As I asked Hayley Atwell a few introductory questions in a posh London hotel room, tears began to form in her eyes.
“Blimey,” I thought, “this must be the best, most hard-hitting interview I’ve ever done.”
As it turned out, Hayley Atwell has fairly severe hay fever, and it was the pollen count, not my incredible questions, that had brought a tear to her eye. This cleared up, we went on to chat about all things Agent Carter, as well as Atwell’s contributions to the big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe in Captain America: The First Avenger, Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and Ant-Man.
As UK readers may not have seen Agent Carter season one yet, we’ll put anything too spoilery at the end, after a clear spoiler warning and a big picture of a squirrel. That’s, um, how we do things around here.
Without further rambling, here’s the interview…
When you signed up for Captain America: The First Avenger, did you have any idea that you’d still be talking about Peggy all these years later?
No… five years later! I had no expectation. In fact, when I was walking down the red carpet at the first premiere, I was about to get on a plane to go and do a play back in the West End.
So that has been a really nice surprise, that just, over time, she’s grown, she’s appeared in the second Captain America and then had the One Shot – the little short film that I did – and then, after that, Louis D’Eposito, the Co-President of Marvel, just said ‘um, fancy doing a show?’
It was a no-brainer!
Did you get the impression that Marvel had been planning this at all, or that they had expanded the role over time, because of Peggy’s popularity?
It’s exactly that. I think it’s the popularity of the character. We really enjoy working together – myself and the Marvel team – and so, I think it was based on that, and based on the response that the fans were giving, the feedback. Especially on social media, like Twitter. Um, I think people wanted to see more of her. And so the Marvel herd did something about it!
What do you think it is about Peggy that made people want to know more about her character?
Well, I think there’s something quite enigmatic about her in the first film, because she seems very capable and very strong, but you understand that there must be something underneath that. And there must be a psychological, emotional cost to being this super spy.
And I think the series examines her more human side – what she does on her days off, ironing her clothes with her hair rollers in, and drinking coffee in the morning. And then you also know that she’s been grieving the loss of Captain America, so there’s a lot of heart to her as well as this action-packed bad-ass.
She’s not someone who’s impenetrable. She’s someone who’s relatable and resourceful and determined, and she has mistakes, and she has flaws. And she’s becoming a bit more three dimensional, because of that.
How has that changed your approach, then? Going from a one-film character to a longer form…
I think it’s just gotten richer, and a bit deeper. I think, in this season especially, with Jarvis – played by James D’Arcy – we’ve gotten, because we’re good mates, this banter together, and that’s created lots of humour in the show. So, I think that I’ve developed more humour and more vulnerability in her.
There’s definitely some great humour, especially when Peggy goes undercover as well. Was that a lot of fun? Obviously, there’s always been humour in the Marvel movies, but did you enjoy getting to have a bit more fun with Peggy?
Oh man, it was great. They’re the kind of dream moments that you love coming into work for. Just so fun, and so silly. Um, and you never know if you’re going to go overboard too much, but because it’s the Marvel genre, you can get away with it being slightly exaggerated. But yeah, it’s great that you can see Peggy in that kind of light, because she looks quite stiff and reserved and British, so it’s nice to just have those outlets and moments.
But then, there are some very dark things in Peggy’s future. Like the scene you filmed for The Winter Soldier. Was that tough for you to film?
It was hard. I mean, we kind of decided that she had something like Alzheimer’s, and so she is in and out of states of understanding – about where she is, about who Steve is, and the fact that Steve is coming back, and that they’ve reunited.
It’s quite heart-breaking for me to play that, and for Chris [Evans] as well, because it’s such a tender and bittersweet story. And the fact that they had, even in the first Captain America, quite an innocent relationship – I think you only see them kiss once, very sweetly. There was an innocence about it, like a very old-fashioned relationship, that makes it that much more moving and heart-breaking when you know that she’s aged and he hasn’t.
Knowing that she has such a bittersweet end to her story, how has that affected the way you think of Peggy?
Well, I do feel like it’s two bookends – you have The First Avenger and then you have The Winter Soldier, as the bookends of her life. And then the series starts to fill in the details of what she did with that time. And we know from the second film that she lives well into her nineties, so she could, depending on the success of the show… um…
You could be playing her forever!
I could be playing her forever! Which I wouldn’t be adverse to…
Hoping that your real old face lines up to the old version from Winter Soldier.
Exactly! We’ll see, we’ll find out! [Laughs]
Has having that closing bookend changed your approach to Peggy, when you have to go back and visit her younger years again?
Well, I think that there’s a security in that. There’s an understanding that she’s had a good life, she says ‘I’ve lived a full life,’ and you see – in The Winter Soldier – a photograph on her bedside table of her with children. So you think ‘okay, so she’s had a family,’ which is great because I want the best for Peg. And I’m pleased that she probably fulfils everything that she wants to in life.
And this is exciting, filling in the details in these seasons of what she did, and how she got there, and how she started S.H.I.E.L.D., and how she became this leader.
And how was it going into work on Cap’s nightmare in Avengers: Age Of Ultron? It must been nice to reunite with Chris Evans, without the old face, but it’s also a pretty morbid scene!
Yeah, yeah, exactly. It was lovely. I’m dear friends with Chris, he’s a wonderful man. I also went and gate-crashed the set of Captain America 3 [Civil War], in Atlanta, a few weeks ago. So I could just hang out, and geek out and a lot of the people working on it, in the crew, had worked on my show, so I got to see lots of familiar faces, and have dinner with them, and fan-girl over Scarlett Johansson, and her cool new hair-cut.
So, yeah, it’s great, you just feel like… You don’t often get, as an actor, to go back to work with the same group of people, it’s very very rare. And so I feel like I’ve created a Marvel family. Yay!
I might be pushing my luck here – but can you tell us anything about how Peggy fits into Ant-Man?
I… can’t. I would have to kill you. Sorry!
Do you have the old face on, or do you have your actual face on? Or is that a spoiler too far?
Um… [laughs], I can’t tell you. It’s, I mean… I wasn’t even allowed to read the script! So I haven’t even read the script of Ant-Man, I only went in to do my little bit.
Okay, fair enough!
On a broader scale, then, how glad are you that some more female role models are joining the world of comic book films? It’s not just you and Black Widow any more, now there’s Scarlet Witch, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman…
Yeah, I think it’s great. I think it’s part of a new phase for the female superhero. I think the audiences want them, and Marvel are responding to that, and there’s some great characters in there. And there’s so many of them, too, that you can just keep on going. It’s endless. There’s such great talent as well, out there. That’s what Marvel’s so good at – casting it right.
And it’s been great to meet people at conventions who see Peggy as a feminist icon for them, and they get to quote lines from the season like ‘I know my value, anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter.’
And that’s been nice, to really enjoy what I do, but then to have a positive side-effect on young people. It’s quite humbling. It’s a real bonus.
It’s got everything really hasn’t it? The humour, a good message, and you get to kick ass as well!
Yeah, exactly. You get to kick ass without being too aggressive. She’s relatable, she’s warm, she’s funny… Sounds like a girl I want to hang out with!
Did you do a lot of the ass-kicking yourself?
I did! I did all my own stunts. I had two stunt coordinators, who would train me, to learn the fights like a dance sequence. They would break them down for me, and I did quite a bit of it in drama school as well, so it’s kind of in muscle memory, in my body, about unarmed combat, as we called it.
So, that was also a great outlet, because it’s a great way to vent frustrations, and it’s a great way for Peggy to unleash tension as well. It’s all part of the challenge, to be able to do it in high heels and a pencil skirt as well!
And just before we wrap up, how excited are you for season one to finally come out here in the UK?
It’s great! Because it’s been so long since we filmed it. We stopped filming in January [of 2014] and my friends and family now get a chance to see what I’ve been up to all that time!
And it’s just nice to bring something back to my home country, and something that I’m really proud of. And flying the flag for the Brits over in the States, and saying ‘this is what I’ve been up to.’ It’s nice that I finally get to share it with people.
As is a traditional Den Of Geek question, and just to round things off, do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?
Do you know what? I have never… seen… a Jason Statham movie. Ever. Isn’t that terrible? Sorry about that. Sorry Jason. Don’t take it personally, Jason, you’re a very handsome man.
WARNING: Here comes the spoiler section. If you haven’t seen Agent Carter yet, you probably won’t want to read beyond our spoiler squirrel…
How important for you was it that season 1 wasn’t about Peggy falling in love with someone else, that it was more about closure?
Totally. I think it would have felt too soon, and I think it would have undermined the relationship she had with Captain America. So I think it’s right she spends a bit of time grieving, and that adds complexities to the situation with Daniel Sousa and with other possible love interests, which make it even more interesting.
And I think, also, we’re establishing who she is and where her place is in the world of the S.S.R., so, to make it too romantic, I think, is too obvious, and too clichéd a choice. I think she’s got a lot more, before we start to delve into her romantic life. And I think season 2 will… I think she’ll get some action, it’s about time [laughs].
Other than some action, how much do you know about season 2 and what direction it’s going in?
I’ve not started work on it yet, but it’s been written. I do know that, one thing they have decided, is that it’s going to be set a year later. So it’s 1947, it’s going to be set in L.A., and I keep on thinking about L.A. Confidential, that kind of film noir, which would be great.
And I think there will be a new romantic interest, um, and then I think there might also be… Well, there will be, repetition of characters. So Jarvis and Howard will be there with us again. Yeah, we can’t have a show without those guys.
What new challenges do you think Peggy might face, because she earned respect from some of her male colleagues in season 1, but now she’s been uprooted to somewhere else, and –
– she’ll have to start all over again, probably! I mean, I don’t think it’s the end for her, in terms of the struggles working in a male-dominated environment back in the forties. I think that’s going to be an on-going thing.
And there’ll be a new nemesis, and a new female character, strong female characters. It’d be nice to – I’d like to – strengthen her friendship with Angie a little bit more, and explore that.
Because it’s really refreshing that you get two female characters on screen who are not competitive with each other, or they’re not talking about the guys that they like. It’s quite nice to have that, so I hope that they reinforce that a little bit more.
Hayley Atwell, thank you very much!
With thanks to James Hunt.