Hayley Atwell highlights gay rights in The Pride

By Kev Geoghegan
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image captionAtwell plays the character of Sylvia in two different eras

English actress Hayley Atwell made her name on British television in series such as The Line of Beauty and Brideshead Revisited.

In 2007, she was cast in the Woody Allen film Cassandra's Dream and has since gone on to appear in films including The Duchess, opposite Keira Knightley and the acclaimed TV series Any Human Heart and Pillars of the Earth.

In 2011, she was cast opposite Chris Evans in the Marvel movie Captain America: The First Avenger as Agent Peggy Carter. She is starring in the film's sequel due out next year and her character has her own spin-off short film.

She is currently starring in a revival of Alexi Kaye Campbell's play The Pride at the Trafalgar Studios in London, playing the dual roles of Sylvia, an unhappy 1950s housewife stuck in a marriage to a closeted gay man and her modern day counterpart who is the gregarious best friend of a gay couple.

What have you been up to this week?

I've been at Pinewood rehearsing Cinderella for Kenneth Branagh, so I've been doing that during the day and then the shows in the evening. My character? When Cinderella is five-years-old she loses her mum and she's a good mum, that's all I can really say, that it's her biological mum. I'm really looking forward to working with him [Branagh], he knows how your mind works, so its wonderful. He's very thorough, like a theatre director. It's with Cate Blanchett as well so I'm in very good company - she's quite an extraordinary artist and I've been huge fan of her work.

The early reviews for The Pride have been very positive, have you been reading them?

I don't read them actually, we decided not to so we could be free from it all and concentrate on the work and giving audiences every night the opportunity to think and feel for themselves. But I get wind of it, my mum calls and goes 'can I read you this?'. I say 'no, no, no'. But I've heard that they've been positive which isn't surprising as when I read the play I thought it was so wonderful that even if we only managed a competent production, it would still do well. But I'm delighted.

It's been very meaningful for us as actors because of what's going on in Russia at the moment [a law, passed in June, prescribes heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under 18].

You play two characters, flipping between 1958 and 2008, was that a challenge?

It's part of what attracted me. In one scene I have about seven seconds to change costume between 50s Sylvia and modern day Sylvia and it's wonderful because it's a chance to show some versatility and choices between the characters - the buttoned up, stifled woman of the 50s compared with modern day Sylvia who is living as a very free liberated woman, free to love who she chooses and is having the happiest time of her life.

image captionMatt Horne (right) plays several characters including a lads' mag editor

One of the characters is an unhappy closeted gay man 50 years ago but one of the modern characters is unhappily promiscuous. What do you think the play is saying about the two eras?

They are two scenes that are either side of the sexual revolution, and two very different ways that society deals with homosexuality. In 1958 it was still illegal and then in 2013, we've just had this wonderful milestone of legalising gay marriage. So it's about how society shapes gay identity and it explores the idea of a subculture which society has imposed upon the gay community, one of promiscuity, and it says there is another side which is about intimacy and love between two people.

There is a profoundly upsetting scene in which a character submits to aversion therapy to "cure" him of being gay which seems monstrous by today's standards. Yet gay people are still oppressed across the world. Has anything really changed?

The scary thing is what that will do to a generation of young people [in Russia] who are having these thoughts and feelings towards members of their own sex but they're given no reference point that this is ok. This is just part of who they are and I think you'll get a lost generation of children growing up feeling that their country is telling them that this fundamental aspect of who they are is wrong. It's incredibly troubling because it's happening, not just in Russia, but in countries like Georgia and Cameroon and the statistics in this country of homophobic attacks is frightening.

The cast have been appearing at the curtain call with placards reading 'To Russia With Love' - was this a spontaneous protest?

It happened after we had been rehearsing, we heard about the protest in Whitehall in support of Russian gay rights and we went along and it was very moving and we felt it was very positive. After our third or fourth preview, the director [Jamie Lloyd) suggested we step up what it was that the play stood for. It really is extraordinary what happens because the audience is incredibly warm, people stand up in support and we heard one man shout a huge thank you. So it feels right.

Moving away from The Pride, Peggy Carter is back in the new Captain America movie and has even got her own spinoff short film.

image captionAtwell will return in the second Captain America film

It's humbling because I went to Comic Con for a couple of days to promote the short film [Agent Carter] that I did for Marvel which is a DVD extra for Iron Man and it was incredibly well received and there are thousands of people there to support their favourite comic books and they take it very seriously. It was kind of an epilogue to the first Captain America film. But it was great fun for me because I got to do a lot more fighting. It's exciting to step back to the character after a couple of years seeing how popular she is.

Does that mean you have your own action figure?

I don't know, I would love that, I'm sure my mum would like that and put it on the mantelpiece. Would it make a good Christmas present? I think a little miniature of me would be deeply narcissistic.

The Pride is on at the Trafalgar Studios until 9 November as part of the Trafalgar Transformed season.

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