“Captain America: The First Avenger” is closing in on $250 million in worldwide box office after earning some strong reviews for its World War II tale of heroes, villains, courage, loss and duty. The film delivers, as expected, with its action sequences, but many observers were surprised by its heartfelt romance with Steve Rogers, played by Chris Evans, and Peggy Carter, portrayed by Hayley Atwell. Atwell, a 29-year-old London native, made her feature-film debut in 2007 in Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream” and earned a Golden Globe nomination for the 2010 television miniseries “The Pillars of the Earth.” Soon she will be on the London stage in “The Faith Machine.” Our Geoff Boucher talked with her about her visit to the Marvel Universe.
GB: Superhero films can be less than heroic when it comes to presenting nuanced roles for women. Talk a bit about your character, Peggy Carter, and how you were able to make her interesting not just to the audience but to yourself.
HA: Peggy works in the military and she’s very strong, very determined and ambitious. She’s part of an elite group of scientists and military types who are looking for a person to turn into a super soldier. They come across this wonderful young chap who is sort of this skinny weakling and they discover in him not just the determination to become this super soldier — who will be called Captain America — but also the heart to contain that duty and do good with it. He’s the moral core of the story and his relationship with my character, Peggy, becomes something special. This is a day and age when women are challenged on a day-to-day basis — in doing whatever job they’re doing, especially if it’s in a male-dominated area — in keeping their femininity while also thinking like a man. And as you say, this is a story about and from the 1940s. Peggy is having to fight harder battles than woman do now and dealing with men who are attracted to her but can’t see her much beyond that.
GB: On the set, did you feel it was a challenge to protect your version of Peggy amid the special effects, war machinery and the military-male fantasy?
HA: [Director] Joe Johnston and I met early on in the casting process and got on quite well and he could tell I’m quite a strong person anyway. I didn’t personally find it a challenge. The guys in this movie were quite gentlemanly, too, and I got to a point where I felt quite protected by them. I was equally a part of everything that we did and that made all the difference as far as my character. Working with Chris was really wonderful and I think it’s so great for him to show something so different than what’s he shown before as far his depth and his range and not just his intelligence as an actor but also his emotion. I know that sounds odd considering this is an action film, but he does that with this role.
GB: Marvel heroes always have that underpinning of pain or loss or regret — it’s like Greek tragedy with tights.
HA: Yes, exactly! It’s Greek tragedy with guns and six-packs and hot women. I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s always good and evil in and the action is only part of it.
GB: So your director is Texan by birth and a maverick soul. He isn’t the sort of filmmaker who minces words, is he?
HA: It’s true but Joe also doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is wonderful. He keeps a sense of humor about himself and on the set he created a relaxed atmosphere, which I really appreciated; when it’s a $150- or $160-million feature and you’re the female lead, it can be quite hard to feel relaxed early on. He has this great natural ability with people and is able to get the best out of them. I think it shows in the work.
GB: The cast of supporting actors is quite impressive with Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci, Neal McDonough, Toby Jones and Samuel L. Jackson. What was that like for you — can you share a snapshot memory of working with one or more of them?
HA: Joe was really looking for a cast that would bring a truth to the movie so it wouldn’t be fluffy. He wanted an action film that had science fiction and fantasy but then these actors who would really root it in characters that people can meet, believer and like. Those actors you said and others, a bank of young English actors, in the film really brought a gravitas to it. I was particularly excited about working with Tommy Lee Jones because he has this incredible weight to him and he’s, well, first off, the coolest man on the planet. I remember when I first came across him I heard this opera music blaring out of this trailer and walking past and there he is studying books and listening to opera. His talent — and his imagination — know no bounds. He’s an exceptional human being as well as being a talented actor. He’s got a very dry sense of humor. “No I don’t do comedy, I’ve never said a funny word in my life,” he says with a total deadpan delivery. And Stanley, the way he improvises and how, with every take, he offers something different; for me, as a young actress, I just want to learn from the people I work with and I just felt very privileged to work with actors of that caliber and with that wealth of experience. I felt free enough to try different things in different takes.
GB: And all of this was at Shepperton Studios, a place you had worked before, correct?
HA: That’s right. Joe had filmed “The Wolfman” at Shepperton and really loved the group of people there and the craftsmen working on everything, and the special-effects team. I had worked a lot with the English crew on previous jobs so I was walking into an environment already where there were more familiar faces than not. That was really lovely. But then we had people like Chris Evans and Tommy coming over to England and bringing the American fight to it. It was really sociable and we had a lot of fun even while working very hard. Chris took us all to the “Scott Pilgrim” premiere that he was in while we were filming and he made sure that we were all well-fed and catered to at a private party. As I’m sure you know, he knows quite a lot about food and wine so it was an education in Italian cuisine. It was all really lovely. You don’t often get that sort of thing on a film set. I was reading a book of poetry one day when Tommy came over and sat beside me and said, “I’m really pleased to see you’re reading poetry.” Then to encourage me he began reciting a Seamus Heaney poem about sailors by heart. “Wow,” I was thinking, “Here’s the star of ‘Men in Black’ reciting an old Irish poet to me in a field at Shepperton.” It was a moment I will never forget.
GB: It’s also a bit startling that Marvel Studios would present you with such an enriching cultural journey of opera, poetry, culinary arts.
HA: I know, I know! Exactly. I learned a lot more than how to hold a machine gun. On the set it was all action, I was wearing an all-in-one outfit and goggles and a leather jacket and shooting a machine gun and Dominic [Cooper, who plays industrialist Howard Stark] and I had worked together a few times and he’s a good mate of mine and we were just messing around between shots and making our own home movies with the props. It was all silly fun and crazy and completely memorable.
GB: It also seems as if this film might be an important career moment for you. Is that something you sense?
HA: It does feel that way. I’ve been working solidly for six years, but a lot of it was in theater and in television in the U.K. or in period pieces. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a direct path to what I want to do and variety has always been a very important thing to me. I was reading lots and lots of scripts when this came across and just seemed interesting to me. And then when I sat down with Joe for about an hour and had just wonderful conversation about many different things. I remember leaving that conversation thinking, “I don’t know if I’ve got the job but I think I’ve made a friend.” When I read the script I thought it had such great energy, just the same as “Iron Man,” and no wonder that was so popular with someone as brilliant and charismatic as Robert Downey Jr. in it. “Iron Man” was appealing to everyone and I thought “Captain America” had the script to do the same sort of thing. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I tried not to have too many expectations about the release or what happens next for me. I’m happy with the memories and everything else will take care of itself.
— Geoff Boucher
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