Hayley Atwell talks fast. If I wasn’t so utterly charmed by her enthusiasm and passion for her craft, I’d be miffed because of how hard it was to transcribe this interview. But she was kind enough to talk at length about her role in one of this summer’s best blockbusters, Captain America: The First Avenger, on DVD and Blu-Ray on October 25th. And she had a lot to say about working with Chris Evans (and his double), getting geared up for an action epic, and how long Peggy Carter actually waited for Steve Rogers at the Stork Club after his apparent death.
This is your first big, big movie… How was working on ‘Captain America’ different from working with Woody Allen?
Well, my God, it’s just a different world. You can’t compare the two. That’s what I love about my job, there’s so much variety. The sheer physical aspect of what was required of me… You’re training with ex-Marines for two-and-a-half months before shooting even began. That in itself was an amazing and new challenge I had never done before. It’s also one of the reasons I wanted to take the job: to be able to take an experience like this and really go for it, and see physically what I was capable of.
Did they see what you were physically capable of before they cast you?
They had a few audition processes to show my physical ability. It was an unarmed combat sequence and also the handling of guns, just to see how comfortable I would look on camera with them. […] I was physically quite strong anyway, and it was just built on my attitude, and how determined I seemed to be to physically get there. I think a combination of those things gave the director, and I think the producers, confidence that I would be able to, at least attempt, to tackle any physical challenge they set for me.
Who did you have to fight to get the role, in unarmed combat?
It was with the stunt coordinator of the actual film. He was at the audition sequence, at the final round, which was a full day. So he took me aside for a little bit of time and showed me some moves, yeah. Some kind of choreographed sequence of punches and kicks and falls. And then also a man who was handling the guns, who was on set with us, he was there initially at the audition as well to show me how to load and unload guns, rifles and pistols and that sort of thing. So that was all part of the audition.
I had this weird image in my head, since the casting process was so well-documented by the entertainment industry, I know Alice Eve was up for the role as well, and you having to fight her for it.
Was there any talk of ever playing Peggy Carter as an American?
I don’t think so, no, they were looking for a British actress, and they never even talked about that as a possibility, no.
Your early scenes with Chris Evans – well, they were early scenes in the film, I don’t know when they were shot – they obviously made him significantly shorter in post. What was that like?
It was a different actor entirely in that role. Leander Deeny. He played “Skinny Steve.” That’s actually Leander’s body that you see, and Chris [Evan]’s head was imposed onto it. So I had to do the scene with Chris, and then they’d swap and I’d have to do the scene again with Leander, who had been watching every move that Chris made, so he could follow Chris physically.
Was that easy for you? It seems so complicated on a technical level…
Well, no… It’s not complicated because it’s just a technical challenge that you have to make the most of and grasp, and that’s part of my job as an actor, is to shoot what is required of me, and if I don’t know how to do it, [to] learn how to do it. We had markers on Chris’s body, like on his neck, which gave me an eye-line for where I should be looking at him as the shorter version of himself. And that was pretty good, so I was able to do the line again and to do the performance again, just making sure my eye-line was a little bit lower. They’re just technical aspects. You do them as an actor. It’s part of your job. I felt quite excited doing something different like that, because I’d never done it before.
One of the things the movie’s a little hazy about is what a British agent is doing with the American super soldier program, specifically. Did you talk to Joe Johnston about that?
Well, it was set… The thing is that the headquarters was set in… Well, it’s European. I think it’s set where Hydra’s set, in Austria somewhere. And so they had a base in London, which is where Tommy Lee Jones and I hang, and were forced together. So it’s a matter of making the story more universal, and just showing that it’s not just about America, and the American army coming over and fighting the baddies. I think it just makes it more of an approachable kind of thing for the world to relate to, really. A somewhat more realistic take on what World War II was.
Absolutely. Has anyone talked to you about appearing in the sequels, possibly under a lot of makeup?
[Laughs] I would love that. No, we haven’t talked about it. I’m not privy to any of those decisions that are being made right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’d absolutely jump at the chance if it was presented to me, definitely.
Not many superhero movies have made me cry, but your last scene with Chris did just that.
It was beautiful.
Well, that’s so sweet. Cool!
Obviously you weren’t on-screen together, but were you able to record that together?
Well, yeah. He was still on set, but he was… He wasn’t in the shot, but he was on set behind the camera, and he was still giving me he dialogue, so we could still do that thing in the same room. Which was wonderful, because it meant that it wasn’t a pre-recording of his voice. He was actually doing it as I was doing the scene, and that was tremendously helpful because Chris is a very generous actor and he really reacts off of whatever you give him, as much as I was reacting off him. I think it helped, because the scene is… It should be a very tender moment, and then the director wanted it to be based off of an emotional truth rather than just kind of a two-dimensional action thing. So it was important that we got that right. That was also part of the audition process, that scene, to see if I was willing to emotionally go there. It was really important to get it right. And you liked it.
Loved it. Loved it.
I liked it so much that I have to ask: Peggy waited at the Stork Club, right?
Well… [Sigh] I like to think that she did. I hope that she didn’t wait for too long, because she’d still be there right now, probably in her 80’s, drunk as a skunk, going [in a really raspy voice] “He never showed up…!” Teeth falling out, hair gone grey, can you imagine? Still in the red dress, that is, like, disheveled and falling off her… And she’s clearly become some alcoholic who’s always at the Stork Club. She’s probably like a lounge singer there [Laughs] singing songs about her first love. I’d like to think that’s what happens to her, actually. [Laughs]
This creepy alternate ending to ‘An Affair to Remember.’
Coming out of ‘Captain America,’ what was your favorite experience actually shooting the film?
I think, aside from what was a given – which is working with Chris, and Tommy Lee [Jones], and Stanley [Tucci], and having that most amazing group that I felt so privileged to be a part of – the actual physical things for me to do was the shooting of the guns, which was so exciting. It’s something I haven’t done before. I just found it really thrilling, and a great challenge. I love to feel like I’ve achieved something or learned something. It was a very fulfilling experience.
Are you interested in pursuing more action movies now?
Yeah, absolutely! If another one came my way I would do everything I could to be a part of it. I think they’re fantastic. They’re so much fun to do. They’re so physically fulfilling, and then you’ve got a great product at the end of it which so many people, as you can see from the box office numbers, take joy and pleasure out of, so I’d like to do more of them.
What kind of movies are coming your way right now?
I’m about do, funny enough… I just finished a play in London, it was good to go back and do that, and kind of work on my craft, and dig away at that, which is important to me. It makes me a better actor, doing that. The thing is, I’m starting a film next week in London which is a gangster feature that’s kind of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. It’s called The Sweeney. She’s a member of the Flying Squad, and again, she’s kind of a tough woman, a contemporary London girl so she’s got kind of a Cockney accent, and she’s more working class. And she’s Ray Winstone’s love interest in it, so…
Oh, that’s awesome.
Yeah, yeah he’s great.