Stage and screen star Hayley Atwell is currently playing two lead roles a night in Measure for Measure at the Donmar Warehouse. She tells Nick Clark about how the production responded to contemporary gender politics, reveals the Shakespeare villain she’s longing to play and explains why pranking her co-stars keeps her performances fresh
Sitting in the offices of the Donmar Warehouse, where she is starring in Measure for Measure, Hayley Atwell starts talking, tentatively at first, about her plans. She pauses and rocks back in her chair. “Okay”, she smiles. “I guess we can put this out in the world…”
A look at Atwell’s career shows a restlessness and desire not to make the obvious choices. And, after working on a TV drama last year where everything changed for her, she has been thinking long and hard about doing something a bit different. “It occurs to me that I’ve been thinking about creating my own work, or directing something or producing something,” she says. “I would like to start my own production company.”
The idea is not yet fully formed – she jokes about the name: “Pig About Town. No, Kid About Town. Something lighthearted” – but she is serious about looking for projects, whether on film, television or in theatre, and not just to act in. She also reveals she has been writing. What has emerged over the course of our conversation is someone who thinks about the roles she chooses and the issues surrounding them. This is no different.
“I want original material, or to adapt books, with strong nuanced narratives of all different types of genre, collaborating with like-minded people. I think I have the experience and the skillset to know my own mind and trust what I can do, but I also want to collaborate with people.” She stops and laughs: “It feels as though I’m auditioning for you.”
Crucial to Atwell is finding the best people to work with; she does not want to go it alone. “I’m looking for the right partner, a producing partner, but also people recommending material. Not just vehicles for me to perform in, but to be behind the scenes. I’m almost waiting for someone to go: ‘Here’s this, can you direct it please?’ then I will do it, but I don’t know where to begin. This is an honest and open question for people who have any ideas for me.”
Atwell’s thoughts crystallised during the rehearsal process for Measure for Measure, directed by the Donmar’s outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke. The production is high-concept Shakespeare – the first half is a traditional, if shortened, 17th-century staging before the second half retells the story in 2018 with the gender power dynamics reversed – the creative development pushed her to consider working behind the scenes. “I’m already thinking in terms of concepts and storytelling,” Atwell says. “It feels like a natural direction.”
Measure for Measure is Atwell’s second stage role this year, after a break of five years. She had talked about working with Rourke for a long time. “When this came through – Josie, Measure for Measure, Donmar – I thought: ‘These are three fantastic ingredients.’ But the real sell was when she said: ‘You get to swap roles each night.’ Why wouldn’t you want to do two classic Shakespeare roles and get a chance to play the lead?”
Rourke had long loved the play and was always aware of its problems, especially around gender politics. “She wanted to explore the idea as an artistic director and as a woman in this industry, that certain things she would say or do would be received differently were it coming out of the mouth of a man. She was interested in exploring that on stage,” Atwell says.
It also made the actor realise that before 2017 she had only ever worked with one female director in her 13-year stage and screen career, and even then it was only for one episode of a television show. But all that has changed. Last year, she was directed by Hettie MacDonald in the BBC adaptation of Howards End, then the film Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha, which is released next year. Her return to the stage at Hampstead Theatre was in Dry Powder, written by Sarah Burgess and directed by Anna Ledwich, followed by Rourke’s Measure for Measure, and Mahalia Belo has just directed her in forthcoming BBC series The Long Song.
“It wasn’t conscious, but suddenly it just went back-to-back. I gravitate towards bigger conversations. The bigger conversation right now is: ‘Where are the women in all of this?’ But it wasn’t a conscious decision of only working with women because that’s reductive and,” she pauses, “sexist. I don’t think it’s helpful. These just happened to be the most interesting projects.”
Writing in Measure for Measure’s programme, Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at Hertford College, Oxford, says: “As we assess the ongoing impact of #MeToo revelations on our relationships, behaviours and institutions, there is no more pressing and relevant Shakespeare play.”
The project had been in the works several years before the #MeToo movement emerged last October and “it wasn’t a response to the movement, but it’s almost like a coincidental precurser. That’s why Shakespeare is a genius, he deals with the human condition in all its forms”, Atwell says. “But there’s no way we could put on Measure for Measure without having a response to what people are talking about at the moment. Because I am interested in what’s going on, maybe my choices are more formed by keeping that conversation going,” she adds.
One recent event had a particular impact: last month’s US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing ahead of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Supreme Court judge, in which he was accused of attempted rape. Those in the play watched the hearing on television during technical rehearsals, Atwell says, and it “changed the direction of the production”. She talked about the themes of justice in the play and quotes Angelo’s line: “Who will believe thee, Isabel?”.
“All these things felt very ‘on the nose’,” the actor continues. “It was paramount that we emphasised it is the system that has enabled and created this sort of behaviour. And the system is broken, rather than it being personal. This is too big a conversation to answer in two hours, it’s too big a conversation for one generation to answer.”
At the same time, the theatremakers were clear they weren’t creating a work with an open-ended interpretation. “There is an ambiguity in it, but the production couldn’t refuse to answer the question in a cowardly fashion,” Atwell says. “But also we couldn’t make it a call to arms because that can be quite grating on the ear. It’s a complex line to walk.”
It wasn’t the only complex line to walk in the production. On a practical level, the company initially tried to rehearse both versions of the play simultaneously, but Atwell says it proved impossible. “I’d gone from nun to chief executive straight away and I still didn’t know who I was.” So they first put together the traditional staging in its entirety, to fully examine the character arcs.
Despite repeating the play, the second half doesn’t feel like Atwell and co-star Jack Lowden are doing the same thing again. “I’m not in a scene with him thinking about his lines. It feels like two different characters and we do different things with it and we find different things in the characters,” Atwell says.
What was your first non-theatre job?
I worked in Gap on Kensington High Street when I was 16.
What was your first professional theatre job?
What is your next job?
The Long Song comes out in December and Blinded by the Light comes out next year.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Trust your instincts. They probably did tell me, but I didn’t know what it meant. It’s very difficult. I had good advice along the way, but it wasn’t until I was ready to hear it that I took it on board. Also, ‘No.’ is a complete sentence. Actors starting off feel so lucky to get a job and say yes to everything until they feel they have agency not to. That’s a vulnerable position to be in, you can be pulled in too many directions and lose a sense of who you are. Let your life be bigger than your career.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
Robert Icke at the moment for theatre. In the industry, Emma Thompson. In terms of writing, Rebecca Solnit. I’m writing a little bit myself. I might be going in that direction. I haven’t published anything, but I’ve always kept journals. I wonder if I’d adapt something.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Breathing. It allows you to be present and engage what it is you’ve been asked to do. Also preparation, go in knowing your lines, prep about the people you’re auditioning for. Get a tone of the piece and the work they’ve done before. Go in with a strong choice for the character so you’re offering something, but also the ability to try something different if they ask. A director is not just seeing if you’re right for the part but working out if you’re directable.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
I would have run an animal sanctuary.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, I try to do the opposite. I try to break routine. There’s always putting on make-up and costume and warming up my voice, but otherwise I change things up
Atwell’s sabbatical from the stage “wasn’t conscious”, she says. “I loved the last show The Pride and got an Olivier nomination for that. But straight after I went into a TV show and that took me away. I was swept up in a whole different thing and at some point I thought: ‘I really want to get back on the stage’.”
She had starred in early Marvel universe blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. Her character Peggy Carter, which would recur in other films and TV spin-offs, was given her own show Agent Carter in 2015 and it ran for 18 episodes.
Being in the Marvel universe brings its own set of fans. Atwell shrugs: “If there was any character that a fanbase has attached itself to, then it’s lovely it’s her. She’s not over sexualised or violent. There’s a wholesome quality about her I’m grateful for. If I’m going to get stopped on the tube I’d rather it was for Peggy Carter.”
Atwell’s desire to return to the stage grew after seeing several productions directed by Robert Icke. “Seeing Rob’s Uncle Vanya, and his Hamlet three times, Rob taught me interesting things,” Atwell says. “I consider him a mentor in the theatre world, someone I ask advice from. He’s incredibly astute and demystifies things. He takes pretentiousness and pomp out of work. His productions are clear, detailed and relevant to now. I think he unlocks the Shakespearean language.”
Asked about a Shakespearean role she would love to perform, Atwell answers without hesitation: Iago. “Someone asked if I could imagine Iago as a woman. I went back and read the script and said: ‘Absolutely’. You could say his frustrations at not being promoted by Othello, as he believes he deserves to be, are those a lot of women battle with every day. They ask why, with the same skills as a man, are they not getting the same money – are they worth less? No wonder they’re angry. Also Iago’s obsession with Othello – being in love with him makes a lot of sense.”
The project that brought her back to theatre, Dry Powder, was again not an obvious choice. But it offered her a completely different character to one she had played before. “It was 90 minutes of financial jargon told with speed and wit, with an unapologetic character,” she says. “There’s no sexual energy between her and anyone else, and I realised it didn’t need to be there for this to be a strong story that still has chemistry – it was just an intellectual and competitive chemistry. Why does it always have to descend into sex? That’s such a cheap cop-out. There are other ways of making something feel alive and intimate with another character that doesn’t just go into sex.”
I don’t choose roles on how people and the industry may see me because that is a minefield. But, I want something that asks for nuance of character and
real gravitas and something that’s strong and not necessarily the most obvious or glamorous choice.
…Quick changes on stage:
In The Pride I became a master of the quick change. I had a six-second change from the 1950s setting to modern day that would get a round of applause. I was in a 1950s trench coat, brown leather shoes and handbag. Within six seconds I was wearing jeans, stripey top, glasses and an oven glove and bare feet. It involved three people helping out. Someone held out the glasses and the oven gloves and I walked straight out into them and on to the stage.
…The advantage of being in a Marvel film early:
I didn’t know who Captain America was. I hadn’t seen Iron Man. That meant I didn’t go in with the intimidation I would have done now given the size of the franchise. When I met Chris [Evans, who played Captain America] I had no idea who he was or the people around it. I went in as myself – as I do with any job – to be as prepared as possible, listen and figure out what it is they want and audition well.
There are some great roles in Shakespeare. But there are better roles for men. So I would love to get a chance to say the language.
…Guildhall School of Music and Drama contemporary Jodie Whitaker, now in Doctor Who:
She was fully formed on day one of drama school. She’s the same now as she was then. So charismatic and smart, but I admired that if she didn’t understand a word, she would ask. She wasn’t afraid of what she didn’t know, she was fearless and inquisitive and alive. I learned from her. I was much more introverted and head girly. She was freer. Emotion came easily to her. When I saw her first episode of Doctor Who I thought: ‘Smashed it. She was born for it.’ It shows the gender-blind casting that’s happening. And with someone like Jodie in the role you forget after five minutes that it was ever an issue that a woman played it.
Growing up, Atwell says she was a shy and introverted only child, but became enamoured with the theatre early on. “My parents were artistic and my mum used to bring me into the theatre. There was something ceremonial and special when the lights went down and an audience of strangers went on a journey with another bunch of strangers and would feel connected by the end.”
She remembers being moved by Ralph Fiennes playing Hamlet and later watching Macbeth, when studying for her GCSEs, starring Judi Dench and Ian McKellen. “I found it thrilling and just wanted to be in that world. To be able to deliver a complex long line, which may have required a lot of breath and rhythm to it, but once you technically had it down it made you sing. That was amazing to me.”
She excelled at acting in school, getting the drama award every year, and played the Duchess of Malfi in the school production at 17. She went on to train at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, which “showed me my technical limitations and what I needed to develop”. Playing Hedda Gabler in the third year proved a revelation, when she was praised for making the character flinch when others approached her. “It was my first realisation I’d made a character choice and shown it enough during the play to create a character that had echo gestures, without being so obvious. It was an important moment.”
After graduation, Atwell’s stage debut came in Prometheus Bound at Sound in London starring David Oyelowo – “He’s another mentor to me, a very important person in my life” – followed by Women Beware Women at the Royal Shakespeare Company and two shows at the National Theatre both directed by Nicholas Hytner: first Man of Mode then Major Barbara. Jessica Gunning, who was also in Major Barbara, has revealed Atwell loves a practical joke to keep things fresh.
“Pranks are really important,” Atwell cackles on hearing that. “There are some people who are famous for little tricks such as Michael Gambon and Penelope Wilton. It’s so fun. You’re not trying to fuck around with the production or your colleagues, it’s anything that keeps you present, that keeps you on your toes and stops you getting dry.” She says she learned from the best in Gambon, who played her father in Brideshead Revisited in 2008, and who was known for having a Super Soaker water pistol in his dressing room at the National. It’s an attitude that helps keep her performances present on stage. She says in Measure for Measure that Lowden is “brilliant” on picking up changes on stage and giving it back. “We give each other energy, it’s alive. And a lot of pranks are about doing that.”
…Her next step:
It’s in this last year that a lot of people – a lot of actors – have said you should direct. And I’ve gone: “Okay what shall I do, where do I go?”
In Howards End, a BBC period piece, Kenny Lonergan adapted it so the central relationship is between the two sisters. Having women who are not pitted against each other, who are vastly different in personality but are navigating their way through this male dominated world, made it very up to date in that respect.
…Hamlet at the Almeida
I saw it three, four times. That’s 12 hours of Andrew Scott, which, quite frankly, is not enough.
Her West End debut came in A View from the Bridge in 2009, in a production directed by Lindsay Posner, and for which she landed the first of her two Olivier nominations. “That was wonderful. I was still forming my sense of ‘can I do this?’ I was lucky enough to be hanging out with people I had huge respect for such as Ruth Wilson, who was intimidatingly formidable when she came out of drama school in a way I wasn’t. My self-doubt is one of my qualities I’m proud of. It keeps me vulnerable and questioning what I’m doing.”
Last year marked a critical point in her career, with her dazzling portrayal of Margaret Schlegel in the BBC’s four-part Howards End, adapted by Kenneth Lonergan. “My confidence and my turning point came with Howards End,” Atwell says. “From the preparation, I knew how to do it. In my life, I came into myself a little bit more. I had enough experience to know what was useful and what was not useful.”
She has always been drawn to good material, but if it requires her to do something difficult, heavy or challenging she did not want to take it home with her. “I want to figure out a way of keeping the work the work, having a giggle and a good time in-between takes and having a life outside that.”
Atwell concludes: “Howards End was a clarification that I could prank the shit out of everyone on set, have a great time, but between action and cut know exactly what we were doing, do it properly and make good work. From early on I thought if it’s possible to be really good, but not be method, then I’d rather do that. If it’s possible to be Meryl Streep, who is lovely and polite to everyone, then that’s what I want to pursue.”
Born: 1982, London
Training: Guildhall School of Music and Drama
• Women Beware Women, Royal Shakespeare Company (2006)
• The Man of Mode, National Theatre, London (2008)
• Major Barbara, National Theatre, London (2009)
• A View from the Bridge, Duke of York’s, London (2009)
• The Faith Machine, Royal Court, London (2011)
• The Pride, Trafalgar Studios, London (2013)
• Dry Powder, Hampstead Theatre, London (2018)
• Measure for Measure, Donmar Warehouse, London (2018)
• The Line of Beauty, BBC (2006)
• Any Human Heart, Channel 4 (2010)
• Agent Carter, ABC (2015-2016)
• Restless, BBC (2012)
• Black Mirror, Channel 4 (2013)
• Howards End, BBC (2017)
• Brideshead Revisited (2008)
• The Duchess (2008)
• Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
• All Is by My Side (2014)
• Christopher Robin (2018)
• Ian Charleson Commendation for Major Barbara, National Theatre, 2009
Agent: Christian Hodell, Hamilton Hodell