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Hayley Atwell: 'Unless we are perfect, women are seen as divas or bitches'

Published 26/10/2016

Hayley Atwell
Hayley Atwell
Legal matters: Hayley Atwell as Hayes Morrison and Eddie Cahill as Conner Wallace in Conviction
Hayley in a scene from the hit show

Hayley Atwell’s latest role sees her play a US President’s daughter with a finger hovering over the self-destruct button. She talks to Jeananne Craig about politics, partying and the pressure that women are facing in the modern world.

Until recently, a TV drama about the cocaine-snorting daughter of a former US President who is blackmailed into taking a top legal job might have sounded a bit far-fetched.

But with the current battle for the White House throwing up ever more jaw-dropping headlines about massive border walls and 'locker room' obscenities, the truth, as Conviction star Hayley Atwell notes, seems "stranger than fiction".

"Being half-American and half-English, I'm feeling very affected by Brexit and very affected by the US election at the moment," says the actress, who was born in London to an American dad and a mum from the UK.

She thinks the two things have exposed "this dark underbelly", adding: "Now it seems that xenophobia has been given a voice because of Brexit. And the same thing with the US election, now we're going, 'Are we saying that it's okay to treat and speak of women in this way, and have someone potentially leading a nation based on those beliefs about women?'

"And although I'm completely gobsmacked and shocked that that's even something we have to talk about, the fact is, we do."

The issues tackled in Conviction - in which Atwell's character Hayes Morrison, who also happens to be a brilliant lawyer, must head up a new Conviction Integrity Unit to avoid jail time for drugs possession - are just as topical.

There are episodes involving 'slut shaming', the bombing of a mosque, and the Black Lives Matter movement, as Hayes and her team go through old cases to ensure the right person was locked up.

"We've got a legal team aiding us in the creation of these cases with each episode, to pull specific things that have happened in recent years that the audience will identify with," says the star, who has also appeared in 2008 costume drama The Duchess and 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger, plus her own spin-off TV show, Agent Carter.

Atwell describes Hayes as "a bit of a Tasmanian devil", with an impressive back-catalogue of mischief (she's bedded a waiter at a political fundraiser, been papped on a nude beach, and was put on probation by the university she taught at for sleeping with students).

"She's a brilliant lawyer and we see her solving these cases really, at times, effortlessly, because it comes naturally to her. What doesn't come naturally is to be stable in her personal life."

With her former First Lady mother running for a seat in the Senate, and old flame Conner Wallace (Eddie Cahill) serving as New York County's District Attorney, it's hard for Hayes to know who she can trust. And once again, she turns to self-medicating and making bad choices.

Can 34-year-old Atwell relate to her character's rebellious streak? "I didn't really have anything to rebel against growing up," she says.

"I didn't come from privilege, but I certainly had it lucky in the sense that I went to a girls' school that really tried hard to empower women, and I grew up in a family where my gender didn't really define me.

"It wasn't really until I started working for myself, being independent and having more of an awareness of what was going on globally, politically and within current affairs, that I saw the issues at hand and start to feel truly affected by them."

One such issue, which Atwell speaks passionately about, is the pressure society places on women, Hayes included, "where unless we are perfect, have it all, look great while doing it and are also really likeable, we're seen as complainers or bitches or divas".

The eloquent actress, who graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2005 and landed her first film role in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream in 2007, says things are changing in her industry, but admits she is "one of the lucky ones".

"I'm hugely at an advantage because of the way my face looks and the way I speak, and the way certain people believed in me and gave me opportunities, and I worked hard to create my own luck. That's not the case for most women.

"I know we've gone into a deeper conversation here than just an actress in a show, but that's what I feel, as I've got older, is my responsibility," she adds.

"If I am going to be in a show, if I am going to be in the public eye and therefore be influencing what younger women watch, then I've got to engage in the bigger conversation."

Big subjects aside, Atwell ensures she and her Conviction co-stars enjoy themselves as much as possible on set (although it sounds much too tame to tempt Hayes).

"We play Bananagrams, which is fun but it also keeps your brain working. When you're working 12, 13, and in my case sometimes 16-hour days, it can be very easy during breaks to doze off; we keep each other going with practical jokes," she reveals, smiling.

"And we have sing-offs; we did a Nineties R'n'B homage recently to [pop group] En Vogue, much to the enjoyment and bewilderment of the crew.

"We do dinners and I foster dogs, so I bring foster dogs on set. I've got a little guy called Howard from North Carolina, he's a Chihuahua Dachshund mix, who's hilarious.

"The morale needs to be kept up when you're working such intense hours," says Atwell.

"Having fun is actually not to be undermined."

  • Conviction starts on Sky Living on Wednesday, November 2 at 9pm.

Belfast Telegraph

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