Hayley Atwell on her unconventional upbringing and what actress Jodie Whittaker taught her at drama school

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  • She’s the Marvel Universe star who grew up in social housing and speaks with a cut-glass accent. Hayley Atwell tells Jude Rogers about her role as a slave owner and speaking out for Justice4Grenfell

    Hayley Atwell is hiding in the corner of a London restaurant on a wet autumnal afternoon, snatching half an hour between Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure performances at the Donmar Warehouse. And it turns out she’s quite the contrarian. ‘When people want to project ideas on to me, my rebellious streak goes, whoom! When they say I’m shy, I get loud. Or they’ll go: “She’s really confident”. So I’ll go… Her voice quivers, right on cue. 
“I’m reeeally vul-ner-a-ble!”’ Despite her humble upbringing in London’s Ladbroke Grove, Atwell’s cut-glass English vowels ring like bells down the line: ‘I want to come across like a human, you know? And if you don’t ask me about the work I’m doing – which is the most exciting thing about me – you’ll just get me at home washing my pants with my dog.’

    Funny, warm and direct, Atwell, 36, is an arresting lead actor. Earning her thespian chops in drama remakes such as Brideshead Revisited and Howards End, via an Olivier Award-nominated turn in Lindsay Posner’s A View From The Bridge, she’s set to dominate our TV screens this Christmas.

    First up, there’s the BBC’s big-budget adaptation of Andrea Levy’s novel The Long Song, the story of a Jamaican woman, July, looking back on her experiences of being a slave in the mid-19th century. Atwell plays Caroline, a wealthy British slave owner. ‘She’s this hysterical monster at the beginning, incredibly fearful of the slaves around her,’ the actress explains, detailing the nuances of her character excitedly (she’s obviously a born student). But it was an upsetting role, too. ‘There were times we’d finish a scene… I’d just feel horror in myself. And I was shocked at my ignorance of this much darker part of British history. But having the chance to investigate what slavery did to generations of people…’ 
She sounds hungrily driven at the prospect. ‘That’s what I want to do.’

    ‘In a world that often seems isolating and divisive, intolerance for others, based on their socioeconomic group, is just inhumane’

    Atwell’s own upbringing was unconventional, and rather less posh than she sounds. The only child of an English mum and American dad, who were New Age-loving bohemians, they split when she was five. Atwell was then brought up by her mum in social housing in London’s Ladbroke Grove, only seeing her dad every summer. Living where the rich rubbed shoulders with the poor was to shape her immeasurably. ‘I had the Sultan of Brunei’s nephew in my sixth form college [The London Oratory School], but every day I’d see people living on the streets. I also got to know the Portuguese, Caribbean and Irish communities – I was very lucky that way.’ Atwell also knew people who lived and died in Grenfell Tower; she’s been a vocal champion of the Justice4Grenfell campaign ever since. ‘After the fire, I felt moved to speak out about what social housing can give people,’ she says. ‘It enabled my mum to get somewhere to live when I was little. In a world that often seems isolating and divisive, intolerance for others, based on their socioeconomic group, is just inhumane.’

    Atwell’s CV has grown increasingly eclectic, from wowing comic fans as Agent Peggy Carter in the Marvel Avengers film and TV empire to nailing one of the most talked-about episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (‘I begged to do that – I’m such a huge fan’). Her turn as Evelyn Robin alongside Ewan McGregor in Christopher Robin also saw her emerge as something of a TV chat-show guest of dreams, following a memorable appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. But as I’m quickly learning about Atwell, appearances can be deceptive.

    A shy, sensitive, introverted child to whom acting was a joyful means of escape, Atwell caught the bug as a 16-year-old schoolgirl, although the Jacobean play she and her classmates put on was only part of the appeal. ‘The backstage dressing room, proper costumes and lighting – I just loved it!’ She wasn’t ever ‘jazz-handy’, she adds quickly, and some friends at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama helped ground her, among them Jodie Whittaker, who was in her year. ‘I’m so proud of Jode [sic]! At uni, she was equal parts tomboy and girlie girl – we’d go to fancy dress parties together. But she was also really good at going, “I don’t understand that word in that script, what does that mean?” I’d be too embarrassed to ask. She taught me it’s OK to not get things.’

    Within eight months of graduating from drama school, Atwell landed a role in a Woody Allen film, Cassandra’s Dream, in 2007 (she has since said she wouldn’t work with him again). Then, last year, a rumour swirled that Harvey Weinstein had once told Atwell to lose weight. She loudly, publicly denied this, although she admits she did have some bad experiences early on. Once, a ‘powerful film director’ threatened that she’d lose her job if she took time off for her grandmother’s funeral, for instance. Atwell went to the funeral anyway.

    ‘I’m still very much an apprentice. And I want to make mistakes and burst any bubbles about what an “actor” should be’

    ‘I was still skint then, paying off my student loan, and terrified,’ she says. ‘I remember on the plane back learning my lines perfectly, thinking, “I’m going to blow his mind because he’s going to be waiting to catch me out”.’ She won’t tell me who it was, for a reason. ‘It was awful. Really shit. But the point of the story is not to name names and go into gossip, but to realise that moments like that are potentially life-changing and character-building – and that you can grow from them.’

    And she’s still growing, and getting older, she says brightly, makes things easier. ‘When people think you’ve made it for this long, this far, I get the sense they’re not going to mess with you.’ Despite her career already spanning more than a decade, Atwell refuses to feel like a grand dame. ‘God, no. I’m still very much an apprentice. And I want to make mistakes and burst any bubbles about what an “actor” – she pronounces the word with humorous hamminess – should be.’

    Atwell isn’t starry and rarely hangs out at after-parties when doing West End theatre shows, preferring to go home and check in with her mum. She’s also got a boyfriend – 
a childhood friend who’s a doctor – who she won’t talk about or take to awards ceremonies, so that they can preserve their private lives. ‘I’ve learned not to open that door! I think the best actors are ones who are present, who listen and engage with ordinary life anyway.’ A rebel to the end, and charming with it – welcome a bona fide star for our times.

    The Long Song airs this month on BBC One

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