In case you hadn’t noticed, the "damsel in distress" is an endangered species in action films. Gone is the time when it was enough for the leading lady to merely look pretty and await rescue from her brave knight. These days, a broader skillset is required: She must be fetching in both evening wear and battle gear; deliver a punch or a putdown with equal ease; and, romantically, play both pursuer and pursued, depending on what circumstances dictate. Or, to paraphrase Uncle Ben, greater power = greater responsibility.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, that responsibility falls on the capable (and slender) shoulders of Hayley Atwell. Plucked from relative obscurity (her resume is dominated by BBC and stage projects), she plays Agent Peggy Carter, part of a top-secret Super Soldier task force whose patriotic PED, the Super Serum, will transform wee Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into Yankee ubermensch Captain America. (Being the only XX-chromosomed player in the principal cast, she’s also Cap’s de facto love interest.) Atwell’s credentials are evident from her first scene, in which she beguiles in an officer’s uniform, smacks down a sassy grunt, and holds her own opposite a figure no less intimidating than Tommy Lee Jones, a man known for reducing lesser actors to cinders with a simple scowl.
We recently sat down with Atwell for an exclusive interview, in which the half-British, half-American, all-stunning actress talked about Captain America, her “f*cking huge” co-star, and her tomboyish tendencies.
Do you think that bouncing back-and-forth between the U.K. and U.S. while growing up, always having to re-acclimate quickly to different environments, played a factor in your decision to get into acting?
Definitely, yeah. I have family dotted everywhere – dad’s in California; I’ve got aunts in Scotland and Virginia; family in Kansas City; family in Manchester and London. I went to lots of different schools and had lots of different experiences. I think that made me hungry for other peoples’ stories. I was always fascinated by other peoples’ lives and their little worlds and universes and how they saw the world.
Since you have special insight on the subject, I have to ask: How would you compare American and British men?
Oh god, I wouldn’t want to possibly generalize. I’m gonna end up offending someone and probably talk a lot more shite than I intend to. But I think American guys tend to be a bit more forward, a bit more chatty and open than the Brits. The Brits seem to have a darker sense of humor, though I have met some Americans who have adopted bits of the British dry sense of humor as well. I think over time – over my generation, certainly – that the gap is growing smaller and smaller. We’re so influenced by American culture, and I grew up watching American films. I think Brits probably feel that Americans are more like us than vice-versa, if that makes sense. Because we get everything American over here in Britain, but yet there are things which are staunchly English that you guys don’t have.
I can say that I’ve never seen any group of people drink as much as English male football fans.
Wait till you meet the Scots; they’re even bigger drinkers. But then I’ve always felt that American drinkers, because the [drinking] age is older here, they kind of go mental at that [age]. In Europe, we’re kind of more about having a beer at twelve with family, or something. It doesn’t seem like such a taboo. And the drinking culture that we have in England is something that’s very much embraced. But in America, everyone seems to go absolutely mental, but then also, you don’t talk about it. It’s all very taboo.
Were you hesitant about doing a comic book film? The genre has such a mixed record.
Yeah. But the minute I met the director and he laid out what he wanted, I thought absolutely, I’m gonna do this. I don’t have any kind of judgments over it – I think that has its place and its own market and has its own kind of value. And each one can be done well. Joe was very calm, and he had a real twinkle in his eye and a kind of tongue-in-cheek sense of what this film is about. He doesn’t have a big ego, Joe; he’s very down-to-earth, and he was kind of like, “It’s a superhero film. It’s not brain surgery.” And he said it’s important that these were rooted in something real, that it was something a bit more grounded, so that they were three-dimensional as opposed to caricatures.
I was surprised to learn that Chris Evans sought therapy before taking on this role.
Yeah. He said he had some issues that he had to work out regarding the commitment and pressure inherent to being the face of a franchise. Which is actually quite charming, in a way – you don’t see that kind of humility in actors, at least not in public. Did that come across when you were working with him?
He had a sincerity and a vulnerability that he brought to Steve, which carries on even through his transformation into Captain America. He still retains that vulnerability. And he brought a humility to it. I think what was great is that he had great self-awareness. He’s aware of the dangers, the pressures, the expectations of it all, and that it does fall on his shoulders, that he carries the film, that it’s bigger than anything he’s done before, and that it could be a potentially decade-long commitment. I mean, he was saying that he could be doing this into his ‘40s. And I think to be that aware of it, and yet still do it – and do it without a false pretension of getting through it by being arrogant, or kind of bluffing his way through it. He was very present and very committed to what he was doing. And he balanced that out by having a good time on set, having a good laugh with people, and having a great social aspect, sampling the delights of London life as he did in abundance.
And he’s massive.
F*cking huge! During that reveal [after he’s transformed into Captain America], I was just like, Whoa, I’ve never seen anything that big in my life.
You have a few scenes opposite the pre-transformation, 98-lb. Steve Rogers. How did that process work, exactly?
It’s really interesting because Leander Deeny, who plays Skinny Steve, would watch the takes between Chris and I, and he would mimic Chris absolutely, down to where he would breathe in the dialogue. So it meant that when they put Chris’ face on his body, that every time the face takes a breath, the body’s also taking a breath. He was so intricate. Leander was very committed to it. He’s a well-respected theater actor and he has incredible expression in his body. It was amazing to watch it, and a bit odd at times, to do a scene and have all these emotions for someone, and then to do exactly the same thing again with someone completely different. I ended up feeling a bit promiscuous.
You mentioned earlier that you didn’t mind being surrounded by men most of the time on-set. Do you consider yourself something of a tomboy?
I’m not really into makeup, not really into fuffing with hair and stuff. It’s so nice that in something like this, where it is called for, it’s all done for me. It’s amazing. I’m kind of a jeans person – I describe my style as “anything I can climb a tree in.” I’d much rather be active than think about presentation, which my mum and my grandmother simply cannot understand, because they’re always so immaculate and so beautifully put-together, and I’m a bit of a slob.
So The Duchess must have been hell for you.
Aaaahhhh! The worst thing was I could hardly drink anything, because I thought, “Oh god, I’ll need to go to the toilet again, and it’s going to take me about a half an hour to get out of this thing.” I mean, I quite liked how, when you were in those clothes, how different you are. How you get to walk in a certain way and balance a hairstyle on your head. It changes so many things – how I moved, how I related to other people. I quite liked that. I liked that aspect, as opposed to feeling so pretty. I didn’t feel that at all.
Captain America opens everywhere this Friday, July 22, 2011.