‘Agent Carter’s’ Hayley Atwell: Super spy is a ‘woman before her time’

Jan. 06, 2015 | 4:54 p.m.
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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Marvel's "Agent Carter" shoots on location at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Star Hayley Atwell gets a lipstick touch up in between takes on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Chad Michael Murray, Enver Gjokaj and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Enver Gjokaj and Chad Michael Murray on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Actor Enver Gjokaj, executive producer Louis D'Esposito and actor Chad Michael Murray on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Chad Michael Murray and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Enver Gjokaj and Chad Michael Murray on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Executive producer Louis D'Esposito and actor James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Hayley Atwell and James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

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Director of photography Gabriel Beristain and executive producer Louis D'Esposito on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Hayley Atwell reprises her “Captain America” role as coolly capable spy Peggy Carter in Marvel’s new short-order series, “Agent Carter,” which premieres Tuesday night on ABC. While the adventure takes place in 1946, it deals with some decidedly contemporary themes, according to the English actress.

“In terms of her actual personal journey, it’s something that’s very modern,” Atwell said late last year on “Agent Carter’s” Los Angeles set. “In many ways, she could be considered a woman before her time. There happens to be no one else in the series yet that is like her, that has caught up to her abilities that’s a woman. She’s having to pave the way.”

Set one year after the events depicted in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the series opens with Peggy still grieving for Steve Rogers, who is purported to have died in a plane crash in the Arctic. She  now works for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, where despite her impressive record of wartime service, she is relegated on the basis of her gender to glorified secretarial duties.

Soon, though, she finds herself on a dangerous mission to clear the name of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), who stands accused of treason, with some assistance from his man Friday, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). (For a behind-the-scenes look at the show, click through the image gallery above.)

Hayley Atwell stars in "Agent Carter." (Marvel/ABC)

Hayley Atwell stars in “Agent Carter.” (Marvel/ABC)

Hero Complex sat down with the actress between scenes to learn more about what’s in store for Peggy.

HC: What intrigued you about the idea of returning to play this character on television?

Hayley Atwell: I loved her and I loved the crew that I was working with and I knew that they were going to be able to give her an arc, give her an emotional journey, make her more three-dimensional, talk about the psychological cost of leading a double life as well as losing the love of your life. I knew that there was a lot to explore with her, so creatively speaking it was interesting.

HC: Was the eight-episode structure particularly appealing?

HA: I prefer that because it stops it from being the case-a-week, formulaic soap-type thing that we have so much in television. This was a lot more contained as a miniseries, or like three movies combined into a short space of time. I think it makes the dialogue tighter, it makes the plot more concise, it makes the tension more consistent.

HC: Do you feel that you’re discovering new aspects of the character revisiting her in this way?

HA: It feels like we didn’t really scratch the surface of who she was. She’s very militant and uptight in the first [“Captain America” film]. You don’t see any aspect of her social life or her personal life. She’s very much a vehicle for Steve Rogers to get where he gets to and for him to have some kind of emotional interest. There wasn’t really much to her and what was asked of me as an actor. It felt like this was the beginning of discovering who she was as a character and creating that character from scratch. All we really had was her look.

HC: Did you have a great deal of input into shaping her depiction in “Agent Carter”?

HA: I worked quite closely with the director, Louis D’Esposito, and also with the writers: Where can we see her go? What’s the most interesting thing about her that we know of and how can we develop her so that the audience feels they can relate to her as opposed to just being someone in high heels and red lipstick who can hold a gun? What is the psychological cost of someone who has had this great loss, is working in a male-dominated world, and with the backdrop of people coming back from the war and having to build up America again, is having to prove herself again and leading a double life so not allowing people to get close to her? There’s so many aspects of that world which the writers felt were enough to create a really amazing show and a very unique opportunity for a woman in a central lead.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" (Marvel Entertainment/Paramount Pictures)

Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (Marvel Entertainment/Paramount Pictures)

HC: We seem to have arrived at a moment where there’s a real demand for more stories about interesting, dynamic women.

HA: I think it’s a constant conversation and dialogue – giving the audience what it wants but the audience also making demands on the industry. I think in recent years there’s been a greater need for older actresses to get better roles, for actresses not to be the token sex symbol or the token bitchy best friend, or the ingenue or the washed up star. We want women we can relate to, women that have much more interesting lives, complicated stories, complicated backgrounds, deep flaws that we find interesting and fascinating. We have people like Carrie in “Homeland,” who for me paved the way. We have people like Lena Dunham talking about sexuality and nudity that we haven’t seen on screen before because Hollywood hasn’t allowed it — but also audiences haven’t asked for it. There seems to be a changing mind-set, which is now filtering through into film and onto television, and I hope we have “Agent Carter” as an example of that. We still have a very long way to go.

HC: “Agent Carter” is an adventure series, but if you changed the circumstances just a bit, it could easily become a real-world melodrama about a grieving woman dealing with the realities of a changing world post-war and coming up against the sexism of the era.

HA: I think there’d be something a bit cliched if we just focused on that aspect of the workplace – Oh, it’s a woman in a male-dominated field, and she gets tapped on the ass and she doesn’t get taken seriously. All of those things we’ve updated to make it slightly more complicated than that… There’s a lot of layers to that as a backdrop, just creating drama and tension. The real thing is more this woman’s own journey and how she goes on to prove her worth to herself and to the people that she really cares about and the people that she wants to impress and the places that she wants to get to in her life.

Hayley Atwell in a scene from Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Eric McCandless / ABC)

Hayley Atwell in a scene from Marvel’s “Agent Carter.” (Eric McCandless / ABC)

HC: Do you enjoy the action sequences?

HA: I love them. I played rugby at school when I was younger so I feel very comfortable with that kind of level of physical aggression that’s needed. All that’s really needed is confidence to throw yourself into something where you could possibly get hurt. But we have a fantastic stunt team, I’ve been shadowing my stunt double so I will watch and learn all of the stunt moves … I’d feel like I was cheating myself if I let her do everything because I felt capable enough to do it myself. It’s really thrilling.  There’s so much variety in this show. We have the action but we also have emotional moments. We have the wit, we have a psychological arc and we have a lot of humor. It’s all-encompassing. It’s a great role for me to do. It’s thrilling.

HC: The costumes are gorgeous.

HA: Absolutely incredible attention to detail. Everything’s handmade to fit me perfectly and tailored to my shape. It’s wonderful. It gives her a sense of authority and elegance in the scenes. Walking around in heels, doing an action sequence in heels is going to be very different than if you’re wearing overalls and Doc Martens boots. It gives her a different posture and it helps get into character.

Hayley Atwell and  James D'Arcy on the set of Marvel's "Agent Carter." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy on the set of Marvel’s “Agent Carter.” (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

HC: Peggy and Jarvis seem to have something of a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn rapport. Is that enjoyable to play?

HA: I suppose it’s comic relief – they both come from England so they have that witty satire and that dry sense of humor. The banter’s very jovial, but it’s undercut with a mutual respect that they have for each other. It’s an absolute joy to play, and James and I do a lot of improvisation together. We add lines and take lines out and rearrange them, and we’ve ended up creating a very watchable relationship between two people — you think, are they going to end up together? Are they secretly in love? Are they mean to each other because they know each other better than they know anyone else?

Their relationship and their dynamic is a great remedy to the SSR office area, which is very earnest and melodramatic and men being men and asserting their authority all over the place. Peggy’s kind of relaxed in that world, kind of going, ‘You’re all idiots.’ She’s always a couple of steps ahead of them.

— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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Comments


One Response to ‘Agent Carter’s’ Hayley Atwell: Super spy is a ‘woman before her time’

  1. neilbertuk says:

    I wondered what happened to Hayley Atwell , not been seen much in the UK recently- this looks interesting

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