Hayley Atwell discusses ‘Agent Carter,’ modern sexism, and Marvel secrets

donna-dickens
Deputy Entertainment Editor
02.09.15

ABC

Has any secondary Marvel Cinematic Universe character been as welcomed into the fold as Peggy Carter? Well, Phil Coulson. Which explains why both of them have gotten a chance to helm their own shows on ABC. 

“Agent Carter” has been a surprisingly biting deconstruction of living as a woman in a man”s world, whether in 1946 or 2015. HitFix sat down to talk with star Hayley Atwell about Peggy”s determination to stand on her own merit, what kind of childhood might have led to that level of bull-headed self-confidence, and how far we've come towards equality (but not nearly far enough).

HITFIX: Before we get started, I just have to say…I follow you on Twitter and you have been killing it!

Hayley Atwell: I have great fun on Twitter, so I”m very happy that I have followers!

When you were filming “Agent Carter” and taking all those photos, did you think, “I am going to be a marketing machineI” Or as the show came on, did you remember you had lot of funny pictures worth sharing?

Atwell: It was definitely the latter. I wish I was calculating and manipulative enough to think of forwarding my profile by putting things on Twitter! But basically I”m a big old goofball and I like playing pranks and being really silly.  And I just thought we were having so much fun backstage it would be a crime not to share it with people who were interested in the show. 

Was everyone cool with you sharing their goofy behind-the-scenes moments?

Atwell: James D”Arcy in particular doesn”t use social media. He”s really kind of timid about that whole thing and I had to kind of go “Can I post it? Can I post it? It makes you look cool. It makes you look silly. It makes you look fun.” He was like “Oh, okay. If you insist, that will be fine.”  So we”d been having a blast and I just felt everyone should see it because it so caught the energy of the show. That was very important to show people.


Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Do you ever get on Tumblr? I only bring it up because after the episode with the pen selfie, your photo where you”ve got lipstick all over Howard Stark”s face and you”re making a goofy face, the fandom on Tumblr decided that is the photo from the pen selfie… even though it”s clearly not.  But it has become unofficially the photo.

Atwell: Yes, I go on Tumblr for inspiration for when I do stage parts because they”ve got great stuff on there. Wait, are you basically saying that Howard Stark invented the selfie?

Yep.

Atwell: Amazing. Excellent. I love it.

“You”ve been playing Peggy for years now. When she was first in “Captain America,” she really had to be a hard ass. Is it nice to be able to explore Peggy as a multifaceted person and not just the girl that will shoot at Steve Rogers because she caught him kissing Margaery Tyrell?

Atwell: Yes. It”s been a dream come true to have that because I never anticipated that film would do as well as it did because I didn”t really know much about the Marvel universe. So, you know, I approached it like I would any job. You show up on time. You know your lines and you have certain choices you make about the character and you get on with it. Then you go home and you go back to your normal life. So when I finally did the “Captain America” premiere, I remember being on the red carpet in L.A. and literally planning my trip home to do a play in London, having no idea with how successful Peggy would be.  

Then Louis D”Esposito, the president of Marvel, called me and said,”How would you feel about doing a series?” I jumped at the chance. One of the reasons being I felt the writers and producers really wanted to have a collaborative relationship with me. They wanted to work with me about how to do this series. To ask “What is it about Peggy that you think people want to see and what is it you want to kind of explore?”  We”ve seen her one of the guys and we”ve seen her being the love interest of Captain America. I wanted to see her vulnerability and her humor. The things that make her a bit more relatable and human. Let”s see her at home. Let”s see her with relationships with other women. Let”s see her be frustrated, be in mourning.


Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Do you think part of the reason Peggy has been so successful with fans, especially with fangirls, is because there are so few fully realized female characters on TV right now?

Atwell: I think it”s a timing thing. I mean we”ve had “Buffy” and we”ve had “Alias.” A lot of fantastic television shows that came out at the perfect time when there was a slot and an opening for that to happen. I think the same happened to Peggy. I think people have responded to that energy; we need that kind of personality out there.  And what”s been lovely is on Twitter I”ve had lots of parents saying how it”s so great their sons and daughters can see a female-led show with a woman as capable as a man, without her trying to make any kind of serious political statement. We”re acknowledging [Peggy”s gender] and making it the background with a great amount of attention. But at the same time we”re sending her on her own missions and letting her have personal struggles that are relevant to both men and women, about grief and loss and the cost of being a double spy and a super spy.

Do you feel like sexism is the real villain of “Agent Carter”?  Is it something the show is weaving in on purpose or is it just an everyday reality of 1946 for her?

Atwell: I think it”s a bit of both. It”s funny, this whole thing of sexism, because it was more prominent in the 40s. It was more on the surface. So now looking back on it we can identify moments of misogyny or sexism. We can see them happening. Nowadays it”s a lot more subtle like, if a woman is in a high position, she finds herself being called a bitch or accused of being difficult. I think it”s much harder these days to identify moments of sexism, because they just have very sophisticated ways of hiding themselves. 

But I think it”s true of Peggy that yes, it”s very much of its time and sexism is a background of tension, which is great. It doesn”t mean that she”s not out there trying to fight the bad guys. It just happens that some of the bad guys are in her office and should be on her side. So she just has that many more battles to deal with, which I think in terms of drama are far more interesting.

I think prejudice is always going be there. We just have to trump it.  We just have to keep on exposing it and trumping it and revealing it and naming it and making it clear and bringing it out into the light, out into the open to see it for what it really is. And then it really, truly has no power.  

…that got really deep.

Yeah, but in a good way! Talking about the different types of of sexism, do you think the overt jerks – like Agent Thompson telling Peggy men will never see her as an equal – hurt less than the subtle sexism of Howard Stark seeing Peggy as a person but still deceiving her because of her possible emotional reactions? It seems easier for Peggy to deal with Agent Thompson being a jerk than for Jarvis and Howard to turn on her a little bit.

Atwell: A hundred percent, because it”s the ultimate form of betrayal I think. When you feel known and seen fully by someone and then to discover that despite feeling you are respected ultimately, they still choose to betray you? It”s like she says in one episode, it”s much easier to trust people who don”t respect her because at least when they ask for something they mean it. At least Agent Thompson”s sexism is clear. It”s on the surface.

If someone comes up and attacks you, you know who your enemy is. But if they pretend to be a friend and then backstab you? That's much more affecting because you”ve given them some emotional hold over yourself and let them in. It”s a lot more painful to experience that. Which is why she”s so betrayed and so hurt by what Howard does, because he uses their history together, based on the amount of love and respect they both had for Captain America. For Howard to then lie to her about having a vial of Steve”s blood, it”s the ultimate betrayal for her. 


Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment

Which is so strange, since Howard Stark has such genuine respect for Peggy. He sees her as a person, not a conquest.

Atwell: I think it”s an interesting dynamic between them because he reflects that he doesn”t treat Peggy like he treats other women. He tries to but she always kicks him down. And I don”t think she judges him. She knows who he is and what he”s about. She loves aspects of him, but disapproves of others. But ultimately she knows he”s a genius, so when she”s betrayed by him…it”s the one person in her life that she had left and he does that. It”s a real kick in the teeth for her.

Joke”s on Howard though, because now Peggy has the vial of blood inside her apartment walls. Speaking of, were you at all surprised to discover that in the 1940s, a woman”s eligibility for an apartment  could depend on whether or not she was virtuous? Talk about some internalized misogyny right there.

Atwell: You”ve mentioned a great thing because something happened to me recently where someone said to me – someone asked me how many relationships I”d been in. I told them and because it was [a low number], they said “Oh my God, you”re perfect marriage material! I can”t wait to introduce you to my mother.” I just remember thinking “Wow.” I”ve also been in relationships where they”ve had a real issue with me having had a past because I”m a woman. And I think that”s a real eye opener. So yes, of course we”ve moved forward but we still don”t really have equality. They still find ways to undermine you. Sexism and misogyny is just much more kind of…

Insidious?

Atwell: Yes. It is really frustrating. Like, I don”t think I”ve ever been a victim of direct sexism but I am a victim of constant cryptic sexism in some shape or form.


Image Credit: Marvel Entertainment

They actually have a word for it or a phrase for it. It”s called “background radiation.” It affects your life every day but you”re so used to it that you don”t see it or acknowledge it. It”s just there. 

But! On the opposite side of that, we”re a few episodes in and clearly Jarvis is very in love with his wife and they have more equality in a marriage than you would expect from the 1940s. He does dishes. He”s very much an equal partner in domestic stuff in the house. But we haven”t seen Anna yet. Is there some sort of secret reason why she”s off-screen or is this kind of a reverse “Columbo” scenario where it”s just a running gag that we”ll never see Mrs. Jarvis on screen?

Atwell: It makes you think. Marvel likes to keep you guessing, so I think they”re creating space at some point for Anna. They will want to define who she is and what the context is before they introduce her. So it gives them a bit more breathing space. It”s far more interesting to have her as an enigmatic character, but also because of what we”ve discovered. We know he”s a cook. He makes a soufflé and he watches Benny Goodman with her and he is a good husband. We already know from one of the episodes that he rescued her. Well, it was actually Howard that rescued her.

The fans did notice that Howard picked Anna up from Budapest and Marvel already has a history of mysterious things happening in Budapest, what with Black Widow and Hawkeye. Interesting…

Atwell: Yes, indeed. It”s very exciting.

One last question. Sharon Carter is Peggy”s niece, so somewhere out there Peggy has a brother. Will we ever get to see who”s Sharon”s parents are?

Atwell: Well, this is one thing which I kind of have pitched to Marvel as a great opportunity to explore, but not in the first season. Because with who Peggy is, given the time period and her skill set, she must have had a very specific and interesting past. It”s very rich with the possibility of what her life could have been and where she came from. How do we explain how extraordinary she is in many ways and what makes her stand out? I mean, I do my own kind of character study of Peggy and I think that she probably comes from some very interesting male-dominated backgrounds where the men in her life saw her as equals. Which is why she doesn”t feel that threatened. She knows her place in the world and she knows her skill set based on the background she”s had. So that”s something of a personal decision I”ve made.

My dad always told me that I was really, really smart. He told me I was really smart more than he told me that I was beautiful and I think that”s had a huge impact on my life. I imagine that Peggy probably would have had a similar kind of thing – someone in her life as a child that told her she was capable and that”s what makes her believe in herself.

ABC's “Agent Carter” is ALL-NEW on February 10, at 9/8c!

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Mother. Wife. Geek. Writer. Succinct. Donna Dickens has been writing for the Internet for almost a decade. She has a particular love of Star Wars, Sailor Moon, and the dark lord Cthulhu. Her favorite color is Octarine.

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