It might have been intimidating for British actress Hayley Atwell to sign on for the lead in Starz’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s literary classic “Howards End,” given the long shadow cast by Emma Thompson, who won a Best Actress Oscar for the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film version. But Atwell had some help from Thompson herself.
“Emma’s a friend of mine, and I’m very familiar with her performance in it,” Atwell says. “I e-mailed her to say, ‘They’re doing the impossible, they’re going to attempt to make this,’ and being Emma, incredibly generous and warm, she said ‘You’re about to work with a writer, E.M. Forster, who is one of literature’s first proper feminists. [The character] Margaret will change you — she’s an extraordinary person. You are she and she is you.’ She passed the baton in a way.”
Of the new miniseries, which debuts in the U.S. April 8, Atwell says, “The look of it is different, the energy is different.” For one thing, the novel was adapted for the small screen by Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester By the Sea”) and directed by British filmmaker Hettie MacDonald.
“It’s adapting in four hours as opposed to a 90-minute film, so there’s more of the book in it, and Kenny’s writing takes so much of the content of the text and the dialogue and lifts it, but puts it into a very fresh way that’s accessible and real, so that it feels relevant to today,” she adds.
The 117-year-old novel continues to enjoy a reputation as one of the greats the 20th century, and Atwell says she sees both the timeless qualities of the story and its appeal to contemporary audiences.
“What has made it last is the detail of the characters and the relationships. Human beings at their core don’t seem to change much,” she says. “It’s very much a story of a modern woman who is trying to figure out who she is, but also how best to live according to her own value system….For [Margaret], it’s figuring out how to be of use, how to live a life with purpose and how to navigate relationships in that.”
The tale is also suddenly resonant in a moment when issues of female inequality dominate the cultural dialogue. “To have this story coming out now, it’s just joining the bigger conversation, and joining lots of other stories of women at the center of it. It’s just redressing the balance of having great stories for men and great stories for women,” Atwell says.
When the miniseries aired in the U.K. last fall, the response from both critics and audiences was downright euphoric, and Atwell hopes American audiences also embrace it with “Downton Abbey”-level devotion.
“There’s gonna be audiences who won’t initially tune in because it’s a period drama,” she concedes, “and I’m looking forward to potentially showing them a side of period drama that can actually be really thrilling to watch and beautiful, as well as something you can relate to.”
As a quintessential corset drama, Atwell says the restrictive clothing of the period and her character’s quest for literal and figurative freedom are reflected in the costuming. “You’ll see it in the way that we’re physically doing it: making sure that the costumes aren’t wearing us, that we’re inhabiting the costumes, that we are wearing cardigans, that you can imagine handkerchiefs stuffed up the sleeves.
“We found these fantastic pictures of Edwardian women striding through the streets of London, so their skirts are moving, they’ve got books under them, one’s smoking a cigarette and one’s having a chat,” she reveals. “You think, ‘Yes — they moved like we did.’”
While she appreciates how sartorial details help inform the roles she plays, Atwell insists that personally she’s largely uninterested in fashion. “Put it on record: I don’t care what I’m wearing,” she chuckles.
“I respect fashion as an art form, but I don’t have much of a natural passion for dressing,” she explains, noting that she does like to boost up-and-coming British designers and admires Alessandro Michele’s Gucci revival. “I know it’s an important part of the visual medium that I work in, but I don’t really have much time for the celebrity obsession with how one looks all the time. I find that makes me less interesting and interested in life.”
Next for Atwell is Disney’s “Christopher Robin,” reuniting Winnie the Pooh with his childhood playmate, now an adult beset with responsibilities. The A.A. Milne books charmed Atwell both as a child and an adult.
“To be reminded of that magical, playful, innocent world of play, when we are children with friendships, and the things that Winnie stands for, that is something that I’d love to help put out in the world,” she says. “We’re never too short of feel-good stories, but this will remind even adults that a stuffed bear can teach us a lot about humanity.”
Now, thanks in part to the high visibility of her appearances as Peggy Carter in Marvel’s “Captain America” films and her own “Agent Carter” TV series, Atwell finds that she has a greater wealth of options.
“It’s a long journey to get to a position where I am now, where I can make more discerning choices based on creativity rather than necessity. I take it seriously, and I’m grateful for it,” she says. “I would like to be discerning in terms of what the stories’ messages are, what it’s saying to other women, and what it’s saying to young girls.”