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Interview: Hayley Atwell

4th February 2013

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Hayley Atwell has spent much of her career in period costume - from the medieval Pillars of the Earth, to the 18th Century in The Duchess, and on to the early 20th Century for Brideshead Revisited and Captain America. But her latest role offers her the chance to play a character rooted in our future rather than our past, in the return of Channel 4's award-winning drama Black Mirror.

Here, she discusses her life and career, and her enthusiasm for her new project.

Theatre played a major part in your upbringing. What particularly stood out for you?

Off the top of my head, there was Cloudstreet at The National, about 12 years ago. There was Eve Best's Hedda Gabler, and Maggie Smith's Hedda Gabler, actually. The Theatre Museum have this archive of material that they've recorded over the last 50 years, and you can go and put on headphones and watch these amazing theatrical performances from over the years that they've recorded. It's amazing, and it's free. You can sit there in this little booth, on your own or a group of up to five of you, and watch it. So if you think about all the plays that people didn't get to see in the last 10 or 15 years - things like Jerusalem - you can just go and watch it. Ben Wishaw's Hamlet really stood out, and there was an amazing one called Ruined at The Almeida, with Jenny Jules, which was the one I was most affected by in the last few years.

In a relatively short space of time, you've starred with some huge names. Have you ever been star-struck?

Yeah, I have. It's more that I've ended up getting star struck as I've gone along with them - getting to know their characters a little more, I've become star-struck. People like Emma Thompson, or meeting Meryl Streep, as I did once. I also met Tom Cruise, I've done a couple of auditions with him. I remember when I first auditioned for Woody Allen, I was very nervous, but I just remember thinking "If I'm going to get through this audition, then I've got to feel in some way that I can be, if not an equal to him, then at least someone he feels he can work with." So I don't go for the kind of sycophantic behaviour that goes around in this industry. So I really battled hard not to feel too in awe of him, and his fame and his history. And it was a really good exercise in not being intimidated in an unhealthy way, and one I've been able to use since.

Being star-struck in a happy way is a lovely thing and completely natural, but when it's debilitating to your work, that's when it needs to be reigned in a bit. So with Woody, I talked to him as a human being, and tried to find out a little more about him as a man and a director. And I use that every time I come across someone who I might otherwise be too intimidated by. But I get genuinely star-struck by people like Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, who are consistently polite and kind and generous with their time. Behind this extraordinary reputation and fame is a ruthless work ethic and an incredible respect for their craft and the people they work with, and a hell of a lot of gratitude for the environment that they are now in. I really hope that, with age, whatever happens in my career, I maintain a sense of perspective that still makes me be a kind person to the people around me, and to the people who have supported my work.

How was auditioning for Tom Cruise?

When I went over to audition with him, I was really struck by him as well. He turned up on time, he knew what everyone in the room did, what their jobs were, he was polite, he sat down, he'd learned the script, he put me at my ease in a matter of minutes, because he was attentive to what I said and listened to me, and made amazing eye contact. And at the end he said "This is all for you, is there anything you want to do again? Do you want to try it a different way?" And he was genuinely grateful that I'd come all the way from London to audition with him. And it went so well that he called me up again to audition for another role, and I went over, but again I wasn't quite right for it. But he said "I loved what you did, and I want to call you in for something." He was in London a couple of weeks ago, and he came up to me and was really kind and complimentary, and said he'd really like to work with me one day. It was a genuine pleasure to be in a room with someone who had an approach to work that he did - making sure that everyone around them feels good.

Your new drama on Channel 4 is Black Mirror. What made you say yes to it?

I actually tried to make them say yes. I'd seen the first series; I wanted to spend a bit of time in the UK. I'd done Restless for the BBC, and had spent three months in South Africa, and I wanted to do something in the UK before heading off to LA. I love British television; I think some of the best writing is in TV at the moment - a lot better than the movie scripts I've been getting through. When I saw the first series, I thought it had a touch of the cynicism and sarcasm that Charlie Brooker is known for, and it was also inventive and tongue-in-cheek, and quite eerie, but in a truly modern way. Once I'd seen it, I called up my agent and said "Please tell them, if they're making a second series, to please consider me. I'd love to be involved." And it just goes to show what happens if you persevere. I was in South Africa, so I wasn't able to audition for it, but I spoke on Skype with the producer and the director, and when the script for this came through, I just thought both the part and the story were better than anything I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. It's brilliant, it's taken series one and gone to a whole different level of weirdness.

What can you reveal about your episode?

I can tell you that it's about a woman who goes through something quite devastating, and out of absolute desperation she discovers an app online that can simulate someone that she's lost. And she effectively starts a relationship with someone who doesn't exist, and it's actually through a piece of technology. And because the technology is so sophisticated, it's very easy for her to forget that it's actually a computer that she's talking to, and not a piece of technology. It gets eerie and very weird, and I think it raises questions about morals and ethics in technology and social media, and also about how disconnected we are from talking to each other one-on-one. This just takes that whole discussion to a very dark place. But it's essentially a love story as well.

You've done a lot of work in period costume over the years - was it quite nice to be doing something more futuristic?

Yes, it was! It was fantastic - it was the kind of thing that I'd been looking for, for a while now. I want to do more contemporary stuff. I'd like to do comedy. It's something I'm pursuing more and more now.

Black Mirror will begin on Monday 11th February on Channel 4 at 10pm. 


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