‘Captain America’ Star Hayley Atwell Gets to Be the Hero in ‘Agent Carter’

Bryan Enk
Movie Talk
Hayely Atwell in 'Agent Carter'
Hayely Atwell in 'Agent Carter'

Hayley Atwell is known to Marvel fans for her role as Peggy Carter, the beautiful and headstrong British agent who becomes the love interest of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the self-described "kid from Brooklyn" who becomes an iconic war (super) hero, in "Captain America: The First Avenger" (2011).

[Related: Superhero Smooch! Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans Kiss on 'Captain America' Set]

Now, Hayley gets to reprise her role — and take center stage — as the butt-kicking heroine of the new short film, "Marvel One Shot: Agent Carter," which will be featured on the Blu-ray and DVD release of "Iron Man 3" (hitting store shelves both physical and virtual on September 24).

"Agent Carter," directed by Marvel co-president Louis D'Esposito, picks up one year after the events of "Captain America," where Peggy is now an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in New York City. She's the only woman in the office run by Agent Flynn (Bradley Whitford) and treated as little more than a glorified secretary … until she takes on a solo mission that allows her to show off her fighting skills and wreck some havoc upon the criminal organization run by a shadowy figure known only as Zodiac.

The short film has the kind of top-notch production value, strong characters and, yes, handful of surprises that you've come to expect from any feature-length Marvel movie, and Hayley truly shines in the lead role as a woman who can more than hold her own in a 'man's world.' We spoke with Hayley after the screening at the San Diego Comic-Con to talk about the past, present and possible future of this amazing woman.

Watch Hayley Atwell get tough in a clip from 'Agent Carter':

You thought you were completely done with the character of Peggy Carter after "Captain America: The First Avenger"? This short film came as a complete surprise?

HAYLEY ATWELL: Pretty much. We finished filming "Captain America" over two years ago and I'd moved on, I'd done a lot of different projects back in England and so I didn't expect anything, I let Peggy go and hung up her coat. So this came out of the blue earlier this year that Lou (D'Esposito) just called me up and said "Hey we've got this idea for this script, will you come and do it?" So it was quite surreal, I'd never done that before; very rarely does an actor go back and revisit a part two years later. You have that in theatre where people might play Lady MacBeth when they're 20 and again play Lady MacBeth when they're 40 or something but not really in film. So that's what makes it kind of unique.

Did you know what the story was in advance or was it a complete surprise when you got the script?

HA: I knew the premise was going to be what happened to her after "Captain America" and how she's still fighting the good fight and she still thinks of Steve. But when I saw the script, I realized how much action there was and it was great because I'd done a lot of physical training for "Captain America" but you actually see very little of it in the actual finished project. So this was a great way of saying "Peggy can kick butt, too," and she has her own set of skills that makes her completely competent in this man's world. That was half the fun of it, really, and then [screenwriter] Eric [Pearson] was tweaking it and making sure there were gags in it and a lightness of touch.

When you started filming the short, did you realize there was actually more you wanted to do with this character?

HA: Yeah, absolutely! Especially, well, the era is really exciting, the British espionage, there's a lots and lots of references to things that happened during the Second World War that women were part of, there were female pilots and all these exciting roles that women played because they were needed for the first time in a man's world in that particular way. So that is very exciting because you could see Peggy doing a lot of different things and a lot of different adventures and realize "Oh, she can fly a plane" or she can drive a tank or she's able to crack codes — there's plenty of quite exciting opportunities for her.

And I would absolutely revisit her again — I would like to see how any kind of budding romance would develop, I'd like to see her sense of humor a little bit more, I'd like to see how she uses her initiative and natural ability to wing it at times when she doesn't know what she's doing, there's a whole kind of world I think she'd be really good at.

So it did resurrect a passion for the character that had been dormant.

HA: Absolutely. Especially because she's such a great role model, too, she's someone I wouldn't liked to have watched growing up, because she's just … you can go like, "See she can do it — if a man can do it, she can do it."

Was there a particular shooting day or moment that you feel really good about, that you feel "Oh, I nailed that!"?

HA: Probably the first stunt, the first fight, because I was getting good feedback from the stunt coordinator. But when I kicked him in the head in the second fight, the round of applause from the crew and then the playback of watching it was great, it was a really wonderful feeling. And there was a lead up to it — I wasn't nailing it every single time but then I did and it was such a great feeling. I'd watch each take and go, "No, no, I can do it better than that!" And I wanted to make sure it was sharp with clean and tight moves, and Lou was very happy that I was so adamant about wanting to get it absolutely perfect. So that was good.

And then it got very, very late one night and we were so tired, so I organized a hundred cupcakes, tiny miniature cupcakes with 'Peggy' written on them in red lipstick and little high heels, so at midnight everyone got kind of this crazy sugar boost from these little Peggy cupcakes. So that kind of kept us going and I guess it boosted morale. It was really fun.

Do you consider this short to be sort of a post-script to the first "Captain America" or a sort of prologue to "The Winter Soldier" or is it really just a "One Shot"?

HA: It's certainly Peggy's epilogue to "Captain America." It's what she did next — it gives her character a little bit more context. You watch this and you can see what Peggy is capable of so if you go back and watch "Captain America" again you can see that she's got it in her to fight back. But what's really lovely is because of the tone of it, the look of it -- the color, there's a lot of blue in the piece — and in the cinematography, it's very isolated as its own thing, in its own world, and it's a year later … for those reasons it kind of sets itself apart as a thing that just exists for itself.

She's a great character — in a way she's kind of a war widow, and she's also this butt-kicking secret agent.

HA: Oh, yes. There's definitely heart to her, and when I read the script for the first "Captain America," that scene at the end where she's saying goodbye to Steve, I suppose — I remember auditioning for that and there were people behind me, there was an assistant director who got quite teary about it, and I was really pleased because you can have an action film but if it's anchored with a bit of heart that means the audience will care and it's not just a visual delight — it's characters who care about each other and in turn the audience is going to care about them. And that's kind of what was very appealing to me — she wasn't just this sex object on screen, she didn't just look good, there was a genuine affection that she had for early 'skinny' Steve that she always kept with her and I think that's really beautiful.

I have to ask: Is there anything you can tell us about "The Winter Soldier"?

HA: Peggy features in the film, and of course it's modern-day, so that kind of gives you a clue as to the complications that come with that. [laughs] But the threadline of their relationship is beautifully carried through, I think, and it's given the respect I think it deserves.

[Related: Hold Up! Captain America Fights His Friend Bucky Barnes in ‘Winter Soldier’?]

Watch the 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' Comic-Con panel: