The actress opens up about playing Peggy Carter, acting against skinny Steve, and the thrill of becoming a Marvel heroine
Behind every great man is an even greater woman. In Steve Roger's case, that woman is Peggy Carter. Hayley Atwell stars in Captain America: The First Avenger as this iconic Marvel character, and we recently caught up with her to chat about the making of the film, acting against Leander Deeny, who plays skinny Steve, and the physical aspects of her training period.
Here is our conversation.
The movie is so much fun. Did you get a chance to see it? From the sounds of it, quite a few members of the cast haven't yet...
Hayley Atwell: I did! I got to see it last week. I made sure before I started answering questions. I made a very strong case to Marvel about why I should see it. And they obliged.
Marvel is getting a reputation as a penny pincher. Are they making the other actors pay to see it?
Hayley Atwell: No! I just think the other actors are spread out here, there, and everywhere. They are working on various different projects. So it's hard to get reels slung around everywhere. I think they have been keeping it locked up. They don't let it out.
What moment are you most excited for the fans to finally see when this gets released on Friday?
Hayley Atwell: There are some absolutely thrilling action scenes in this movie. Especially the zip wire going onto the train. That seems to be so well received. I love watching the scenes that I wasn't necessarily involved in. Because it's like, "Wow! That's what they were doing that day! That is extraordinary!" There are also so many wonderful characters in it. You have Tommy Lee Jones, and then there is Hugo Weaving. They all add such depth to what they are doing. There is a humor and wit. They add a sparkle to it. It never gets too cheesy. I think they handled it really well.
So you're not one of these actors who linger around the set when you aren't shooting, hoping to get a peek at what is going on? You do your lines, and you are out?
Hayley Atwell: No, I saw what I could. They just had different scenes shooting at different studios. I would stick around and watch what I could. There would be whole days of shooting at studios that I didn't even know existed. This was such a huge production. I remember my friends coming on set, and they gave us a tour. I would see something, and say to one of the producers, "That exists? That is incredible!" It would be a huge prop. A car, or an airplane being made in some studio somewhere. It was impossible to see everything.
This is an interestingly shot movie, in that you were constantly asked to perform on practical sets, and then turn around and have to perform in front of a green screen. What was that process like for you? Having to bounce between such abstract mediums?
Hayley Atwell: I was lucky in that everything I was connecting with, be it people, or props, or cars or planes, that was all real. The green screen was just a backdrop. It would be the sky in the window of a plane, or the cliff when she watches Steve go off in the plane with Schmidt. All of those things were just backdrops, so I didn't find it too difficult. It was a really good challenge. The most challenging thing is when I would do a scene with Chris Evans, and then the actor playing skinny Steve would come in to take his place. I would have to do the scene with him again. That was a bit bizarre, because I had to have the same feelings, and do the exact same lines with a completely different person. But who was playing the same character. When I was doing the scene with Chris, I had to make his eye line on his chin, which was actually harder. Because, if you are speaking to someone, you naturally, instinctively want to look into their eyes. You go in that direction. I think it's harder than having just a cross on a green screen, because you know that its in one place. When you work with a real human being, your eyes want to wonder everywhere else.
What sort of mark did you have to put on Chris?
Hayley Atwell: Oh, I know where his chin and his neck is. That part was pretty simple.
I haven't heard much about the actor playing skinny Steve. What did he think of this idea? That Steve really isn't accepted for who he is until he puts on massive weight? It could make someone feel quite self-conscious about their body image...
Hayley Atwell: He is a very intelligent, well-respected theater actor. What was amazing, physically, was watching him watch the monitors when Chris Evans would do a take. He would then mimic every single move, even the breathing. They would do certain takes, and if you could see the breath in his face, you could see the breath in his chest, at the same time. That is the kind of detail that Leander Deeny put into it. He knows he is a skinny guy. He is self aware, but I don't think he has a complex about it. He is very comfortable in his own skin. He is a performer, and he is really good at what he does.
I haven't heard too much about him, yet. I know people want to perceive that its all Chris Evans in that performance, but its cool to hear about Leader's contributions to making those scenes one of the best special effects of the summer.
Hayley Atwell: Yes. He worked incredibly hard. You can actually see him in the bar scene. When the boys get another round, the blonde barman behind the bar is actually Leander. Its fun to see him in that. You get to see the whole of him, instead of just from the neck down.
Watching what Chris had to go through to get his body up to snuff for Captain America, did that push and inspire you to be the ass-kicking girl we see in the movie?
Hayley Atwell: I didn't need motivation. We trained separately, obviously, because we have different bodies. He's a man, and I am a woman. I trained for about two and a half months before filming, and then continued for the duration of the five-month shoot. With a personal trainer that was an ex-Marine, and he was on the military circuit. It was very important in playing Peggy, that you could tell she had strength, and that she could hold a machine gun. That she was physically capable of being able to do these stunts. You had to believe that in her imaginary life, she had gone through these courses, and that she is very fit. That was all part of getting into character for me.
Along with that workout regime, you also have Joe Johnston, who has created some of the most iconic stunt scenes in film history. What was it like for you, getting to take that knowledge and training and put it in such capable hands?
Hayley Atwell: I thought, "Wow! I am in such great hands." It made me feel like I wanted to give him my best. Obviously, I watched, again, all of his films before I started filming this one. There was a feeling there, like, "Oh, yeah, you really are going to make this look quite spectacular." For me, I wanted to show him that I was willing and able to do all of my own stunts. I wanted to do more than what would end up in the film, and I wanted to open myself up to any opportunity I could to really go for it. The physical aspects of it were one of the reasons why the script appealed to me so much.
Focusing specifically on the character, what do you feel you brought to Peggy Carter that we maybe haven't seen in other iterations of this character?
Hayley Atwell: Possible, maybe her strength. I think she is quite equal to Steve. She certainly is not a damsel in distress. There are times when she saves him. She offers her support, and suggests ways that he could get to Bucky. Even in that final moment, being with him, they get to make that date that will obviously never happen. Because of what is about to happen in the plane. She is an important part of his life, and she is equal to him. Their relationship was genuine. There was a respect and like for one another. It wasn't just desire, because he has a hot body.
How do you see this character evolving if her storyline is continued in a future movie?
Hayley Atwell: All I can say is that I had such an amazing time working for Marvel and Paramount, I would love to be a part of their projects in the future. And this being an action film, the physical aspects were so attractive to me. It was my first experience with that, and I would jump at the opportunity to do it again. We'll wait and see how audiences and fans of the books feel about the movie. That might partly dictate where they go next, and what aspects they want to focus on. It was a lovely experience, and I am glad it is being received so well, so far. Hopefully it will continue.
Captain America: The First Avenger was released July 22nd, 2011 and stars Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Richard Armitage, Stanley Tucci. The film is directed by Joe Johnston.