ she admits. ‘I can actually sit there and play The Sims for five or six hours straight.’
She tells me she’s now cut back to just playing a Wii but as a child she had everything you could shake a joystick at. ‘I would play Ecco The Dolphin, Looney Tunes, Zelda…’
Thankfully, her new-found discipline has allowed her time to pack in another film role – as Kathy Etchingham, the girlfriend of Jimi Hendrix, in a biopic helmed by OutKast frontman André 3000.
‘Kathy’s biography is a brilliant, funny, moving piece about living with a musical genius,’ she says, confessing she was a big fan of Hendrix’s music prior to landing the role. ‘With my dad being American, he was the one who introduced me to him. It was a very rich time, culturally.’
The actress continues effusively about Etchingham with the same kind of enthusiam that she reserves for other actresses she looks to emulate. ‘There are women who have paved the way to empowerment as an actress, the Diana Riggs, the Helen Mirrens, the Judy Denches, the Helen McRorys, the Olivia Colmans,’ she says. ‘A great generation of women whose works I’ve seen and gone: “Bloody hell, that’s good.”’
Life Of Crime is on ITV on May 10; Captain America: The Winter Soldier is due out April 2014.