As an actress growing up in the United Kingdom, Hayley Atwell knew there were a handful of strong, compelling female characters she wanted to play: Margaret Schlegel, the lead of “Howards End,” was one of them.
“There tends to be the wish list of the kinds of characters that you hope to play one day, whether it be Lady MacBeth or Hedda Gabler or Cleopatra or these other great heroines, if it’s in a Jane Austen novel or any kind of novel,” Atwell told IndieWire’s TURN IT ON podcast. That included Margaret, whom she plays in the Starz limited series version of “Howards End,” adapted for TV by Kenneth Lonergan.
“I had a chance to play a fully formed, interesting woman so different to me that I had to [do it],” she said. “I would love to be more like her but it felt like a fulfilling creative challenge to bring her to life. I really want to give it my all because I know she’s a loved character and the book writes her so brilliantly.”
“Howards End,” of course, was also turned into a 1992 feature starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Not only did Atwell consult Thompson on playing Margaret, but they actually went on holiday together in Greece.
“She knew what a treat lay in store and she was right, I loved playing her,” Atwell said.
IndieWire’s TURN IT ON recently sat down with Atwell to discuss “Howards End” and its timeless appeal, as well as what it was like working with the legendary Tracey Ullman, whether there might ever be a “Howard’s End” sequel, where she stands on the return of Peggy Carter, and her take on American broadcast network TV. First, we began by discussing her whirlwind schedule in promoting the limited-run series. Listen below!
The E.M. Forster novel “Howards End” centers on the smart and idealistic sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel as they live together in Edwardian London with their brother Tibby. After meeting the wealthy Wilcox family, Margaret befriends the family matriarch, Ruth Wilcox. But after Ruth dies, Margaret finds herself infatuated with the widower Henry Wilcox, despite his conservative leanings.
Besides Atwell as Margaret, this new version features Phillipa Coulthard as Helen, with Alex Lawther as Tibby, while Julia Ormond is Ruth Wilcox, Matthew Macfayden plays Henry Wilcox and Tracey Ullman is the sisters’ Aunt Juley.
Lonergan wrote the four-part series by leaning into relatable topics, including how society is continuing to adjust to changes in politics, society and technology.
“Kenny Lonergan writes in a way where the language magically tells the actor how to do it and it’s because he writes human emotion and human psychology and the rhythm is very clear,” Atwell said. “The commas are there for a reason. You know that he’s going to have an 11-page scene with five different actors speaking at the same time, so he will plan that out almost like a music score. When you learn all those technically, it teaches you how to say it.”
BAFTA winner Hettie Macdonald directed the series, which also focused on a stylized yet contemporary-feeling look and sound. Macdonald had a rule: Don’t try too hard to fit to the time period.
“[Macdonald said,] ‘If it seems like it’s sounding too posh and up its own bottom then I’m going to tell you to take it down a notch because we want to make it feel accessible,'” Atwell relayed. “You want modern audiences to relate to these characters now.”
The series wraps on Sunday; is there any chance the BBC and Starz might revisit it with new stories? “No, I would be so shocked. I don’t think that’s the case. That’s the book and let that be its thing,” Atwell said. “I’m doing other projects that could have the same sensibilities, looking for more female narratives.”
But that doesn’t mean a return to Agent Peggy Carter, as Atwell feels she’s exhausted that character. “I’ve loved playing her because I’ve loved how the people amazingly responded to her,” she said. “I think if they were going to develop her in some way [but] I don’t want to go over old territory. I like moving forward and taking on new challenges and I don’t want to just sit there popping up again going, ‘Hello! This is me in the same wig.’ She’s a wonderful character. I don’t love her any more or any less than some of the other characters that I’ve played that I’m not known for.”
The “Howards End” finale airs Sunday, April 29 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz.
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.