Hayley Atwell: 'The real me is a loner, a nerd and a bit overweight'
Hayley Atwell is running late. She sends a message ahead: is it OK to bring her dog along? And then – at last – she is here: tall, beautiful and eager, with a long-haired dachshund draped over one arm, completing her appearance in the way another woman might once have worn a fox fur. She cuts such a dash with her leopard-print dress and gorgeous smile, it is impossible to be vexed by the lateness for more than a second. A swift introduction to the dog (Thandi) and a swapping of notes on the satisfactions of dog ownership ensue. “We could all learn from dogs,” she says. Dogs are wonderfully non-judgmental. Not that Hayley needs to be in flight from judgment – no one has ever written an unkind word about her. At 28, her career has an unstoppable momentum. And looking at her, this does not surprise: everything about her spells star quality.
We are meeting today because she is in two Channel 4 adaptations of novels this autumn: William Boyd’s Any Human Heart and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. She is the love interest in each – though the characters are centuries apart. In The Pillars of the Earth, a quasi-religious 12th-century epic, she plays Aliena. In five months, filming in Budapest, she had to see Aliena through 20 years from “princess to peasant to wool merchant to love interest to wife and mother”. It was a “stretching exercise” in which she had to “grow at speed”. Any Human Heart is epic too, though confined to the 20th century. Boyd has described it as an “emotional, dramatic and rackety journey” through the “long and tumultuous life” of a writer, Logan Mountstuart. Hayley plays Freya, his second wife and the love of his life. “But he was the problem,” she says. “Logan Mountstuart is a pathetic womaniser. How could I justify that? I needed Freya not to look like an idiot for going out with the wrong kind of man.”
It is part of Hayley’s charm that she defends her characters with such force – as if she were their moral guardian. Thus far, she has specialised in complicated women and famous writers and directors (Nicholas Hytner, Andrew Davies and Woody Allen). It was the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty (2006), directed by Saul Dibb, in which she played self-harming, manic depressive Catherine Fedden, that made her name. Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream (2007, in which she was Ewan McGregor’s girlfriend) followed and Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited (2008), in which she was a bewitching Julia Flyte. In the same year, she played Bess Foster alongside Keira Knightley in The Duchess, again directed by Saul Dibb, and rose to new heights: her dark, accessible beauty a contrast to Knightley’s aloof, porcelain perfection (in one scene, she teaches Knightley’s scandalous, 18th-century society figure, Georgiana, about the pleasures of sex).
Hayley squabbled with Knightley about Bess, who Knightley, reasonably enough, dubbed a home wrecker (Bess seduces the Duke, played by Ralph Fiennes). How rivalrous of Knightley did she feel off-screen? “Keira and I lived together for a little while in this house in the countryside. She was warm, hard-working and generous. She taught me there is a responsibility to cast and crew if you are leading a film. There was a genuine kindness between us that developed quickly, so I didn’t feel so awful doing certain things… I felt: ‘We trust each other here, we are OK.'”
Rivalry must be a common problem between actors – especially in relationships. Is she involved with an actor? “No, a writer: Gabriel Bisset-Smith [a contributor to Channel 4’s Skins]. We met as drama students at Guildhall and hated each other. I found him harsh in his honesty. He is not a people pleaser. I was intimidated by how comfortable he was in his own skin, not trying as hard as I did to win friends… Later, he became the anchor in my life because he didn’t take much of what I did that seriously. He still doesn’t.”
Hayley is a pitch-perfect mimic. She sends herself up. Actors seldom act in interviews, but she makes me feel, to my delight, I am almost meeting her nearest and dearest. “I worry about what I am doing. I feel vulnerable some days. I am often lost in my own world, with a frown on my face. My boyfriend goes: ‘Oh hello, Frownie Frownie…’ I had quite a difficult time a year and a half ago because I had worked so much and was very tired. I was overwhelmed by the changes that were happening, even though they were lovely and positive. One thing that is odd is that when you get a level of success and your life suddenly looks great, you can still feel crap.” Gabriel’s role is as steadier and one-man appreciation society… of her cooking. “He grew up on Turkey Twizzlers, so he thinks I am an amazing cook. Every time I cook him a meal, he goes: ‘Babe, you should go on Masterchef.’ And I say: ‘Babe, it is only noodles with soya sauce…'”
She makes me laugh when she goes on to characterise, with affectionate relish, her new-age parents. She grew up in Ladbroke Grove, west London, with her mother, Allison, who is a “motivational speaker” (her father left when she was two). I asked her to describe her parents and say what she had inherited from them. “OK. The best way to do this is to visualise my mother when I was a child. She was – is – a very fabulous woman. I would describe her as a searcher of truth. She is always seen by others as so together but is actually beautifully, heartbreakingly vulnerable. And I am the only one who sees that. If I were to do a parody – she is going to hate me for this – I’d say: ‘Fuck off – I am meditating!’ She brought me up to be her best friend. She was always open and willing to share. I get my voice from her. And my confidence.” She quotes several sayings of her mother’s. Once, when she was coming to the end of a relationship and asked for advice, her mother told her: “Be mindful of your heart and you will know what to do.” She describes the refusal to dictate as wonderful and maddening. I say it sounds as though she gets her questing spirit from her mother too. “Definitely,” she says.
Her father is part Native American and a shaman. His tribal name means “Star Touches Earth”. He walked into a screening of The Line of Beauty, put his hand out to meet the director and “when I turned back, he was massaging him! He said [she switches to a dreamy Californian accent]: ‘Hi, nice to – oh, I am noticing some tension in your hand…’ Dad is someone who is not of the everyday. He has ADHD so doesn’t really do getting in on time or crossing things off lists. He is quite ethereal, an Aquarian, a thinker.”
What does he make of your career? “He sees acting as the most spiritual thing anyone can do on the planet because you are putting on masks, inhabiting different spirits. He can put anything into a spiritual context. His answerphone message is brilliant. He goes: ‘Hi! Please leave a message to match your impeccable spirit and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can for massage and healing and anti-ageing products.'” She laughs: “So Californian. How can you be against ageing yet all about inner worth and embracing nature?” She believes she has inherited her father’s compassion. “I have the hard, go-getting, organised confidence from my mum but under it a real softness.”
Hayley’s definition of acting is not a million miles from her father’s. Acting is “telling stories about people we don’t necessarily have time for or don’t really want to know or are scared of… Acting is a way of relinquishing fear of the unknown.” Listening, I don’t find it surprising she was offered a place at Oxford to read philosophy and theology. She is a compelling interviewee.
And what is behind her mask? How does she feel about her appearance? “My real self, the self I have always been from a child, is a loner and nerd, slightly overweight, with a very heavy fringe. That is who I was as a kid. I don’t think I will ever be anything other than that. It is sheer delight when I see pictures of myself now because I think: that’s not me. I was ‘Hayley Fatwell’ at school. I had the only-child syndrome of loving my independence to the point of being a bit socially retarded.” She would love to have children herself one day. “I have been broody since I was 12,” she insists. The dog is a child substitute. By the way, I point out, you have sent the dog to sleep. She laughs and says: “Yes, she is thinking: ‘Hayley is so boring. I have heard all this so many times before. All she wants is to be really rich and famous.'”
One last thing: I have been admiring Hayley’s ring – a spiky bird. What is its history? “It is my bird of truth,” she replies. “It is very confrontational. It is from Afghanistan. If I suspect someone is not telling me the truth, I poke this in their face.” She demonstrates, raises her closed fist and her dark brown eyes stare at me from behind the little metal bird. I laugh. More power to your elbow, I say, and to your ring finger.