‘Conviction’: Hayley Atwell Is Excited to Act in Jeans

Hayley Atwell as Hayes Morrison in Conviction. (Photo: John Medland/ABC)
Hayley Atwell as Hayes Morrison in Conviction. (Photo: John Medland/ABC)

To borrow a line from T.S. Eliot, January will be the cruelest month now that there’s no longer another season of Agent Carter to look forward to. In a roundhouse kick to our collective solar plexus, ABC canceled the low-rated, but passionately adored period spy serial starring Hayley Atwell as the titular operative tasked with fighting dastardly criminals (and workplace sexism) in the post-World War II Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the writing was on the wall for poor Peggy when the network announced in February that her alter ego had been cast in the new legal procedural, Conviction, which premieres on Oct. 3. And, in fact, Carter later received a touching MCU sendoff in this summer’s blockbuster, Captain America: Civil War, with her former lover, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, attending Peggy’s funeral in the present-day.

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Conviction co-creator Liz Friedman is well aware that Atwell’s fanbase is still mourning the demise of Agent Carter. But she also feels that watching the actress’s performance as former first daughter turned lawyer, Hayes Morrison, is one way to salve that wound. “I think Peggy and Hayes would like each other,” Friedman tells Yahoo TV. “Like Peggy, Hayes is a strong, smart woman who is able to work the system and is a little bit ahead of her time.” And without completely ruling out the chances of another Peggy Carter adventure, Atwell makes it clear that she’s ready to live in the present rather than the past. “I don’t get sentimental when it comes to roles. Peggy is such an important part of my career, and I’m still talking with Marvel about her future, because there’s always a fanbase for her. I loved the experience of it, but I like to focus on what’s in front of me.”

Atwell in Agent Carter. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty Images)
Atwell in Agent Carter. (Photo: Richard Cartwright/ABC via Getty Images)

And what’s in front of her is a character with a wild past and uncertain future. Raised in privilege inside the White House, Hayes got a firsthand look at the way corruption and dealmaking can affect even the most high-minded presidential agenda. Once a civilian again, with a law degree in hand, she drowned her cynicism in alcohol and one-night stands. “What if Chelsea Clinton had a love child with the Bush twins? That’s Hayes Morrison,” Friedman says of her fictional first daughter. And Atwell adds, “There’s a psychological cost to living in that kind of world, and it acts itself out in her lifestyle. There’s always a deeper reason why people feel the need to escape from life through self-harming activities, whether it’s toxic relationships or alcohol and drugs.”

When we first meet Hayes, she’s just come off one of her benders and is currently behind bars awaiting potential cocaine possession charges. But that’s where her connections come in handy; good ol’ Mama Morrison, who is in the midst of a Senate campaign, strikes a deal to keep Hayes from serving serious jail time, provided she agree to head up a new task force called the Conviction Integrity Unit. Every week, this five-person team — whose ranks include Shawn Ashmore, Merrin Dungey, Emily Kinney, and Manny Montana — looks into previously adjudicated cases to determine whether the convicted party actually was guilty. In the premiere, for example, they reinvestigate the case of a young man accused of murdering his girlfriend, using cellphone records, among other things, to potentially clear his name.

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If that sounds vaguely reminiscent of the case of Adnan Syed, who served as the subject of the first season of Sarah Koenig’s blockbuster podcast Serial, that’s because Friedman is a self-confessed Serial junkie. “I’m a huge fan,” she says. “The crime in the pilot is actually based on a real case, and part of what attracted me to it is there were certain elements that were similar to Serial. I love to immerse myself in that stuff; I’m a research nut. My only other possible career besides television was being an academic!” Conviction’s leading lady, on the other hand, doesn’t have quite the same fascination with true crime. “I’ve heard about Serial, but I haven’t listened to it,” Atwell admits. “What interests me are the characters and the dynamics of their relationships. The crime is just part of the formula that makes it a procedural and keeps it working.”

As the season progresses, Atwell hopes to plumb the deeper depths of Hayes’s damaged psyche — particularly regarding her relationships with her parents — while also investigating convictions that will include a version of the infamous Central Park Five case. “I’m craving the variety, of finding new ways to stretch people’s perceptions of what they think I am as an actress,” she says, adding that she specifically wanted to appear in a series set in the present-day to escape the period trappings of Agent Carter. “With contemporary settings, you’re living in a physicality that’s much more natural. In Peggy Carter’s world, the clothing dictated how you walked; she had a very feminine style. Hayes’s is more laid-back — she can go into the office in a pair of jeans!”

Conviction premieres on Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. on ABC.