Hayley Atwell made her name as wartime spy Peggy Carter in Marvel’s Agent Carter. Now she’s starring in Conviction, a legal drama produced by Grey’s Anatomy and Criminal Minds producer Mark Gordon.
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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
In the US, big-budget drama has become a key battleground between pay TV platforms and their fast-growing SVoD rivals. Now, the same pattern is emerging in other parts of the world. After months of announcements from Netflix and Amazon about their new European dramas, DTH satellite platform Sky has hit back by announcing a formidable slate of six original shows.
At the end of last week, the firm said: “Responding to demand from customers for more original drama, the new productions combine with Sky’s groundbreaking HBO and Showtime partnerships to build on Sky’s growing reputation as one of the world’s best storytellers. (This is Sky’s) most ambitious slate of original productions yet, adding to its growing portfolio of drama.” No wonder they’re putting my subscription up by £4.25 next month…
Made by producers including Kudos (The Tunnel); Fifty Fathoms (Fortitude) and Carnival Films (Stan Lee’s Lucky Man), the six shows are expected to air across 2016/17. The writing and acting talent isn’t too shabby either. Writers include John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Rowan Joffe (28 Days Later), while Idris Elba, Dawn French and Tim Roth are among the actors attached.
In truth, some of the series that are bundled together in the Sky announcement were already known about, though perhaps not with full details. Rowan Joffe’s Tin Star, which stars Tim Roth and Christina Hendricks, was first discussed in March. Described variously as “a contemporary take on the western genre” and “a revenge thriller,” it tells the story of Jim Worth, an ex-Met police detective who starts a new life in Canada’s Rocky Mountains.
Neil Jordan’s Riviera, meanwhile, has been in the public domain since February. Starring Julia Stiles, Sky calls it a glamorous thriller “set in the world of the super-rich, where art, money, sex and love all come at a price.” Also known about for some time is Bill Gallagher’s period drama Jamestown. Produced by Carnival, it is set in 1619 during the early days of the first British settlers in America. It “tells the story of a group of young women as they leave the Old World and their old lives behind them.”
News of The Last Dragonslayer first leaked in January. Based on the first of Jasper Fforde’s novels, it’s “a family adventure that follows the story of orphan Jennifer Strange, who reluctantly discovers her destiny is to become the last Dragonslayer.”
The last two projects on the slate (which are divided evenly across Sky Atlantic and Sky1) are Delicious, a four-parter starring Dawn French, and Guerrilla, a copro with Showtime starring Idris Elba. Written by John Ridley, the latter is “a love story set against the backdrop of the 1970s. It follows “a young couple whose relationship and values are tested when they liberate a political prisoner and form a radical underground cell in 1970s London”.
Sky content MD Gary Davey said: “We know our original content is highly valued and a reason why customers choose and stay with Sky. Combining the scale and ambition of our Sky original productions with the best of the US and exclusive partnerships with HBO and Showtime, we believe our customers enjoy a better choice of drama at Sky than anywhere else in the world.”
Head of drama Anne Mensah added: “Our customers adore original drama, whether that’s a rich and complex storyline on Sky Atlantic or a blockbuster adventure on Sky1. We are incredibly proud to be working with such amazing talent across all our dramas. Everything we do at Sky is about being passionate, bold and unique and that philosophy underlines all of these shows.”
Sky said the new productions join eight original drama series already on air or set to air in the coming months on Sky Atlantic and Sky1. These include The Tunnel: Sabotage, Penny Dreadful, Fortitude, Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, Agatha Raisin, The Young Pope, Harlan Coben’s The Five and Hooten & the Lady. In terms of international distribution, Sky notes that Guerrilla will be handled by Endemol Shine International; Tin Star by Sky Vision and ESI; Riviera by Sky Vision; and Jamestown by NBCUniversal International Distribution.
In the US, meanwhile, premium pay TV channel HBO has just announced renewals for three of its key shows, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep, all of which started new seasons last night in the US. Game of Thrones, which has just started season six, will have a seventh season in 2017. Veep will now run for at least six seasons, while Silicon Valley will air for a minimum of four.
In the same week, A+E-owned cable channel Lifetime unveiled a range of new scripted projects last week, including Sea Change, a supernatural drama based on the young adult novel by Aimee Friedman. Also in development is None of the Above, a coming-of-age drama about a girl whose status as a homecoming queen is called into question when she discovers that she is intersex. Lifetime is also developing Deadline, a satirical one-hour drama that follows aspiring journalist Emily Twist, who is struggling to get noticed in a world that values gossip over investigative news.
Still in the US, producer Mark Gordon (Quantico) has teamed up with Mel Gibson on a project called The Barbary Coast, which will star Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson and Gibson, who will also co-write and direct. Backed by Entertainment One, the series begins during the Californian Gold Rush of 1849 and tells the story of San Francisco’s formative years.
“Most people don’t know the scandalous history behind San Francisco, and The Barbary Coast offers a rich portrayal of a period when success was often attained through illicit and brutal means,” said Gordon. “I’m excited that Kurt and Kate are working alongside Mel, whose astute direction will bring this devious time in our history to life.”
As yet no broadcaster has been attached to the production.
In a busy industry calendar, one event that seems to be attracting an increasing amount of attention is Paris-based Series Mania, which came to an end last week. As part of the event, there is a Coproduction Forum, which showcases projects looking for partners or finances.
This year, 16 projects from 10 countries were in the spotlight. The titles on display were 16 Knot (Lux Vide, Italy), Belle Epoque (Scarlett Production, France), Eden (Lupa Film/Atlantique Films, Germany/France), Flight 1618 (Makingprod, France), Gastronomy (Drama Team, Israel), Hidden (Yellow Bird, Sweden), Keeping Faith (Vox Pictures, UK), Let’s Save the World (Constantin Film, Germany), Liar (Two Brothers Pictures, UK), One Square Mile (Pampa Production, France), Pipeline (Apple Film Production, Poland), Pwned By The Mob (Submarine, Netherlands), Stella Blomkvist (Sagafilm, Iceland), The Illegal (Conquering Lion Pictures, Canada), The Specialists (Fridthjof Film, Denmark) and Warrior (Miso Film, Denmark).
Series Mania general director Laurence Herszberg said: “The Forum has now become a key date in the calendar for TV series professionals from around the world. The 16 titles that were chosen reveal a wide range of forms and genres, including procedural thrillers to historical dramas, and all the way to edgy contemporary stories without forgetting mainstream fare.” It will be interesting to track these shows as they build momentum.
tagged in: Anne Mensah, Carnival Films, Deadline, Delicious, Fifty Fathoms, Game of Thrones, Gary Davey, Guerilla, HBO, Jamestown, Kudos, Lieftime, Mark Gordon, Mel Gibson, None of the Above, Riviera, Sea Change, Series Mania, Showtime, Silicon Valley, Sky, The Barbary Coast, The Last Dragonslayer, Tin Star, Veep