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Conviction: Hayley Atwell talks playing Hayes Morrison

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John Medland/ABC

It’s out with the superspy and in with the superbad for Hayley Atwell on the legal procedural drama Conviction. The Marvel‘s Agent Carter star ditches Peggy’s 1940s adventures for former first daughter Hayes Morrison’s troubled life as a clever, rule-breaking lawyer whose literal get-out-of-jail-free card is to lead the Conviction Integrity Unit, a team charged with investigating possible wrongful incarcerations. Below, the 34-year-old actress talks tackling a new kind of heroine. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What drew you to this decidedly un-Peggy-like role?

HAYLEY ATWELL: To play someone who is really messy around the edges and doesn’t quite know herself is interesting to me. In every episode, she’s always at the verge of falling off her own existential cliff. She’s not like, “I’m a good person going to do the right thing.” She actually finds it hard to be a productive person. I think that makes her stand out. 

On that note, how do Hayes and Peggy compare?

They’re natural leaders. Peggy knows who she is. She’s got a strong moral compass, and she’s a very elegant woman of her time. Hayes, on the other hand, is someone who has grown up knowing what it means to have a public life and a private life. She has been disillusioned [by her past], so there’s sadness. She’s got a self-destructive streak in her. She’s still, at her age, acting out, but I think that makes for a really interesting heroine. Her need to get the truth out of those cases is because her attention to detail has been formed from very early difficult moments of witnessing people in her family tell lies. She’s always having to search for the truth because it wasn’t always clear when she was younger what was real and what was fake.

As a Brit, you also have to nail that American accent. What’s your approach to Hayes’ voice?

Well, I grew up watching American films and TV shows, so I’m familiar with the sound. Plus, my father’s American. I wanted her to sound like my voice but with an American accent, if that makes sense. I didn’t want to make her, like, [puts on a high-pitched, ditzy accent] “Oh my God.” [Returns to usual accent] I wanted to give her that strength, that clarity that Peggy has, but I didn’t want to make her sound so educated she comes off a snob. It’s kind of back in the throat a little bit and kind of a bit bored. It’s a bit tired, because most of the time she’s hungover.

You’ve played Peggy Carter since starring in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. How does it feel to leave her behind?

I love Peggy. I would go back to Peggy in a heartbeat. My Marvel family have committed to giving her a life if she can and wherever it can happen in the future. I’m open to that. 

What’s the biggest change for you to go from the set of a comic-book series to the set of a legal drama?

My word is now my weapon, you see. [Laughs] That’s the tradeoff. It’s no secret that I’m a goofball, so I like to create a relaxed environment where people feel that there is no hierarchy. That I learned from Agent Carter. But it’s nice to be wearing Valentino heels every day and Dolce & Gabbana outfits, so that’s very pleasant. 

Yeah, but no more of Peggy’s hat

The hat was only ever worn in one shot!

Still iconic!

[Laughs] Yeah, well, unfortunately, I’m always going to remember it in a photograph of James D’Arcy naked, wearing nothing but my hat to cover himself. That kind of the destroyed purity of that symbol. 

How much pressure do you feel leading your second show?

It’s my business to do the best that I can possibly do in this job, and that means that my focus is purely on the work itself rather than on any expectations. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing in that respect. The minute that you’re highly regarded in one area, that obviously sets the bar for a higher place for you to fall. I’m not really concerned with that, if you know what I mean. The great thing about my job is that every time you do a job, you’re standing again. You start from something new and part of like letting go of people’s preconceived ideas is letting go of your own preconceived ideas of what you can do and just try to recreate this whole other imaginary world, and that is great and very liberating.

Conviction premieres Monday, Oct. 3, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. 

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