In "Captain America: The First Avenger" (out on DVD and Blu-ray October 25th), Hayley Atwell plays Peggy Carter, a high-ranking, no-nonsense British officer working behind the scenes with the U.S. military on a project that will - if all goes well - introduce the world to the very first "super soldier." Carter and her crew not only find a capable applicant in scrawny but scrappy Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), but Carter herself finds an unlikely love interest...
We interrupted Atwell's vacation in the Scottish Highlands ("it's freezing, and I'm literally in the middle of nowhere. But it's the most beautiful place. They filmed 'Harry Potter' here.") to talk about "Captain America's" boy's club set, how Peggy is unique among superhero girlfriends, and her, frankly, rather sad idea for an "Avengers" cameo.
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When you were approached about "Captain America," how did you find your own take on the character of Peggy Carter?
The first time that I spoke to the director about it, this was before actually an audition, it was just a general meeting with Joe [Johnston]. He wanted to see kind of the person that I was, and at that moment we hadn't been able to read the script. It was very secretive. So Joe and I were discussing what it is to be a modern day heroine, what's exciting, what do audiences want to see now - and he was really keen to have a strong woman, a love interest that was equal, [a relationship] that was based on two equals coming together and complementing each other, as opposed to having the guy needing to save the girl. And I'm kind of like that anyway, I feel like I'm a modern day woman and I'm very independent and I'm quite strong. Even if I'm in the company of all men, I can adapt very quickly. I don't feel like I'm too much of a girly-girl, or too much of a tomboy, either way. And that's what he wanted with Peggy as well. Obviously she's had to go through a lot of difficult prejudices and struggles to get where she is, given the nature of how she looks especially at that time. And she's had to kind of prove herself a little bit harder - and I found that really inspiring.
Being comfortable around all guys probably helped on the "Cap" set…
The nature of these sets, there's so much going on, with a movie of a scale that's that big, and you're really working with people that are top of their field in the department that they work in - so it's a lot of hard work. People are working really hard to make a great movie that is so much fun to watch but also has a great message and a great story. That in itself is just a great atmosphere to be a part of, because that is inspiring. But in terms of the social aspect, I like the company of guys and I can morph quite easily into being one of the guys. But then, any time I needed a little femininity and little maternal love, I'd go and sit in the make-up department and the hair department and chat with the girls and have endless cups of tea and eat biscuits and talk about boys and magazines. [laughs] It was a lovely break from all the testosterone. I think I balanced it out pretty well by the end.
I imagine it must have be exacerbated by the fact that you have a bunch of guys essentially playing army, which is the quintessential boy activity…
Yeah! It was fun. Every time, I'd go, "OK, I'm having a lot of fun, but I actually feel like I'm growing a penis. I'm so male right now. I need to go and sit with some women." [laughs] It's quite a crass thing to say, but I do feel like that sometimes, I forget that I'm a girl sometimes. I like to just hang out with the guys and be one of them. It's a lot of fun. There's a lot of goofing around to do. Yeah…but I made sure I didn't lose all sense of feminine identity.
Peggy is in a military uniform for most of the movie, except for one scene where she shows up in a red gown. Did you push for that?
It was actually the idea of Anna Sheppard, the costume designer - the brilliant costume designer, she won an Oscar for "Schindler's List," she'd done "Inglourious Basterds," so she was very, very well known for that period. And she just kept coming up, going, "I'm trying to convince Joe" - because it wasn't written into the script - "that we should not have normal, dress-down clothes, let's give her something that gets a glimpse of what Peggy must be like when she's out on a date." And it's such a beautiful vision of red, so different from all the greens that you see her wearing. It just gives her a little bit more sexiness and sassiness, but also makes it kind of sad, thinking, "Oh my god, they never had the chance to go on that date, but look at what she probably would have looked like had she gone on a date with him and how wonderful that would have been for them both." So it really was the push and the inspiration of Anna. Then we spent a couple of weeks trying on different shades of red, different cuts of the dress, how short do we have it, in keeping with the period, how can we cheat a little bit, try and make it sexier…so we just played with it. And I was so spoiled because she cut it to my body, it was literally like I was wearing a glove. It was perfect. It means High Street shopping is impossible for me now. [laughs] I know how good Anna is. I wish I could employ her all year round to make my clothes.
There has been talk of a sequel possibly returning to the World War II setting. If so, are there any specific things you'd like to explore with Peggy?
Oh my goodness, yeah. I would love the idea that Peggy has gotten hold of some blue serum herself and actually becomes a proper superhero. [laughs] It would be interesting to see what happens - because, you know, the blue serum accentuates what is within you, so good becomes great and bad becomes evil, and it would be awesome if Peggy actually was really evil! Some kick-ass super anti-heroine. That would just be amazing. She-Ra was just my dream growing up. She-Ra or Wonder Woman, those kinds of people. But an evil version of that would just be amazing. I hope Peggy gets her own spin-off, at least!
Well, Chris Evans jumped Marvel characters - he started out as the Human Torch in the "Fantastic Four" movies before becoming Captain America. Maybe you could, too.
I'd be well up for that! Bring it on! I would love it. Oh my goodness. I'd just relish in it. I'm hoping these interviews will help start the campaign to get me one!
Any chance Peggy could show up in some form in the "Avengers" movie?
I believe "The Avengers" takes place in modern day or something, it's certainly not the 1940s - which means that, my god, if [Steve Rogers] actually went to meet Peggy she'd be an old woman in an old folk's home! Which would be quite a sweet reunion, but not very sexy. [laughs] And I'd probably need about eight hours of prosthetic make-up every day while I did it.
She could still be wearing the dress.
[Laughs] Could you imagine? Still wearing the dress? Imagine if Peggy sat there in that pub on that Saturday night in the Stork Club or wherever it is she says she's going to meet him, and she's there 60 years later, still in the dress, teeth falling out…[laughs]
["Avengers" director] Joss Whedon might go for it....
You never know! It's like something out of, I don't know, a Dickens novel or something. Like a Miss Havisham or something. Poor Peggy never quite recovered from losing her first love. That's quite sad, actually!
"Captain America: The First Avenger" arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and combo pack October 25th.