Ready thy bright red lipstick and fabulous hat, Peggy Carter is back tonight in the Season 2 premiere of “Agent Carter.” And this time she’s trading New York city streets for vintage Hollywood.
The Marvel and ABC series spinoff from the Captain America movies stars Hayley Atwell as crime-fighting comic book character Peggy Carter. Last year Peggy was still struggling with the untimely demise of her beloved Steve Rogers, but in the new season Atwell is promising a much brighter Carter. Much like Captain America her mourning period has frozen over, and now she’s headed West to 1940s California.
But before the new season kicks off, we spoke with the lead actress to get a tease on new attitudes and new comic book characters that will be joining her in the sunny state.
So, let me start with asking you about the big changes coming to Season 2 of Agent Carter. New location, same batch of people, but in sunny California. How does that affect the show from even the inside out?
Hayley Atwell: Season 1 we saw a very internal struggle with Peggy, because of the loss and the grief, with Steve Rogers. Because of the story of his blood being so integrated, she was very much consumed with that. And the streets of New York being lots of grays and dark blues, and a kind of darkness. In this season we have totally connected to the aesthetic of Los Angeles, which is a lot lighter. We have the blue skies and the sunshine and the palm trees, but we also have Peggy, who’s been able to move on. She’s been more open emotionally, and she’s had a strong friendship cemented with Angie. So she’s able to have intimacy again in her life. I think she takes that spirit to Los Angeles.
Of course she steps off the plane and the first person that she sees is Jarvis [James D’Arcy], who she’s come to have such an affection for from the first season. So there’s a lightness of touch, here’s an openness to her, and a much more humorous quality in her. I think that’s reflected also in the costumes. A lot of the writing really strengthens the wit between her and Jarvis, and the way she uses irony, satire and sarcasm when she’s dealing with other people, which keeps a very tongue-in-cheek quality to the show. Never takes itself too seriously. It knows the genre that it belongs in and that it’s light entertainment. It’s found its feet in that world.
It makes sense that it would get its screwball sea legs under it once it had finally landed in Hollywood. It’s a very exciting concept to wrap your head around, at least as an audience member. What about Peggy, even now, what about her surprises you, as a character?
I think she’s very stubborn, but she is also tenacious. A lot of the fans that I’ve had contact with since Season 1, what made them fans in the first place was Peggy’s own insight and revelations toward the end of Season 1. Where she says, “I know my value"; and in a moment where her ego [had] been crushed by the fact that credit was taken away from her and given to a man. And in particular given to Jack Thompson, who’s not deserving of it. Instead of her kicking and screaming and demanding validation from outside, she’s already got that validation from herself. It’s something that seems to have touched a lot of people who have enjoyed watching her.
It’s quite an extraordinary thing, because it’s ultimately saying that her superpower is self-acceptance, exactly as she is, an unconditional love for herself, that’s not narcissistic, but that is crucial for one’s own well being. It’s also attainable to every human being on the planet, which makes her very attractive and relatable to an audience. That’s what still continues to fascinate me, really, is that she’s not easily intimidated by people who seemingly have more than her. More power, greater skills, better fighters, more success.
She’s excited to meet a movie star in Whitney Frost, but she’s not so overwhelmed that she feels unworthy in her presence. In fact, she sees Whitney as, in some ways, the opposite side of the same coin. She’s brilliant in her own way, but she uses her force as a force of evil, rather than Peggy’s, which is a force of good. So they’re very similar in that respect.
I just find that wonderful. In a world nowadays, without becoming too deep and political about the whole thing, there does seem to be an overwhelming feeling of desperation that comes through social media, of always projecting our perfect lives to the outside world. And it in turn making people look at lots of Instagram accounts and go, “Oh […] my life doesn’t look like that. I must not be worth anything.” It’s not very helpful to society. I’ve seen a lot of fans writing, saying, “I learned my worth, and Peggy’s given me a lot to think about, because it makes me realize maybe I can accept myself for who I am, and maybe that will mean I can succeed in things, and I didn’t have the confidence to try before."
That, to me, is her relevance, and it’s helped me to look at myself and accept myself for my idiosyncrasies, and my faults of character, and my defects of character, and not let them define me to the point where I can’t take risks or I would get intimidated easily in the presence of others who have more than me. So I know it’s kind of a long and deep answer, but I think it really is in terms of her self-acceptance, and that being the start of her skill set, and her abilities and her competences to go out and do what she does.
“I know my worth.” That’s a deeply profound statement, and it’s not a statement that you would hear on just any show on any network. There’s a very specific place where that can be said, because I feel like there’s a very certain subset of people who understand the importance of that statement. Can you talk about working with the show writers a little bit?
I was actually about to bring them up … it was Michelle [Fazekas] that came up with the line “I know my value,” which has become the tagline for Peggy fans, and all the base of everything I said in my previous answer. Those two women embody that. What I love about Tara [Butters] and Michelle is that they’re individuals who are in positions of great success and respect from their peers, and have a great reputation in the industry. And you know why. You can see it. They know who they are; they know where their talents lie; they really enjoy what they do. The heart of the show really comes from the collaboration of working with them, and knowing that they’re bringing their values to the piece.
They’re seeing in me where my strengths lie as an actor, and utilizing them. And in the same way that I sensed that they spent a lot of the first season kind of scoping out how we all acted, how we all worked as actors on set. And the dynamics. The main one being, James D’Arcy and I, having known each other for 10 years, have a natural rapport that entertains a lot of the crew.
They ended up really morphing the script to suit all James’ character choices, and then made that even bigger in the second season.
I have not seen so much good-natured audience fervor toward a show as I have seen toward “Agent Carter.” And then obviously “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” too, and you guys get into your spats, but how do you think that fits together? Do you think your audience is seeing that joy that your entire crew has just being together and then wants to be a part of it? Or is it just that contagious?
When I did “Cinderella,” Ken Branagh sat me down and he said something I’ll never forget, and I think it helps to answer this question. I have a few scenes in the film, and it was only a week or two of filming. And he sat me down, and he was asking me all these questions about the back story of my character. The amount of work and preparation that we did, it almost felt that the film was becoming about Cinderella’s mother. He wants to know where I’ve met my husband, why I’ve called her Ella, what my socioeconomic background was, what my hobbies were, what I paid my staff, all this stuff. [Branagh] said the reason for that was because he believed that an audience is very intuitive and intelligent, and they respond to subliminal messages. So if you build a character that even only appears on screen for a couple of minutes, but if you have an absolute background understanding and a fully formed choice of who that character is, just from those few minutes the presence that you as an actor bring onto the screen is so much more powerful and so much more present. And that appeals to the intuition of an audience.
I’ve taken that into Peggy, in the sense that my relationship to the show runners, the writers, the cast, and with the crew also, are very strong, and we look out for each other. I feel that the audience can intuitively pick up that there is heart in our show.
And I think that it probably helps that, especially for the first season, I was posting a lot on social media about our backstage antics and our on-set antics, getting a flavor for it. It does absolutely, by osmosis, kind of come through. I’m just baffled when I see a film that I loved, and I discover that the two love interests hated each other, or the crew hated the actors. I find it so baffling, because in my mind I go, “No no no no no, only good work really should be produced by good people.” But it’s not always the case. Unfortunately, it’s not. And I really wish it would be.
The 10-episode new season of “Agent Carter” will air on ABC beginning Tuesday, Jan. 19.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.