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‘Agent Carter’ Star Hayley Atwell: ‘It Does Feel Like a Small Triumph for Women on Television’

When we first met Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” audiences fell for her just as hard as Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) did — and no wonder; unlike most love interests in superhero films, Peggy was no damsel in distress. Here was a woman who had ascended to a position of authority in the male-dominated Strategic Scientific Reserve during the height of World War II, regularly went toe-to-toe with Nazis and HYDRA agents without so much as smudging her killer red lipstick, and, in Atwell’s own wry words, did “everything Captain America can do, but backwards and in high heels.” (Ginger Rogers, eat your heart out.)

While she may not have been enhanced with the Super Soldier serum that gave Cap his impressive abilities, Peggy’s ass-kicking credentials (and Atwell’s) were indisputable, which led to further appearances in the movie’s blockbuster sequel, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”; a subsequent Marvel One-Shot short film (also titled “Agent Carter”); and a couple of adrenaline-injecting guest spots on “Agents of SHIELD.” On Jan. 6, ABC and Marvel will expand the concept of that fan-favorite short film into a seven-week series centered around the British spy, set during 1946 in the aftermath of the war and the apparent loss of Captain America following his battle with Red Skull.

While Peggy is still with the SSR when the series begins, the institutionalized sexism of the period means that she’s been relegated to a desk job while the male agents get back to the business of saving the world. Under such frustrating circumstances, Peggy jumps at the chance to help exonerate her former colleague Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), when some of his deadliest weapons are stolen and end up for sale to the highest bidder, putting him at the top of the SSR’s Most Wanted list. She’s aided in her mission by Howard’s resourceful butler, Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), but playing a double agent comes with more than its fair share of risks.

Ahead of “Agent Carter’s” Jan. 6 premiere, Variety spoke to Atwell to discuss Peggy’s evolution throughout the season, the need for female-led genre shows and and why the series feels like “a small triumph for women on television.”

You’ve played Peggy in several different projects now; what have you learned about her over the course of filming the TV show that you didn’t know about her before?
The two main things… firstly and most importantly, her vulnerability; the grief that she is personally going through about Steve that’s prominent in the season and gets stronger as you watch the episodes unfold. We see the emotional and psychological cost of that grief, and then also the vulnerability that comes with having such a high-stress job where she’s undercover [in her daily life]. And then, as we see in the first two episodes, she’s undercover again, working kind of against the SSR, so there’s the double cover-up going on in her life and that creates tremendous personal and inner battles, so it just makes her a bit more well-rounded. And I think the other side that we see more and more of is her humor — the wit and the banter that she certainly has with Jarvis and we’ll see more with other characters, which we haven’t really had a chance to play with in the other films. What’s nice about that is that she becomes, again, a little bit more interesting, a little bit more relatable, a bit more three-dimensional.

What do you relate to most about her?
I think I probably mostly relate to her in that she’s a modern woman … culturally at the moment and certainly in my generation, there’s been this expectation that, because we’ve moved so far ahead from the 1940s about where women can be in the workplace, she’s having to find a way of having it all, and what I can relate to is that struggle between the personal life and the professional life. Now there’s a pressure for women to be good mothers and good wives but also to be heading businesses, and the toll that that takes, I think, personally on women is that they’re having to juggle all of those things.

It shouldn’t be remarkable in this day and age, but sadly, we still don’t see many female-driven shows that really dig into every facet of what it means to be a woman, both personally and professionally — certainly not to the same degree that we encounter straight, white male antiheroes and their foibles on TV. What makes the show so engaging to me is that Peggy’s allowed to be vulnerable and feminine and self-sufficient and stubborn and arrogant and overwhelmed — generally just a realistic human being — and also kick butt at the same time. Sometimes she uses her feminine wiles to accomplish her missions when the situation calls for it, but it never undermines her credibility. How important was it for you that the series show those layers rather than just being a case of the week spy caper, and was that on the page from the beginning?
When Louis D’Esposito approached me and said “how do you feel about doing a series?” what excited me was his enthusiasm to develop her as a character, and then the writers, brilliantly over the season, just deepened her a lot. That was the reason why I wanted to reprise the role, because I feel there was so much Peggy that we could explore that was not really seen in the movies, and then because it’s an eight-episode [story], we’re seeing it with a much more detailed arc of her character. It’s essentially four films’ worth of character-building and [it does] a brilliant job at balancing the action and the fun and the humor with how she progresses as a character, so they added real depth to her.

What’s the biggest evolution you’ve noticed in Peggy throughout the season, in terms of her emotional journey?
There’s a beautiful moment where Jarvis is sewing her up and mentions that you have to let people help you, and I think that’s a real struggle for her, and a real personal issue that she has to try and find a way of addressing, in that we know that she’s capable and she’s strong, but she is essentially on her own and she’s very isolated and she doesn’t really know who she can trust, and she also doesn’t want to put anyone else in danger. So her real personal struggle is, how does she let people in; how does she let them be there for her; who is it that she goes to when she feels like she can’t go on anymore? It becomes stronger and stronger that the Jarvis role and the Howard role are those pivotal characters that help show her inner struggles.

We’re finally starting to see female-led comic book shows and films in development from the major studios and networks, but “Agent Carter” is the first to make it to the screen. What does it mean to you, getting to lead the charge with Peggy?
It’s amazing that I have had this opportunity and am working with incredibly bright and fun men and women at Marvel, and of course we have two female showrunners; it’s fantastic with Tara [Butters] and Michele [Fazekas] leading the way, and then also some fantastic female crew, so it does feel like a small triumph for women on television. We see her using her sexuality but it’s not her main [device] when it comes to her work, so it’s sending a message of, “why don’t we use our wits, our brains, as well as our femininity, to fulfill our destinies and to create our futures?” But at the same time, it’s not taking itself too seriously because again, it’s a superhero world and there’s a lot of humor to it. It’s not earnest. I don’t think it’s trying to make a feminist statement, I think it’s just saying to TV audiences, “women are bankable, female-led projects are fantastic to watch, they are exciting and there is such a rich amount of tension and drama that can be had from having a female central character.” Not only is she dealing with her own personal struggles, we’re dealing with gender issues. For me, it’s an absolute delight, because I get to go to work every day being proud to play this character and I’ve had lots of contact with fans who have said, “my daughter looks up to you; my son looks up to you; thank you for showing her to be capable in many ways — not just as a pretty girl and not as the ingenue, but someone who is crafting her identity and her future.”

How often do you see these kinds of roles come around? How many scripts are you offered that actually allow you to dig into the interior life of a woman in this way?
Sadly, I’d say it’s very, very, very rare — and that’s also why I’ve gone back to the theater so often and why I continue to do plays in London, because there seems to be a richer variety of roles for women to play. I was recently offered the role of Iago in a production of “Othello” — I’m still debating that as a project, but first of all, to be asked to play Iago is just an indication of the opportunities that are happening more and more in British theater, and I hope that TV and film follow suit with that. It is very rare, so that’s why with this project, it was an absolute no-brainer and I jumped at the chance to play someone like her.

As a consequence of the job, Peggy is surrounded by men, but she also has a couple of pivotal female characters in her life — what can you say about her relationships with Angie (Lyndsy Fonseca) and Dottie (Bridget Regan)?
I would say the main thing [about] the other women — who are brilliantly played by Bridget and Lyndsy — is that they’re both strong women, and they’re victims of their circumstance. Peggy stands up for them at times … and that’s lovely because it also shows that Peggy is a woman’s woman — she loves women and she really wants female company. She wants female friendship, but the risk that she puts them in by being their friend means that she’s really denying that possibility for herself. It’s really sad and I think it creates an isolation in Peggy, a yearning to have female connections that she hasn’t had before. Particularly her relationship with Angie — Angie never gives up on wanting to have a more in-depth relationship with Peggy, and I think there are times when Angie probably feels rejected by Peggy, not knowing that it’s actually Peggy looking out for her. She’s trying to navigate her way through these female relationships but having to keep her identity under cover.

I’m mostly just in awe of her patience when it comes to dealing with the chauvinist pigs she works with at the SSR, especially given the freedom and respect that she had during wartime. Will there come a breaking point for her this season, or is she just determined to play their game and not rise to the bait?
Yes, one thing that’s very smart of her is that she picks her battles, very, very skillfully with the men, and if anything she tries to outwit them without emasculating them, and also without demeaning herself or undermining herself and her abilities. She’s always fighting to prove to them that she’s capable. That’s what’s exciting about the other male parts, their journeys and their arcs — you see moments where they really see her for who she is and start to respect her more. She earns that and it’s an extraordinary feat that she’s able to achieve those things. And you’ll see how that develops with Dooley [Shea Whigham], with Thompson [Chad Michael Murray], with Agent Sousa [Enver Gjokaj] in the SSR world, because she’s already got respect from Howard and Jarvis. They’re the guys she has to prove it to and she does over the course of the season.

Talk a little about her dynamics with the men in her orbit — you’ve got Agent Sousa who tends to be treated as a second-class citizen by the other guys in the office too, because of an injury he suffered in the war, but even when he’s actually being a good guy and trying to defend her against the other agents, he’s also undermining her ability to fight her own battles, so it seems like he’s both a hindrance and a help to her.
I think the main thing is that she never wants to consider herself a victim, so although she’s having a hard time, she would never be the one that moans or complains about it, because that would just make her even more a victim, and in a place of weakness. So because of Agent Sousa’s disability, there’s a prejudice that he’s experiencing, and she of course is a woman, which is almost seen as a disability within the workplace, so that bonds them and it’s what drives him to want to stand up for her, but she’s making it very clear that as lovely as the idea and the intention behind it is, it has to be on her own terms. He has to still know that she’s coming from a place of strength, that she doesn’t ever want to be saved, because she’s never needed to, and she absolutely would die inside at the idea of someone coming to rescue her because she can’t fight her own battles.

And on the surface, Agent Thompson comes across like the token office douchebag, but it seems safe to assume that the show will add more layers to him as the episodes progress?
She has a mutual dislike for him… but what I love about Marvel and this season … his arc, you go back into his past and realize why he is the way he is, and again, what’s fantastic about Peggy is she’s not quick to judge people, she gives people a chance to redefine themselves, because she’s struggling to redefine herself on her own terms too. Theirs is a particularly fascinating development because there isn’t a love interest there, but she’s working closely with him to, I think, make sure she feels like she’s a team player in this world. And I think the other thing that’s wonderful about Peggy is that although she may not like him, she respects that he’s good at his job and she puts her work first [too], so she doesn’t take [his behavior] personally. She’s privately fighting her own battles and at the same time respecting who he is and what he does.

The first hour of the premiere sets the scene and establishes the players very neatly, but in the second hour, we really get to see more of the show’s humor come to the fore. Will the show keep that witty, tongue-in-cheek tone throughout, or will some episodes veer into darker territory?
That’s what’s brilliant about the writers; they’re injecting wit and elements of humor to undercut the drama and provide comic relief, which is what we need — it’s not too earnest and it’s not too serious. But at the same time, it does go to dark places and I think the darker places that we go to are all the more reason why we need the humor to counteract it and keep the audiences with us. That’s something that develops over time and especially with Jarvis, who becomes our comic star in this season and really just… I remember doing one scene a couple of weeks ago — and James and I like to improvise quite a bit because we know each other very well and have done for the last eight years. He added a kind of slapstick, comic routine in one of the scenes, and I was on the other side of the door waiting for my cue to come into the room whole he was doing this slapstick bit, and I was watching the director and a producer and the ADs behind the cameras, watching his performance, and their shoulders were shaking — one girl was crying with laughter, and it was just wonderful to see that, because we absolutely embrace that and need that for the show to be the success that I hope it will be.

“Agent Carter” premieres Tuesday, Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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