Hayley Atwell Interview – BRIDESHEAD REVISTED

     August 8, 2008

With “Brideshead Revisited” finally playing on 350 screens nationwide, I figured it’s time to finally post the interviews I recently did with Matthew Goode and Hayley Atwell.

If the name “Brideshead Revisited” sounds familiar, it’s because Evelyn Waugh’s acclaimed novel was made into a very successful mini series in the early 80’s and it starred Jeremy Irons in one of his first roles.

Anyway, the material has now been adapted into a movie and it stars Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell and Emma Thompson. Here’s the synopsis:

A heartbreaking romantic epic, “Brideshead Revisited” tells an evocative story of forbidden love and the loss of innocence set in the pre-WWII era. In the film, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) becomes entranced with the noble Marchmain family, first through the charming and provocative Sebastian Marchmain (Ben Whishaw), and then his sophisticated sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell). The rise and fall of Charles’ infatuations reflect the decline of a decadent era in England between the wars. Emma Thompson co-stars as Lady Marchmain.

While this is the kind of film that usually arrives in theaters at the end of the year, Miramax is launching it in the summer season in an attempt to get early buzz going. Also, with multiplexes filled with explosions and superheroes, a film like “Brideshead” will have time to breathe and get noticed…

So to help promote the film, I participated in a roundtable interview with Hayley Atwell. During our time she spoke about not only making “Brideshead,” but about her upcoming projects and how she got into the industry. It’s a great interview with the up and coming actress.

As usual, you can either read the transcript or listen to the interview by clicking here. Again, “Brideshead Revisited” is now playing in limited release.

Q: How did you first get to the project?

Hayley Atwell: I was doing a play in London, a Restoration play, and I was given the script and they said “This is a fantastic project and we think you should audition for it.” So I went in and I did two auditions and in my recall audition I had a moment where Matthew had thought that the scene had finished and I had a few more pages so I carried on and it said, “Julia thwacks Matthew’s character across the face” so I did and it was quite a sparky, scary moment but I think it was that which honestly got me the job. And that was how Julia was born after a violent outburst.

Q: What was Matthew’s reaction to getting hit?

Hayley: Oh, God love him, oh dear. He was a gentleman but he wasn’t happy. I really crossed the line there and I continued to do so throughout the set because it’s quite fun.

Q: What attracted you to the script?

Hayley: What attracted me was I loved the vivid characters that had obviously come from a very rich novel and Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies had put that into the script. The character definitions and the stage directions were very rich and as rich as the dialogue so I felt that there was a hell of a lot of passion behind it. I’m attracted to flawed characters. I think they’re really interesting to play. I was really intrigued who this enigmatic Julia was and what was bubbling and going on beneath the surface. So it was probably that.

Q: What was your favorite scene?

Hayley: My favorite scene? I have two. This is purely selfish. The first is the whole Venice sequence on the beach which there isn’t much dialogue for. It’s Julia and Sebastian running off and Sebastian doing cartwheels. I remember thinking that because Julia isn’t in Venice in the book but is so in the script, that’s a huge telling point as to the divisive edge for Venice and what that was meant to be about. I saw it as a way of Julia having this freedom to explore a different side of her and Greta Scacchi’s character, Cara, says “The Catholics here, they do what the heart tells them to do and then they go to confession.” And it was finally Julia being able to have a bit of that and it’s nice to finally see her kind of just splashing around in the water as opposed to being so stern. So there’s that one. And the second one was there had been that week this controversy about the bear, Aloysius. People going “What’s happening to the bear? It‘s got to be in the film. I’ve heard that it’s smaller. I’ve heard that it’s actually like a stuffed sheep.” There’s all these rumors going on about it. There’s one scene where she’s in the temple with them, the boys, and they’re all eating peaches and she goes off. And in one of the takes, I just grabbed the bear and I threw it across the garden as a way of going “Sod it! It’s a bear.” And then it made it into the final cut so I’m quite happy because I don’t know exactly what it means but it’s quite cool.

Q: How challenging was it playing the two Julias – the one who’s younger and freer and the older one who’s more conflicted?

Hayley: Well it helped with the costumes. I learned a lot, particularly on this film being a period piece, just what the costumes do for you. You dress differently, you feel differently when you’re wearing certain things and your posture changes. And with Julia everything had been kind of straight down, straight bob, straight dropped waists, and then something else with the other clothes which were a lot more sensual, fitting and sophisticated, and that helped I felt for the age difference. It’s very sad. I wasn’t happy playing the other Julia at all. Those days were quite miserable compared to the freedom that she has back in the 1920s.

Q: Did that all help build into the Catholic guilt that Julia had?

Hayley: Yeah. I think so. Just being so restricted. I was wearing spanks underneath it and big pants and stockings and garters to hold me up which weren’t sexy at all but they were of that time. And that was really restricting. And also having a mic underneath you and a mic pack and attempting to get all that off when you go to the loo in between takes, when everyone’s waiting for you and saying “Time is money!” That was hideous but it did make me feel really constricted because usually in my personal life I wear clothes that I can go up a tree in. I actually need to be able to move and I couldn’t with her. And that’s what her mother does, that’s what the building at Brideshead does, that’s what the Catholic church certainly early on in Julia’s life does to her. So, yeah, it was a good meeting point.

Q: This is kind of a famous book.

Hayley: Kind of, like one of the 100 greatest novels of all time. It’s somewhere in there.

Q: Was it daunting accepting the role? Did you have any hesitation? What was it like?

Hayley: No. Nah. I went to drama school for three years and the whole thing there is that hopefully you are introduced to a man called William Shakespeare who is the greatest of all time of all storytelling. And before I went to drama school, he was the one that I just thought I could never touch. I don’t understand. I don’t even get it. It doesn’t make any sense to me. And I think a brilliantly written book just has a huge amount of heart to it and one of the reasons why people love the book so much is because in some way people are relating to it despite the fact that it’s this affluent, Catholic, aristocratic family that doesn’t exist anymore. There are still themes within it that we can relate to so I felt like I wanted to go at it like a Shakespeare play. You go at it at the angle that you can most identify with and then you kind of build yourself up from there. Otherwise I just wouldn’t know how to touch it. I would just cry.

Q: You went to Catholic school, right?

Hayley: I did.

Q: Did you draw on some of that early training?

Hayley: A little bit. I was the 10 per cent non-Catholics that they took and I loved the school which is why my mom encouraged me to go there in particular. But I must have a bit of the Catholic guilt in me. It must be in there somewhere. It’s even more dangerous that I don’t know where I can identify it. It’s like in the back of my mind. Maybe it’s also an English thing, I don’t know, the sense of judging, especially in this industry I find as an actor kind of go “Is this the right decision?” Always kind of checking yourself which I think as a Catholic, for Julia, she would always be doing. Everything she says, everything that she did, she was checking herself and whether it measured up to her God and to her mother. And that just gives you no room for any sense of freedom or exploration of the world around you and your five senses. It just closes you down quite a bit.

Q: Particularly at the end of the movie when you went back to Catholicism when your father died.

Hayley: Yeah, well I know many people I’m sure, and probably if I saw the film objectively, I would agree that it was sad for Julia. But I don’t think that’s the case. I felt that in Julia’s inner world she ends up choosing God. She chooses her faith over romantic love and the passion of the flesh with a man who has seemingly for the whole time been sitting on the fence and not standing up for her and buying her for a couple of paintings which is debatable about what that’s really about, but ultimately he doesn’t have the alpha quality about him that her God would do for her. And she sees on her father’s deathbed in that most crucial moment which I guess happens at death where things become very clear because it’s the most important thing. It’s the potency between life and death. She goes “Oh my God, this is a miracle. This is from God.” She sees it as a huge gift, as God going “I will never leave you. This is your right. You are an anointed one and I will give you the graces of heaven if you choose not to be with this man, this flawed, flawed man.” And so she says at the end, it’s a heartbreaking moment for her but she says “I can’t break myself off from his mercy and I hope you can understand that.” And she breaks her heart but I think she feels in her way that she raises herself up to give herself to God which is a very sacrificial love.

Q: Do you think audiences will identify with that?

Hayley: I don’t know. It depends on who they are and what they believe in.

Q: Do you find as a British actor, vs. an American actor coming in to play this type of role, that your awareness of the class system helps give you a better sense of how your character relates to the other characters?

Hayley: Yes, definitely. I think it’s always easier to play parts that you have something concrete that you can relate to. Rather than an American who’s focusing the whole time on how they sound and getting the accent right. In Britain, we’re very critical of that when Americans play English parts because we’ve got plenty of good English actors. [laughs] But yeah, an awareness of the class system which – although I’m not in any class really – you still feel it. You still sense it. It’s like in the land of England. It’s just always been there. There’s a royalty about England and a history about it. It just filters through generations definitely through this story.

Q: You went from this to another period piece with The Duchess?

Hayley: Yes.

Q: Is this kind of the thing with you? Are there going to be a lot of period pieces?

Hayley: No. The Duchess came about when I was offered the part from the director, Saul [Dibb], who I’d worked with in The Line of Beauty which was a contemporary piece set in the 80s, a television series.

Q: Contemporary? Really?

Hayley: Well 80s’. C’mon! It’s not corsetland. [laughs] We’re talking spandex here and shoulder pads. I was working with him and he said “There’s a role and I’m directing this film and I want you to play it.” The script was so great that you just couldn’t say no. I think it’s only in retrospect that you look back and you realize that people have pigeon-holed you very quickly and of course because that’s all they know of what you’ve done. I’ve done Greek tragedy to Restoration to currently I just did a George Bernard Shaw play in London and then How About You which was a contemporary Irish piece and then Cassandra’s Dream. There’s been a lot of mix but the biggest ones have been Brideshead [Revisited] and then will be The Duchess. They’re just more commercial stuff.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your part in that film?

Hayley: Yeah. I play a woman called Bess Foster who is the friend and confidante of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. They meet at a time when the Duchess of Devonshire has really birthed celebrity. She has become a style icon and she’s been stuck in a loveless marriage with the Duke. This woman comes into her life who’s very front footed, is worldly and is also losing custody of her children due to a messy divorce and they become friends very quickly and an intimacy grows within them that at one point becomes physical which was more common in that day that women would look after each other physically and then what happens is that she also then gets stuck in a love triangle between the Duchess, Georgiana, and the Duke. In true life, Bess Foster was the mediator between them and that’s what kept their relationship and their marriage going all that time because she understood them each in a way that they didn’t understand each other. Eventually when Georgina died, Bess Foster became the next Duchess of Devonshire. The film explores that a little bit but that’s kind of my part in it.

Q: Do you play the character at different times in her life? Are you young, middle aged, old or is it all in one period?

Hayley: Keira starts off as a young girl and she ends up having five kids so it must span about 10 or 15 years I think. The easiest thing about that is because the fashion of that time changed so much and Georgiana set the precedent for the fashion with the wigs that just start to get bigger and bigger and bigger and narrower and that kind of aged us quite well. [laughs]

Q: Sort of like the 80s haircut.

Hayley: Yes, exactly. Lots of volume. They didn’t have Allnet back then. They had to put in bird’s nests and stuff to keep it up.

Q: What was your favorite time period in Brideshead in terms of costumes and hats?

Hayley: Oh, the 40s. Well the 30s, 40s, yeah. For a woman with curves like I have, that time just celebrates them so well and it felt incredibly sophisticated and decadent compared to the straight lines and the dropped waists of the 20s and the bob. Women of that time were strapping their breasts down and the 40s comes along and the shoulders and the chest comes up and pointy bras and getting ready for the 50s. And there’s an emphasis on the waist so women were being women at that time. I enjoyed that.

Q: There are some really incredible looking pieces of estate jewelry. Were they real or did they make them?

Hayley: I think they were all costume jewelry. I don’t think they were real at all. Emma Thompson is in plastic most of the time.

Q: You have some good scenes with Ben Wishaw. Can you talk about working with him a little bit?

Hayley: Yes. I can. I can talk about him for the rest of my life. [laughs] Ben Wishaw is the greatest actor of our generation. I think he’s an extraordinary, strange enigma and talented man. I knew of his work and I was in awe of him as soon as I came into this industry and I just thought wow, how would I ever work with him. When I found out he was playing Sebastian, I just went “Wow! Fantastic!” I immediately fell in love with him. He has an emotional intelligence and an economy of movement, even what he does physically I find very beautiful and very graceful. He’s into the world of Pina Bausch and dance. He loves that and you can see that in the choices that he makes. He’s not just…everything that he does is so specific. So, watching him work was wonderful. He’s one of these people that I think for a lot of people when they meet him, they either find him intense. I find that he just lets me breathe when I’m around him. I don’t have to do or say anything. Everything kind of just calms down. He has a very strong presence and a quiet charisma which I think comes across in a lot of the work that he does.

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Q: Did you have a lot of rehearsal or did you just jump right on into it?

Hayley: We had officially two weeks of rehearsal which would have been dance, social etiquette, going through each of the scenes and exploring them with the director. I think that was it. That was all we did. And then talked to the priest. We had a good month before filming started. So Emma went, “Right. We’re going to get ‘round the table at my house on a Sunday and we’re going to eat a lot of food and we’re going to drink a lot of wine and we’re going to bond. So we’d go on trips to Brompton Oratory Church in London to do Latin masses to find out what that was about. We had the whole of the Marchmain family sat at the back of the church and Emma just dressed in white as a goddess. I think we got to communion and then she almost hit her head on the pews just going, “I’ve got to go. Let’s go, let’s go!” So we made it to communion and then we just spent the rest of the time bonding and socializing in that way and I think that gave us the most useful preparation was just to be together and to formulate our own dynamics. A strange thing happens when you work with someone who you are creating a role together so within five minutes of meeting Ben I know that I’m going to be his sister so that even socially you’re kind of exploring each other in a very brotherly-sisterly way. And the same thing with Emma, although we became very good friends, she was always kind of the matriarch and it’s quite strange when you’re acting and you meet someone for the first time and then you have to quickly get very intimate with them. And then if you see them after the film, you realize that your friendship has been based on these roles that you’ve been playing. It’s very interesting.

Q: What is that like when Emma goes “We’re going to go to church on Sunday.”? You’re still new to the industry. Is it one of these things where you’re like “Wow!”

Hayley: I’m like “Oh thank you!” because she gives so much. It’s not like Emma’s turning up on set, she does her lines and then she bugs off. She’s in there. She’s like “Let’s make a film. Let’s tell a story.” And you up your game. You have more to give. It’s because of people like her who are setting the way for me who’s inexperienced and only been out of drama school for three years, or two years when I met her. So she just livens it up and she also takes away any sense of intimidation of playing a part and kind of dispels and demystifies it. It becomes very real and very grounded in that. I think an important part of being an actor is within the work leaving yourself always available and open to explore something different and to live in the question of something and not to define your character ever, let alone early on in what you’re doing, but just play and see what happens. And hopefully then you have moments that work, lots of moments that are not going to ever be used in the film. We’ve done months and months of work and it’s condensed into two hours, a lot of which is ending up on the cutting room floor. So you’re living in such a rich world by the time that you’ve finished the movie.

Q: Speaking of cutting room floor, I was going to ask you about the deleted scenes. Were there any as you were watching the film that you thought “Wow, I wish that scene was in there.”?

Hayley: There was one specific thing that I think was a very hard choice to make for the filmmakers which was you don’t… It’s in the trailer actually which is strange. There’s the slapping scene like I said in the recall audition where I slapped him. That happens in a fountain scene which is the long thing talking about her stillborn child and she lashes out at him and they’ve taken that out. They’ve just stopped it. I think they screened it and people were finding that Julia goes so far that by the time she lashes out, the audience doesn’t have any sympathy with her and they just think why would Charles want to be with her. Personally speaking, I found it a real shame because it just gives the scene an arc and a climax at the end and a violent outburst which otherwise you don’t get from Julia. So it’s a very difficult kind of thing and it’s not a decision that I have anything to do with. I couldn’t really fight for it because I could see both sides of it. But it would have been amazing to keep that in there because I went for him. I slapped him hard.

Q: Your first time watching the movie, with every movie that you’re in, are you always dreading that “which takes did they use?” “I wish they’d used that other take.” How is it as an actor?

Hayley: Oh I hate it, I hate watching myself. I hate it, I hate it. The first time you watch it you just go… you’re trying to catch up with your preconceptions of it and your expectations and what they’ve done with it. So you go, the first cut of the film I saw she was very different from the final cut. When you see her on the boat at the beginning, they’d taken away these flashbacks and they’d kind of done it all quite linear. It started off at Oxford. You spend the whole time just going, “What have they done?” It’s very hard to have an emotional reaction to it or to be taken on the journey because all you’re thinking is the technical side. But I did come out and I was with my best friend who doesn’t like theater or film and thinks I’m rubbish. But she’s one of my best friends. And she came to see it and was like, “That’s quite good, you know. It’s alright. Why are you crying?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I feel really weird. Just go away!” And then I set up a second screening because I thought I’m going to have to see it again and get used to this because if I need to go into a screening, I can’t be blubbering at the back or complaining about why I’m a bit rubbish in certain things. My Mum came and she was kind of speechless at the end. She knew nothing of the story. I think she had given me the seal of approval so I’ve been able to enjoy it a little bit more now.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your Pringles commercial?

Hayley: My Pringles commercial? Do you know who that was directed by?

Q: No.

Hayley: Alex Winter from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Amazing!

Q: So did you go on set and say there’s something afoot at the Circle K?

Hayley: [laughs] No, I had Pringles in my mouth. I couldn’t speak. I overdosed on Pringles that whole weekend. It was shot in Frankfurt of all places. Yup. That was before I even went to drama school.

Q: Pringles put you over the edge. Sent you right to school.

Hayley: Uh, yeah. Once I popped I could actually stop and I did.

Q: That’s probably going to be a commercial that follows you around for five years.

Hayley: Really? Oh great!

Q: You’ll do some TV thing at some point and they’ll be like, “We have a commercial for you.” And right there on TV they’ll show it. It’ll be something along those lines.

Hayley: Excellent.

Q: How long ago did you wrap on The Duchess? Also, you said you’ve been doing some theater?

Hayley: Yeah, that’s right. I wrapped in November of last year on The Duchess. I went straight from… I did Brideshead and then I went straight back to Venice a week later to do the Venice Film Festival for Cassandra’s Dream and then went straight into The Duchess at the end of August, beginning of September and then wrapped in November and then came back to London and had the rest of that year off and then started working on a George Bernard Shaw play, Major Barbara, at the National Theatre on the South Bank in London.

Q: What’s harsher? The theater critics or the film critics in London?

Hayley: Oh well, theater critics, only because I don’t pay any attention to the film critics because I don’t have to read anything. The worst thing about the critics in London is that they come to press night so, because it’s live, you have… The company’s at drama school and I’m playing Barbara in Major Barbara at the National Theatre and I’m standing there on stage with Simon Russell Beale who that week had been voted the greatest Hamlet of all time. And I’m standing there in the Olivier Theatre which is one of the hardest acoustic theatres in the world and that was confirmed to me by the voice coach who was working on it. 2000 people in the audience on press night, opening night, and it’s a bank of ghastly critics who have been doing it for years and are so skilled. It’s a really hard thing to find. I always do my worst work in the theatre on press night because there’s such a buzz in the audience. It’s very hard to take an audience on a journey. It’s very hard when you walk out and you can sense that the audience is like, “Come on then! Go on. Yep. Well…impress me.” Compared to going “Hello. Yes. What do you have for me? Right. Okay.” And then you kind of feel your way through an audience and you hope you take them somewhere. But it just feels like a really bad audition doing press night with the critics out there. You get a sense of it.

Q: So they have to review on that night?

A: Hayley: and that’s the beginning of the run so that people will be appetized and people will decide whether or not they want to go. So it’s really important for ticket sales.

Q: What do you look for in the roles that you choose?

Hayley: I look for something that I find is impossible for me to do but something that I find interests me, something that I would like to go to see myself and do something different that I’ve never seen before. Or it might just be something specific within the script or people even that are involved in it.

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