Hayley Atwell on the abuse of sex and power ( not to mention the wisdom of Winnie the Pooh)
There Is nothing remotely fluffy about Hayley Atwell – only her association with the softest, most lovable, clutch-your-teddy (and this is as an adult, I can assure you) film of the summer, Christopher Robin.
She plays Evelyn, who is the wife of Christopher Robin – a Christopher Robin (the role is taken by Ewan McGregor) who has gone away to war, and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, has quite forgotten about the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood. Fortunately, Pooh, Eeyore, Piglet and Tigger are about to re-introduce themselves back into the family’s life in a spectacularly chaotic fashion.
Pooh and friends are of course, no respecters of the British stiff-upper-lip, and thank God for them, as they bound joyfully into the movie, reminding adults of how ridiculous their priorities are. They are different versions to the Disney figures, worn-out and loved-off, “each with their own archetypal personalities,” Hayley points out.
‘We already know the life lessons they’re there to teach us in this film,” she insists. “We all have their innate curiosity about the world, and the ability to look at it with their childlike eyes. We have that ability, we just need to be able to switch off from everyday life.”
Hayley’s own favourite Pooh-ism is “they say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day,” she smiles. ‘He’s so profound, and yet he sounds like he really hasn’t understood the meaning of it.”
"She’s active in how she tries to contain his own emotional breakdown, her daughter’s feelings of rejection, and monitoring her own levels of anger and rage."
Although Evelyn could be standard “wife” fodder in a Disney live action movie, the actress brings her own ferociously intelligent interpretation to this woman, “who isn’t a victim,” she argues.
“Her man has returned from war, he’s changed, she’s raised his daughter while he’s been away, and she’s an architect who’s rebuilding London after the bombing, so she’s got her own life. She’s active in how she tries to contain his own emotional breakdown, her daughter’s feelings of rejection, and monitoring her own levels of anger and rage.
‘There’s high stakes in their relationship – the audience has seen what it once was, that there was joy between them, and physical affection. Not only was PTSD not something that was discussed, it was a different time in terms of how men and women related to each other, and how men related to their children.”
She had her own emotional connection with A.A Milne’s creations from being a little girl, and the live action film was made easier “by a group of young adults who were on set and would manipulate the puppets and say the lines. That made it much easier. But we knew the world we were living in – and Pooh’s the star, it’s his movie takeover.”
"I am sexually harassing a man, and the audience can really see how the power shifts as the gender changes."
While discovering the profoundness of Pooh, Hayey Atwell’s also currently re-discovering the constant relevance of William Shakespeare – rehearsing for this Fall’s performances of Measure for Measure at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
Not the most visible of his comedies (it was first seen in 1604) artistic director Josie Rourke must have studied the text and realised its relevance post Time’s Up. In corrupt, dissolute Vienna, power falls to a puritan hardliner Deputy, who uses ancient laws to sentence citizens to death for sexual misconduct. But when a young nun, Isabella, pleads for clemency, the Deputy becomes guilty of the crime the law condemns.
“It’s all about sex and politics,” she enthuses, “and it’s such an apt time to be talking about it. You have a novice nun in Isabella, and she begs the judge for mercy for her brother. He basically says, ‘I will kill your brother, or I can take your virginity, and if you agree to that, no one’s going to believe you if you tell anyone.’ Then half way through we swap, and I am sexually harassing a man, and the audience can really see how the power shifts as the gender changes. I think it’s going to be really powerful.”
The “all encompassing” pleasure of studying for the dual parts of Angelo and Isabella and Measure for Measure, juxtaposed with talking about Pooh Bear, is the way she says she likes to work. ‘ I accept to a lot of Marvel fans I’ll always be known as Peggy Carter,” she says of the part she got in Captain America back in 2011, hot off the heels off the Golden Globe nomination she got for The Pillars of the Earth, a mini series she starred in with Eddie Redmayne based on the Ken Follett novel.
“I’m happy to be followed round by any of the parts I have played, they’re all great women, and I don’t necessarily identify with them. You never actually know what will have a lasting impact in the long run.”
"it was a whole community that raised me, and that community was Grenfell. It’s absolutely my duty to speak out.”
She’s also, along the road, played parts in adaptations of Brideshead Revisited and Howard’s End – standard literary fare for a solid British actress, but that’s not Hayley Atwell’s style, and not just because she’s half American, thanks to her Dad. In a world where the Equity, the actor’s union, recently declared that acting is a profession for the children of the wealthy because only they can afford to set out on that risky path, she was brought up by her mum in social housing in West London – a stone’s throw from Grenfell Tower, which is why she is one of the most vocal and high-profile supporters of Justice4Grenfell, a campaign demanding answers to the devastating events there in June 2017.
“I was brought up in that community, my mother still lives in the area, and my mother’s friend was the oldest person to lose their life in that fire. I was brought up in social housing and I don’t understand why the survivors are not being taken care of. It seems to be negligence across the board rather than malice, institutionalised racism and also the taboo around social housing – but we live in one of the most multi-cultural places in the world.
“I feel we have a responsibility to take care and look after each other. I am closely connected with my old school, and you know it’s my neighbourhood. I want to speak out about being part of social housing, and the bias towards people who live and work in social housing. Yes my success is part of my work ethic, and I was brought up like that, to want to be good at what I did, but it was a whole community that raised me, and that community was Grenfell. It’s absolutely my duty to speak out.”
Christopher Robin is released in UK cinemas on 17 August 2018