E.M. Forster’s Howards End is one of the most beloved English-language novels, famously adapted into a 1992 film starring Emma Thompson in the role of Margaret Schlegel. But Hayley Atwell wants to make it clear she was in no way intimidated by the prospect of making Margaret her own. “I was intimidated when I was given the role of Major Barbara in Major Barbara on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre,” she says with polite force over a cup of green tea. That was back in 2008, when Atwell was just a few years out of drama school and “still very much an apprentice.” A decade later, Atwell has no fear of tackling the classics on her own terms. “Margaret Schlegel, for me, is in the canon as one of those great roles for actresses. Thank God they exist.”
Best known in America for playing Peggy Carter in the Captain America movies and on her own TV show (until ABC canceled Agent Carter after two seasons), Atwell is frank about her frustration with getting offered roles like “the supportive girlfriend” and “the sexy bitch.” If she finds herself bored with a character in the first 10 to 15 pages of a script, she says, “I’d rather earn next to no money by doing a play.” To borrow a line from Agent Carter that fans occasionally quote back to her, Atwell knows her value. “I don’t want to box myself in,” she says, “but I want to be able to stand by the choices that I made.”
Howards End is one of those choices. The mini-series adaptation, which aired on the BBC last fall and premieres in the U.S. on Starz this Sunday, looks like a sumptuous period drama, but purposely avoids genre clichés. Kenneth Lonergan, the playwright and director better known for dramas like Manchester by the Sea and Lobby Hero, wrote the script with a skeptic’s eye to the material, while director Hettie Macdonald told the actors, “If I see any period drama acting, I’ll cut you off.” The result has all the rigor of Forster’s novel, with an energy and pace more akin to a contemporary TV show. Vulture spoke with Atwell to discuss how she found her way into a canonical character, her frustrations with American network TV, and the advice she got from Emma Thompson, whom she affectionately calls “Em.”
A rare thing about Howards End, the book and the show, is that it’s about two sisters who spend so much time talking about ideas, which feels so rare for anything set in that era.
It’s an amazing book, isn’t it? I hadn’t read it. We hadn’t studied it in school, so I came to it with fresh eyes. I found so much of it so approachable. They’re very good at keeping tabs on when they’re being sanctimonious and hypocritical or contradictory. To use kind of crass colloquialism of today, they check their privilege, in that they’re aware of their socioeconomic situation and how it’s a very privileged place to be to sitting around a dining-room table talking about social reform. It’s about big questions. The series didn’t shy away from that, which I thought was really great. In a world where we like sound bytes and memes and absolutes, it lived more in the questions.
Margaret is full of so many contradictions in an interesting way. She can’t stand what the Wilcoxes stand for, but she still falls for Henry Wilcox.
I love that conflict with her, because she knows that no man, no woman, will be all things for her. There will be heaps of things inside her that Mr. Wilcox will never understand, and that was okay. I don’t think she settles; I think she navigates her way very delicately in the situation that she finds herself in. But then, at the same time, she’s not trying to change him. Naturally she’s going to be full of flaws, as we are as human beings, which makes her much more intriguing. You know, I can’t really ever get a grip on what she is.
Where you intimidated going into the role, knowing that Emma Thompson’s performance had come before?
Matthew [Macfadyen, who plays Henry Wilcox] and I talked about this, because we had some people going, “Oh, are you scared and intimidated by Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson?” I feel safer, because we know that they’d worked hard on this great work and interpreted it in such a brilliant way. Now we’re having a go, in the same way that a lot of the classics that you see onstage in London. Margaret Schlegel, for me, is in the canon as one of those great roles for actresses.
Had Kenneth Lonergan already written the script when you were cast?
It was a selling point to me to do it. I’d done, early on in my career, period adaptations and Shakespeare, Thomas Middleton, the Greek tragedies. I’d recently just seen Manchester by the Sea and I’d heard that he was adapting it, I thought, “He’s not going to make this about drinking tea. He’s going to make this human.”
Did you talk to him about why he was interested in doing the adaptation?
Not really. I think he’s still not sure if he is. He came at it with a healthy cynicism for certain issues with the product. He didn’t feel that it was convincing enough that Helen would have a relationship with Bast. I love that.
The writing has a bit more rigor to it. It can look beautiful, but that’s secondary to what he was writing or what E.M. Forster was writing on the page. I found that interesting. I didn’t want to do acting by the numbers. One way that we combated that was Hettie Macdonald saying, “If I see any period drama acting, I’ll cut you off.”
How did she define period drama acting?
If it suddenly got [adopts an extremely posh accent] particularly mannered, or it just felt that I wasn’t connecting to the person. There was also this archive of photographs that we found in Kensington, action shots of Edwardian women striding through the streets of London, big skirts flowing, books under the arms, smoking cigarettes and laughing. We went, “People moved like us.” So we [moved like that too], sitting on a chaise lounge with your hands behind your head, putting your elbows on the table – after a particular time when the food is over. Still monitoring the etiquette!
You were on Agent Carter for two seasons on ABC and then Conviction, which ABC canceled pretty quickly. What was it like to go back to Britain and do British TV?
Conviction was a baptism of fire about how network television is. Agent Carter had come from the film, so I had a little bit more of the feeling of that. The second season tended to feel like you were following the orders of the network; they were very concerned with ratings. We don’t do that in England, unless it’s episodical like EastEnders and soap operas. The machine system of that, it’s frustrating from my background.
As we were finishing up the end of [Conviction], I got a call from my agent saying, “You’ve been offered Howards End.” I hadn’t even left Canada [where Conviction was shot] before I knew was doing this. The joy and the excitement to be doing something that had all this rich material and this creative woman attached to it, I couldn’t wait to get back and get started. Hettie comes from theater, and Kenny obviously comes from theater as well, so there’s a sense of ensemble and collaboration. It feels less corporate.
Did you feel more like a pawn in the machine while you worked in the American system?
In Britain, when we do an adaptation, you have the script in its completion before you begin filming. You get to make choices, where you’re going to pitch emotionally the arcs in the character. You can better own it. I remember doing one job once, and towards the end of filming, they ended up changing a whole ton of it. You suddenly get a backstory to a character and you think, “God, if I’d known that before I might be able to have done something with it.” I know some people are great at it, they love it, and that’s fantastic. For me, I have a restless mind and I welcome something like Howards End, because it meant that I could fully connect to something.
You worked with Woody Allen on Cassandra’s Dream in 2007, and you recently said you won’t work with him the future. You also said you were previously afraid of speaking out because you thought you’d be blacklisted. What was that experience like, doing something that seemed promising and having that fear afterward of being honest about it?
I think it’s something that everyone faces in aspects of their job, especially when they’re starting out — you want to be a director, but you know that your job is to make the tea. You do it, and you do it the best you can.
It is an exciting time to be at the stage in my life where I feel more of an acceptance of who I am and where I am, a stronger sense of self. And with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, the feeling of being able to be a part of the new conversation.
I don’t want to work with people for the sake of building my profile. I don’t want to work with bullies. I don’t want to work with people that have abused their power. I want to work with people that I admire and I respect that let me get on with my job, and let it just be the job. I just want to be able to get on with it, really.
It’s especially true for a lot of young actresses or actors. Without knowing who might be a bully or an abuser, people can make terrible concessions for the sake of a career.
Absolutely, yes. “Well, I guess this is just what it is, and if I want it and I’ve wanted it so much, I’m so grateful to be working, I’ll put up with it.” Or not even knowing that they’re putting up with it, thinking it’s a norm. I feel quite protective of young actors. I always encourage an actor to go to drama school rather than go to L.A. to make it big. I think that becomes a bit of a Pandora’s box, a bit like Pinocchio, when they go to the wonderland and everyone get turned into donkeys. Drama school teaches you a discipline in a craft that you can always respect and fall back on, rather than just trying to buy into the cult of personality, going, “If I make myself the sexiest, the most fabulous, the thinnest, then I’ll get famous.” If you actually have the skill set behind you, you’ll be more likely to have longevity in the industry.
Did you have mentors who helped guide you? I was thinking of Emma Thompson, because you were in Brideshead Revisited and now you’ve both played Margaret Schlegel.
She very much still is. And Imelda Staunton as well. I have a couple drama-school teachers that I’m still in contact with, and I was encouraged that whenever I began a job to look for the person that I could confide in, genuinely ask questions, and trust that they would give me constructive answers.
When I got Howards End, I called up Em and she was like, “Don’t watch what I did. Margaret Schlegel is you, and you are she.” She said, “Word of advice, if you want it, read loads of physics books. Just try and keep your mind active, because she’s such an intellectual, brilliant mind.” Her advice is very down to earth; she’s like the naughty head girl. You know you’re in safe hands with her, but you also know you’re going to have a rip-roaring, hilarious, and very potentially naughty time and get into trouble for all the right reasons.
At this point, what would disqualify a project for you?
Anything that, within the first five or ten pages, I go, “I’ve seen this all before.” If it feels generic or it feels like the supportive girlfriend role, or the sexy bitch role. The introduction to the character is really important because it’s the first impression that the audience has. If it feels that it’s going to be reductive, I’m just going to find myself with not much to do. I’ve paid my dues. Some shoddy decisions in the past. I wasn’t a snob about it; I’m not a snob about it.
I suppose as I’ve gotten a bit older, it’s the feeling of, I’m actually putting my name on to this, I’m putting this out into the world. Without sounding too heavy, I’m contributing to whatever this message is. This was partly from playing Peggy Carter, having other people going, “I named my daughter after you. Her name is Carter.” Thinking, “Oh, shit, when you put things out there, it has impact.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.