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All's Well That's Atwell

Hayley Atwell discusses her new film, Captain America, and her return to the London stage. logo
Hayley Atwell in Captain America
(© Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)
Hayley Atwell has thrilled audiences on the London stage (Major Barbara, A View from the Bridge), in films (Brideshead Revisited, Cassandra's Dream), and on television (The Pillars of the Earth). But from this day forward, comic book fans will think of Atwell as WW II Nazi-fighting British agent Peggy Carter, thanks to her work in the new hit film, Captain America: The First Avenger. Theatermania spoke to Atwell about her appreciation for period costumes, the joy of shooting a machine gun, and dealing with stage fright.

THEATERMANIA: Are you a comic book fan?
HAYLEY ATWELL: I hadn't read comic books really. But once I got the part, I bought all the ones I could find. I thought it was really amazing the development of the art and how epic they are. I can really see the appeal, how easy it is to get lost in the world and the escapism of it. It's hard for me, being in this industry a bit, to suspend disbelief as much as I did before. But the comic book I find easier to escape into, because it's so fantastical and so visually stunning.

TM: You've worn some serious period costumes in your time -- and here you are again, dressed as a woman soldier in the 1940's. What did you think about that?
HA: So there I am, trying to do an action piece, and it's still period! My grandmother used to put on her lipstick just to go get her milk and eggs at the shop, and sleep in curlers every night! There was so much about self-respect being in your appearance.

TM: Women in WWII movies are often portrayed as something fragile -- but this character is no damsel in distress. Was breaking the stereotype part of the fun?
HA: It's funny when they say that about women back then compared to now. You had these women like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn -- these powerhouses -- and playing that kind of woman appealed to me. I'm a strong woman, and I always want to bring an element of that to my roles, because it makes me a good role model and we have the voice now to do that.

Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, and Chris Evans
in Captain America
(© Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios)
TM: You carried a pistol and fired machine guns. How did you prepare for that?
HA: I loved it! I had to do it in the audition, some loading and unloading of some guns to make sure I looked confident with it, which I did. I was training with a pistol and then our director, Joe Johnston, came in and said, 'Do you want a machine gun?' and I said 'Yes I do!' The training I did was with an ex-Marine, so I was incredibly toned. I was grateful for that because I wouldn't be able to hold those guns for as long as I did because they're very heavy. And when I fired it, I wanted to be strong enough to not fall back. It was important that I could just stand my ground with it.
TM: Your next project is a new play at The Royal Court, Alexi Kaye Campbell's The Faith Machine. Is it a career risk to do a play now rather than another film?
HA: I've always felt strong-willed and single-minded in terms of the projects I want to do and not be calculating in terms of wanting to do things I do to raise my profile. I think that can only serve you so much before you lose sense of why you're being an artist in the first place. I was trained in the theater and I learned so much from being in the theater. That's a foundation that's so strong in me that I feel needs to be worked as a muscle as often as possible. But every time I do a play, on opening night, I go "What am I doing? This is stupid. I'm never doing this again. I want to go home!" But by the end of it, I go "I've got to keep doing this."

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