Conviction" -- and stirring up plenty of scandal this time around.
After playing a more clear-cut heroine in her last series for ABC, Atwell's returning to the network in a brand-new role that owes more inspiration to the network's flagship political potboiler "Scandal" than it does to Marvel Comics: in "Conviction," Atwell plays Hayes Morrison, a onetime First Daughter, who's spent years in the public eye a flashpoint for scandal and controversy and, despite her whip-smart legal acumen, still hasn't sorted out her messy life. Indeed, her latest questionable choice leads her to be blackmailed to take on a responsibility she'd just as soon avoid, heading up a federal unit exploring potential wrongful convictions -- and undoing them wherever possible.
Atwell recently shared the reasons why she fell for her flawed now on-screen alter ego, tearing into Hayes's thorny relationships, finding the right wardrobe touches that proclaim power while also hinting at her spiky sex appeal, and the best advice she ever received (apart from a cheeky tidbit from Emma Thompson).
Moviefone: What do you love most about Hayes?
Hayley Atwell: I love that because she knows that she has quite a bit of power and social status, it means that she can be very relaxed. I mean, I do notice when you're with people who are in incredible positions of social power, like top politicians or movie stars, that they are very, very chilled out. They're very relaxed. They don't often have to raise their voice because they have the power.
And it's the other people around that that kind of are like whirling dervishes, having to give them the power and delegate and do all the hard work, so I've loved that aspect. She has a strong sense of who she is. She doesn't have to try too hard.
Can you talk about her relationship to Eddie Cahill's character, Connor Wallace?
I think the thing that she loves about him is -- it's this love/hate relationship, in that she's met her mental match. She's probably been in environments where she's been the most powerful person in the room, so she's used to sycophants, people saying yes to her, wanting something from her, always figuring out some kind of agenda. And he comes along, and he cuts through all of that. He sees how she plays the game, and he can also manipulate her into doing things for his own political game. So I think she sees that as a psychological warfare between them.
Now, for Hayes, that's really sexy! That's something to butt up against. That's mental stimulation. I don't know whether or not it could go into love. I think the idea of love is something that is so far from her capabilities. I think she's terrified of actual intimacy. It's much easier for her to play the, I don't care, the rebellious streak, the be good at what she does [angle], and kind of trample people around her. So it will just be interesting to see how they kind of chink away at each other's armor.
What was refreshing about stepping into a contemporary role?
Well, I think the most exciting thing is, she can be messy around the edges, that she can be a little bit blurry at times in her choices and therefore, quite a lot more relatable. And that she's reacting to her environment. She's reacting to a very contemporary environment that's current and that's happening now.
Does she have political ambitions herself?
I think at this stage, no. I don't think she knows what she wants to do. I think she's still cleaning up a lot of the psychological mess and damage of her twenties where she haphazardly found herself working as a lawyer, but then, at the age that she's at, she's in a prison cell for cocaine possession. And she's at frat parties, and she's sleeping with students. She's not got herself together, even on a day‑to‑day level, were there for her to have political ambitions. So I think this first season will be her kind of trying to get a footing.
Political daughters are very much in the present zeitgeist. Are you taking notes?
Well, unfortunately, Hayes is doing such a terrible job compared to the first daughters that I'm aware of, that I've been researching. They're incredible role models and strong women. And I think Hayes has all of that, yet she's just been damaged in some way and is trying to figure out who she is.
I definitely got that kind of poise and that elegance and that ability to hold a room. The power of public speaking that I'm sure Hayes will have to come up against it at some point throughout this season and the loyalty towards the mother's political campaign as an independent figure, as someone as that is what she does.
As opposed to, with what happens with Hayes, is that we actually see the relationship between mother and daughter which, of course, we're not privy to with the real first daughters -- as it should be. And so I'm having to -- with the writing -- just kind of make that up as I go along. And I think the most interesting thing is, one line she says is, "Are you ever just my mother, or is there always another angle?"
And I think Bess Armstrong's portrayal of Harper Morrison is great. She says, "I paid a big price for wanting to have a big life. I didn't have the luxury of just being your mother." And you think, actually, what's great about that is, we're not making her out as a villain and Hayes is the poor kind of privileged child. But there will have been sacrifices that Harper made because she wanted a bigger platform.
Now, whether that's because of her own personal gain, or she genuinely felt that she had a voice to do something good in the world on a larger scale. But that, of course, will have had detrimental effects to home life.
What does Hayes want?
I think that's something that's going to be a slow-burner for her to come to terms with because, what we get from the pilot, I believe, at the end is there is a turning point where she starts off doing it really reluctantly going, "I have no choice. I'm going to go to jail if I don't do this." She's dismissive of everyone else she works with. She's bored of the cases. But then, she starts to get interested. She starts to get good at it. And when she has that actual human interaction with victims and criminals, it then becomes a little bit real to her.
But then she discovers, towards the end, that she has an ability to turn this around to her own advantage. And she can actually play Wallace, and also play her mother. And she's been brought up being played by her mother. That's just kind of how it's been. And I think it's going to be a matter of, who does Hayes become? Does she become like her mum? Does she go, "This is how the world works. I'm disillusioned by it, but I'm going to use it for my own political agenda." Or is she going to be able to find some way of going to bed at night with a clean conscience. And I think that's going to be the fine line that she's going to tread.
Can you talk about the wardrobe and your hand in picking what works for you?
We wanted to kind of tailor it. We know that she works in this professional world. She has to care about her appearance, but at the same time, she's in the public eye. She knows how important dressing up is, and she's going to use that. But she's also going to enjoy it.
So that's the thing of kind of wanting to wear heels, but make sure that they're sexy Louboutins or have the spike of the Valentino or an Alexander McQueen scarf. And those little visual references are kind of a nod that she has a little element of danger in her.
Are there some designers that worked particularly well for you and for Hayes?
Yeah, Dolce and Gabbana, [Alexander] McQueen, especially. I mean, McQueen, for me, all the way! And just those ones that do sexy tailoring.
Did you always want to act, since childhood?
Yes, I did. I was very shy. I didn't think or didn't know if I could do anything. I wasn't kind of a showy kid at all. Didn't have a showy mom either. But I loved theater, and she would bring me to theater. And I would watch the works of Helen Mirren and Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Helen McCrory, Judi Dench -- these women, these powerful women who were clever and they were empathetic, but they were also complicated. And I looked at them and I thought, "Whatever they are, I want to live in that world."
And I felt that the actors that I aspired to kind of be in rooms with were ones who were aware of current affairs. They had strong opinions. They were willing to challenge themselves and their kind of muscularity and their ability to hold an audience for two hours on a stage. And what that really takes. So that, for me, was always what I wanted to do.
Do you recall the best career advice you've ever received?
Oh God, that's really hard. Emma Thompson said, "Always wear matching underwear and matching bra." I do, and that really helps!
I'd say the main thing is: show up. Show up and be professional. And to be good at what we do, I believe I'm figuring it out how good I am at it, but it takes a discipline. And I think that can be a danger, that sometimes actors get to a point and then they can be lazy. And the minute I feel like I'm starting to dip, I get very scared. Then I get restless. Then I get bored. And I go, "I'm missing out on the side of being in this industry which is to be incredibly stimulated and challenged in many ways and to be privileged enough to be working with truly great minds." That's what inspires me, and I hope that I keep going forward. So my main thing is I hope I always feel like an apprentice.
"Conviction" premieres Monday, October 3rd, on ABC.