Captain America: The First Avenger - Hayley Atwell
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

With her list of credits, including Brideshead Revisited, Pillars of the Earth, Any Human Heart and Cassandra’s Dream, British actress Hayley Atwell isn’t the first person you would think of for a superhero movie, but she is co-starring in Captain America: The First Avenger.

In the film she portrays Peggy Carter, who works for an operation in World War II known as the Strategic Scientific Reserve, an organization developing new ways to fight the enemy. One way is to take a skinny young man named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and turn him into a new muscular Super-Soldier known as Captain America.

Hayley spoke with us about her venture in the comic book world at the press junket for the movie.

Can you give us what your perspective is of entering this superhero comic book world?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell
Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

Firstly, I didn’t know anything about that world, so the idea of Comic-Con when it was explained to me was terrifying. But having then read some of the comics myself in preparation for it, I understood the appeal absolutely.

Also it’s something that has evolved and has stayed within our culture for a long time and grown, and these characters have grown, and they continue to go on and I can see that there’s a real passion in that for a lot of people.

Also, the development of the artwork and the quality of the artwork, how it started and how it is now, is extraordinary; real beautiful pieces of art within themselves.

How was the Peggy Carter character presented to you?

I hadn’t actually read the script when I first went in, but Joe Johnston (the movie’s director) said it was really important that there was a reality to these characters, there was something grounded and strong about them, so they are three-dimensional, so that the audience can relate. So they seem more human in this kind of fantastical world.

That was very important to Joe, and I think one of the reasons why he wanted to cast me in it, because I wouldn’t want to do anything else apart from trying to make it real in some way. So Peggy on the page, I thought, was just incredibly strong, determined and capable and kind of like a kindred spirit to Steve really.

She’s a crack shot, how much fun was training for that?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Hayley Atwell
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

I loved it. Some people are born to do something, I just was like, ‘This is my gun; it’s an extension of me.’ It was really good. I started off with a pistol, and Joe filmed it. He wanted to send it to the producers, going, ‘Look, she’s confident with it.’ Because there’s nothing worse than a girl meant to be badass holding a gun and then just flaking where you can see that kind of terror, so that was important.

But then Joe went, ‘Do you fancy a machinegun instead?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ I had done all this physical training which made my arms really strong, which meant I could hold one for a long period of time, because they’re really heavy.

At first I would kind of jump back from the pressure of it, so I had to kind of hold my ground with it. But it was so lovely, that felt like that was the character right there. It was like, get her holding that gun and get it convincing and strong, and that’s Peggy.

What are your impressions of Chris Evans?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans
Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

And I found Chris to be so talented. I don’t know how he feels about me saying it, but he’s a fantastic singer, he’s a really good tap dancer, he’s a very good musician, he plays piano and I think guitar as well. And he’s very funny. I think in his career he will be showing many different aspects of his talent. It’s so nice to have extra things up your sleeve.

Can you talk about working with him when he was playing Steve, before he turns into Captain America? Were you working with the double or was it all CGI?

Leander Deeny, a lovely theatre actor, was early Steve, and it was wonderful watching him because he’d watch the first initial takes of Chris and he would copy every facial expression, he would watch every time Chris broke the sentence to breathe, so that it meant that he gave every possibility to get the match right.

He really invested so much in it. I would do takes with both of them, which was surreal. The great thing about something like this is it’s so fantastical that you’re asked to do so many bizarre things in unnatural situations, which is part of the fun.

How important was it to get the authenticity of the period right in terms of dialogue?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Hayley Atwell
Behind the scenes, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) © 2011 Paramount Pictures/MVL

It’s a really good question. I think there was so much detail in the visual aspect and the style of it, which helped me to inhabit the character a lot. I looked at lot of films and images of that time. So yeah, I think it was very necessary for Joe to again root it in some kind of visual reality.

Would you ever like to do Doctor Who?

Do you know what? I’ve done a lot of Doctor Who radio. In fact, two weeks ago I was in London doing a Doctor Who, and I played the President of the Universe. I’ve done about five of them now.

I also played this woman who was completely bald, which for radio obviously I didn’t have to worry about doing that. But in the press they had taken my hair off and I had a big old bald head, it was great.

Have they talked about you reprising Peggy for any kind of standalone or sequel?

That’s a possibility. We talked about that when I first signed the initial contract for this film, that I would have to do it again if they were to make some kind of spinoff or a second one. I know that there are very early talks about it, which I haven’t been privy to yet.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.