‘Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell on Revealing Peggy’s Past, and the Pull Between Wilkes and Sousa
Marvel’s Agent Carter has gone Hollywood, but unfortunately for Peggy (Hayley Atwell), her first few moments in the L.A. sunshine are rained on when the case she investigates results in a lab explosion, which might have taken out her latest ally (potential love interest), Dr. Jason Wilkes (Reggie Austin). Making matters trickier for the future founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the fact that her newest foe, starlet Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), is hiding in plain sight…and a mysterious force called Zero Matter is on the loose. With so much in play on the second season of the midseason Marvel series, we spoke to Atwell herself about how Peggy’s taking the latest development in her case, her dynamic with Frost and whether or not all these cases are piquing her the agent’s own interest in science.
At the end of the last episode, we saw Wilkes being taken out by the Zero Matter. How is Peggy dealing with what happened to him?
She’s immediately attracted to Wilkes, and suddenly she’s involving her personal life, or matters of the heart, in her work. And that, in her past, has always backfired. So I think, here, we have another example of that. It’s a very scary place for Peggy because she feels that it’s totally her fault that the situation has gotten to this point. That’s kind of a scar that she carries a lot. As a spy, you’re in danger of obviously hurting yourself, but you’re also putting other people in danger. And that’s what she’s done here with Wilkes. It’s a very difficult time. It’s not just a mission that’s going wrong, but it’s someone that she’s starting to have feelings for who is now threatened.
How will this affect her going into the rest of the season? Because she kind of started out very hopeful and very excited about L.A.
It’s a bit like anything that you come across in life. You come guns blazing, and very excited, and confident, because the environment changes and it’s glamorous and beautiful, and the start of new job, and all of these things. [And] in Peggy’s case, a new wardrobe as well. [But] then when reality starts to hit, the rose-tinted spectacles start to shift, and you’re back to doing very difficult work. The nature of Peggy’s work is always going to be quite extraordinary for her. It’s always going to be bizarre and surreal, and she’s not going to know, from one day to the next, what she’s going to experience. She’s used to, by now, living in survival mode, and being very present, and keeping her wits about her. [So] it’s going to be a season of trying to maintain that kind of lightness, that look for love that she has, and the enjoyment of the humor and keeping her head about water, and at the same time, not knowing what’s going on in the deep end or what’s going to present itself moment by moment. It thrills her, and excites her. It’s what Peggy lives for. She loves the adventure and grandeur, which is why she does what she does and why she’s so good at it. It’s going to be a balancing act for her as we go along
At the end of last season we saw Peggy realize her value. What is her journey this season? Is there anything she’s focusing on now that she’s kind of earned the respect of the SSR?
I think the main thing for her is being able to find the balances in her actual life. We saw towards the end of the season that she was grieving. She processed Steve Roger’s death and said goodbye to him in the way that she could. So she’s coming with, definitely, a change in perspective. She’s looking more outward at the world as it is. So there’s hope for more authentic and intimate relationships and friendships with the people that she is around; also, strengthening and deepening the one with Jarvis, which becomes incredibly strong in the whole story of Season 2. As that unfolds, you’ll see why. It’s so personal.
What does it mean for her to have Jarvis (James D’Arcy) and soon Howard (Dominic Cooper) to actually lean on for help this season?
They’re the Three Musketeers, really. [Jarvis and Howard] provide the absolutely invaluable structure to what she’s doing. They work and do well together. Howard is a genius, and is able to fill in the scientific gaps that Peggy can’t. Also, he’s a man of means, which means that she’s able to use that to her advantage. She’s able to rely on Howard for all sorts of gadgets that she might need, [and for] ways into places that she couldn’t get to by herself, just because of the power that Howard has. That’s very helpful to her. Then, also because of the relationship they had in Season 1, that betrayal that happened where she had to confront Howard, she’s had to accept the intentions that he had behind his betrayal, [and] it deepened their friendship. There’s a level of trust and authenticity this season, which means that they can actually have a lot of fun with each other. She’s disgusted by his philandering and womanizing and misogyny, but at the same time she knows that he absolutely respects her, and in turn, he’s even surprised by how much he respects her because she is a woman in a dress, and that normally has a very different kind of interest for Howard. So between them, there is a great deal of affection. And then you have Jarvis who is uses his initiative, is very interested and helpful. He’s also English. He knows where she comes from. They have a banter and a humor that they can share, which makes her feel less alone. The relationship I’m most interested in this season is actually between her and Jarvis because it deepens, but it’s also threatened at one point. He kind of involves himself in her adventures, in a way that he’s completely out of his depth and kind of paddling furiously, but there’s sharks in the water. That’s going to be interesting to see unfold.
This season has felt like you’ve gotten to play with a lot more humor, especially physically.
Yeah. There’s more humor. Especially for Peggy Fand Jarvis. And I think that was great. It was something that we’ve really grown into for our characters. It’s got a physical side to it all. You’ll see more of that.
Peggy’s also just met Ana Jarvis. Does she get involved in their adventures, too?
Possibly. That’s a very important relationship. It’s absolutely the kind of rock in Jarvis’ life. And if anything was to happen to Ana, it would absolutely destroy Jarvis. She’s so important to him. Therefore, obviously, that would mean that Peggy knows how important Ana is to the whole operation going well, because if Ana is happy then Jarvis is happy [and then] the whole situation is happy. [Peggy] has a lot of respect for Ana, and probably looks at Jarvis and Ana’s relationship with admiration and probably a little bit of envy, as in, that’s something that she would aspire to be able to have with someone at some point in her life.
There’s definitely a spark between Peggy and Wilkes, but how are she and Sousa doing after what happened between them?
What happened was, Peggy was very excited by the prospect of being asked to go to L.A. because of Sousa. And then she got there and quickly discovered that was just Thompson’s (Chad Michael Murray) way of getting her out there. Sousa didn’t send for her, specifically, and he’s moved on! It means rejection for Peggy, and their situation’s really awkward. [Laughs] There is probably a lot that’s unspoken. There is, again, affection for them there, but they’re in a working environment, which means that they a) can’t really talk about their personal life together, and b) have to deal with awkwardly having to see each other everyday. That kind of set Peggy up for a little more of a tricky situation. Then there’s Wilkes coming into her life. Probably, in some ways, this makes it easier because her eyes wander over to him instead of focusing on Sousa. But also she’s now battling affections for two men. It’s not an enviable position.
Peggy’s involved in a lot of cases that involve science kind of going wrong. How does she feel about this? Will she start taking more an interest in science this season?
No. As far as Peggy is concerned, in terms of my portrayal of her, all that jargon is very, very useful, but she doesn’t get it, at all. And that’s why her skill in this situation is to delegate people around her who know more than she does about something. One of the skills that Peggy has is that she surrounds herself with bright people who are smarter than her, who have more information, who are specialized in certain areas, and she uses that to gain knowledge of the mission itself. When it comes to the science, it becomes very science-y, this whole thing with Zero Matter, which can go into kind of a metaphor for the dark side or power, or a metaphor for ambition or temptation, or the devil, or however you want to call it. It’s something that helps to bond her and Wilkes in their relationship, and their friendship is very much based on his knowledge, scientifically, and how that can help her mission. The surface conversation, which is able to control and structure the underlying subtext, [shows] that there is genuine romantic interest there.
You mentioned Howard’s gadgets. Will Peggy get any this season?
Yes. There’s more to come, I believe. From the amount of pranks that Dominic and I got up to on set, playing around near the lab, I do think there are quite a few and they are bizarre. They’re weird and wonderful, but what I love about these gadgets are; they’re so kitsch, but obviously back in the 1940s, they would have been so futuristic. There’s this lovely quality about them which, to me, is quite quaint. They have that period element, that in the ’40s would have been considered amazing. Just their design is very of its time, so it’s aesthetically very interesting.
Do you have a favorite gadget?
Yeah. It’s something that hasn’t come out yet. It’s in a later episode, but it’s brilliant. It kind of reminds me of Men In Black, and that’s all I’ll say.
Last season, Dotty as a villain kind of took Peggy by surprise, but with Whitney, it’s obvious that she’s up to something. How does Peggy having this knowledge affect her approach to taking on Whitney?
It’s a completely different story with Whitney because she’s a famous, Hollywood movie star. And she’s also a scientific genius. So Peggy’s dealing with someone who is not a trained assassin or someone who’s anonymous like Dottie who can take on all these aliases. This is someone who has a very public persona. That is quite exciting. It’s kind of extraordinary to Peggy, because it means that everyone’s staring at this absolute evil force, and they have no idea because they just associate her with being a famous movie star. It’s an incredible cover. Also, it means Peggy cannot trust Whitney at all, and Peggy can’t read her because she’s a brilliant actress. Peggy knows that this woman is capable of charming anyone or saying anything (and not mean it) and living a complete double life, which Peggy relates to as well. So with Whitney Frost, she really finds her nemesis. It’s the other side of the same coin.
One of the things I really enjoy about the series is how quickly Peggy seems to make friends with other women.
Yeah! She likes women. It’s funny, isn’t it? It might be a surprise for the audience seeing that because we don’t see much of that on television. A lot of friendships between women are based on the man involved, or sibling rivalry, or competition. Obviously, in reality, my experience is that I really like women. I get on with women and I can make friends quite easily with women. It’s just amazing to me that it’s a surprise to see that onscreen. I go “Well, yeah. Of course. That’s how life works.” Women do like each other. Not every woman’s out to stab another woman in the back as much as the media or Hollywood likes to dramatize, you know? This is a much more realistic representation of female relationships.
What about Peggy’s past? Are we going to learn a little bit more about her this season?
Absolutely! It was really thrilling because all that we really knew about Peggy was from her time in Captain America: The First Avenger. It was all very work related. Possibly, this season gets into what made Peggy who she is, those fork-in-the-road turning points which changed the course of her destiny. It was great for me because it gave me, and Peggy, kind of a call to purpose; what drives her in this direction, or makes her so tenacious, or makes her so stubborn, or makes her invest absolutely all that she is, heart and all, into her work. You get to see a younger Peggy, and you get to see the possibility of her life going in a completely different way, and how she managed to steer into a direction that eventually turns her into this spy.
Is there anything that surprised you about Peggy?
She always surprises me with her ability to turn something to her advantage really quickly. Whatever life throws at her, she manages to take it and then throw it back with wit, and with an elegance and a grace. I think that’s quite amazing, and I love that about her. She takes a fall, but she gets back up again, very quickly. Her feelings, at times, must be hurt, but she’s never at the mercy of her own emotions. When she’s somewhere and attacked, she can see from where her enemy is coming from, so she’s fully prepared to take what’s given to her and make the best of the situation. What really surprised me, but also made sense later on, is that she has such a strong foundation of family love that set her on the road to having this very strong moral compass in her. That’s very evident in the scenes that we will see in her early life.
Marvel’s Agent Carter airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.