Hayley Atwell on Howards End, Advice from Emma Thompspn and a Possible Return to the Marvel Universe
British actress Hayley Atwell, 36, who spun her Captain America role as fan-favorite Peggy Carter into its own TV series, now stars as Margaret Schlegel opposite Matthew Macfadyen‘s Henry Wilcox in Starz’s series Howards End (April 8). Based on the classic E.M. Forster novel about class distinctions, it’s the tale of two independent, unconventional sisters in England at the beginning of the 20th century.
Do the themes of Howards End still resonate?
Absolutely. It felt distinctly modern when we were doing it, not just because of the relationship between the two sisters being warm and playful and full of contradictions and squabbles, but also the idea of class, particularly in England, and the lack of equality in the world.
It’s also a love story between Margaret and Henry.
I think what makes Margaret remarkable is when [her sister] says about Henry Wilcox, “I don’t know why you would like someone like that; he represents all the things that the Schlegels despise,” Margaret says she sees something fine in Henry; she’ll accept him on his own terms. I think as a result of that, it’s a very mature relationship, not one that’s just built on romance or physical desire. It’s built on a mutual respect for the differences between each other.
You were born in the U.K. but your fathe’s American.
I spent my summers in Kansas City [Missouri] looking at lightning bugs, riding four-wheel bikes through fields of hay and eating Kansas City barbecue. It was wonderful because my ancestors are from Kansas City, so I got to learn a lot about my heritage. I feel very proud to be half-American, and I’m close to my grandmother there.
You said that Margaret sees something fine in Mr. Wilcox, but does she want to change him?
She’s decided that she’s not going to try and change him in any way. She also sees that he’s very different from who she is and there’ll be many qualities and many aspects of her life and her character that he will never understand. Even so, she won’t set out to try and make him understand. She will only set out to connect with him, turn towards him and be a companion to him.
I think within that, she sees also a man that’s deeply flawed, that can’t see the contradictions within his own character. And she sees that to be very human. She understands that the way relationships work in life is there has to be plenty of space for human error and for the capacity to forgive, and to forgive ourselves of past choices that we’ve made.
But, of course, what’s brilliant is that it’s a great study in the period of the day and how we reflect on our circumstances then and our circumstances now do very much dictate choices that we make. It’s finding a way to make life work, based on what life is presenting to you. I think that’s a truism of today as well.
Margaret is such a forgiving woman. She seems a very modern woman for her time. Was that part of the appeal of playing her?
Yeah, it was. She is a modern woman but, also, she’s a mature woman. I think there can be a little bit of an error in the battle cry, gung-ho movement of wanting to work towards man-hating for the sake of empowering women. Margaret doesn’t do that and I don’t do that myself. I resonated with the idea that Henry Wilcox can think all he wants about anyone, even Margaret’s sister, but Margaret’s job is to be the sister that she wants to be to Helen, and to make sure that her relationship with Mr. Wilcox is not controlled by any other person’s opinion. It’s a very mature take on it.
By the end, although he says you cannot stay at Howards End, she does so anyway. She gets her own way, because not only do Helen and the illegitimate child live with her, she gets Henry to leave Howards End, the house, to her illegitimate nephew.
So, on one hand, you could say she’s very forgiving. But you can also say she gets exactly what she wants.
She’s a woman of determination?
Yeah. But she does it in a very elegant way, with emotional intelligence and the sensitivity of not undermining Henry. It’s very, very sophisticated, and that, to me, points to a feminism that I think is far more interesting, a feminism that is inclusive because it’s the definition of equality between the sexes as opposed to women triumphing over men, or men having some control over women. We’re dealing with a very sophisticated way of people getting what they want without undermining another person.
Watching the costumes and the corsets on Howards End helps one understand why these women are struggling to be free.
Absolutely. The constriction of corsets and how it was a normal piece of clothing back then helps you really understand. Even Jacky Bast wore a corset; it wasn’t just a cast thing. It’s for fashion. I’m sure maybe in 100 or 200 years from now, people will look back on high heels that women wear in their daily life and think, “How did they do this torture contraption every day?”
Did you watch the version with Emma Thompson? Did you chat about it?
Absolutely. She’s a dear mentor to me. She’s a very great friend of mine in my personal life, so of course, as soon as I was offered the project, I emailed her to pay homage and to acknowledge that I know it was a turning point in Emma’s career and it was such a spectacular performance and something she made her own.
Like any generous adult, she said, “Please don’t watch what I did again. If you’ve seen it, that’s fine, but don’t watch it again because now it’s your Margaret.” She said, “If anything, I would suggest you read math puzzles and physics books, because Margaret Schlegel is incredibly astute and has a very active mind. That would be useful to you in terms of gaining the thoughts and the ideas behind the arguments that she’s involved in in the series. It would help make your mind as robust and dynamic as possible.”
It was a lovely tip. I did take that on board. Every time someone plays Lady Macbeth onstage, we don’t gauge our actors, “Sorry, Judy Dench played her in 1966, so why are you doing it now?”
The reason why Howards End is fantastic material is it’s the kind of material that can be revisited. It’s the kind of material that is rich enough that another actor gets to interpret it through their time, so I did feel the pressure of that.
Stories need to be retold for different generations.
On one hand, you look at how much times have changed, but then you also go, not really. There’s still underlying inequality there from Edwardian England to nowadays. It’s not a cynical book. It ultimately comes to a point of resolution that I think is a mature one, and not a sentimental one, not an idealistic view of the world but at least equally not a cynical one.
It suggests that through our own evolution of emotional intelligence, we can arrive at a place where we are able to forgive other people’s pasts, that we’re able to also question and doubt our own choices and our own mistakes. Can we make room for human error and also our own error?
And Margaret, she makes mistakes along the way and she’s figuring it out as she goes along. Her overriding quality that we take away when we watch Howards End is the ability to always look to each other, rather than to navel gaze within ourselves the answers. To, as the book says and as our film quotes, connect.
I think that’s a really beautiful message to take to today: Look to each other and question our own selves before we make decisions.
Your Chihuahua’s name is Howard. Did he come first or did Howards End come first?
He came to me fully formed and his name was already Howard. He’s a rescue dog. It was purely by chance. I got him in August and I found out I was doing the show in December, so it was completely a coincidence.
Your character Peggy Carter has had her funeral in the Captain America movie franchise. Is she dead and gone, or might there be a way for her to return and still be part of that universe?
Because it’s a genre-specific superhero piece, I’m sure anything could happen. It’s such a huge world. I do think there’s something in the completion of the fact that they’re doing their back-to-back Avengers at the moment, which will complete an era,so I can’t see how it would be. But that’s what’s remarkable about Marvel is they keep going. Each film tends to further what they’re doing, so I woudln’t rule it out.
What was the best part of playing Peggy Carter – the fact she was a role model?
I don’t set out to choose characters that are role models. The current character I’m playing at the moment [in Dry Powder onstage in London] is a sociopath and a narcissist. She’s a brilliant mathematician and I absolutely adore playing her. She’s unapologetic and ruthless. I think my job as an actor is just to be a custodian to a character, to present a character rather than educate the audience and go, “This is what you should think or feel.”
It just so happened that that was the part that I got with Peggy Carter, the script that they created for me, and I inhabited it based on what I felt the script was asking me to do.
Because Howards End is on television, I found it surprising to learn that you don’t own a television.
No. I have a laptop, so I look at everything online. I can do BBC iPlayer, that sort of thing. I know it’s a funny thing to say. I do love good television. I have boxed sets of critically acclaimed dramas and comedies. It does end up taking me a long time. I’m never really around to watch television live. It’s always recorded and I always watch it online.
Was it difficult being half-British, half-American when you were younger?
I always looked forward to how different Kansas City life was compared to the urban life of London. Although I was half-American, I spoke differently so I was the girl coming to Kansas City every summer with the weird accent, who’s made to say things because the local people liked the way that I sounded. One of my best friends is a lawyer in Kansas City, who I have known since I was a little girl and I’m godmother to her children. So I still have ties there, which is important to me.
Original article at Parade.