Christopher Robin star Hayley Atwell on the lack of female-led superhero movies: “That's a champagne problem”

Stefan Pape
Actress Hayley Atwell poses at the world premiere of Disney’s “Christopher Robin,” in Burbank, California, U.S., July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

As a key player in the MCU, British actress Hayley Atwell (Agent Carter) is well-placed to comment on the current state of the genre.

And there’s plenty to talk about. Recently, The Wasp became the first female superhero to be given a titular name in a Marvel movie – even if she did have to share it with Ant-Man – and while Atwell agrees that the evolution is hugely encouraging, the Christopher Robin actress describes the situation as a ‘champagne problem.’

“Yes, it’s disheartening that it’s the first time we’ve had a female superhero in a Marvel title,” Atwell told Yahoo Movies UK. “But that’s a champagne problem, what it suggests and what it symbolises is that there is an unbelievable disparity in the world that needs to be addressed.”

More of that later. But Atwell isn’t in town discuss Marvel, she’s here to promote a different Disney property, Christopher Robin, where she plays the eponymous lead’s wife Evelyn. It’s a film she describes as so moving, she cried during the opening titles.

She’s clearly proud of Christopher Robin, which we discussed at length in our exclusive chat – starting with the slightly unusual way she got the part…

Director Marc Forster, actors Ewan McGregor, Bronte Carmichael, holding a stuffed Winnie the Pooh toy, Hayley Atwell, and songwriter Richard M. Sherman pose at the world premiere of Disney’s “Christopher Robin,” in Burbank, California, U.S., July 30, 2018. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

Yahoo Movies UK: So you rode a jet-ski to help get this part…

Hayley Atwell: I did. I was on holiday in Greece and I had an erratic reception, and I got an email asking me to speak with Marc Forster and that he had a script for me.

I read it and really liked it but I couldn’t get a reception, so the captain of the boat that I was on, pointed out a rock and told me to go beyond it for about 10 minutes and I’d find a spot in the middle of the ocean that would give me reception.

So I put my life jacket on and a got on a jet ski and tucked my phone into my jacket and I was finally able to get enough reception to call him. He picked up and I said, ‘hello Marc, my name is Hayley and this is my office…’ and it broke the ice, very quickly.

It’s a really moving film, are you able to get caught up in it emotionally? Even just across your career, is that engagement possible?

I did with this, I cried during the opening credits the first time I saw it, because I loved the aesthetic of the original books and the fact the animals look like worn toys, rather than spruced up Hollywood versions.

I felt the charm and the endearing qualities of the books was on the screen, and the message of unconditional love, and sweetness and gentleness, I found to be very moving, and a great antidote to a lot of content at the moment, because this is a very gentle film, it’s not trying to be anything other than the essence of Pooh bear.

Had you seen the designs of what the characters would look like?

They showed us when we were filming which was great and really helpful because when working with the stuffed toys that looked exactly like the animated versions, it helped the imagination when you know that’s what it will end up looking like.

As soon as we saw it, Ewan and myself, and the other actors, it took our breath away. We knew they’d done it, they’d nailed it.

You call it an antidote, the news at the moment is depressing no matter which way we turn, and you have films like this and like Paddington, and it just feels like we need movies like this. Uncynical, warm and gentle films steeped in nostalgia.

Absolutely. Also, and this isn’t reported on as much because it’s not as interesting and doesn’t sell newspapers, but at the core of lots of very healthy families and communities, is this sort of love and this sort of gentleness, and this kindness.

We have these innate qualities within us as children, a natural curiosity for the world. Children say things that are profound without realising, sweetly misunderstood but actually sound very wise, and these qualities are not sentimental, or even that nostalgic.

I think we relate to them and we like them because if we have any love in our lives, we connect to that quality.

Actor Hayley Atwell, who plays Evelyn Robin, attends the European premiere of “Christopher Robin” in central London, Britain, August 5, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

Another resonant theme is how easy it is to lose sight of certain things in our lives, and the older we get, the more absorbed we get in the trivial aspects, paying bills, deadlines at work. But we forget the more pure, simple aspects, like family.

Absolutely, you have Christopher Robin who represents the adult bogged-down with everyday responsibilities and the pressures to provide with the family, but also be ambitious as well.

But his life is his family, so what exactly is he working towards? That it’s going to be better? This is it, for Evelyn this is as good as it gets, she doesn’t need or want anything else, so for him to go off and be ambitious, he’s missing the point. It’s a great message.

It’s fantastic to be ambition but if that becomes your main distraction in life then you’re missing out the opportunity to enjoy the simple pleasures.

This seems to be sentimental, or boring, but that’s when moments of real play, when creativity kicks in and our imagination kicks in and we get the opportunity to see the world through new eyes for a moment.

Is that particularly the case in the world of filmmaking? Because the balance of work and family can be tough, as actors have to go off for three or four months at a time. Can it be difficult to balance those great jobs and great roles, with need to spend time with family and friends?

Well yeah, but I guess it’s different in that, if I have three months off, that’s really unusual.

If I was doing a 9-5 job how often really would I be spending time with loved ones? A few evenings a week, and weekends? But then you also have to fit in household chores and all the other responsibilities that come with it.

So in terms of actual leisure time, even though I may make a film and be away for a few months, I come back and I’m home for a few months, I’m literally not having to do anything.

So I find it a hugely privileged position to be in, and when you get the balance right of knowing how to still feel like you’re in contact with people that you love when you’re away, which is all about good communication and regular routine to have quality time on the phone or Skype or whatever, then you come home and you’re completely available to them, so I think it’s actually the opposite.

I’ve spent more time with loved ones and friends than I would if I had stayed in the same place and had the routine of a 9-5.

Some time has passed since Agent Carter, have you ever experienced anything quite like that? That universe and that fandom – it must’ve been quite surreal to have stepped into?

I suppose so, but it’s for them. People relate to her, they like her, she is a figurehead in some ways for female empowerment and that’s their own experience of her. I’m three years away from having played her and I’ve done so much since.

This world fo Agent Carter is still existing without me having to be present for it, and that’s the relationship between the fans and the character, rather than with me really.

I have been to conventions and I feel grateful to have that amount of attention on the character who isn’t overly sexualised, that is not also a villain, because it means the people who are drawn to Peggy Carter are people who share similar qualities that she has, or like the qualities that she has, so they tend to be nice people, so I lucked out, if there was one character to follow me round, it’s very nice that it’s her.

Was it quite disappointing to learn there wouldn’t be another series? Or, given how much you’ve done since, can it actually be a blessing in disguise, to give you that freedom to try much more away from the restriction of a TV series?

It wasn’t disappointing at all. It’s bizarre to me that I would get to play a role and revisit her over years, that’s unheard of as an actor.

It’s not what I set out to do, I know there are some actors who are 20 years on a show, which is amazing, and I’m sure they are doing that because they are getting lots of new challenges in how their character develops, and they get paid very well and they have a very nice life, but I’m too restless.

I want variety, and I want to be challenged in new ways, and if I’m playing the same thing over and over again, it’s very hard to do new things with it.

So for me it wasn’t a disappointment, for me it was just the end of that, and now there’s this whole other world I’ve been given the chance to explore, and I always wanted to feel like I was moving forward.

That said… is this the end of Peggy Carter for you? If there scope in a few years to maybe revisit her, would you entertain the idea, or is it a closed book for you?

Oh I would entertain it. I really liked working with those guys, I just wouldn’t want to go over old ground.

I would want it to have high-production value, and a better platform, and a fantastic script, or her own movie, or a shared movie, it would have to feel like it was a huge progression for me, because I wouldn’t want to feel like I’m moving backwards.

I also think that’s what the fans deserve. Why show them the same old thing just to make a buck? When you could do something more interesting with it, and move it forward.

NEW YORK CITY ― When “Agent Carter” was canceled in May 2016, Hayley Atwell

Evangeline Lily’s The Wasp recently hit our screens, and that comes soon after Wonder Woman, and not long before Captain Marvel. Does it feel like there has been a progression the superhero genre of late? At long last the female superheroes are getting their chance in the spotlight.

Yeah, and Kevin Feige was also recently saying something along those lines, he wants more diversity and more female-led shows and content, which is fantastic.

Something like Wonder Woman was a great example of showing that you can have a female-led superhero film, directed by a female, and break box office records and be good, so there is now absolutely no excuse why there isn’t more female-led narratives in film, and have women be better represented in that world, there’s just no excuse for it because it’s bringing in the money.

That is the place to create any sort of change, you get into the economics of it. If it’s going to make money and people are going to go and see it, that’s the cynicism, but also the way that world works.

So Wonder Woman was great in that sense, of course it did well. Women have always known it and most men have always known it, but now the box office is the evidence that suggests that it’s the time now for more of it, and there will be.

Even though it’s great, at the same time, learning that The Wasp is the first ever female superhero in the Marvel universe to have her name in a title – and that’s shared – is absurd. It’s the first time it’s ever happened, so even though it’s positive we’re progressing, it’s still disheartening that it has taken this long.

Yeah of course, but the actual reality of women in the world is disheartening. It doesn’t look that way from the outside, but when you dig into it…

Hollywood is one thing, but we’re dealing with disparity across the board in industries where people in far less privileged positions don’t have the power and have to endure abuse and harassment and disparity in pay to make ends meet, for no lack of skill or work ethic, but purely because they’re women. That’s sad.

So yes it’s disheartening that it’s the first time we’ve had a female superhero in a Marvel title, but that’s a champagne problem, but what it suggests and what it symbolises is that there is an unbelievable disparity in the world that needs to be addressed.

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