Hayley Atwell Talks About Leading a Double Life in "Agent Carter"

Peggy Carter is the character who keeps coming back. Hayley Atwell first portrayed the tough as nails Carter in "Captain America: The First Avenger." Both the actress and the character made an impression. Since the 2011 film, Atwell has reprised the role in a Marvel One-Shot released on the "Iron Man 3" Blu-ray, two episodes of "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Each experience with Peggy Carter has left fans wanting more, and happily, she's now getting the spotlight in "Marvel's Agent Carter."

Hayley Atwell Packs Heat In First "Agent Carter" Clip

The newest comic book-based series will air in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s" time slot while the sophomore Marvel TV series is on break. "Agent Carter" will unfold over eight episodes and takes place after "The First Avenger" and before the "Agent Carter" one-shot. Carter is still recovering from the loss of Steve Rogers, and she's trying to find her place in a world that for the most part, only values her skills as a typist and pourer of coffee. She's able to maintain appearances at her Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R) day job while working on the side to help Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper). Stark's gotten himself in trouble with the government and turns to Carter for assistance; he leaves his butler Jarvis (James D'Arcy) at her disposal.

CBR News spoke with Atwell about Carter's skills, the hardships of being a secret agent, and the period setting of the series.

CBR News: Talk a little bit about where Agent Carter is right now as far as her state of mind and her career as the ABC series begins.

Hayley Atwell: She's absolutely one hundred percent grieving Steve Rogers' death. It's only been a year, and she's found herself back in the U.S. after having fought in the war. She is now answering telephones, making lunch, and filing reports -- and she is really pissed about that. And there's nothing that she can do about it because if she fights that -- if she kind of fights her corner too aggressively -- she could lose a job. So she's having to navigate herself in a male-dominated world and find her place in it. She's trying to get back to where she was with the level of respect that Cap gave her. But, Peggy's one of these people who gets the job done. She is a fighter, and she is a survivor.

She does have to put up with a fair amount of sexism just to do her job.

Yes, completely. And I think she can use her wits to outwit the boys. She can use her sexuality when she needs to. She can be passive so she can be practically invisible in a room in order to get information. She doesn't really care what the guys think of her as long as it doesn't get in the way of the job that she's doing.

That job is putting her in a position where she's losing people that are important to her, people that just come into her life. How does that affect her?

I think there's an emotional and psychological cost to someone who is as amazingly strong as Peggy. One [cost] is deep isolation and sadness that she can't be close to people because she puts their lives in danger. We see that. We see her private moments and intimate moments where she just can't cope anymore. She's completely overwhelmed and she's exhausted, and that's very relatable.

We have this amazing facade in our culture and our society today which suggests that women can have it all. And, yes, we can more than we've ever been able to before. We still have a long way to go. But, there is another deeper, soulful kind of exhaustion that women who I've encountered who are in high positions of power where they just get overwhelmed sometimes -- they don't know how to express that, and they have to do it in secret. And I think Peggy's one of those women, and that's what makes her a modern day character and a woman ahead of her time.

That makes her human, which we need to see as an audience.

Yes. Exactly. You need to see her being relatable and someone that has many facets to her character. We also see her flaws. We see where she loses her shit. We see where she gets upset. We see when she emotionally breaks in a moment when she shouldn't, and we see the mistakes that she makes. And that, for me, makes her even more lovable.

"Marvel's Agent Carter" Goes On Assignment in New Photos

In the pilot, Peggy's primary focus is helping Howard Stark. Will we see Peggy deal with other threats not related to Stark's problems?

Absolutely. He sets in motion one mission which we think is going in one direction -- that's what's very exciting. Just when you think you know what this season is about and the direction it's going to go in, it goes somewhere else. This is not a formulaic show whereby we solve a case a week. It has a very strong arc. It has its climaxes, and it details what she goes through.

This is the third time you've played Peggy in different time periods. What's different about this performance and where she is?

It's not so much about changing as it is developing and deepening who she is. The two important things are showing her vulnerability and showing her flaws -- where she messes up and we see that she's not perfect. That's something that I love to see when I watch movies and stories. I want to see someone who isn't just perfect, doesn't have a perfect life, doesn't always know the right thing to say, but is struggling. That's a very strong part of the human condition and very important to show in film. So, I would say her vulnerability is the main thing.

One aspect that sets the series apart is the period setting. Movies from the '40s have a specific clip and pace. What kind of research did you do on that time period?

I read a series of books about women's lives in the 1940s and looked at lots of images from the time. Visually speaking, women were incredibly elegant and beautifully put-together so they never sacrificed their femininity for the job that they did. So she [Peggy] has her signature red nails and her red lipstick. We see her getting ready for work every morning and putting herself together and then embracing the world and the culture and the society that she finds herself in. She embraces aspects of it rather than fight back. So it was partly doing that.

And I watched lots of old movies that star the great Hollywood classics like Rita Hayworth and Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall. These are very strong women, and they were very intelligent women -- there was a dignity and an integrity and spirit. They knew what they wanted, but they found themselves in a different time where they couldn't get what they wanted because of the constrictions that society put on them, yet they still fought. So, there's a fighting spirit in her; I was looking at any films that depicted that kind of spirit.

Because there was a presence of glamor, there are going to be times when Peggy's fighting in heels. What was the physical training like to prepare for this role?

I had my physical training 10 years ago when I was at drama school. There was a lot of unarmed combat, and there was a lot of dance. It's very much about getting into your body and having flexibility. I did a mixture of training from doing a lot of running to doing a lot of yoga to stretch myself out, to doing a little bit of interval training. And then it's like learning a dance, and I have that in me anyway, in my muscle memory. I was learning these fight sequences in a way that made them look authentic but also that was safe. Well, they weren't always safe because I ended up hitting guys in the balls when I really shouldn't have and punching them in the face by accident.

We saw some hints to characters in the Marvel universe in the first episode. Can you hint at how Agent Carter ties into "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." or the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe?

It stands alone. It's very different from "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." and the Peggy that you see in our series is very different from the cameo performances that I've had in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." It's really its own piece, but yet, obviously, because it's Marvel, it's interlinked with lots of the different worlds -- "Captain America" and "Ant-Man."

The two-hour premiere of "Marvel's Agent Carter" airs Tuesday, January 6 at 8:00pm ET/PT on ABC.

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