In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers’ love interest Peggy Carter is right in there battling the Nazis and Red Skull in World War II along with all the good guys. Now, it’s 1946 and while Rogers/Captain America saved the world, he’s also apparently dead.
So post-war Carter, again played by vivacious British actress Hayley Atwell with ruby red lipstick and pin-up curves, is working for SSR, an espionage agency, doing dull admin work while dealing with the loss of Rogers. But she’s leading a double life, taking on secret missions for industrialist Howard Stark (whose son will one day become Iron Man). And that’s the set-up for Marvel’s Agent Carter, ABC’s new spy adventure series, which kicks off tomorrow night at 8/7c with a two-hour premiere.
We caught up with the mischievous and quick-to-laugh Atwell, 32, to talk fight scenes, childhood nicknames and why women make better spies than men.
“I was called Hulk Hayley in elementary school because I was quite tough. And despite my appearance today, I was definitely more of a tomboy growing up, climbing trees and scraping my knees.”
Female heroines in the Marvel world invariably wear spandex and have special powers, so what’s it like playing Peggy Carter sans all that?
She pre‑dates most of the superhero women that we find now in the Marvel Universe. What makes her different is that she doesn’t have superpowers; therefore, she’s more relatable. And when she fights [the bad dudes], she uses her intelligence and props around her. She’ll open a fridge to block something, which is kind of possible—rather than do the splits in the air or backflips. So I feel she’s just kind of a better version of a normal human being.
Now she’s working a double life, doing covert assignments for Howard Stark—what did your research uncover about wartime female spies?
I read a book, Women Wartime Spies, which looks at a lot of case studies, and actually how active they were, not just as land girls, not just as doing their bit back home, but code‑breaking, being nurses on the frontline, and having a lot more of a quite thrilling, dangerous experience.
Do you feel that women make for better spies than men?
They do because they can use their sexuality and therefore be used as a honey trap for men. Also there’s less assumption, particularly at this time , that you would come across a woman who is anything other than sweet and innocent. So that’s always a surprise factor to see someone with that kind of aggression and strength in her. And there’s probably an empathy she has, which the men don’t have, which makes her more in tune to her surroundings.
So how did you physically prepare for battling the baddies with your intelligence and moves, not some X-ray vision?
I love learning fight sequences because it’s like learning a dance. I also have a lot of confidence that came from my drama school training. We did a lot of physical theater. And I played rugby at school. So I’m not afraid of that kind of level of aggression and contact. I was also called Hulk Hayley in elementary school because I was quite tough. And despite my appearance [today], I was definitely more of a tomboy growing up, climbing trees and scraping my knees.
How different is it playing Peggy Carter in the Captain America film series and now playing her on television?
I love the medium of television. I love the pace of it. It means I’m constantly on my feet, and I’m not waiting in a trailer for a long period of time. So that’s a benefit to working at this kind of pace. Also, right now, American television is exceptional, in terms of the quality of the writing and the arc of characters.
“G’head, call me ‘doll’ one more time…”
Carter has gone from a cool supporting character to a lead—what is changing in the zeitgeist?
I think it’s responding to what audiences want. And it’s responding to a quiet revolution of women who are coming forward and going: “We want relatable, stronger, capable characters. We don’t want just the ingénue, the sex goddess, the bitch, the mother‑in‑law. We want someone that can lead, and in all the facets of what it is to be a woman.” But Carter happening to be a woman in this environment means that she has double the obstacles that the men that she’s working with do. But that provides great drama and entertainment.
Have you leaned on any of the classic female action heroes like Sigourney Weaver (Alien) and Linda Hamilton (Terminator)?
I haven’t necessarily taken from them, but I’ve definitely been influenced by my dear friend Emma Thompson, who’s such a scream. She has that great British wit to her that sometimes I’ve attempted to channel in an attempt to make a scene funnier. Maybe sometimes to my detriment and to the director’s dismay. But I’ve had a go!
What might you have in common with agent Peggy Carter?
I’m certainly not as courageous or capable or skillful or kick‑ass as her. Which pretty much sums up her character. So the answer is, not at all. But there’s a kind of strong moral compass in her, in the sense of fighting injustice, which I kind of feel.
So what do you think drives her?
She’s driven not [so much] to be the greatest spy known to the human race, but more to do good, and fulfill her destiny, which she thinks Steve Rogers set out to do. So, she’s kind of following along with him.
And what would her strengths be as a human?
It’s a kind of a self‑determined stubbornness to pursue her destiny and her path, despite the odds, and the personal sacrifice that she has had to make. One of the great things about this series, which we haven’t seen being played in the first Captain America movie, is that we see the emotional and psychological cost for a woman living in this world. We see her break down. We see the loss of Steve in her life, and that still is very prominent. We also see her anger. We see that it’s difficult. But that’s where her courage comes from—despite her fear, despite the difficulties, she still somehow manages to draw the strength to complete these missions. And kick some major butt!