Interview: Hayley Atwell for 'Restless'

The 'Captain America' star tells Gabriel Tate about spying, stardom and getting called Amanda

Hayley Atwell takes a break after BBC1's 'Restless' Hayley Atwell takes a break after BBC1's 'Restless' - Rob Greig

Hayley Atwell has always looked like a star. Now, she’s ready to become one. When most actors are asked why a particular role appealed to them, more often than not they’ll discuss the quality of the script, or the complexity of the character, or the chance to work with a particular name. Atwell’s response, however, is both refreshingly honest and rather revealing. ‘The main thing was that I wanted to do a lead – to take on the challenge of a central character.’ After years of supporting roles, BBC1’s excellent two-part adaptation of William Boyd’s espionage novel, ‘Restless’, could be her springboard to the big time.

Her ambition may sound steely but, as chilly as the winter weather is outside, Atwell is warm and engaging company as we chat in the opulent basement of a Kensington hotel. She laughs easily throughout our time together, clowning her way confidently through a photoshoot, safe in the knowledge that the results will be dazzling. But this charm and energy is now complemented by the sort of drive and determination of someone who knows they’ve been gifted a plum role in a prestige drama – and duly delivered.

Atwell’s performance of alluring vulnerability tempered by a mounting ruthlessness is the highlight of ‘Restless’, in which she outshines a phalanx of notable co-stars. The story explores Boyd’s favoured themes of memory, ageing and coming to terms with one’s past through the life of Eva Delectorskaya (Atwell), a Russian emigrée who spied for the British as the World War II broke out. The narrative is double-stranded: Eva’s progress through the ranks of the Secret Service under the command of Lucas Romer (an Alan Whicker-ish Rufus Sewell) and into increasingly dangerous territory runs parallel to events in the 1970s, as her older self (Charlotte Rampling) reveals her hidden life and eventual betrayal to her daughter (‘Downton Abbey’s’ Michelle Dockery).

Hayley Atwell in 'Restless' Hayley Atwell in 'Restless'

Just as the role of a spy, multiple identities and all, feels like a busman’s holiday for any actor, Eva’s globetrotting life is a good fit for Atwell, whose upbringing was split between school in London with her mother and holidays with her father in America. But this slightly peripatetic existence granted her perspective and self-confidence. ‘I love my American side, they love Thanksgiving and Christmas, strong family values… They’re patriotic in a way we’re not here. I admire that. It’s lovely not to be so unbelievably self-deprecating and down on the fact we’re British.’ Even so, her wry sense of humour, frequently deployed, betrays the country of her birth. It’s certainly easy to believe her when she protests that she’d make a terrible spy – ‘I look quite suspicious and I tell people everything I’m doing… I’d be, like: “Hi I’m Hayley, I’m a spy!”.’

She smiles, recalling a real-life example of an awkward introduction. ‘Sometimes you think everyone in the world knows who you are, but I’m still struggling with my driver on my current job [ITV drama ‘Life of Crime’ – another lead role]. After three weeks, he’s still calling me Amanda… It’s a bit desperate. Your ego can suddenly be crushed.’

She’s roaring with laughter now, self-mockery to the fore. And anyway, let’s not blame the driver: her profile remains a work in progress. ‘I was going up for big things in the States and there'd be lots of interest,’ she says. ‘But it would always go to the much bigger name. I thought “Restless” would give me the opportunity to see whether or not I could hold a story and whether or not I wanted to.’ She pauses and grins, conspiratorially. ‘The answer was a big, firm yes.’

‘I'd noticed on other sets,’ she continues, ‘how other actors playing leads would be very serious, sitting reading books and listening to headphones. Sociable when they wanted to be, but other times completely dedicated to the job. I remember wondering why they took themselves so seriously. On “Restless”, I realised how much work it took: I had to test my mettle without having the time to sit in my trailer and analyse it. Setting the tone and the mood on set took stamina and responsibility. I just kept my head down, dug deep and got on with it.’

Hayley Atwell, star of 'Restless' Hayley Atwell, star of 'Restless' - Rob Greig

‘I’m not the same person I was five years ago,’ she muses. And over that time, the 30-year-old’s rise has been steady, distinguished by smart choices and diligent performances. After a memorable debut in another BBC literary adaptation, 2006’s ‘The Line of Beauty’, Atwell has given heft to plenty of love interests, including a skilful, sympathetic performance in an earlier Boyd adaptation, C4’s ‘Any Human Heart’. She’s also endured the odd dud (‘it’s an exposing thing when you sense something’s not coming together and you can’t do much about it,’ she grimaces, remembering ITV’s fascinating, flawed revival of ‘The Prisoner’). But it was last year’s double-whammy of Golden Globe nomination for miniseries ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ and blockbuster debut as Chris Evans’s’ all-action girlfriend in ‘Captain America: the First Avenger’ that brought her to international attention. She won’t, she confirms, be back for the latter’s sequel, which moves the action into the present day.

‘Captain America’ also highlighted Atwell’s canny decision to juggle stage and screen roles. While the Marvel smash topped the box office charts, ‘I was in jogging pants, script in hand and cups of coffee in polystyrene cups at the Royal Court [rehearsing ‘The Faith Machine’]. It reminded me why I’m doing this. “Captain America” was a commercial success, but it doesn’t come close to what was asked of me in “Restless” or [the imminent second series of Charlie Brooker’s satirical drama] “Black Mirror”.’

Or, one suspects, what she’ll be asking of herself in the next few years. When she asserts that ‘the happiest place I can be in is to have no expectations,’ it’s hard to credit it. She’s a good actress – but not that good.

'Restless' airs Thursday December 27 & Friday December 28, 9pm, BBC1.