Tag Archives: Hayley Atwell

Beginning of the End

Hayley Atwell stars in Oscar winner Kenneth Lonergan’s adaptation of the beloved EM Forster novel Howards End, a coproduction for BBC1 and Starz. DQ visits the sumptuous set to find a period drama moving with modern times.

There is a stunning stately home overlooking a lake, an ornately decorated marquee and a beautiful bride in a wedding dress. This is the lavish setting for a key scene in a new BBC- and Starz-financed production of the seminal EM Forster novel Howards End. The only problem is the intermittent rain that is stopping filming every half-an-hour. But, as anyone who has ever filmed in England knows, that’s unavoidable.

“Poor Evie, getting married in the rain!” laughs Hayley Atwell, who plays the book’s central character, Margaret Schlegel, as she snuggles up in a warm coat on set (it may be April but it’s cold as well as wet). The scene being filmed at the West Wycombe Estate in the Chiltern Hills – when Evie Wilcox marries Percy Cahill – is key to the story as the worlds of the three families featured in the book come crashing together. No one comes out unscathed.

Howards End was made into a hugely successful Oscar-winning film 25 years ago with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter and Anthony Hopkins, but the time is ripe to make a new adaptation, says Sir Colin Callender, whose Playground prodco has made the four-part miniseries in association with City Entertainment and KippSter Entertainment. It is distributed internationally by Lionsgate.

Howards End stars Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegel

“The story is about two smart, free-thinking women who are trying to make their own way in the world,” he says of the series, which debuts this Sunday in the UK. “If you think about what is going in the world, particularly here in the UK and in America – the way women’s roles and their relationships with men are being discussed – then you see just how of the moment the story remains.”

The drama looks at three families occupying different levels of the Edwardian middle class. There are the Schlegels, Margaret and Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard), orphaned sisters who live in an intellectual world of money, loosely based on the Bloomsbury Set, a real-life group of intellectuals. While on holiday in Germany, they meet Henry Wilcox and his wife Ruth, played by Matthew Macfadyen and Julia Ormond, who are wealthy capitalists.

At the start of the story, Helen is staying with the Wilcoxes at their house, Howards End, when she falls in love with their younger son Paul (Jonah Hauer-King). But Paul is penniless and meant to be heading to Africa to work for his father; the romance is hurriedly finished before it even really begins, leaving Helen heartbroken.

Matthew MacFadyen also stars

Back in London, the Schlegels meet struggling clerk Leonard Bast, played by Joseph Quinn, at a classical music concert. He is entranced by their intellectual world of chatter and music and wants to be part of it, but the economics of his situation make it impossible. Meanwhile, the Wilcox family come back into their lives when they take a luxury flat opposite the Schlegel home.

The screenplay has been written by Kenneth Lonergan. The American has an Oscar and a Bafta under his belt for last year’s movie Manchester by the Sea, which he both wrote and directed, but this marks his first television adaptation. “I looked at the book and had lots of questions. And every time I asked a question, Colin and the BBC seemed to get more excited,” laughs Lonergan. “It was an interesting challenge for me to adapt something where the characters have such a rich internal life but also where the story is focused on the challenges and the different strata of society.”

He adds that while most of the dialogue in his scripts came directly from the book – around two thirds of it – the rest was made up based on his experience of watching other period dramas “…and Monty Python.”

The producers and director Hettie Macdonald were determined that while Howards End would have all the same production values of other BBC costume dramas, it should have a modern feel.

Atwell alongside screenplay writer Kenneth Lonergan

It certainly looks the part, introducing us to a world that was changing, where horse-drawn carriages were being shunted off the road by motor cars. The series was filmed partly on a stage in Twickenham, south-west London, and partly on location. Finding Wickham Place, the home of the Schlegels, proved particularly difficult. Many of the streets the producers like were unavailable due to building work, so exteriors were shot in Islington, north London, and interiors were built on the stage.

Just as challenging was finding the production’s Howards End, the mystical house that belongs to Mrs Wilcox and starts and ends the story. Forster based the story on his own childhood home, Rooksnest, a country house near Stevenage that once belonged to a farming family called Howard. The house used in the show is a private home in Godalming, Surrey, which has rarely been used for filming before but, like Rooksnest, was constructed around a Tudor building.

While every effort went into making Howards End look right for the era, it also feels surprisingly contemporary. “I think there was a temptation for all of the actors to start acting all period drama,” says Quinn. “Once you are wearing the costumes, you feel you need to act differently, but Hettie was really adamant that we didn’t do that; she even joked on set that she was going to have a ‘period acting bell’ if anyone went ‘too period.’ The story is funny and sad and very relatable. They are people just like us; they just lived in a different time.”

The show launches on BBC1 this Sunday

Atwell says she was immediately attracted to doing the project, particularly once she knew Lonergan was involved. “I had seen Manchester by the Sea just a few days before being offered the job and the idea of him adapting this story was very exciting,” she reveals. “He hasn’t given it a sense of reverence and he has written it in such a clever way. There are so many layers to it, and so much symbolism; themes in it that we try to tap into and hit upon. But it’s also very funny. There are pages and pages of dialogue where five or six actors are overlapping. What is funny is the truth of playing people who are not listening to each other, they are just overlapping. It is very quick-witted.”

The actor started in period drama, with starring roles in Brideshead Revisited and The Duchess, but for the last few years has been best known as Marvel hero Agent Peggy Carter. Atwell first portrayed Carter in 2011 movie Captain America: The First Avenger, before going on to star in spin-off Agent Carter for two seasons on ABC. She admits she revelled in playing a character who was a little deeper than your average superhero.

“I have been doing Captain America [the movies and associated series] seven or eight years now and it is  full of people who I really love, but I am classically trained and I found this source material a lot more interesting, a lot more fulfilling,” Atwell says. “You can have conversations with our director and the other actors about what is in these scenes, what is the most interesting thing to play. You can analyse what is really happening because it is all really subtle. When you have to do a lot of exposition to drive the plot along, it can be tiring and a bit boring, with all due respect. When you have a job like this, there is so much to it. It was exciting creating such a rich inner world rather than just turning up and looking good and pointing a gun.

“Margaret is the heroine of the story. There is a line at the start of the book, ‘only connect,’ which is kind of the message of the story. The thing that drives her is a desire to connect people, which, given the context of the time, was quite unusual for a woman in her position and class. She’s just wonderful.”

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Speaking with Conviction

Conviction star Hayley Atwell tells Michael Pickard why she was drawn to the US drama after saying goodbye to Marvel’s Agent Carter.

With a career spanning stage and screen, it is within the Marvel universe that Hayley Atwell has made her name.

Starring as wartime spy Peggy Carter, she first appeared on the big screen in Captain America: The First Avenger and had roles in subsequent films Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War.

More prominently, she made several appearances in Marvel’s Agents of Shield and then took the lead in fellow ABC drama Agent Carter. Running for two seasons between 2015 and this year, it followed Carter as she balanced her life as a secret agent with being a single woman in 1940s America.

But following Agent Carter’s cancellation earlier this year, Atwell can now be found on the small screen in ABC’s new legal drama Conviction (pictured above).

Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC
Conviction is halfway through its debut season on ABC

The London-born actor stars as Hayes Morrison, a lawyer and former First Daughter who is blackmailed into heading up a new Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) in exchange for avoiding prison. At the CIU, she and her team investigate suspected wrongful convictions as she attempts to regain the trust of her high-powered family.

The cast also includes Eddie Cahill, Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, Manny Montana and Daniel di Tomasso. Produced by The Mark Gordon Company and ABC Studios, the show’s co-creator/writer Liz Friedman and co-creator/director Liz Friedlander executive produce with Mark Gordon and Nick Pepper.

“You have this backdrop of great tension and drama as any legal procedural would be, but then you put in a character like Hayes – she’s a bit of a Tasmanian devil,” Atwell says of her character.

“She’s a former First Daughter and a brilliant lawyer but it’s almost like she has her finger on a self-destruct button. And I think a life in public scrutiny as the First Daughter, the way that’s manifested itself is quite rebellious. She’s decided to live her life on her own terms and be allowed to make all the mistakes 20-year-olds make but unfortunately we’re a decade on and she’s just stayed at the party a little too long.”

Morrison’s life takes a turn for the worse as she’s arrested for cocaine possession and, facing a spell behind bars, agrees to run the CIU – based on real-life units in operation across the US.

“They’re either going to bury her with this or she comes and works for the CIU,” continues Atwell, whose other TV credits include The Pillars of the Earth, Restless and Black Mirror. “So she’s very resistant at first and we discover throughout the pilot that she’s going to find a way of navigating this new job on her terms. She’s going to fight the system from within. So she has a lot of fun doing that.”

Atwell played the lead in Marvel's Agent Carter for two seasons
Atwell played the lead in Marvel’s Agent Carter for two seasons

Currently halfway through its 13-episode freshman season – episode seven aired in the US on Monday this week – Conviction marks a change of direction for Atwell after Agent Carter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one she has happily embraced.

“It was such a fresh and exciting challenge and opportunity [after Agent Carter] and, having spoken to Mark Gordon and Liz Friedlander, specifically about their vision of the show and their vision of who Hayes was, it was just this dream character – someone who is complex and multi-layered and yet you’re still rooting for her,” she reveals.

“The audience has still got to warm to her and want her to succeed and want to be concerned for her and the choices she makes and the mistakes she seems to be repeating and the difficult situation she’s in with her family. There’s a lot of empathy for her, and all of that meant that, for me as an actor, to explore little ways of expressing those different sides of her so it doesn’t just become she’s in this corporate world, this legal world, and she’s doing good. It’s not as straightforward as that because it’s much more relatable and much more human to see someone struggling with a lot of pressures from every aspect of her life.”

Distributor Entertainment One has already sold Conviction to broadcasters around the world, including Sky Living in the UK, TF1 in France and Fox Networks Group Latin America.

And Gordon, best known for producing series including Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds, says it is the conflicted Morrison that gives the drama a particularly interesting premise.

“Procedurals have this stigma and what we were trying very hard to accomplish – and I think we’ve done so with Hayley – was something of a hybrid where we’re interested in her life and the other characters’ lives and, at the same time, we’re solving a case of the week,” he says. “I think the balance is working really nicely.”

Restless
Atwell in miniseries Restless, which aired on BBC1 in 2012

As Atwell recalls, Agent Carter was her first experience working on a show where scripts were still being written as filming began, which gave her little time to analyse scenes in the way she would when treading the boards in London’s West End or on Broadway.

“I found that quite thrilling because it means you just have to instinctively make choices and just commit to them,” she says. “So I feel it’s given me insight into the stamina it takes to keep that going. It means I get to have fun in the moment and that’s quite exciting because it keep you very present as an actor and wanting to play with your co-workers and finding little comic moments or moments that are not necessarily obvious in the script. It keeps you going but it does take a kind of stamina and you’ve got to keep physically fit for it.”

Gordon admits it’s “very, very hard” for Atwell and every lead actor in a network drama as they face long, gruelling hours on set.

“It’s 12- to 14-hour days, every day, five days a week for nine months,” he says. “It’s really tough. And we as producers have to protect the actors, because fast is not necessarily good. We try to do these shows as quickly as we can but, at the same time, to allow Hayley and the cast the time to do their best work.

“A show like this is deceptively tough because although we’re not blowing things up on a regular basis and there are no car chases, what we do have is a large cast and that cast is together a lot. So it takes time to photograph and film multiple angles of all these people. It’s not just shooting here, here and here, it’s across this one to talk to this actor and across Hayley to look at the other actor.

“I’ve been doing this for quite some time and once when I asked why it was taking so long, it was because we had six or seven actors and you’ve got to cover them all when they’re in the room. That just takes time.”

Atwell adds: “It just means you have to be really prepared before you go in, do the homework but also have excellent time management of just knowing how much you have to get through and creating an atmosphere where you can do your best work and not panicking or rushing through something.

“That’s something we’re always playing with really, and half the work is making it efficient but making sure those time limits aren’t compromising the quality of your work.”

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