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Hayley Atwell:'I don't want to be in a costume that wears me, I want to veg out'

Hayley Atwell plays Margaret Schlegel in BBC One's new adaptation of Howards End. She talks corsets with Georgia Humphreys


Hayley Atwell in Howards End

Hayley Atwell in Howards End

Hayley Atwell with co-star Matthew Macfadyen

Hayley Atwell with co-star Matthew Macfadyen

Hayley Atwell in Howards End

It's been nearly 25 years since Emma Thompson won an Oscar for the role of Margaret Schlegel in film Howards End. And now it's Hayley Atwell's turn to take on the pioneering character in a new, four-part BBC mini-series.

EM Forster's 1910 novel follows three families in its exploration of turn-of-the-century England: the intellectual and idealistic Schlegels, the wealthy business-focused Wilcoxes and the working-class Basts.

But any pressure Atwell felt about starring in the TV adaptation of such a beloved story was quashed when the 35-year-old actress spoke to Thompson ahead of filming.

"She (Thompson) played my mum years ago and she is a mentor and a friend," reveals Atwell (the pair worked together on the 2008 adaptation of Brideshead Revisited). "And she said, 'Don't watch the film. You are she and she is you; never do that, that's just rule number one'."

The period drama is certainly a change in direction for London-born Atwell, whose career has undeniably been shaped by action-adventure roles across the pond.

After first portraying Marvel's Agent Peggy Carter in 2011 film Captain America: The First Avenger, cinematic successes such as Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man followed.

With two seasons of leading the cast in Marvel TV series Agent Carter on ABC also under her belt, Atwell is known by fans the world over for her ass-kicking role.

But she seems to have settled in just fine to the rather juxtaposed, corset-wearing world of Howards End.

"One of the things Hettie (Macdonald, Howards End director) was saying at the beginning, which has been really helpful, is we don't want to be in costumes that wear us," discloses Atwell while on set in Harrow in London, where they're filming an important concert scene.

"We want to feel we're wearing the costumes, we're inhabiting them - as these women did every day for their whole lives.

"When you wear a corset, it's learning how to be comfortable in it, to relax in it, to veg out in it, finding movement and finding gestures that make it look like she (Margaret) is a normal functioning human being and not a mannered BBC period drama actor.

"That was something we wanted to get away from and I think the costumes have helped me do that."

Hang on a minute; how does anyone manage to "veg out" in a corset?

"Kind of like this," Atwell responds animatedly, proceeding to try and slouch right down in her chair, her arms outstretched above her.

"I can't do it in what I'm wearing now, but I've done a scene with my hands behind my head and kicking my heels off and just stretching out, limbering up, rather than every scene is at a dinner like this, and it's incredibly uptight and very proper."

For Atwell, bringing the character of Margaret - nicknamed "Meg" and described as being part of both the intelligentsia and the Bohemian scene - to life for a new generation of viewers is a joy.

"What I like is you see Meg in social settings that are new to her and she is very much more alert to the proper etiquette, and you see her at home and she's just got a big shawl wrapped around her and she's biting her nails, or she's scratching the back of her head," she elaborates.

"It sounds so small, but those little things make her more human and make her come alive to a modern-day audience."

And despite the fact it was written over 100 years ago, Atwell has no qualms the subjects explored are still appropriate.

"I think that's what makes certain books be able to transcend time, those classic stories deal with universal themes that are very much to do with human nature, relationships, connecting to each other, understanding our place in the world, we navigate our way through searching for our own identity, and on the backdrop of lots of social change that's happening.

"And I think that's something that's resonant now."

And, Atwell says, it all links to a line that, for EM Forster, was the message of the book - "only connect".

"She (Margaret) is a modern woman ahead of her time in the sense that she transcends social limitations that restrict the average woman, of someone in her position, and that she wants to connect the Leonard Basts of the world to the Wilcoxes of the world; the business capitalists and self-made men to the lower middle class, who are desperate to get themselves out of this abyss and despair and better themselves."

The actress continues: "And she's existing in the middle of all of it, very, very self-aware, very self-possessed and wants to stop going to her charity events with other 'ladies who lunch' and talk about world issues, and actually do something about it.

"So she's quite a pioneer in a way, and she's deeply eccentric. And I love that."

And the brains behind the novel could be considered a man ahead of his time, too, what with the focus of the story being Margaret and her equally independent and unconventional younger sister Helen (played by Philippa Coulthard in the BBC series).

Of EM Forster's writing, Atwell adds proudly: "I consider him one of literature's first proper feminists, how complex these women are and rational, logical, as well as passionate and creative.

"I think he must have been quite an amazing human being to have come up with these characters."

Hear, hear.

  • Howards End, BBC One, tomorrow, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph