Put aside everything you saw in the 1992 adaptation of Howard’s End and sink yourself into the 2018 Starz version adapted by Kenneth Lonergan. This version lends itself closer to the book, but offers a stellar cast of richly developed female characters. Hayley Atwell plays Margaret Schlegel in the mini-series that allows us to explore the characters, the sibling love between Margaret and Meg (Philippa Coulthard).
Atwell chatted with Awardsdaily TV to discuss the delight in playing a character so developed and inheriting the role of this well-loved character.
Howard’s End was just a delight to watch. It was so much fun to revisit it this time and in this way. Was it as much fun to make?
I like to have a giggle when I’m working. I’m more relaxed if I’m enjoying the experience. I think she’s a character who is very in the world. She’s very present so there’s very little reflection or navel-gazing with Margaret which I really like. I enjoyed the ensemble piece of it.
There was so much detail about how she tried to figure out her place in the world and making decisions that take care of everyone’s very contradictory viewpoints and doing it with as much love and compassion for them as well as her own moral compass. I loved that she had a rich inner life and it made me feel very romantic in the poetry of her and the world a bit. To have conversations and proper debates about social reform and to have them intelligently. To really want to understand someone else’s viewpoint and to help them understand where they sit with it, was so rich.
There were so many things to love about her. Her conflicts and what she stood for. Where did you connect with her in that sense?
I don’t really compare my self with her. I find it can be really reductive as an actor. I don’t find it useful to go, “She’s so like this and I’m not like that.” I don’t want to think about whether I agree with her or not. I wanted to convey that sibling connection that she has with Helen. They are two sides of the same coin yet they are vastly different. They connect to each other as siblings do and have arguments, but it’s completely based on love and they have such respect for each other. That’s what I loved about her really, the love for the people in her life. I loved her instinct to turn toward people rather than away from them when they show opposing views.
You have someone like Ruth Wilcox who says very early on, “I’m just pleased that women don’t have a vote. Those conversations should be left to the men.” Margaret sat there and you think, as an audience member she is saying the worst things that she could to Margaret. Margaret stands back and says, “I like you so much and I’m so interested in figuring out who you are and how you see the world and it’s so different to mine. ” She does it without being judgemental or condescending. In a world where we live in with the very left and very right and social media and this is right and this is wrong. Margaret joins those conversations with a humanity and a let’s- not-change-each-other gentleness, but knows there’s space for all of us to co-exist.
The heart of the story is the emotional intelligence. What was that like to have a character like that and to have that rare part of seeing sibling love??
There was a lot of work to do. Every line was there for a reason. Every comma was there for a reason. It took time and it appealed to the audience’s intelligence. The characters are experiencing the story unfolding as they go along. I wanted to make sure that every moment was filled with what Kenny wanted his adaptation to say and what E.M Forster wanted the book to be. It meant we’d begin each day with rehearsing like a play. Hettie MacDonald comes from the theater so she starts each day with the actors on set, book in hand and then going through it. Margaret is thinking of selling the house, she’s started this relationship with Henry. At this point, she walks into the dining room with a letter in her hand. So, on the basis of that, Hettie would say we had the shape of it and then bring the crew in.
The crew would come in and film what we as actors had created. That gives the actor more of a platform to make choices rather than be like, “they want me on my mark here”, I say my line, and I go there. Sometimes that can make period dramas lack in life and energy. It was a lot to do because we had four hours of a very rich script. There were a lot of takes and wondering which way to do it. It was a lot of work and that’s what I relish because I can get lost in it. This was a chance for proper ensemble work and great material to tell a story. The more I get to do, the better performance I get to give.
You’re very good friends with Emma Thompson. What advice did she give you?
She wouldn’t infringe on someone’s interpretation of it. She said, “You’re going to love playing her. Margaret is such a wonderfully rich character and it’s so wonderful to inherit her world.”
In theater, you don’t think so and so made the role before you. You say the reason it’s being told is because this is a canon of great roles for women. You have a bash at it. I’m a custodian of Margaret at this time, for this period we’re filming. Lots of actresses want to have a bash at the classics. There’s no ownership in this realm of characters. There’s just adaptations and interpretations of them and they’re created by groups of other filmmakers.
What was your history with Howard’s End before joining the show?
I hadn’t read the book. My main interest in it was that Kenneth was adapting it and I’d recently seen Manchester By The Sea. I knew Kenneth’s work and that he was considered by many to be the actor’s writer. He was a modern day American writer and playwright tackling material that could otherwise seem like a stuffy period drama with too much reverence and nostalgia for British Television. I felt he could come in and make it affecting without being too emotional and having the touch of E. M. Forster has throughout the book where you have these characters who can say these things and they have big emotions that are delivered with light wit. It was very much Kenny’s involvement in it that made me want to do it.