Walk a mile inmy shoes
Hayley Atwell is recalling her first school disco, aged 15. “All my friends were in cropped tops, short skirts and knee-high leather boots,” she says, her mellifluous tones warm at the memory, “but I rocked up in this full-length velvet skirt that I got from Portobello Market.” Brazen style statement aside, wasn’t she boiling? “I was roasting, but I pretended I was completely fine! I wasn’t very successful with the boys but I loved it because it twirled nicely on the dance floor.”
Thirteen years down the line, there’s still something of that perversely independent teenager in the 28-yearold Atwell. She’s a rare breed: a beautiful actress reluctant to become a mannequin. Where her contemporaries have dutifully embraced luxury brands – Keira Knightley, Sienna Miller and Carey Mulligan have contracts with Chanel, Burberry and Balenciaga respectively – Atwell is more cautious. “I don’t want to be worn by a brand, I want to wear them myself,” she says, firmly.
She’s particularly refreshing on the subject of freebies. “I still want to have my own signature on the clothes I wear so I feel a little bit more in control,” she says. “I accept things I actually like and would buy if I had the funds myself.”
Surely her recent Hollywood blockbuster outing in 2011’s The First Avenger playing Captain America’s girlfriend, Peggy Carter, means she can afford the odd splurge? “Once in a while, yes, but the rest of the time I will wait until I need something. I usually just shop at Topshop and River Island.”
Such self-assurance has marked her out for strong roles. Her career took off soon after she left drama school in 2005, when she played the wilful manic-depressive Catherine Fedden in the BBC adaptation of The Line of Beauty. Woody Allen took her as his muse in 2007 for Cassandra’s Dream; in 2008 she invigorated a lacklustre remake of Brideshead Revisited, her curves lending Julia Flyte a lusty sensuality beneath unforgiving dropwaisted dresses. In the same year she donned a corset to star alongside Knightley in The Duchess; in 2010 and 2012 she played characters from the Forties in two William Boyd adaptations.
Atwell’s current project is Alexi Campbell’s play The Pride. She plays the dual role of Sylvia, the wife of a repressed homosexual man in the Fifties and today. For her first scene, she asked the costume designer to come up with an elegant, hourglass dress. “Sylvia is about to go out for dinner, and the subtext is that she’s aware her husband is gay. There’s a gay man also coming for dinner and there’s an electricity between them that she can pick up. So I wanted her to look sensational – to the point where the audience go, ‘My god, they must be gay if they don’t think this incredibly glamorous woman is attractive’.”
When it comes to her wardrobe, Atwell knows her own mind. “I know my body