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During her time as Peggy Carter in the Captain America movies and on the ABC series Agent Carter, Hayley Atwell was often the one person in any battle who had to fight using her wits rather than the super-strength, flying and flame-throwing favored by others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Given that, it’s kind of ironic that nowadays Atwell is surrounded by normal people and yet has finally discovered her own superpower: her accent.
“Having a British accent in America is certainly a good route to better customer service,” admits the 34-year-old London native, with an accent that would make Mary Poppins sound like a Teamster. “I’ve noticed that people are actually friendlier with me when they hear my accent. But I haven’t taken advantage of that — yet.”
Unlike her Peggy Carter character, Atwell won’t be able to employ this particular secret weapon for her latest onscreen role. In the new ABC drama Conviction, premiering Monday, Atwell stars as Hayes Morrison, an American attorney famous for being the scandal-prone daughter of a former U.S. president (her father) and a candidate for U.S. Senate (her mother).
The actress admits that transitioning to the less exotic way of speaking has been a bit of a challenge. Atwell says she “wanted to be more specific with Hayes and how she sounds.” That meant a heaping helping of a California accent, in part because she has grown up learning America dialect from shows and films set in California.
However, because of Hayes’ privileged background, Atwell also wanted to avoid giving her “that high-pitched register some women like to use because it sounds like a little girl’s voice.” She admits she’s slowly learning how to sound less British, but “it’s one thing to do it well in a rehearsal room and another to know the camera is broadcasting your voice to millions of people who might find it insulting.”
Her new character may not have the voice or the ass-kicking skills of Peggy Carter, but that was a big part of why the role was so appealing to her.
“She’s very different from me and from Peggy,” explains Atwell. “I’m personally more of a people pleaser than Hayes and that’s why I enjoy her. It’s something new. And I love that she is violent in her own way, not in the same way as Peggy. There’s a lot of mental punching going on with her, as opposed to actual punching. She uses her wits and intelligence to fight in the courtroom.”
Atwell signed on for Conviction while still starring on Agent Carter, which was then in the midst of its low-rated second season, also on ABC. Although the show was canceled and Captain America: Civil War references Peggy Carter’s death, Atwell says the question she gets asked most is whether or not Peggy will be seen again. Having been apart of the Marvel universe for several years now, the actress is ready with a cryptic answer. “Marvel is very aware of the interest in her, and I’d jump at the chance to play her again,” she says.
For now, though, it’s all about Conviction. Every week, Hayes and her tight-knit team of young lawyers and investigators dig into a criminal conviction that resulted in an innocent person being sent to jail. This allows the show some latitude to react to what’s in the actual news — a future episode revolves around the “Black Lives Matter” movement — whether it’s directly or indirectly ripped from the headlines. To make sure she got the part of a hard-charging attorney down right, Atwell spent time in Kansas City observing the courtroom of a friend of hers.
“My best friend is a lawyer in Kansas City and so it was natural to spend some time with her,” the actress explains. “She’s a prosecutor and watching her do her thing in the courtroom was amazing because of the level of performance required for that. I watched her take on the role of ‘Lawyer’ and present a case to the judge and jury, and her process was similar to what an actor does. Only with real stakes.”
Atwell is feeling pretty confident these days that Conviction is finding a similar intensity. “We can’t rest on our laurels. Hayes’ team wants cases that push the envelope for the viewers,” she says. “I couldn’t have done a formulaic legal drama where they heroically win a new case each week.”
Likewise, Atwell is constantly trying to push herself when she’s not on camera. After all, this is a woman who spent three months taking an online course in haiku while shooting Captain America: The First Avenger. With all the downtime that exists on a movie set, Atwell wanted to keep from “twiddling my thumbs. And I loved English and philosophy in school, along with poetry.” She studied on her laptop whenever she could, and the experience taught her “how to think and analyze language. I love reading and now rather than just get caught up in the imagery of the story, I am getting caught up wondering why the writer tried alliteration in that sentence.”
As seriously as she takes her work, though, Atwell also had a more superficial desire in mind when she signed on to Conviction. After two years as a 1940s secret agent, she wanted to do something with a more modern (and comfortable) wardrobe. Hayes is much more comfortable in her designer dresses, and that suits Atwell just fine. The goal, she says, is to play someone “who lives in the corporate world, but isn’t a plain black pantsuit type. She’s in the public eye, so she has a good fashion sense.”
After all, Atwell has already proved she doesn’t need a cape to kick butt.
Conviction airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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