Last month, Hayley spoke with the NY Times which was accompanied by a gorgeous new photoshoot. Photos have been added to the gallery and you can read the entire interview below. Enjoy!
TORONTO — A boot print. A lab report. A missing file.
These were the main components of a chewy hunk of dialogue that Hayley Atwell kept delivering over several takes on the set of the new ABC drama “Conviction.” It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it didn’t need to be: Her dialogue drew the requisite road map of legal procedurals — you know, that scene where people sit around a table and try to solve the case.
“Exposition party!” Ms. Atwell joked with her co-stars between takes.
The London-raised Ms. Atwell — who has performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company — delivered the lines perfectly each time, in an American accent and while wearing pajamas. She plays Hayes Morrison, a brilliant lawyer, party girl and former first daughter, recruited to investigate possible wrongful convictions and free the unjustly imprisoned. (In the episode at hand, her hot mess of a private life leads Morrison to sleep in the office, hence the pajamas.)
“Conviction,” having its premiere Monday, Oct. 3, is network TV at its networkiest: a talky true-crime office drama with a steady moral compass. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Ms. Atwell comes from the London stage and pedigreed British film and television costume dramas like the 2008 “Brideshead Revisited” remake and the 2010 Bafta-winning series “Any Human Heart.” So around the fifth time she repeated the boot-print line, a sincere question arose: What’s an actress like you doing on a show like this?
It’s not the first time that query has seemed germane to Ms. Atwell’s career arc. She’s best known to American audiences from the Marvel blockbuster world, where she has played Agent Peggy Carter, in films and on television. But though we non-stars tend to imagine that celebrated actors sit before a buffet of roles, plucking their choices, Ms. Atwell scoffed at the supposition. She loves and needs to work, she said, but the nature of that work is not always hers to determine.
“I’m not in control,” she said. “It’s not, ‘I’m going to do this one, and that, then I’ll nip over the pond and do that.’ I could tell you 10 films in that least few years that I’d love to have been in.”
Ms. Atwell, 34, was in her trailer, with her character’s leopard print stilettos strewn on the floor and her foster dog, a Chihuahua-dachshund mix named Howard, making himself comfortable in a reporter’s lap. Ms. Atwell is the daughter of parents who met at a Dale Carnegie seminar, and in person, she seemed very much “in process,” her big-laugh, expletive-streaked brazenness punctuated by moments of wandering introspection.
For two seasons on ABC, “Agent Carter” was a critical darling with middling ratings. While Ms. Atwell waited to see if the series would be renewed for a third season, the pilot script for “Conviction” landed in her inbox with a courting email from Liz Friedman, the showrunner and co-creator. “I wrote, ‘Please come breathe life into this woman,’” Ms. Friedman recalled. “I knew she was perfect.”
A lucrative paycheck might be enough to lure any actor to a network show, but Ms. Atwell was captivated by the character of Morrison, whom Ms. Friedman describes as “Chelsea Clinton by way of the Bush twins.” In the first episode, she’s charged with cocaine possession and released from jail after cutting a deal with the district attorney (Eddie Cahill) and agreeing to lead the conviction integrity unit.
Ms. Friedman had written for “House” and “Sherlock,” and likened Hayes to those prickly, flawed leads. “It’s very important that Hayes be able to say things that are incredibly callous and also give you moments of warmth where the audience sees, ‘Oh she really does care’ without me having to write a lot of speeches about her caring,” Ms. Friedman said. “Hayley can show vulnerability even beneath a surface of toughness.”
The show’s other creator, Liz Friedlander, recognized Ms. Atwell as an actress with the intelligence to pull off the show’s dense, rapid-fire banter, like a heroine in “a Howard Hawks movie, or ‘Philadelphia Story.’”
Though she has a dialogue coach to nail the accent (Ms. Clinton was an influence), Ms. Atwell is actually half-American. Her parents divorced when she was 2, and her American father went back to the United States to train in shamanism and work as a massage therapist. She grew up in grittier precincts within the Notting Hill neighborhood of London with her mother, who was a motivational speaker. (At a personal empowerment seminar at the age of 9, Ms. Atwell walked across hot coals.) In the summers, she would visit her father in Kansas City, Mo., where she caught fireflies in a jar and delighted in Fourth of July fireworks.
Back in London, Ms. Atwell recalled, she was bullied for her uncool “trainers” and general oddness. (She was the rare preteenager obsessed with Lars von Trier.)
The theater was her refuge. Ms. Atwell’s mother took her to plays from the time she was 4, and they would wait afterward at the stage door to thank the actors. (She still does; she had recently seen “Yerma” at London’s Young Vic and was readying to compose an effusive note to the lead, Billie Piper.) “There was something almost ceremonial about it,” she said. “The lights would go down, and a room full of strangers congregated to go on a journey of the imagination. At the end of the story, I felt less alone as a human being.”
Ms. Atwell graduated from the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2005 and landed her first professional theater role two weeks later in “Prometheus Bound.” She played the tormented maiden Io, hexed by Zeus and doomed to live as a cow. “We weren’t about to put Hayley into a cow suit,” said her good friend David Oyelowo, who played Prometheus. “She did the most incredible physical work whereby you completely believed she was both a woman and a cow. I was awe-struck. She did it so simply. She would ball her hands into fists and make them look like hooves. It was so tender, and she looked so fragile.”
Soon after, Ms. Atwell appeared in Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream,” playing one of his patented oversexed neurotics opposite Ewan McGregor. She cringed when reminded of the role. “There’s a real sadness about Woody,” she said. “I’d love to work with him now, because I have a little more confidence in myself. Back then I was: ‘Where should I stand?’”
Ms. Atwell looks back on her decade as a working actor with a kind of melancholy, saying there have been moments of depression as she’s wondered if she made the right choice of a profession.
“This industry can breed self-obsession, narcissism, such a fragile sense of self, and I’ve been guilty myself of feeling that the validation of my audiences validates me as a human being,” she said.
She quickly rebooted to her art-loving default. “But the best thing about this industry is the potential to have moments of freedom from the bondage of myself, which is what acting is, to be out of my own hell, my self-inflicted doubt,” she said.
With this kind of sensitivity so close to the surface, it seems incongruous that she would dive headfirst into a comic book franchise, an emblem of Hollywood excess. But Ms. Atwell is ambitious, and when the Marvel opportunity arose, she was curious to see the big-budget machinery up close. Peggy Carter is human, not an Avengers superhero but an expert World War II secret agent with a feminist catch phrase: “I know my value.” Ms. Atwell pulled out her phone and read, with emotion, a letter from a fan praising her for supporting the L.G.B.T. community. She showed me a picture of another fan’s tattoo: Ms. Atwell’s face. “That’s on her forearm forever!”
In May, “Agent Carter” was canceled and “Conviction” greenlit. Relocated to Toronto for the shoot, Ms. Atwell is gratefully single. “I need to focus fully on learning from this,” she said. While more equitable for women than film, TV remains a male-dominated industry, and “Conviction” is the rare drama created and run by two women (with Mark Gordon producing). On the set, Ms. Atwell is watching and asking questions, considering a shift into directing and producing.
“I’m only starting to be conscious of the extent to which I monitor and filter myself because I’m a woman,” she said. “Guys in my position, No. 1 on the call sheet, wouldn’t say ‘Sorry’ all the time. They would just expect something to happen.”
Expanding beyond acting may buffer her from the hardships of her profession, which is, despite her hesitation, very much chosen. “I love this world of storytelling,” she said. “There is beauty in it, and there is truth in it. You see an actor like Meryl Streep, and you go: ‘You can have a family and a life and a wonderful career. All these things are possible.’”