Action girl : Hayley Atwell interview

Hayley Atwell leaps from star of Brideshead and Any Human Heart to gun-toting sex bomb in Captain America

Please God, no more red lipstick !’ Hayley Atwell drops her head into her hands in mock despair. When she looks up again, the beautiful mouth that is the source of so much frustration has split her face into a dimply grin.

It is easy to see why it has generated so much attention ; it is a megawatt sort of a mouth. Lauren Bacall had one, Hedy Lamarr had one, Cate Blanchett has one.

’Hayley is a star in the old-fashioned sense of the word,’ says the author William Boyd, in whose Channel 4 adaptation of his own novel Any Human Heart Atwell’s bombshell 1940s glamour was mesmerising.

Atwell, 29, has been playing period beauties fairly solidly since graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama six years ago. These include Julia Flyte in Julian Jarrold’s 2008 film version of Brideshead Revisited ; Bess Foster – the third person in the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s marriage – in Saul Dibb’s The Duchess ; Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park ; and Freya, the love of Logan Mountstuart’s life, in Any Human Heart.

On stage, too, her roles have tended towards the old-school : she has been in Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean tragedy Women Beware Women at the RSC, George Etherege’s Restoration comedy The Man of Mode at the National Theatre, and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (for which she was nominated for a 2010 Olivier Award).

So when the chance arose to play a gun-wielding sex bomb in Captain America, this summer’s Marvel Comics adaptation, Atwell jumped at it.

’And then I read the script and realised that it was set in the 1940s !’

A cinch-waisted, khaki-clad pin-up in the vein of an Indiana Jones heroine, Peggy Carter is a recruitment officer who falls for Captain America, an army reject who has taken part in a special experiment and been transformed into the perfect fighting machine.

’She’s sexy and feisty,’ Atwell enthuses. ’She’s immaculately beautiful but she’s also a fighter and incredibly strong. Because of that, she carries a certain amount of frustration, knowing that, if she’d been born a man, she could have been a great soldier.’

To prepare for the role, Atwell embarked on an intensive training programme. Working out for four hours a day, six days a week, and sticking to a rigid high-protein diet, she dropped a dress size. ’I felt better than I’ve ever felt in my life,’ she says. ’What struck me most, though, was the powerful effect that it had on my mind. I felt so awake, and so alive, with such a good energy. Plus, I was able to recover from hangovers much quicker.’

Open and vivacious, Atwell is good company. Questions are answered politely and thoughtfully, but always with a twinkle of mischief.

’The main reason I did Captain America was because I wanted to get out of my own head and stop taking my work so seriously. I’d had enough. I was like, “I want to train ! I want to be a supergirl ! I want a machine gun ! I want to look fabulous and be surrounded by hunky bare-chested men ! I want to make a movie that people come away from feeling amazing and invincible ! I want to be Wonder Woman !” Actually, seriously, I really do want to be Wonder Woman one day…’

Recalling her five months spent working on Captain America, a $150 million film so shrouded in mystery that even its stars haven’t been allowed to see it, Atwell describes having entered almost a parallel universe.

’I couldn’t believe the scale of it. It was insane.’ Much more daunting than the work was the pressure not to divulge any of the film’s secrets. ’Every day, when I got my script changes, they would have hayley printed all over them. That way, if I left them on a bus, the studio could blame me for blowing the film’s cover.’

On the eve of Captain America’s release, Atwell finds herself at an exciting point in her working life. In her relatively short career, she has played her hand well ; choosing the interesting roles and, most crucially, making the most of her porcelain good looks without ever cashing in on them. Much has been made of her voluptuous sensuality, and yet Atwell has never gratuitously revealed an inch of flesh.

’I’ve always been a big believer in what you don’t see being much sexier than what you do see,’ she says. ’Do you know what ? I don’t think I’m curvaceous. It’s simply that most other actresses are really, stupidly tiny. When I meet some of them, I can’t believe it. I know I’ve got curves and big boobs and I’m never, ever going to complain about that.

’Plus I love how expressive my body is. The other day, I was looking back over footage of Any Human Heart, which was made before I started training for Captain America, and I looked at myself as Freya and thought, “I like her and I believe in her. And I really believe that she loves Logan.” And there’s nothing sexier than that, is there ?’

Atwell comes across as a girl who knows her own mind. From the minute she walks into the restaurant in which we are meeting, she exudes a magnetic confidence. She instantly takes control, speeding up our transition from bar to table with the calm competence of the head girl she once was. She looks neat and very pretty in flared jeans, high heels and a short woollen jacket, with not a scrap of make-up.

’One of the best lessons I ever learnt in life was from a girlfriend of mine who pointed out that if you wear make-up all the time, you lose the ability to wow when you do.’

In the eager openness of her face, it is easy to find the little girl that Atwell once was. She was an only child whose parents were motivational speakers who had met and fallen in love at a London workshop of Dale Carnegie’s self-help bible How to Win Friends and Influence People in the mid-1970s. By the time she was two, they had separated. Her father, Grant – ’a Tom Selleck lookalike’, and a photographer-turned-shaman who also goes by his Native American name, Star Touches Earth – returned to America, leaving his daughter and her mother, Alison, living like sisters in their bohemian enclave off Ladbroke Grove in west London.

It was no ordinary childhood. Aged eight, after seeing Loyd Grossman put a live lobster into boiling water, Atwell became a committed vegetarian. Aged nine, she walked over hot coals at a ’Power Into Action’ workshop her mother had taken her to. As a teenager, while her friends were out experimenting with alcohol and cigarettes, she was on anti-vivisection and Free the Dolphins marches. At the rare parties that she did go to, she was happiest in the corner – preferably with someone’s parent – having a long discussion about life, love and the universe.

At Sion-Manning, her comprehensive secondary school, Atwell rebelled against rebellion, taking the bookish route and excelling academically. It was not always easy, and she often found herself being bullied by fellow students for her New Age ways. ’I’d see kids fighting in the playground and say things like, “I’m sensing a lot of anger here”,’ she laughs. After her GCSEs she moved to the fee-paying London Oratory, and then on to Guildhall, a happy outcome for the girl who had only ever wanted to be an actress.

Named after Hayley Mills, Atwell was exposed to film and theatre from a young age. ’Mum wasn’t at all religious but she thought that going to the theatre was as important a ceremonial, communal experience that a person could have,’ she says. ’She was always very moved by the power that it had to open your mind. I found it genuinely thrilling.’

A trip, aged 11, to see Ralph Fiennes – with whom she would later work on The Duchess – playing Hamlet was a particularly formative moment. A shy child, Atwell found that the only time she wasn’t terrified of speaking was when she was saying somebody else’s words, reading aloud in class or performing in a play. ’From a very young age, stories fuelled my imagination in the most wonderful way,’ she says. She remembers spending many hours alone in her room recreating her favourite fairy stories. ’Sometimes I would steal characters’ names from other stories and put them into mine. I felt very safe and very happy in those little worlds of my own.’

She recognises that the woman she has grown into is a product of the child who could navigate any social situations she found herself in by putting on a mask. ’When I was with my mother’s friends, I could talk fluently about Descartes. When I was with my father, I could do the New Age thing and immerse myself in ceremonies for dead spirits I had never met. When I was with my posh friends, I could be posh. When I was with my rougher friends, I could be totally street.’

’Hayley is a real chameleon,’ says Saul Dibb, who cast her in her first television role as Catherine Fedden, the bipolar daughter of a corrupt MP in the BBC adaptation of Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Line of Beauty. ’She can adapt to any situation with the most extraordinary ease. She is also a strong character who has the added bonus of being one of those magnetic characters that people just want to be near.’

Atwell imbues her characters with a blend of strength and vulnerability, a complexity that draws the audience in. ’No one else could have made Bess Foster, ostensibly a manipulative home-wrecker, into someone so hard to hate,’ Dibb says of her performance in The Duchess. ’I guess I do always find the shadow, the something else going on,’ Atwell says. ’I’m very bad at doing one thing because I don’t believe that any human being is just one thing.’

For Jamie Lloyd, who will direct Atwell in a Royal Court production of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s new play, The Faith Machine, this autumn, there was no other actress so well-equipped to play Sophie, an investigative journalist who sacrifices her personal objectives in pursuit of her ideals. ’Hayley has a fierce determination and a genuine wit but she’s also not afraid to go to the murkier depths,’ he says.

At a read-through of the play last year, Lloyd remembers how Atwell ’turned up early, was unbelievably efficient and had also done a lot of work on the script’. ’I’m in this job for the long-term,’ explains Atwell, who lists Judy Davis, Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett as role models.

’I take it very seriously and am very serious about getting it right.’ Every choice she makes is carefully considered. Thus, Captain America is a conscious step towards stardom – ’I know that being in a film like that can open up all sorts of doors that I would like opened’ – and going straight from its premiere in Los Angeles to the Royal Court rehearsal rooms in London shows a conscious commitment to keeping herself grounded while she’s about it.

Atwell is not averse to the idea of heading to Hollywood, if Hollywood asks her to go. ’I am, and I feel, half-American,’ she says. ’If the work was there, of course I’d go.’ Currently single (her three-year relationship with Gabriel Bisset-Smith, a scriptwriter she met at drama school, recently came to an amicable end ; she lives alone in a flat in Primrose Hill), Atwell is acutely aware that she is standing at a crossroads.

’Who knows what will happen ?’ she says. ’It’s like Kierkegaard says : “Life can only be understood backwards ; but it must be lived forwards.”’

’Captain America’ is out on July 29 2011

Source : The telegraph du 17/07/11 par Chloe Fox

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A propos de Hayley Atwell, actrice britannique
Hayley Atwell, née le 5 avril 1982 à Londres, Angleterre, est une actrice britannique. Après plusieurs téléfilms, elle obtient son premier rôle au cinéma dans Le Rêve de Cassandre de Woody Allen aux côtés d’Ewan McGregor et Colin Farrell. En 2008, elle apparait dans The Duchess avec Keira Knightley. En (...)
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