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Hayley Atwell on love, musical numbers, and kicking butt in ‘Agent Carter’
Hayley Atwell talks about Peggy Carter’s future, musical numbers, and her status as a feminist role model.
As Agent Carter season 2 comes to a close tonight, there are plenty of fans who are hoping against the odds it won’t be the last we see of Peggy Carter’s TV spinoff.
They’ve watched Peggy tenaciously take on the boys club of government service in the 1940s, navigate her heartbreak over the loss of Steve Rogers and the blossoming of new relationships, and just generally kick ass as a woman who uses smarts and heavy objects to best her opponents.
The critical response to the show has been positive, in no small part because of the brilliant performance of Hayley Atwell as she bridged the character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to network television. But with dwindling viewership numbers, it’s unclear, and maybe even unlikely, that Agent Carter will be renewed for a third season.
Still, Atwell has plenty of hopes for what Peggy’s future could hold. She shared them as she reflected on the series in an interview with the Daily Dot this week.
The season finale will air tonight at 9pm ET on ABC.
A lot of people see Peggy as a feminist role model, and you also joined fans in asking for a more diverse cast in season 2. Did playing Peggy make you more aware and active about social issues like this, or was that what drew you to the character in the first place?
It was very present in the pilot. I’d obviously already played Peggy a couple of times in the films, but then in the pilot, it was very clear that was a huge issue that she would have to address, so that was really exciting for me. Because sexism then was so much more on the surface. We look back on it now and see girls being pinched on the bum and not being given the opportunities that the men [had], compared to nowadays. But obviously there’s still a long way for us to go before we have real equality in the workplace.
And then there’s the opportunity to meet people who have had a positive response, and have moments of standing up to bosses or people who have put them down, and have thought about what Peggy would do in that situation. That’s just so humbling, and such a joy.
With that obviously comes the feeling of responsibility. It has made me kind of question me, really. About my position as a woman in this industry, and I’m delighted that so many women, audience members and actors alike, are talking about it. That it’s coming to the real forefront of the debate of sexism within the industry. So, long may it continue.
If the show does get renewed for another season, what are your hopes for Peggy’s future? Are there any particular things you’d like to explore, perhaps inspired by the comics or real historical events?
Because we know that she lives a long life—from The Winter Soldier we know she dies probably in her nineties—you have the civil rights movement, you have the 1960s, the Cold War, you have all these incredible things that will happen socially and culturally in America and in Europe, that she will definitely have been involved with.
I love the idea of a season set in London, to see that side of her and go back to her roots a little bit. And I think because of the genre that it’s in, anything’s possible. I think she’s someone that’s up for new challenges, so she’ll embrace whatever that’s in front of her. I can see her being a raging hippy in the ’60s, and a huge advocate for women’s rights. I think to be able to do that in a TV show would be lovely. But of course I don’t have the power, I just have to sit and wait to see what the audiences want.
About tonight’s season finale—obviously you can’t share any spoilers, but this season’s given this very balanced, sensitive love triangle, and I was wondering if you have a preference in Peggy’s choice between Sousa and Wilkes.
I have to say that with Sousa and Peggy, it’s come down to just bad timing. When they meet she’s grieving for Steve, and therefore she has no room to even entertain someone else in her life. So that’s kind of put on the backburner. But I do think she sees a kindred spirit in him, in that he is the victim of bullying the workplace, as she is. Her disability is seen as her sex; his is his war wound. And because of that, they both have to fight every day just to be able to get their jobs done. He deals with it with such dignity that I think she finds that very attractive, in a similar kind of formula to why she fell in love with skinny Steve in the first place. It sets up these two characters who are perfect for each other.
I don’t think she’s great at forming romantic relationships. I think in her young years she already has a lot of baggage, and a lot of fear that she’s going to lose people that are close to her. And also, as a woman in her position with such drive and an active mind, how many men around her that she’s attracted to would not be intimidated by that? I think that’s quite rare. I think Sousa’s one of them, and I think Wilkes is one of them too. He’s fighting his own battles in society, of course. That’s what makes him again attractive to her. So she’s got a very hard choice to make, between these two dashing men.
One thing I really enjoy about Peggy’s characterization is her fighting style, which is pretty different from typical martial arts choreography. Could you tell me a little about how that was developed?
The idea is that… well, it might be the fact that I, as Peggy, have a lot of confidence and very little skill. That’s pretty much her fighting style, developed based on my limitations.
I think it’s to do with that Peggy’s intelligence. Her fighting style comes out of working with what she’s got in front of her, whether that’s grabbing a stapler, using a fridge door, using the heel of a shoe. Anything like that. They’re tactics, quite skillful moves, to make up for the fact that she’s not as trained as the Black Widow and Dottie Underwood. And I think that’s great, because it means she uses different ways to disarm people, and then she resorts to violence when she absolutely has to. But it’s not something she gets her kicks out of, I suppose. She’d much rather use her brain.
How did the cast react when they found out there was going to be a musical number this season?
It was hilarious! First of all, James [D’Arcy] jumped up like a schoolgirl, he was so excited. He was like, “Oh my god, oh my god, I’m gonna wear a top hat!” He was loving it, loving it. That was great, and very, very funny.
Enver [Gjokaj], who plays Sousa, did not believe any of us. Because we prank each other and wind each other up constantly, and it meant when went to Enver like, “Enver, you know there’s going to be a musical number, and you’re going to be wearing a sweater-vest and doing a bit of tapdancing.” He was like, “Alright guys, enough is enough, ha ha ha.”
He just didn’t believe it. The showrunners came and told him, and he was like, “You’re all in on this, I’m not going to be part of your stupid pranks, I’m not going to be the butt of your jokes.” And I think even when he read the script, he was like, “God, you guys are really committed to this prank.” It wasn’t until a couple of days before we actually shot the thing that we were able to convince him that it was actually happening. And then of course Enver, being so self-deprecating, was like, “I can’t sing!” and of course he sounds like a dream onscreen.
The whole thing was a real joy. We talked about the idea of it quite early on, and I was like, nah, they won’t go ahead with it. So when I heard they were going to make it into a dream sequence where everyone bursts into song, I thought it was such a great representation of the tongue-in-cheek, not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously tone that the writers bring to the show.
Photo via Agent Carter
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.