Brideshead Revisited - Hayley Atwell interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
HAYLEY Atwell talks about playing the pivotal role of Julia in Brideshead Revisited, falling in love with Venice and researching a different kind of Catholicism to the one she already knew.
Having recently appeared in Cassandra’s Dream and The Duchess, she also discusses her career so far, the pinch-me moments as well as what she has coming up next.
Q. How aware of Brideshead Revisited were you before landing the role of Julia? Was it the TV series or Evelyn Waugh’s book?
Hayley Atwell: I knew of it but I hadn’t read it. It was one of those books where growing up and going to school in the English system, it always felt like a book that was either going to be on the syllabus or that I’d already read because it’s so ingrained within our consciousness. But I hadn’t actually read it and I hadn’t seen the television series, so I came to it completely new and fresh.
Q. Have you since read it?
Hayley Atwell: Yes, it became a great reference point because it’s so detailed and beautiful. The description of the emotional journeys of all the characters is very potent. So, it was able to make me add to my understanding of the part.
Q. I guess the changes they made benefited you most, in terms of bringing out the love triangle between Charles, Sebastian and your character, Julia?
Hayley Atwell: Absolutely. The Waugh estate is obviously very protective about how his work is used. But they supported the idea that Julia, for example, would make the trip to Venice. I think in the space of two hours, it needs to be distilled and the essence of the drama itself unfolds better with her being there.
Q. How similar are you to Julia?
Hayley Atwell: Oh, luckily I don’t feel like I share any qualities with her [laughs]… apart from a love of Venice! She’s quite a difficult character to get my head around and to like, because there are many aspects of her that are quite frustrating. Certainly, the choices that we make, or I would make now, are very different to the ones that she would have made then. She was very much a woman of her time. So, essentially what’s happening with Julia is that she’s in a constant inner-conflict. Sebastian is as well, but his is manifested through alcoholism. With Julia, it’s kind of a self-loathing and self-hatred that has come from constant self-judgment over how good a Catholic she is, and trying to deny her passions for Charles. She always believes that she’s ultimately a sinner. That’s very sympathetic and very difficult and, I’d imagine, very exhausting to live out in real life.
Q. You did look into religion quite a bit as part of your research, didn’t you?
Hayley Atwell: Well, I went to Catholic school. So I knew of the ceremonies and the basics about it but then I realised quite quickly that this was a very different form of Catholicism to the one I’d experienced. Mine was working class Irish and this was English aristocracy. Within that comes a huge sense of occasion and ceremony. We went to a Latin mass and just got a sense of the fact that these children every single day would have been sat there singing in Latin. It’s not that necessary to know the ins and outs of religion, because it’s one of those open-ended, un-ending questions, but it was more about taking bits that I felt were useful in the choices that she made.
Q. I think it’ll draw some strong opinions from people that are very devoutly religious. Are you interested to see what kind of debate it kicks off among them?
Hayley Atwell: Absolutely. What I saw at the end in the choices that Julia makes is that she’s ultimately faced with romantic love and sacrificial or spiritual love. I think she makes an incredibly mature choice and it’s something that she can live with for the rest of her life. Not to give the story away, but if she’d gone with the other option I don’t think she could have quite lived with herself. And because of that it feels like a very beautiful choice for her.
Q. I imagine that Venice was one of the highlights of the shoot?
Hayley Atwell: Without a doubt. The week or so that we were there was extraordinary. The weather was divine and there was also a great sense of celebration that you don’t get from the very austere, interior atmosphere that was created within Castle Howard during one of the wettest English summers on record. So, because of that, there was a great sense of relief by the time we got to Venice, and it came at the end of the shoot as well, so there was a natural feeling of winding down and that we were coming to the end of something we’d had a great deal of fun and enjoyment doing. I have started a love affair with Venice now.
Q. How was working with Emma Thompson, because I gather she had all of the cast round for dinner early on in the process?
Hayley Atwell: She did, quite a few times. We had a good laugh and she took care of us. She has a great generosity. It’s great for up and coming actors to be able to work with someone so encouraging and supportive. She knows so much and is willing to pass on her experience, as well as make us laugh and make sure we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. At times, this is a serious film.
Q. I guess it helped to create that sense of family as well?
Hayley Atwell: Yes, by the time we got on set we were very relaxed and comfortable with each other.
Q. You must have had quite a few pinch-me moments, like that, in the few years since you became an actress? Can you believe how fast it’s happened for you?
Hayley Atwell: The thing is, it’s finding the balance of allowing yourself to have those moments where you go, “wow this is fantastic”, and being able to fully enjoy it. But that comes from the experience of doing it all. For example, I’ve just come back from South Africa and working out there. One of the things on the list to do in my life was going on safari, and I’ve been able to have the opportunity to do that now. So, it’s being able to have these life experiences as well as the success in terms of looking at it career-wise.
But there’s also a feeling that everything is transitory. So, wanting to ride it, enjoy it but not think about it too much or want to hold onto it, or try and control anything that happens. So much of it is beyond your control. So, it’s kind of living each day as it comes.
Q. When did you know you wanted to become an actress?
Hayley Atwell: Oooh, when I was four. It wasn’t like: “I’m going to be an actress…” I loved watching theatre, and film, and television. It was a fantastic outlet and my favourite thing to do. I can’t remember the decision. It just felt like a completely natural thing… I just completely felt drawn into it and seduced by it all. I found myself going into it.
Q. Was there any one film or stage production that did it for you?
Hayley Atwell: There’s so many. I remember coming out of Mourning Becomes Electra, with Zoe Wanamaker in it, and just thinking about the power to move and transform an audience’s imagination to go somewhere was quite magical… and anything that Theatre de Complicite has done, which Simon McBurney runs. I remember going to see the Street of Crocodiles, which is a physical theatre devised piece, which was enthralling. It’s incredible what you can do with very little props and very little effects, and yet still create this magic.
Q. How was being directed by Woody Allen on Cassandra’s Dream?
Hayley Atwell: Bizarre and fantastic. I was less than a year out of drama school and working on my first film with Woody Allen. He kind of lets things happen and you feel that you’re not even really being directed. But then I guess that’s the magic of genius directors, who don’t look like they’re directing you… or you don’t quite see what they’re doing but they’re doing it.
Q. What’s next for you? Are you doing a remake of The Prisoner?
Hayley Atwell: Yes, that’s shooting in South Africa at the moment and will come out next spring. It’s quite different from Brideshead. It’s a psychological sci-fi thriller for TV. I don’t have any other films at the moment, so I’m just working on The Prisoner and seeing what happens after that.