By Chris Harvey
8:00AM BST 10 Aug 2013
Hayley Atwell’s beauty is the first thing you notice about her. She walks out of a rehearsal room near London Bridge into an outdoor café, and it almost makes me laugh. If there were a kit for making a film star, her dark flashing eyes and full lips would be included in the box. What’s more surprising is that she turns out to be so funny.
She’s recently returned from Comic-Con, the American convention that celebrates all things fantasy and sci-fi. She was there because in the Marvel Universe she is Peggy Carter, the wartime British agent girlfriend of Captain America himself, as seen in the 2011 blockbuster The First Avenger. It sounds like a strange experience.
“What is weird is walking down the streets seeing people dressed as superheroes but then picking their nose or running for the bus,” she says. “That’s really surreal. You’re like, 'I’m sure Wonder Woman doesn’t eat burgers slouched over a bench like that.’ It was very funny, but the level of commitment is quite humbling. There’s an innocence about them as a fan base, it’s not aggressive, but they really do love that world. I approach Peggy Carter as I would any character, then take all the make-up off and go home and be myself. But for the fans, those worlds live for longer within them.”
I ask if the films – some of the most lucrative franchises in contemporary Hollywood – pay as well as they’re said to, mentioning Robert Downey jnr’s reported $75 million earnings for The Avengers. “Really? Is that true?” Atwell gapes. “Well, he is also an executive producer. It completely varies according to your star power, how big your name is.”
But is it life-changing? “That’s a very personal question,” she says, adopting a clipped RP tone. “I think anything is life-changing money if you’re doing something you love and earn a living from it, because it takes you beyond doing a job just for survival.”
Next up is something for love. She’s rehearsing the dual role of Sylvia, the trapped, lonely wife of a repressed homosexual man in Fifties London, and the independent, supportive friend of an identically named gay man in the present, in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play The Pride, which opens at Trafalgar Studios later this month, directed by Jamie Lloyd. It’s an interesting choice, not least because Atwell’s last stage outing was in Kaye Campbell’s The Faith Machine two years ago, also directed by Lloyd.
“I like working with them as people and it’s nice to do something that’s at least half modern,” she says. She’s referring to the way casting directors look at her voluptuous figure and see the perfect Forties heroine. “I suppose physically I suit that era. It’s wonderful to look like a period heroine, there’s something very beautiful and romantic about that. But I think there’s so much more going on behind my eyes and in my head than just looking a certain way.”
The play juxtaposes the way that changing attitudes affect the lives of people who are alike in spirit but living in different eras. The earlier Sylvia is “fragile and sensitive, and has suffered from an illness that nowadays we would call depression. I think Sylvia loves her husband deeply and his unhappiness causes her great unhappiness.
“I can relate to bouts of the blues or moments when self-destructive thoughts are a way of dealing with your surroundings. Some people, if they’re going through a difficult time they’ll lash out, and then you have people, like myself, who direct it inwards. I’m much more of an internal person than an external one, I think.”
Is there a temptation to put theatre to one side when your career is at its most bankable, I wonder, when you’re “hot”, as Atwell is now?
“Oh really?” She laughs. “'So hot right now’ – I feel like I’m in Zoolander. I think there’s a fear. The fear-based mentality would be to go, 'I’ve got to capitalise on this right now.’ I think it can be detrimental because the minute you’re hot or 'in’ the next step is to be not hot, or out. So you’re only just waiting for the time when you’re not considered cool. I think if I’m interested in my work, then life will forge its own path.”