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“I got into acting because I wanted to connect with people,” says Hayley Atwell, the British-born thesp who is the toast of Hollywood right now for her starring turn in the acclaimed Starz limited series adaptation of Howards End, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The 36-year-old is best known for portraying Peggy Carter, an officer with the Strategic Scientific Reserve and the love interest of Steve Rogers, in the 2011 blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger, its 2014 sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the 2015 spinoffs Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, as well as the ABC TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., in two episodes in 2014, and Marvel’s Agent Carter, which ran from 2015 through 2016.
But Atwell’s talent has shone even more outside of the Marvel universe, in projects ranging from the 2010 Starz historical miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination, to a 2013 installment of the British anthology series Black Mirror, for which she deserved an Emmy. This year, she might just get another one for her portrayal of a woman ahead of her time in the latest, and arguably greatest, adaptation of E.M. Forster‘s beloved 1910 novel, adapted by Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan, which will conclude its American roll-out — following a triumph in the UK on BBC One — on April 30.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 20:43], following a conversation between host Scott Feinberg and Rebecca Ford, THR‘s awards editor, about early and creative Emmy campaigning, Jimmy Kimmel vs. Sean Hannity and tough Emmy decisions facing HBO.
Click here to access all of our 212 episodes, including conversations with Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Lorne Michaels, Gal Gadot, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Stephen Colbert, Jennifer Lawrence, Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Elisabeth Moss, Jerry Seinfeld, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Kate Winslet, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Aziz Ansari, Jessica Chastain, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman, Warren Beatty, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Natalie Portman, Tyler Perry, Judi Dench, Tom Hanks, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Guillermo del Toro, Jennifer Lopez, Michael B. Jordan, Mandy Moore, Ryan Murphy, Alicia Vikander, Jimmy Kimmel, Greta Gerwig, Robert De Niro, Claire Foy, Bill Maher, Rachel Brosnahan, Michael Moore, Kris Jenner & RuPaul.
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Atwell was born and raised in London, an only child and very much a loner who was not infrequently bullied by classmates, sometimes even called “Fatwell.” Her mother helped to turn her into a voracious consumer of the performing arts, and by her mid-teens she knew she wanted to be an actress herself. A strong student, she received a conditional offer to attend Oxford, but — perhaps deliberately — tanked her final exams, costing her that opportunity, but making it possible for her to more expeditiously pursue her chosen path. She spent the next two years working as a reader for a casting director and venturing into commercials, and one such gig, for Pringles, helped her to pay for her tuition at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, where she studied from 2002 through 2005.
The up-and-comer soon began making a name for herself on the West End, and also began auditioning for film work. She landed her first screen role in Woody Allen‘s 2007 dramedy Cassandra’s Dream, before returning to period piece dramas like 2008’s Brideshead Revisited (with Emma Thompson, who became a friend and mentor) and The Duchess. TV projects like The Pillars of the Earth helped to raise her profile, and led to a string of interest in her for higher-profile film projects. “Captain America for me, at the time, was just another audition,” she recalls. “I didn’t put any pressure on myself.” But, following a series of tests, she won the biggest part of her career up to that point, which made her world famous.
There were pros and cons to playing Agent Carter over a period of roughly seven years. On the downside, she was, at least in the films, “very much a vehicle for Steve Rogers to get where he gets to and for him to have some kind of emotional interest,” and there “wasn’t really much to her,” as Atwell has put it in the past. On the upside, though, the character’s complexity grew, particularly on the TV show that shared the character’s name, and she represented positive things to today’s young women: her superpower is self-acceptance and her catchphrase is “I know my value.” (Never was the character’s impact more recognized by the actress than after the May 2017 terrorist attack on England’s Manchester Arena, which claimed the life of Georgina Callander, a member of an Agent Carter fan club. “My life took on a different kind of focus at that point,” Atwell says, choking up. “It really does kind of give meaning to my work.”)
After the initial, 2011 Captain America film, Atwell began to see an uptick in film offers — if not offers of the sort that she found interesting (“a lot of girlfriends roles and horror films,” she recalls). She soon found herself back in a slew of other period piece films, enjoying them — “I’ve loved doing literary adaptations because you go back to such rich source material,” she says — but yearning for an opportunity to show what she could do outside of a corset. Around this time she saw an episode of the first season of the British sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror and, she says, “It moved me so much that I thought, ‘I’m sure there’s a way I can get involved.'” She reached out and was cast opposite Domhnall Gleeson in “Be Right Back,” the haunting first episode of the show’s second season, which ought to have eradicated any doubts that she can play a contemporary or futurist character — or anything else.
From 2015 through 2017, Atwell’s could be seen on ABC as a regular on two short-lived series, Agent Carter (2015-2016) and then the legal drama Conviction (2016-2017). Though those shows failed to click as much as their makers hoped, any questions about Atwell’s ability to hold her own on the small screen were quickly put to rest in late Nov. 2017, when the four-part Howards End began rolling out in the U.K., attracting massive ratings and rave reviews; it landed stateside on Starz this month, with the first installment airing on April 9 and the fourth set to air on April 30. On it, Atwood plays Margaret Schlegel, a cultured intellectual and mother-figure to her two younger siblings who experiences all sorts of drama in the years before the Great War.
“There’s such a rich inner world” to the character, the actress says. “She’s an independent mind. She has this kind of open-mindedness, whereby she has incredible self-awareness of where she is and her social position, and yet she has these big ideas, these conversations about philosophy, social reform, art and literature, and whether it’s all a load of ‘bosh,’ as they all talk about.” For her work, Atwell has received the best notices of her career and is very much in the hunt for an Emmy nomination — and maybe even a win — in the category of best actress in a limited series or a TV movie. But whatever happens at the Emmys, by this point — to harken back to Agent Carter — both she and Hollywood ought to know her value.
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