Cast your mind back to the beginning of Hayley Atwell’s career, before she was playing Marvel’s kick-ass Agent Carter or tackling her latest role as opinionated Margaret Schlegel in EM Forster’s Howards End. Back then, she was a young ingénue making her mark is dramas such as Any Human Heart and Brideshead Revisited. It was then that the British actor suffered her own ‘Weinstein moment’. The producer allegedly told her, ‘You look like a fat pig on screen. Stop eating so much’ (until her Brideshead co-star and now ‘mate’ Emma Thompson stepped in and took him to task over it).
Almost a decade later, Hayley, now 35, feels ‘quietly confident’ in her body, something she ‘manages every day’. ‘I find, if I’m very comfortable in myself, other people are comfortable with it, even if they are body fascists,’ she says. ‘People respond to you the way you’re responding to yourself, and the way that you allow yourself to be treated.’
But it wasn’t always so easy for the London-born star. ‘I never felt entirely comfortable with the idea of playing the young sex symbol, I always felt older than my years. Not in a superior way, just uncomfortable in my twenties compared to now. Also, the more I surround myself with women like Helen Mirren, who have got success later on, then it’s hopeful to me.
Viewing our post-Weinstein world brings up mixed feelings for Hayley. ‘I feel I’m grieving for my younger self who felt like I’d worked in a culture of bullying when, at the time, I couldn’t see that I was being bullied,’ she says. ‘I just saw myself as not enough. And now I have a place in this industry on my own terms, I can look back and go, “Oh Hayley... you were a lovely, normal girl... they manipulated you into believing that.”
‘It’s not a sob story for me, because I feel so lucky. I just see it with other girls younger than me, girls in my own generation, doubting themselves rather than going, “Don’t talk to me like that.” thinking, how do I assert myself in this situation without being aggressive, without being called a bitch. It takes a tremendous amount of time and skill and experience to learn how to navigate it.
‘Society is designed to make women feel less than. My guy friends don’t wake up with the amount of self-doubt that women tend to. We’ve had to be more careful, we’ve got more to lose. I feel like I’ve always been outspoken, sometimes I’ve been scared that might backfire...’
Holding her tongue in not an issue that her Howards End character Margaret worries about, however. Remade by female director Hettie MacDonald with a script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan, the Edwardian drama follows Margaret, the eldest sister of three orphaned children, who assumes a kind of matriarchy in their liberal, intellectual household. It’s a mature transition for Hayley from feisty bombshell Agent Peggy Carter – where she was the first female character in the Marvel universe to be awarded her own spin-off. Margaret takes her from World War II to a war of ideologies in turn-of-the- century England. ‘I felt ready to take on a role that was nuanced and mature, that required a lot more brain power and a lightness of touch to deliver ideas without it sounding too intellectual, or making her seem too dry,’ she admits.
The parallels between Forster’s fractured world and today’s aren’t lost on the actor. The butting of the women’s movement against an ingrained patriarchy means a shift has to come from both sexes. ‘For us now, it’s the end of a generation,’ she says. ‘Weinstein comes from a generation of that powerhouse, macho, misogynistic, male bully. It’s so brittle. [We need to be] talking about it in a way that men also feel safe enough to be vulnerable, and to speak out without feeling that they’re going to be ridiculed or mocked or torn down, because they have feelings.’
But it’s not just the extremes of sexual harassment that need to be tackled, she says. ‘Sexism has become more subtle and sophisticated, whether it’s through manipulating women into believing they’re not enough, through body imaging, through completely unrealistic depictions of what a perfect mother and career woman is, false advertising and that “have it all” mentality.’
It’s perhaps Hayley’s rebellion against this philosophy that’s brought her back to London from LA. ‘It’s always about the popularity game there,’ she says. ‘I find that completely contradictory to what the arts is about. It’s about tension, and it’s about conflict, and drama. With everyone kind of self-medicating on painkillers, antidepressants, they’re incapable of feeling any other emotion other than happiness. I find it scary. Everyone in LA’s constantly the best version of themselves, and I sometimes find the relentless positivity and the gift-of- the-gab of selling yourself to each other quite terrifying and impenetrable. At heart I’m an absolute goof-ball kid, I’m just silly, and I’m really comfortable with that.’
Howards End is on Sundays, 9pm, BBC One
Photographer: Tom van Schelven; styling: Fenella Webb