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Hayley Atwell interview for Black Mirror

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Hayley Atwell has spent much of her career in period costume - from the medieval Pillars of the Earth, to the 18th Century in The Duchess, and on to the early 20th Century for Brideshead Revisited and Captain America. But her latest role offers her the chance to play a character rooted in our future rather than our past, in the return of Channel 4's award-winning drama Black Mirror. Here, she discusses her life and career, and her enthusiasm for her new project.

You're named after Hayley Mills. Why?

My mum wasn't at all a showbiz mum, and she wasn't an actress, and she didn't name me after her in the hope that I would one day be an actress myself. It wasn't anything like that. It was simply that my mum was a huge fan of hers as a kid, and loved all of her films. So when she was pregnant with me that was the one name that was in my mum's head the whole time.

Have you subsequently ever met her?

I have. When I was 8, my mum took me to see Fallen Angels that she was doing with her sister Juliette in Woking or Dorking or something. My mum would often encourage me to go and thank the performers afterwards, because she thought it was such a noble thing to be onstage every night performing. So she took me backstage, and finally Hayley came out, and my mum told her I was named after her. And I remember her throwing her head back, with this big, blonde mane, in absolute delight. She was very moved that someone would do that.

Theatre clearly played a major part in your upbringing. What particularly stood out for you?

Off the top of my head, there was Cloudstreet at The National, about 12 years ago. There was Eve Best's Hedda Gabler, and Maggie Smith's Hedda Gabler, actually. The Theatre Museum have this archive of material that they've recorded over the last 50 years, and you can go and put on headphones and watch these amazing theatrical performances from over the years that they've recorded. It's amazing, and it's free. You can sit there in this little booth, on your own or a group of up to five of you, and watch it. So if you think about all the plays that people didn't get to see in the last 10 or 15 years - things like Jerusalem - you can just go and watch it. Ben Wishaw's Hamlet really stood out, and there was an amazing one called Ruined at The Almeida, with Jenny Jules, which was the one I was most affected by in the last few years.

Meanwhile, your dad is a part-native American shaman living in Missouri. It seems a long-way removed from the London intellectual scene - were they very different influences on you?

I'm not sure. My dad's from Missouri but lives in California. He's studied Shamanism. My parents met in the 70s, part of that huge wave of self-help that had come over from the States. At the time, it was a very pioneering thing, and was incredibly liberating and empowering for a lot of people who were really stuck in their 9 to 5 job existence, and felt that there was really something more to their lives. So my parents' relationship was very much founded in that, and they brought me up in that environment too. I'm a product of that. I'd consider myself quite classless - I went to a mix of schools - when my parents could afford it I was at private school, and later on I went to a comprehensive primary, and then a comprehensive secondary. And my friends weren't really intellectuals.

It sounds like you had quite a peripatetic and chameleonic upbringing. Do you think that's made you a better actor?

Absolutely. I think chameleonic and peripatetic are exactly how I would describe my upbringing - although emotionally I had stability from my parents. But as an actor, I think that lifestyle has really helped me. I don't feel that my identity is too defined by what school I went to or the family I was born into - I'm more of a wanderer than that. I've always really valued variety and adventure.

A lot of parents are appalled if their children turn around and say they want to become actors. I imagine that your parents would have been more appalled if you said you wanted to become a hedge fund manager?

[Laughs] Yeah, they certainly would. I think they just wanted me to be happy. I was quite mature for my age as a young kid, so I think the decisions I was making to be an actor weren't flighty. My parents knew it wasn't because I'd seen someone on the telly in a fab dress and thought "Ooh, that's for me." From the angle that I came at it, it was obvious to my parents that I wasn't going to go off and do a reality TV show and marry a celebrity. They knew I was doing it for something more essential to who I was and what my personality was. I think if I'd become a hedge fund manager, my mum wouldn't have understood a word of what I was talking about. I think she would have felt sad that suddenly I was speaking a completely different language to her. The material world is not something that my parents value very highly.

In a relatively short space of time, you've starred with some huge names. Have you ever been star-struck?

Yeah, I have. It's more that I've ended up getting star struck as I've gone along with them - getting to know their characters a little more, I've become star-struck. People like Emma Thompson, or meeting Meryl Streep, as I did once. I also met Tom Cruise, I've done a couple of auditions with him. I remember when I first auditioned for Woody Allen, I was very nervous, but I just remember thinking "If I'm going to get through this audition, then I've got to feel in some way that I can be, if not an equal to him, then at least someone he feels he can work with." So I don't go for the kind of sycophantic behaviour that goes around in this industry. So I really battled hard not to feel too in awe of him, and his fame and his history. And it was a really good exercise in not being intimidated in an unhealthy way, and one I've been able to use since. Being star-struck in a happy way is a lovely thing and completely natural, but when it's debilitating to your work, that's when it needs to be reigned in a bit. So with Woody, I talked to him as a human being, and tried to find out a little more about him as a man and a director. And I use that every time I come across someone who I might otherwise be too intimidated by. But I get genuinely star-struck by people like Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, who are consistently polite and kind and generous with their time. Behind this extraordinary reputation and fame is a ruthless work ethic and an incredible respect for their craft and the people they work with, and a hell of a lot of gratitude for the environment that they are now in. I really hope that, with age, whatever happens in my career, I maintain a sense of perspective that still makes me be a kind person to the people around me, and to the people who have supported my work.

How was auditioning for Tom Cruise?

When I went over to audition with him, I was really struck by him as well. He turned up on time, he knew what everyone in the room did, what their jobs were, he was polite, he sat down, he'd learned the script, he put me at my ease in a matter of minutes, because he was attentive to what I said and listened to me, and made amazing eye contact. And at the end he said "This is all for you, is there anything you want to do again? Do you want to try it a different way?" And he was genuinely grateful that I'd come all the way from London to audition with him. And it went so well that he called me up again to audition for another role, and I went over, but again I wasn't quite right for it. But he said "I loved what you did, and I want to call you in for something." He was in London a couple of weeks ago, and he came up to me and was really kind and complimentary, and said he'd really like to work with me one day. It was a genuine pleasure to be in a room with someone who had an approach to work that he did - making sure that everyone around them feels good.

Your new drama on Channel 4 is Black Mirror. What made you say yes to it?

I actually tried to make them say yes. I'd seen the first series; I wanted to spend a bit of time in the UK. I'd done Restless for the BBC, and had spent three months in South Africa, and I wanted to do something in the UK before heading off to LA. I love British television; I think some of the best writing is in TV at the moment - a lot better than the movie scripts I've been getting through. When I saw the first series, I thought it had a touch of the cynicism and sarcasm that Charlie Brooker is known for, and it was also inventive and tongue-in-cheek, and quite eerie, but in a truly modern way. Once I'd seen it, I called up my agent and said "Please tell them, if they're making a second series, to please consider me. I'd love to be involved." And it just goes to show what happens if you persevere. I was in South Africa, so I wasn't able to audition for it, but I spoke on Skype with the producer and the director, and when the script for this came through, I just thought both the part and the story were better than anything I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. It's brilliant, it's taken series one and gone to a whole different level of weirdness.

What can you reveal about your episode?

I can tell you that it's about a woman who goes through something quite devastating, and out of absolute desperation she discovers an app online that can simulate someone that she's lost. And she effectively starts a relationship with someone who doesn't exist, and it's actually through a piece of technology. And because the technology is so sophisticated, it's very easy for her to forget that it's actually a computer that she's talking to, and not a piece of technology. It gets eerie and very weird, and I think it raises questions about morals and ethics in technology and social media, and also about how disconnected we are from talking to each other one-on-one. This just takes that whole discussion to a very dark place. But it's essentially a love story as well.

It sounds extremely emotionally intense. Did you end up exhausted after each day of filming?

Yes. This is the first time I've ever done something where I was literally in every scene, and with the heightened emotion it was very knackering. You've got a short space of time, you've got a lot of people working on their own areas, and on ‘action' you've got to bring it. When I'm working in that environment, I have to really concentrate, so I found myself very insulated, and quite lonely, to be honest with you - in a way that the character would be as well. But I warned the director and the assistant director that if I was just sitting in a corner looking grey and exhausted, they shouldn't take it personally, or worry about it. After a while, they just learned to ignore the fact that I was having a little quiet cry. I feel a sense of responsibility playing a role like this. I've not lost anyone very close to me, but I knew that people watching would have, and I wanted to try my best to be as sensitive and observant as possible about what grief can be and what forms it can take. I looked into the seven stages of grieving, and I talked to a few people about how grief manifests itself. It was twelve days, which is not a long time to shoot a one-hour drama. So I was completely shattered by the end of it. I'm always kept going by the desire to make something that will be really good, that people will really like.

And do you think you've got that? Can you tell?

It's really hard to see something objectively, because when I watch something that I've been in, I think "Oh, I remember that day," or "Oh, we filmed that on the last day, but it's actually the first scene," or "Oh, they've cut that line." What I try to do now is watch the scene back when I'm on set, so it's not a shock to the system when I'm watching it with a load of people in the comfort of my own home.

You've done a lot of work in period costume over the years - was it quite nice to be doing something more futuristic?

Yes, it was! It was fantastic - it was the kind of thing that I'd been looking for, for a while now. I want to do more contemporary stuff. I'd like to do comedy. It's something I'm pursuing more and more now.

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