Hayley Atwell has crossed the Atlantic and become the shining star of her very own Marvel Universe series. The 33-year-old British actress bagged a role in Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011 and four years later is the ass-kicking face of a spin-off show, which has already been commissioned for a second run by American network ABC.
Filming in the US, Atwell is an Englishwoman in a foreign land, much like her character Agent Peggy Carter. But she didn’t feel too much like a fish out of water, with fellow Brits James D’Arcy and Dominic Cooper also among the cast.
“I’ve known the Marvel lot for the last five years now, so the ice was broken there. I’ve known James and Dominic for seven years – we were kind of Brits abroad! We just made a pact at the beginning to have as much fun as we possibly could, and could possibly get away with, and I think that ended up translating on to screen.”
Atwell plays Peggy, the former love interest of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America. It’s now 1946, the war’s over and she’s working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR). But with the men back from the front she is relegated to administrative work – and seriously underestimated by her male colleagues.
When we catch up with her, Peggy is fighting the bad guys, secretly working undercover to help old acquaintance Howard Stark AND battling misogyny. All with perfect lipstick.
“She’s kind of an early feminist,” Atwell tells us. “We’ve created Peggy as we’ve gone along so it’s only in retrospect that I look back and think it’s really cool she’s like that. It’s credit to Marvel that they allowed me the freedom to really push and express those sides of Peggy.”
The self-assured agent has already found a dedicated fan following in the US, where the first season aired earlier this year.
“I’ve been really touched by the amount of women who have gone [on social media] and made these posters of quotes and Peggy’s best bits. In one of the episodes, she does something brilliant, no one thanks her for it and a man takes the credit. She’s like, ‘It’s fine, I know my value.’ A lot of young girls have gone, ‘Wow’.”
But Peggy’s not perfect – and that’s part of the point, says Atwell. “The producers, the writers and the showrunners, they really wanted to know what it was that I wanted to explore, to build the show around my strengths as an actor. So, I said, ‘We’ve seen her looking kind of kickass in a pencil skirt, but what about her vulnerability? Let’s see her flaws. Let’s see her make some terrible decisions but also let’s see her warmth and her wit.’
“You see her fall and she gets back up. And it’s not that those things happen to her, it’s how she deals with them that makes her a role model. Rather than being someone who’s just invincible and untouchable, cold and capable, we’re seeing something that people – even myself – can relate to. It is in the face of adversity that your character is defined – those decisions you make when the easiest thing is to run away or hide under the duvet.”
The success of Agent Carter has bought Atwell herself 335k followers on Twitter – and the pressure of suddenly realising that she, and not just Peggy, is role model.
“I have this one girl who I follow and she follows me. She was a self-harmer and she had this bracelet made up with ‘What would Peggy do?’ on it. Every time she feels very self destructive she looks at the bracelet. I think, ‘F***, that’s a big thing’. That’s a big influence. So after that I think I’m going to be very careful with the messages I’m putting out in the world because it’s a responsibility.”
Being in a position like that isn’t something she ever sought out, admits Atwell. “I’m not ever setting out to make a statement. I think it can get very murky territory when actors take on a political stance or get involved in particular causes. When actors become so obsessed with their own self-importance that they launch themselves as a brand and say, ‘This is how to live a life. I will be your spiritual guide, your nutritionist’, all of these things.”
“I was never like, ‘World, this is how you should live. Be like Peggy,'” she says, but “because it’s come naturally and organically, it’s made me go, ‘Right, I want to respond to that and be responsible and enjoy the positivity that comes with it.'”
Agent Carter starts tonight at 9:00pm on FOX