How Hayley Atwell and Kenneth Lonergan Explode Stuffy Expectations in Howards End

A behind-the-scenes look at an old, familiar period piece getting a fresh coat of paint.

Even for audiences not brought up on a steady diet of E.M. Forster, Howards End might ring a bell. A 1992 feature adaptation of the novel about two sisters driven together and apart by love and loss won Emma Thompson her first and only acting Oscar, and cemented Helena Bonham Carter’s reputation as a queen of costume drama as well. But those who think they know what Howards End has to offer may want to think again this weekend, as Starz debuts a new, four-part adaptation from the BBC, written by naturalistic American filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan and starring Hayley Atwell. Thanks to behind-the-scenes antics, some clever casting, and a fresh eye on an old, familiar story, Atwell, Lonergan, and director Hettie Macdonald have dragged Forster firmly into the 21st century.


Speaking with Vanity Fair by phone last week, Atwell—most familiar to American audiences from her work as Captain America’s star-crossed love Peggy Carter—explained how a master of stripped-down American family dramas like Manchester by the Sea and You Can Count on Me landed this gig. “When [producer] Playground [Entertainment] first approached Kenny to see if he would do this, I think he wrote a list of all the reasons why he shouldn’t, and issues that he saw within the narrative. They told him those were exactly the reasons why he, therefore, should.”

The story navigates between three very distinct families : the bohemian, middle-class Schlegels (led by Atwell’s Margaret), the well-to-do Wilcoxes, and the working-class Basts. Lonergan’s outsider perspective and his unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the turn-of-the-century British class system resulted in a story that’s more accessible for American audiences. Lonergan is chiefly interested in painting a portrait of a relatable family, an effect he achieved immediately by importing a trick anyone with a close-knit family will recognize : vivacious overlapping dialogue. There are no laboriously constructed sentences in this Howards End.

Which doesn’t mean Lonergan threw out the source material ; in fact, most of the dialogue in this new production is lifted directly from the novel. But Atwell also described receiving a script from Lonergan “filled with cuts and slashes which would indicate where someone would come over and talk over the other actor . . . Very quickly, any sentimentality, any reverence, and most of the stiffness, he took right out of it.”

Atwell’s young co-star, the scene-stealing Alex Lawther—he plays younger Schlegel brother Tibby—also credited Macdonald with keeping the adaptation fresh and modern. “I love period drama as much as the next person,” Lawther said, careful not to offend the corset-loving crowd, “but there’s a tendency to let all of the costume get in the way of the people. Whenever we had the tendency to start playing the period drama, you know, putting on posher-than-posh accents or getting slightly carried away with the time period, Hettie was always there to remind us that these are just people. The history always came second, and the people came first.”

Lawther won over Netflix subscribers earlier this year as teenage outlaw James in the very modern End of the Fucking World—and here, he turns in an instantly recognizable performance as a younger sibling any sister would love and hate in equal measure. He encapsulates his character with a word and a chuckle : “unbearable.”

Lawther and newcomer Philippa Coulthard, who plays middle Schlegel sibling Helen, represent some ingeniously fresh casting choices in a production also populated by costume-drama regulars like Julia Ormond and Matthew Macfadyen. “Hettie was really very clever with her casting,” Atwell said with admiration.

But when it comes to maintaining that close-knit familial bond on set, Atwell may more accurately give herself the lion’s share of the credit. Lawther explained that whenever the cameras stopped rolling, Atwell stepped firmly into the role her character inhabits in the film—cheerleader, mother, and sister—to keep morale up behind the scenes during long days in uncomfortable wardrobe. The star kept her on-screen family members endlessly entertained with games and chatter, employing a trick she used during her Agent Carter days—when, between takes, Atwell led her co-stars in recording nonstop lip-sync videos to post on social media. Lawther particularly enjoyed a cell phone-based charades guessing game called “Heads Up !”, which made for some anachronistic behind-the-scenes photos.

But beyond the specifics of what they did, Lawther was dazzled by how Atwell treated newcomers like himself and Coulthard. “She was making sure we were both able to do the best work we could and have a giggle. I find that so inspiring—that sounds a bit corny, really—but there’s something inspiring about that.”

For Atwell, however, it all felt part and parcel with the other work she was doing to create a believable family. “If you’re No. 1 on the call sheet, there’s going to be a natural responsibility you have that’s going to translate across all departments,” she explained. “With Alex and Pip in particular, it was being playful with them and being interested in them. Probably very similar to the way Margaret would.”

Fast asleep. In my #donttouchwhatyoucantafford mood #howardsend

Une publication partagée par Hayley Atwell (@wellhayley) le

Lawther said he hopes to one day be able to play a similar role for his co-stars on set : “Hopefully, some of that Hayley Atwell magic has rubbed off.” If Atwell learned how to be generous and supportive of her fellow actors from anyone, it was likely her Brideshead Revisited co-star Emma Thompson, who remains a close friend and mentor to this day. (Thompson is a regular fixture on Atwell’s lively Instagram feed.)

Their enduring relationship meant that Atwell could turn to Thompson for advice on how to play the same part that won the older actress an Oscar in 1993. “There’s a natural generosity of spirit . . . She was just saying, ‘don’t look at what I’ve done,‘” Atwell said. When Atwell asked for advice on mastering the intellectually curious Margaret, she said Thompson replied : “‘If anything, go off and read physics. Have a bash at it.’”

All this behind-the-scenes effort resulted in an effortless journey that allows modern audiences easier access to Forster’s (admittedly already fairly modern) tale of strong, bright women trying to make their way in the world. More period productions would be wise to follow Atwell’s motto : “Taking the work seriously, but not ourselves—and knowing the difference.”

The first installment of Howards End debuts on Starz on Sunday, April 8.

Source : Vanity fair du 05/04/18 par Joanna Robinson

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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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