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Hayley Atwell Knows Classic Female Characters Still Matter — Even When They're Not Written By Women

There's this flawed mental image, Howards End star Hayley Atwell tells me, that people have of women as they existed at the turn of the century — that they were still, proper, stoic. It’s an image that has a tendency to bleed over into how period-based film and TV can be perceived. But that's a flawed perception, basically created by how photography worked at that time. That unsmiling face you see in a portrait has less to do with a woman's personality than with the fact that she had to hold one position for a ridiculous amount of time in order to be captured on film. So when Atwell began work on the Starz miniseries version of the 1910 E.M. Forster novel, her director gave her a new visual benchmark that more accurately reflected the liveliness of her character.

“[Director Hettie Macdonald] found this amazing archive of action shots of Edwardian women walking down the streets, striding, with their skirts blowing back and forth," the actor says. "And you can get a sense of speed and there’s books under the hand. They’re smoking cigarettes. They’re laughing.”

They're recognizable.

And so is Margaret Schlegel, the middle-class intellectual Atwell plays in the miniseries. Adapted by Manchester By The Sea scribe Kenneth Lonergan, this Howards End has all the momentum and movement that those archive photos suggest. As it chronicles the overlapping lives of three families, each of a different socioeconomic status, the miniseries sparkles with wit; its action — someone running down the street to catch a rashly sent note; people treading on each others’ sentences during an argument — is endearingly messy in a way that more buttoned up period pieces rarely are. It luxuriates in its era, but is simultaneously an anti-period piece.

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Part of that is thanks to Atwell’s pragmatic and engaging performance. She’s made a career out of bringing period characters who feel ahead of their time to life, from The Duchess' Lady Bess Foster, who refuses to subscribe to the sexual norms of the 1700s, to Agent Carter's eponymous Peggy Carter, who kicks the butt of sexism to become head of a secretive government agency. Like those women, Atwell’s Howards End character is constrained by the times — she’s unable to pursue a career because of her gender, for example — but she develops a rich inner life through art, music, and literature. She’s driven to seek more, and inherently rejects convention.

Atwell credits her upbringing with helping her bring a distinctly modern sensibility to her characters. Despite her posh accent and resumé full of literary adaptations, the actor grew up decidedly less privileged than many of the characters she plays; she was raised largely by her mom in London in social housing. Her family, she says, "would instill confidence in me that I was smart. And that I was capable of doing what I chose to do and that it just required effort and self-belief." So she laughs that the bootstrap mentality she embodies in so many roles is just "typecasting, in a way."

“The reason why [these books are] classics is that they transcend time."

But it's also a little bit of hero worship. Atwell has clear affection and respect for Margaret Schlegel, particularly for her aptitude for honoring viewpoints that are removed from her own. In Howards End, she's contrasted most starkly with Julia Ormond's Mrs. Wilcox, who expresses great relief that the law doesn't allow her to vote. Disagree though she does, Margaret refuses to condemn or alienate Mrs. Wilcox, who's otherwise a very impressive woman.

"I think that’s such an evolved position that Margaret takes," the actor says, "and something that is beneficial to today, where we are really in danger of losing the opposing side’s humanity and desire to move this society on by being so dismissive of someone else who has very different views to ours, whether that be politically or socially."

It's an ensemble piece, but Margaret is undoubtedly its moral center; she is, in Atwell's opinion, Forster's own avatar in the story. But at this moment in history — meaning 2018, not 1910 — why revisit a heroine invented by a white man when authors like Outlander scribe Diana Gabaldon and Wolf Hall writer Hilary Mantel are approaching historical fiction from a woman’s perspective? What place do new adaptations like Howards End have in a world where women are still striving for the opportunity to tell their own stories?

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“The reason why [these books are] classics is that they transcend time," Atwell says. "So they deal with universal human principles and psychology, which I don’t think has changed that much over past few hundred years really in terms of the way that we think. And we have certain different social views, I suppose, but the basic fundamental things that drive us as human beings — the need for connection, or desire, ambition, and all the things in between on the human spectrum — I think we see that in the classics and we refer to them today."

Though Atwell moves seamlessly back and forth in time through her work — she recently played a ruthless, present-day businesswoman in Sarah Burgess' Dry Powder on stage in London, for example — she relishes taking on classic literary roles because of their scope and endurance. "Going on the journey of a great writer and a great mind takes us to an exciting place," she says, "rather than it being reductive exposition of a story we’ve seen a million times."

There is an inherent appeal to the language, the manners, and the corsets, both for actors and audiences. (Well, maybe not the corsets.) “I think we love a bit of nostalgia,” she says, “We love an idea of the past being this romantic place that was simpler than it is today. And it’s close enough, because [the characters are] human beings and we are descendants of people who would have dressed like that and moved and walked and spoke like that, but in our minds, [we have] this idealistic idea of what it was like to have been them.”

She points out that Lonergan and the rest of the Howards End team, however, were very cautious of venerating Forster's original novel too much; they wanted the freedom to reinterpret the story from this point in history.

"I admire and look to women that pave the way for themselves and that are socially aware of the constraints of that time but elegantly and intelligently navigate their way through that and try to change the system from the inside."

And indeed, there's plenty for a modern woman to identify with in Margaret. Atwell’s character is self-assured and independent, the de facto head of a family that's already lost their parents. She has her similarly free-thinking women friends over for lunch to talk about poetry. She's not on the hunt for a husband. And as the story unfolds, she and her level head ensure that matters don't go from bad to worse, when almost everyone else is either over- or under-reacting to the events that alter their lives and relationships.

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"Despite the limitations of her time, she's got an original mind," Atwell says of Margaret. "She [has] a very active intellect, and an emotional intelligence as well. Qualities that weren’t necessarily encouraged in her position."

That description also easily applies to the role that would prove to be Atwell’s international breakout — Peggy Carter, another iconic woman created by men, in this case, Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Atwell made her debut as the British agent alongside Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger, and later became the star of her own Agent Carter TV spinoff on ABC, which ran for two seasons, completely beloved by a fervent and grateful fanbase. With Atwell in the starring role and the guidance of two female showrunners (plus one man), the series offered Marvel fans what the movies have yet to — a solo showcase for a female hero. And while Agent Carter had all the kitsch and glamour you'd want out of a '40s-set spy adventure, Atwell had way more to do than wear some admittedly killer skirt suits. The first season in particular was a surprisingly moving exploration of grief, ground deeply in Peggy losing Steve Rogers at the end of the first film and her struggle to move forward despite her considerable smarts and skills.

"It was rooted in loss," she says. "There’s an emotional and psychological cost to being her. I think with anything in life there is going to be a cost to it. If you’re very strong, there’s going to be a cost to that, if you are a particularly vulnerable person, there’s a cost to that. Life is going to get you somewhere."

Fortunately, Peggy was up for the challenge of making her way in an unkind world, and fans loved rooting for her as she outsmarted men who underestimated her. Atwell confirms that she'd "consider" returning to the role if asked — she says that she hasn't been invited to reprise Peggy in quite a while, so condolences if you were hoping she would appear in the upcoming Captain Marvel — but with the caveat that any project "would have to develop her in some way." The series certainly plumbed new depths of who she was and who she could be, and understandably, Atwell doesn't want to see that dial turned backwards.

Because however else women in 2018 may diverge from characters like Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox and even Agent Carter, they have one depressing factor in common: they all live in a patriarchal society. Most single adult women are no longer expected to have a chaperone for a lunch date with a man and it's no longer shocking for women to seek leadership positions, but there are still countless concessions to make and glass ceilings to shatter. And Atwell finds that there are plenty of role models in the chronological past just waiting to be rediscovered.

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"I admire and look to women that pave the way for themselves and that are socially aware of the constraints of that time but elegantly and intelligently navigate their way through that and try to change the system from the inside," she explains. "And I see, given the current climate of what’s happening, now being a time more than ever to be a part of that conversation."

Atwell herself is an active part of a movement that's changing a problematic structure from the inside — the film industry. And she reports that the #TimesUp campaign has provoked some changes that are already clicking into place on sets in the U.K. — mostly revolving around women feeling encouraged to speak up about what they need to feel comfortable and safe.

"We are in an industry that can feel highly competitive," she notes, "where women are pitted against each other for the role, where it can be a little body shaming, where it can be a very male dominated environment, where beauty and sex appeal, for lot of people, it feels like it’s their job description. And here we have a movement whereby women are gathering together — not being pitted against each other, but to work in solidarity. And there’s been, I think, a very kind and calm focus on what actually needs to happen." Those goals include closing the gender pay gap, as well. Atwell calls parity “the most important way that women can feel they are validated for their contribution.”

None of this happens without a multitude of voices being heard. And Atwell knows the power of language, whether it’s something that was put to paper a hundred years ago or something being spoken clearly today. In the case of Howards End, it’s both. “I had a teacher at drama school who said, ‘We talk ourselves into existence,'" the actor says. "So [with] our words and how we sound, we say, ‘this is who I am.’” On screen and behind the scenes, Atwell isn’t wasting any opportunity to make her presence felt.

Hair: Christopher Naselli using Hair Ritual by Sisley at Starworks Artists

Makeup: Nina Park at The Wall Group using Laura Mercier.

Editor's Note: The headline on this piece has been corrected to more accurately represent Atwell's comments.