Hayley Atwell Takes on Iconic ‘Brideshead’
by Paul Fischer
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Beautiful British actress Hayley Atwell is making quite a name for herself on both sides of the Atlantic, on stage and screen. Having most recently starred in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, the actress stars as the often-cold Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, and will be seen later this year opposite Keira Knightley in The Duchess. In this exclusive interview, Atwell also reveals that she is about to start production on the miniseries The Prisoner. The actress talked to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: Have you watched the original TV version of Brideshead?
Hayley Atwell: No, I haven’t. But I’ve been working at the National Theatre and Jeremy Irons is in the dressing room below me. [laughs] That’s the closest I’m getting to the original.
PF: I take it you haven’t spoken to him about it.
HA: No. We’ve been talking more about theatre, and what he does with his dogs on tour, but I think it’s something that I wouldn’t want to bring up with him unless he asks me to, because it’s the thing that made him such a household name. It’s a huge deal. I don’t know how he feels about it.
PF: Tell me how difficult it was for you, if at all, to get the part of Julia?
HA: Well, I read the script, and I auditioned twice, I believe, and both times put it on tape for Miramax. But the recall audition, my second audition, the casting director had advised me to really go for it. We wanted to really see more of Julia’s vulnerability and so in the recall, I spontaneously decided to smack Matthew Goode around the face in a violent outburst, which happens in the fountain scene. I think that was what the director was looking for, just something a little bit feistier than previous people who had interpreted Julia as someone who’s quite insipid, or quite boring. And I think that that’s probably what got me the part. I was working in theatre at the time, and so when it comes to be putting up for such amazing roles in such big films, you just go in and you think, “Well, there’s no way I’m gonna get it, so I might as well just do my best.” And I think that relieved some of the pressure off of me, because I just thought, this is something enormous.
PF: What are the challenges for you in playing a woman who is so reserved on the one hand, but bursting with the kind of emotional sense of vulnerability on the other hand? I mean, what do you draw on, playing a character like this? With such conflict?
HA: Well, I think the Catholic guilt is the one thing that is restricting her, and I went to church and Catholic school growing up, so I had a little bit of a sense of the Catholic guilt that’s ingrained, especially within Julia at that time. But personally, I think the easiest thing for me was, I was walking into Castle Howard, which was being Brideshead, and also the clothes and the—even the hair. Everything was very grand, but also quite oppressive, quite daunting, very haunting. And so it was—it was just up to me to breathe into that world, and to inhabit that world. And a lot of the work had been done for us, because of how extraordinary the house is, and what the costume and makeup was.
PF: Indeed. So geography and physical appearance, in the case of this piece, really does inform, in some ways, the way you interpret the character.
HA: Hugely. Absolutely. And I come from drama school, which is very physically-based. The thing with film is realizing it is a visual medium and that there are so many very powerful images throughout the film, which I felt were giving me the character. I just understood—it was understanding who Julia was more and more, by just walking through the grounds of Castle Howard, and trying to imagine what it would have been like to actually have been a child, and growing up in that environment.
PF: The miniseries obviously did not inform anything that you did on this, but how closely did you study the book?
HA: That became my Bible. I read it a couple of times once I’d gotten the park. And then there was—you know, highlighting sections, and annotating, and seeing what they had done in the script, and where they had changed it round. And of course, in the book, Julia doesn’t go to Venice. And that was one—I think, the main differences between our film and the book. And so just having to understand why they had made that choice. And the book talks—although it’s hard, because the book is obviously, again, through Charles Ryder’s eyes. So you see a little bit more of Julia. But she remains an enigma throughout the book. And I felt that the script, by putting her into Venice, you can see a slightly freer side to Julia. Which is something where her passions arise, and she’s away from Brideshead. And that, I felt, was the link between Julia’s inner world, and what the book was covering up.
PF: How intimidating was it for you to work with Emma Thompson? And she played such an intimidating character.
HA: Well, she’s the most unintimidating woman you could meet in real life, which was amazing. From day one, she dispelled any fears in us, of what we were doing, or of how we could be with her. She invited everyone round to Sunday lunch at her house, and she organized trips to the Brompton Oratory Church so we could experience a Latin Mass. And she very much took on the matriarchal role. And also, the kind of naughty auntie role. We had a lot of fun partying with her. And those things meant by the time that we got on set, it was—everything was broken anyway, so we were able to have a lot of fun with her. And she’s so different from the character, to the point where she—on a cut, she would laugh nervously at her own disbelief at how cruel she had been in that take, and how cruel Lady Marchmain was, and trying to bring that character to life. And it’s testimony to her talent, that she was able to step into it, and give such an extraordinary, cold performance.
PF: It’s a very British piece, and it is very much a comment on the British power system, which was very prevalent at that particular time.
PF: How do you think American audiences will react to some of the film’s very wry, and very specific British tone?
HA: Well, as far as I’m aware, the Americans love that. They find it very interesting, in our British history. That felt—I mean, I’m half-American, so I’ve also spent quite a bit of time here. And that’s always seemed to me something that the Americans love. They love a good Brit period piece. And so I felt that the response independently of the series was that they were very excited about Brideshead, because it’s very decadent. And also, it’s a world that doesn’t exist as much—you know, doesn’t really exist any more at all. And the Americans have always been very welcoming to that kind of world. Because it’s also—it’s also a very romantic idea, the class system, for them. Because, of course, Americans don’t have it the way that we still do.
PF: Why did you want to be an actress, Hayley? What was it in you that drew you to this profession?
HA: Ooh, that’s a good question. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t thinking about it, or I don’t remember a time when I thought I wouldn’t be doing it. And so when I was younger, all my focus and my thoughts and energy went into watching great stories being told, either live or on film. And I think it is in—you know, Julia has Catholicism. I have storytelling. That’s my church. That’s what I feel is the greatest place to inhabit, and a great privilege to be a part of.
PF: Unlike American actors, who feel it’s more important to work in film before they do anything else, to you it’s obviously more important to work in the theatre. Is it important for you to continue doing that, despite your sudden escalation into the film world?
HA: Yes. Well, I’m just—earlier this month, I just finished a six-month stint at the National Theatre doing a George Bernard Shaw play.
PF: Which one?
HA: It was Major Barbara, and I was doing Major Barbara, with Simon Russell Beale. And so I had done two films back to back, Brideshead and then The Duchess, and then I went into six months of theatre. And it’s not so much a—it’s not a choice one makes because they’re hoping it’s gonna do good things for their career. It’s just what—the work that’s offered to me, and the best work that I think is around, and something that is very challenging. And theatre is always, to me, incredibly difficult and challenging. And it’s like going back to the foundation.
PF: The Duchess is a pretty big film. Can you talk a little bit about the experience working on that, and the character of Bess, that you play in that?
HA: Yes. Well, it was very insightful. Because—you know, obviously Keira’s been doing this for about 10 years now, I think. And she has such knowledge about the industry. And she’s had to grow up and learn in front of everyone, which has been incredibly tough. But she’s triumphing now, and she’s come out the other side. And she’s an acclaimed actress. And I think that was—it was fascinating to be around her, and to watch her work ethic, and how professional she is. We spent a bit of time living together at a country house, and had hot country dinners together. And we were able to just get on as two young girls in their early 20s, and just hang out. And that was great, because that helped relieve some of the tension that was going on within the story, of what we were doing. Because I play Bess, who is her best friend and her confidante, but also ends up becoming the mistress of her husband, the Duke.
PF: How lovely for you.
HA: Really nice. So I get fantastic scenes with Ralph and Keira, which is an amazing—very different from my drama school days. But then also the other aspect of it, is that she’s mediated between them. She understands Georgiana and the Duke in a way that they don’t understand each other. And Bess Foster, who was a real person, was, I think, the main reason why they were able to have a successful marriage. And she was accepted by them both, and they lived as a ménage a trois. And when Georgiana died, she asked that Bess become the next Duchess of Devonshire. So they had this amazing understanding that takes a lot of sacrificial love in order to deal with, and to get over feelings of jealousy and envy. And the film explores that a little bit, and then also—it’s a very, very beautiful film, and is a true story, as I said, and explores what you would do for your children, and having to give up things for your children. Which Georgiana experiences, but also Bess. The Duke’s the only person that could actually give Bess custody over her kids, because he has power. And that’s also one of the reasons why she becomes his lover.
PF: It’s been announced that the movie is going to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
HA: That’s correct.
PF: Are you planning on attending?
HA: I know I’m going to be in Namibia.
PF: Oh my God, it’s a tough life. [laughs] Doing—
HA: It’s The Prisoner television series with Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel.
PF: Okay. Now, is this based on the original?
HA: Yes. It’s a weird sci-fi—half of it will be based in New York, though, and the other half in this village.
PF: Is it a series, or a miniseries?
HA: It’s a six-parter, so I don’t know what they’ll be doing afterwards. Because I didn’t know how the original works. But—yeah. It’s six parts, with ITV, but I think also America. It’s being sold to a channel.
PF: And whom do you play in it?
HA: I play a girl called Lucy, who is the prisoner’s kind of love interest, but you realize very quickly that nothing is what it seems, and she’s actually working for a corporation that is responsible for this so-called village, where people are leaving their names and identity, and being called by their numbers. And then you also see Lucy in the village, and she’s someone with a number this time, and she’s also blind. And it’s a bit of a mystery as to who she is. It’s ambiguous. But it makes for exciting television.
PF: Do you know what you’re going to do after that, yet?
HA: I don’t. There have been a few projects and scripts that have come by and come my way, but I kind of want to give it some time, and see what the next step would be, just to take things very slowly.
PF: Do you want to move here, or do you want to try and work here?
HA: I would work wherever the project is that I feel very drawn to. I love the States, because obviously my father’s American. So I spend a lot of time here anyway. So it wouldn’t be a big move for me to come over here. But I wouldn’t want to just base myself in L.A. and see what happens. I’d rather come here for a specific project.
PF: So you have dual citizenship, I take it?
HA: Yes, I do.
PF: Well, that could come in very handy.
HA: Yes! [laughs]
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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