Hayley Atwell on The Long Song: ‘In my twenties, I felt insecure. I’d worry I wasn’t enough’
In BBC1’s The Long Song the actress plays a loathsome colonialist – and she loved it
Some actors bring a phalanx of agents and publicists along to interviews. Hayley Atwell has brought her rescue dog, Howard, in a bag. “”But I’m not that sort of actor!” she says quickly, explaining that Howard – a Chihuahua kix but “more like a womabat crossed with a burrito” – is recovering from a spinal operation (at the surgery of Supervet Noel Fitzpatrick, no less). He sits on her lap for the duration of the interview, calm, watchful and demonstrating impeccable bladder control.
The three of us are in a quiet garden centre cafe in sout-west London, around the corner from the house she has bought with her boyfriend, a doctor and childhood friend.
“I thought I’d settle in LA or New York,” she says. “I’ve surprised myself that I’m here but I’m relieved I can have a normality and consistency with friendshops and social life. My life is bigger than my work and it’s taken a long time to get to that level of freedom. I’ve created this very eclectic career I feel incredibly proud of.”
That career has embraced television, film
The three-part BBC drama tells the story of July (Tamara Lawrence), a slave on a Jamaican plantation on the eve of abolition in the 1830s. Her mistress, Caroline Mortimer, is a squealing monster and Atwell’s first bona fide villain, albeit a particularly pitiable and desperate one whose lack of self-awareness provides pungent comic relief amid the human tragedy.
“I read the script and bookl and thought, ‘I don’t like Caroline, so how can I play that?”” says Atwell. “I decided to explore the damage done to the human psyche when that person inflicts damage on someone else. I wanted the audience to laugh at her and think, poor cow, and perhaps feel uncomfortable about that.
“She hates herself and her lack of agency in a world where she’s meant to have authority. I always wanted a bit of sun damage or a bit too much sweat, like she was crawling in her own skin. There was a cost to play her. It was upsetting to engage with people who have such disdain for anyone not like them.”
It was this that made the story personal for Atwell, brought up in west London social housing by her mother “with the Notting Hill Carnival on my doorstep”. “All the recent stuff about the Windrush generation was particularly shocking, how underrepresented that history is. I’ve been working with Justice4Grenfell and talked with them about institutionalised racsism, that one of the richest boroughs in one of the richest cities in the world is still unable to properly care for the survivors.
“Taking accountability is part of our nation’s evolution, so The Long Song wasn’t just a period drama for me, it was the beginnings of people finding their own identity and figuring out what to do with freedom.”
Atwell has never become the Hollywood star many have predicted, but parts like Caroline are perhaps more fulfilling than those that such a life would have brought. When we last met in 2012, Atwell spoke unapologetically about coveting big leading roles to follow her first in William Boyd’s spy caper Restless.
And why not? Certainly, there was little wrong with her performance in Restless or the two American series that followed, but the material for legal procedural Conviction was mediocre and ratings for Marvel noir Agent Carter never matched its aspirations.
Six years on, she is no less loquacious and friendly but seems more philosophical, more relaxed and wearing those ambitions more lightly, having emerged from the machine with a much clearer idea of who she is, what makes her happy, and what she wants to do in the future.
“I know what my taste is in people now,” she says. “In my twenties, if I was at an event or dinner party and felt insecure, I’d worry I wasn’t enough. Now, I realise it’s generally because that person’s a bit of a dick, so I’ll talk to someone else or just leave. Life’s too short.”
Professionally, her experiences have lent valuable perspective. “I’d form intense bonds with people on jobs and think I’d be best friends with them forever, then be heartbroken when it finished. I’m not as sentimental now, and I trust myself enough to know I’m good at what I do, so if someone says no to me I look elsewhere rather than worry about persuading them otherwise.
“Heroines have got to have an audience wanting them to succeed, so you can’t be unlikable, especially in America. Here, my favorite actresses are so likable in how unlikable they are. Now I’m playing more multi-faceted and ambiguous characters. They’re further from who I am and that’s where the exciting stuff is, slightly on the edge.”
Like The Long Song, Josie Rourke’s recent Donmar production of Measure for Measure bears this out. While the first half was a traditional staging, the second moved the story into 2018, flipping the genders and, with it, the dynamics of sexual power as Atwell and co-star Jack Lowden (who also features in The Long Song) switched roles.
“It set out to open up conversations rather than make statements: does the audience feel different when it’s a woman doing it to a man, and if so, why? My character says lines that are so resonant now: ‘To whom should I complain? Did I tell this, who would believe me?’
“We were doing previews while the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings were going on [in the US Senate] and I’d come off stage in floods of tears sometimes, but what an amazing thing to have done. The theatre is’t built for everyone, not everyone can do a run properly, but what you’re left with is so much greater than the difficulties of the experience.”
It has also whetted her appetite for other Shakespearean roles: “Shakespeare’s best characters are male so I want to have a bash at them, not to make a statement but just to say those words. I’d love to play Iago: ‘And by my troth I’m as good as any man’ when he’s bemoaning being passed over for promotion? That could be a woman. If the talent will out and the talent is female, why not?”
Actresses often justifiably bemoan the quality of the parts available as they get older but for Atwell, 36, the future looks bright. She talks of starting a production company and of writing (“I just have to find the one thing and commit to it”), she’s also tailoring her Instagram account to showcase her “being a bit of an idiot”, giving potential, perhaps unlikely future collaborators more of an idea of what she’s about: “Edgar Wright and I are [Instagram] friends, Barry Jenkins, Xavier Dolan…”
Before that, there’s a small role in Gurinder Chadha’s Bruce Springsteen musical Blinded by the Light and a contemporary psychological thriller for Netflix. And then – who knows? Atwell is happy to take her time, but, like her dog Howard, her backbone shouldn’t be underestimated.
“There’s something to be said for taking stock and not choosing the easy thing that’s right in front of you, but reaching a little further to see what else is there to be fought for.”
‘The Long Song’ is on BBC1 at 9pm fron Tuesday 17 December to Thursday 20 December
Original article at iNews.