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Hayley Atwell

First Published 14 September 2011, Last Updated 15 September 2011

The Captain America star chats to Matthew Amer about strong women – both fictional and real – as she returns to the London stage in The Faith Machine at the Royal Court.

Rain pelts down on the roof of the Royal Court’s restaurant, sounding as though an impromptu waterfall has sprung up above the Sloane Square venue. The wind, signalling the start of the British autumn, whistles past my table, eager to see what is available at the bar. It is the kind of ominous storm of which Prospero would be proud, yet it does little to diminish the high spirits of the actress who sits opposite me, despite her having to take a rather circuitous route to the subterranean eatery to avoid a drenching at the hands of the September monsoon.

Hayley Atwell, you see, has had a rather impressive summer. First she starred in blockbuster big screen superhero adventure Captain America, and now she is leading the cast of new Royal Court hit, The Faith Machine.

The latest acclaimed play from the pen of award-winning writer Alexi Kaye Campbell, The Faith Machine is the tale of a modern relationship stretched to breaking point by principles and beliefs. It has proved so affecting that more than ever before audiences have been moved to write to the young actress, not about her performance, but about the play itself.

“That’s what a play should do,” she smiles as she sips a comforting latte while the wind rushes and the rain roars, “provoke conversation and open up a dialogue about certain things that you don’t necessarily get to talk about in your everyday life.”

Campbell’s play finds Atwell playing Sophie, an idealistic young would-be journalist who, as the piece begins, gives her copywriter boyfriend an ultimatum: walk away from the account of a company whose morals are dubious at best, or walk away from her.

“She’s not a happy person”

“How brilliant,” Atwell says she thought on first reading the script, “a character who actually has such a strong sense of what’s right and wrong that she goes to such lengths to challenge people about it. It’s not that she’s trying to be a good person and be seen as a heroic figure or saviour of all people, she is just so overwhelmingly affected by the things that she sees that she can’t get it out of her system. The cost of that is that she can’t hold down a relationship because there are too many things that she can’t let go.” As a result, Atwell summarises, “She’s not a happy person.”

It is possible that a character as immediately earnest and vociferous as Sophie could, in the wrong hands, turn audiences off in the first instance. Atwell doesn’t agree. In fact, the suggestion that, in another actress’s hands, this might be possible has the 29-year-old swiftly defending the script and claiming that any fault is entirely her own.

Tellingly she admits later on that, “I think too much about everything.” She does indeed read more into some of my questions than was ever implied, looking for criticism where there is none. It is surprising from a performer who is among a group of British actresses in their late 20s and early 30s who have the world at their feet; an actress who, while rehearsing for The Faith Machine, flew across the Atlantic to audition for Tom Cruise. Yet there is no law that says the most successful of people can’t suffer from self-doubt.

The twinkle in the eye and Atwell’s winning, dimpled smile return as conversation moves away from anything vaguely inflammatory and on to acting drunk, as she has to do at the Royal Court. “I’ve had some practice. There’s a technique in acting called emotional memory. On the odd occasion… years ago… I remember feeling out of sorts. I tapped into that.” Showing full commitment to the role, she even imbibed a little alcohol along with the rest of the cast during rehearsals.

One of the central relationships in the play is between Sophie and her father, a former Bishop played by Ian McDiarmid. Campbell’s piece explores both the effect of a parent on the character of a child, and the role reversal that can come with age and ill health. Though, Atwell says, there is little of her familial relationships in the piece, she can certainly see the effects of her unconventional childhood – her mother is a motivational speaker, her father is a massage therapist and shaman – in her character.

“I think too much about everything”

“I definitely feel who I’ve become has been shaped by who [my parents] were and certain values that they’ve had, whether I adopted them myself or challenged them,” she says. “My father is quite a deep thinker and someone who cares maybe a little too much about the suffering in the world at a cost to him,” she continues. “I wonder if, in order to get ahead in this world, you have to be less of a good man and have more of an ego, more of a sense of greed in order to be successful? It’s a big question.”

It is indeed, but that is the effect that The Faith Machine has, teasing audiences – and performers – into a little soul searching and philosophising.

It was, Atwell admits, a “surreal” jump that took her from the promotional tour of Captain America, which she finished on a Friday, to rehearsals for The Faith Machine, which began the following Monday. The two projects are about as far apart as it is possible to be without dwelling in the icier areas of the globe. Yet, Atwell argues, “whether you’re doing a $150 million film in America or earning pittance for working in a theatre, sitting in tracksuit bottoms in a rehearsal room for four weeks, as long as the story is at the centre of the work, it doesn’t matter what medium it’s in.”

This leads to another misunderstanding. Captain America, a big budget, worldwide multiplex hit, could, I suggest, be the film that catapults her into the movie world’s upper echelons. It has given her the profile in Hollywood on which to build upon a burgeoning film career. But Atwell is dismissive of the suggestion, and goes further, defending herself against an accusation that was never made: “I certainly don’t feel like I’ve lost my sense of why I was an actor by doing it, but I also know that I’m not too worthy or earnest or take myself too seriously not to pursue those things as well; everything has its place. But I wouldn’t ever want to take a job just because it’s going to get me places or earn me money. Doing that is miserable. It’s really, really miserable. It takes all the joy out of what you’re actually doing.”

It is almost as if she finds judgement where there is none. Maybe it is the result of the childhood bullying she suffered for not entirely fitting in. Maybe sitting opposite a journalist firing questions at you while you try to eat your roast squash salad will do that to you? Maybe I’ve proved her right by jumping to these conclusions.

In any case, she really has no need to fear judgement. So far her career has verged on the pitch perfect. He theatrical outings have included National Theatre productions of The Man Of Mode and Major Barbara, and an Olivier Award-nominated performance in A View From The Bridge. Her film debut came in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, and she has gone on to appear in movies including Brideshead Revisited, The Duchess and, of course, Captain America. The TV credits are no less impressive, including Any Human Heart, Pillars Of The Earth and Mansfield Park.

“I’m pretty good at being rejected; you have to be in this industry”

As we chat, it becomes apparent that maybe only one of her previous projects annoys her a little, the recent remake of cult hit The Prisoner. In a previous interview, before the series was aired, her co-star Ruth Wilson had expressed reservations about the filming process. Atwell agrees it was “a mess”. On paper it promised much, but never lived up to that potential. It did, however, give her a chance to party with Ian McKellen, go on safari, swim with sharks and meet Wilson, who she now describes as “one of my best friends in the industry”.

Wilson – who beat her The Prisoner co-star to the Olivier Award last year but dedicated half of it to her friend in her acceptance speech – and Atwell are at the vanguard of a group of British actresses who emerged into the profession around half a decade ago. “It was a very strong thing that happened five years ago,” Atwell says. “Strong women coming out [of drama school] and going ‘We can be these stars. We can do these movies. We’re good enough to be on the stage. We’re smart enough to have something to say and we have talent.’ I think we inspire each other.”

The self-questioning, over-thinking Atwell seems very at odds with this confident actress proclaiming the talent and potential of a generation of performers that also includes Romola Garai, Andrea Riseborough and Jodie Whittaker. It also seems at odds with her claim that: “I’m pretty good at being rejected; you have to be in this industry. There’s a metaphor I use; if you’re standing at a platform and a train goes by and doesn’t stop for you, it’s not your train. I don’t dwell on what I don’t get. Life’s too short and it’s really boring to do that.”

I imagine it would be impossible to survive as a professional performer if you took rejection personally. So many auditions must end with a ‘No thank you’, but the Atwell who thinks too much must battle against the Atwell that lets rejection wash over her like rain off the Royal Court’s roof.

Maybe I’m over-thinking things. Maybe it’s entirely possible to be both at the right times.

Atwell didn’t get the job with Tom Cruise. It went to another English actress, Rosamund Pike. Instead of worrying about it or the fact that her audition and lack of success was reported in film magazines, Atwell says she is just happy that she was in the position to spend two hours in a room with Cruise and has a profile high enough to warrant reporting.

“The money would have been nice,” she laughs as she chases a crouton around her salad, “but I’m not starving.” There will be another train along soon enough.

MA

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