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Exclusive: Hayley Atwell on 'Captain America' and Her Action Heroine, Peggy Carter

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Oct 25, 2011 | 6:42am EDT

ALTWith all the testosterone injected into the veins of today's superhero movies, Captain America: The First Avenger packed a particularly strong punch with the inclusion of the strong-willed, gun-toting female heroine Peggy Carter. She may have fallen for the slab of muscle known as Steve Rogers, but Peggy isn't a pushover—the government agent will gladly scream orders to underling soldiers or take out a few Nazis when necessary.

Peggy's empowerment comes courtesy of newcomer Hayley Atwell, who is undeniably stunning but doesn't let her looks stand in the way of a forceful performance. Atwell's the real deal and Captain America is proof that she has a lengthy career ahead of her.

I had a chance to chat with Atwell on the making of Captain America (which hits Blu-ray today on a set we very much approve of), and she was more than happy to discuss everything it took to bring Peggy to life:

So I heard you're currently on vacation.

Hayley Atwell: Yes, I'm freezing. I'm in the Highlands of Scotland, on a mountain and it's minus six. It's the only place I can get reception! It's usually lovely and cozy here when you're inside by the fire with a glass of wine, but getting reception…impossible.

Well, you're a tough lady. You can stand the cold, you can fight pseudo-Nazis. Sounds like little you can't do. And your character Peggy's similar, a butt-kicking kinda gal from an era where that type wasn't too common. Were their actresses or characters from the past that you tried to emulate or went to for inspiration?

HA: Yes! I love Lauren Bacall and how strong she is on screen. And I looked to Katherine Hepburn, who had this incredible muscularity to them. Not necessarily in the position where we are today but…back then there weren't so many great positions women could be in terms of jobs, but within themselves in characters they could still be incredible strong and powerful.

But I really took it from is on the page. She was a strong woman and I really related to that. I could start getting in to the mindset of Peggy Carter quite easily. I loved playing strong roles like that.

ALTBut she also has a little romance with Steve Rogers. How were you able to strike a balance between a softer, romantic woman and still leading an army in to battle.

HA: You know, the costumes help quite a bit. She's a very practical woman, in the sense that she needs to get the job done. And she does that really well. On the other side of it she can put on red lipstick and a red dress and go out to the pub at night. It's kind of what's written on for you and as an actor you do what's on the page and you bring it to life as much as possible. I didn't put too much thought into it. You do what's expected for you.

Was it a relief to finally get to wear a dress in one scene after so much of wearing the stuffy military garb?

HA: I'll tell you what, I didn't feel as comfortable. We had filmed that part later on and I had become so used to the uniform up to then, and by that time also feeling like one of the guys. We played games on set, we hung out, we drank beer together. I felt like a tomboy. So the day when I wore the dress…the amount of attention I got on set. The heads turning. Men wouldn't look me in the eye and they also wouldn't talk to me because they were too intimidated. So I had a miserable day in that dress. I might look fantastic but I was having a crap time because no one would play with me!

Hopefully you got back to firing guns and making things explode afterward. You end up in a lot of action in this movie—how much prep and training did you go through in order to come out of each day in one piece?

HA: [Laughs] Yes, that's always a good start. We had two months of training, physically, before we started shooting. That was with an ex-Marine who took me through circuit training and integral training and got me physically very fit, strong. Along side of that I was doing shooting practice, not only so I had good aim but so I could be comfortable with a gun, handling it.

And once the pistol shooting went well, Joe [Johnston, director], who always has a twinkle in his eye and always wants to come with something to try, comes up and says, 'how do you feel about using a machine gun?' And I jumped at the chance. 'Yes, I've been promoted! I'm so happy!' So then the machine gun came out and it was thrilling, so exciting. So it was just a matter of how much I felt capable of doing and having fun with it.

ALTIs it always 100% safe on these big action movies? Do stunts ever go haywire?

HA: Oh yeah. They go wrong in the sense that I got winded. Repetition. There's a scene where Steve pushes Peggy Carter out of the way in the street, while she's shooting. They both go flying through the air and land on the floor. We did it so many times it was hard to breathe. And at one point I stood too close to Kruger's gun and the blank shell kind of flew out and hit the side of my head. Quite painful. A few bruises.

But it's safer than real life because you're surrounded by stunt people. Unfortunately up here in Scotland, where you could for a hike but you can also fall down and break your leg because of the rocky terrain. Unfortunately, here I don't have a team of experts who are watching every move I make.

You're getting there.

HA: Oh yes, I have my entourage.

ALTCan you talk a little about working with Chris Evans. It sounds like everyone was pretty buddy buddy, but how did you two develop a rapport?

HA: Part of the job is bringing yourself to the role, but you have a responsibility to have a rapport with the people you're working with, to give yourself a good time. I do my best work when I feel comfortable with the people I'm working with, and Chris is a professional. Part of that professionalism is making people feel relaxed, and it's through socializing and having fun. We'd have dinner, he had another movie coming out and he took us all to the premiere. With Chris, he's in a position to give 100% and he makes the most of the people he's working with. It was good for me, because this was the first time I was coming in to the Hollywood studio system and it was nice to work with someone who had a lot of experience.

Is that big Hollywood scene a place where you want to continue to work? Are you looking at other big budget projects?

HA: Absolutely. I had such an amazing time and it was a privilege to be part of the Paramount and Marvel families. It was so positive and it changed my life a little bit. I always do go back to theater because, as an actor, it's where I can go back and learn more about my craft. So if I can do both it would be a real dream come true. I'm hoping in the next six months or so to become attached to something else.

Do you have any projects in the works right now?

HA: Yes, I just finished play in London and I'm doing a thing called The Sweeney, which his a gangster film set in London. And there are a few projects I'm in negotiations for which I haven't officially put my name to, so I'll be able to talk more when they come in to fruition.

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