Hayley Atwell’s Mission: Impossible Character Is Dead Reckoning’s Biggest Secret
Exclusive: Marvel star Hayley Atwell opens up about her mysterious Mission: Impossible character Grace in Dead Reckoning Part 1.
This article appears in the new issue of DEN OF GEEK magazine. Get your copy here.
After 27 years, the Mission: Impossible movies are coming to a gigantic, explosive, two-part conclusion featuring bigger stunts and, presumably, more rubber masks than you have ever seen before.
Den of Geek magazine talked to Hayley Atwell about introducing a mysterious new character to the saga in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1, and how to pull off those terrifying stunts without self-destructing in five seconds.
Den of Geek: From what I’ve read so far, everyone’s been a bit cagey about Grace, the character you’re playing. Why is that?
When I came into this franchise, the screen test involved lots of physical tests to see how I would naturally respond to the fight choreography. I was also given about eight pages of dialogue to see how I read with Tom [Cruise], and after half an hour of that, we kind of threw the script out and said, let’s try some different things together.
They said they were looking for an actress who understood the way Mission is built, which is that you follow what the frame wants rather than shooting the actual script. You try out lots of different things and trust that it will be edited in such a way that finds the natural progression of the character as we go along.
So there are lots of trying different versions of her through physical behavior and different line readings to see what the natural chemistry between my character and Ethan would be and what naturally came out of our circumstances, environment, or action.
What ends up being the case is this is a consistently inconsistent character, which I’m delighted about because I wanted to elevate her. I wanted her to be more than a femme fatale, or an ingénue, or an ice queen. I wanted her to have nuance.
The release of the first Mission: Impossible film is almost as far away from today as it was from Dr. No when it came out. In that length of time, Bond went from Sean Connery to Pierce Brosnan, but Mission: Impossible has had a lot of the same team and cast in place that whole time. What’s it like coming onto that set?
[Director, Christopher McQuarrie] and Tom are such students of film, and I think that’s why you see such a progression in the Mission franchise. What Tom learns about Mission 1, he carries on to the next one, and he’s always looking to elevate it and push forward to delight and surprise the audience while delivering what he knows they want.
So coming into this, I felt in very good hands knowing McQuarrie and Tom’s symbiotic relationship meant that we would work together in this triangle of power to find out how we can satisfy the beats this kind of spy action-adventure movie needs, but in that have the freedom for me to try something different.
What was the process of filming the stunts?
Tom has this mantra, “‘Don’t be careful, be competent.” “Careful,” for me, implies fearfulness. It’s saying don’t do something if you’re scared of it, don’t try something potentially dangerous, but everything’s potentially dangerous, so the word almost doesn’t have meaning anymore.
“Competent” was a really useful word because it was active. It suggests that if you train properly with the experts involved in any given stunt, you can create a dynamic physicality with mobility and injury prevention in place, so you could not only do the stunt but do it multiple times from multiple angles and at any given moment take a note on the performance.
We trained for about five months with Wade Eastwood, his stunt team, and his wife, Sam Eastwood. So when we get out onto the set, and it’s Venice and a night shoot and you’re backflipping off a bridge, or falling backward off a moving train as we did in the Norway sequence, we’ve done so much prep, you can just let go and know that work has meant you are safe.
So how do you combine that sense of having the stunt where you practice it and plan it and it has to go the same way every time with giving a performance where you make it up as you go along?
I’m used to having a script and making loads of notes and having a clearer arc over the whole script of the character’s emotional journey. But with [Mission: Impossible], you can’t trust that. That freedom meant in each scene and stunt I had to make it make sense to me psychologically. It’s clear what the objective is, getting away from something or getting to something.
How was acting in the Mission: Impossible franchise different from the MCU films you’ve been involved with?
Well, there’s no CGI, no muscle suits—that’s all Tom. That really is him.
The characters are wildly different. Peggy Carter is very much in control with a deep sense of fairness and a moral core driven by her emotional and romantic agenda and her connection to Captain America. Grace is a lone wolf, she’s unpredictable; she’ll hope for the best and throw herself into something. In terms of character, they are very different, but my approach was very much the same.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 will be released on July 12.