There are a lot of people rooting for Hayley Atwell. Woody Allen, who cast her fresh out of drama school, aged 25, in his 2007 film Cassandra’s Dream said at the time, “There’s a girl named Hayley Atwell who I think is very, very beautiful. And I am going to present her so you can see what I am talking about.”
The following year, Emma Thompson, co-starring with Hayley in Brideshead Revisited, sung her praises in a letter to the actress. “You’re a fine actor and I’m determined to work with you again.” While promoting their film The Duchess together in 2008, Keira Knightley commented, “I hadn’t seen anything Hayley had done before [but] I think she’s completely extraordinary.”
The next big thing
And yet, meeting her, Hayley is utterly unassuming. Although beautiful, she looks as ‘normal’ as me, wearing a similar outfit of blazer and dark jeans (hers are Tommy Hilfiger and Hudson). She’s late and cursing that she should have taken the Tube. “I don’t think people know who I am,” she dismisses when I ask if she gets recognised. Her manner is very self-deprecating (“I really need to sort that out!” she admits). It’s an exciting time to meet her, because tomorrow, Hayley is flying to LA to promote her biggest film to date, Captain America: The First Avenger. Out this week, it’s tipped to be one of summer’s biggest hits. In short, it’s the film to put her on the Hollywood map.
Is she nervous about becoming a household name? Her character, Peggy, is even on Dunkin’ Donuts packaging in the US. “I think it’s going to be amazing and it’s ironic because the training I did for the part meant I couldn’t even sniff a Dunkin’ Donut,” she laughs. “I had the same trainer that Jake Gyllenhaal had for Prince Of Persia. It was hard but I never cried in front of him because I knew he’d have no time for it. Every time I sighed he’d go, ‘Sorry what was that?’ and I’d go, ‘Nothing, I am strong!’”
Having been asked to slim down for Brideshead (co-star Emma Thompson reportedly told the director she would quit if happened), was Hayley perturbed by this? “I had about two bursts of sitting in pyjamas, going ‘I’m not doing it anymore!’ Then I came to my senses.”
"I seem like an English rose even though I’m not posh. I wanted to be though."
Her career so far has been defined by period dramas; all very British, I observe. “I suppose it’s the way I look and speak,” she explains. “I seem like an English rose even though I’m not posh. I wanted to be though,” she adds. “I went to a London comprehensive, which was quite rough, and I wanted to be at Bedales and reading Tatler. I was head girl, always the one that was going, ‘I want to read this passage to the class’ in a nice voice and someone would go, ‘Your shoes are shit!’ And I’d be like, ‘Are you having problems at home? Let’s talk about it.’” She pauses to laugh. “I probably came across as patronising but I truly meant it – if you’re dissing my shoes you’re not happy in yourself.” A habit she no doubt learned from her parents – her mother’s a motivational speaker and her part-Native American father is a shaman.
What convinced her she should be an actress? “I remember studying To Kill A Mockingbird for GCSE and at the same time I watched Ian McKellen and Judi Dench’s Hamlet for drama and I remember thinking, ‘This is it. It’s all about social justice and theatre, it really is.’” Having started her career at the National Theatre in 2008’s Major Barbara (“That’s f**king daunting, that’s pressure, saying Bernard Shaw lines,” she grins), Hayley will be returning to the stage – this time to London’s Royal Court for new play The Faith Machine in August. “I’m looking forward to going back,” she says, “because you learn so much from the audience. They’ll tell you if you’re sh*t! It’ll be a rustle, a cough, snivelling, anything to make you acutely aware of how boring you are.”
Does she see herself doing more films? “Yes, and there are a couple of projects I’m doing that I can’t mention, yet,” she grins, knowingly, “but I think it will be a balance of creative and commercial choices, going forward. People say critical acclaim and box office success don’t go hand in hand and that may be true but I don’t really think I’d live much on the salary of a full-time theatre actor. I mean, I could, but I really like going out to dinner…” Still, if anyone is going to rise the challenge, I comment, it’s her. “Well,” she says, about to self-deprecate. “Well… maybe.”
Captain America: The First Avenger is out 29 July
Picture credits: Rex Features
Words: Megan Connor