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).
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.”