Anyone who follows Hayley Atwell on instagram knows she has a lively sense of humor. As it turns out, the actress brings those impish qualities with her to set — even when she’s shooting a sophisticated period piece like Howards End. Atwell stars as the independent and liberal-minded Margaret Schlagel in Starz’s adaptation of the E.M. Forster novel, alongside Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen (as Margaret’s love interest Henry Wilcox) and The End of the F***ing World‘s Alex Lawther (as her droll brother, Tibby). Though the drama tackles serious issues like social inequality and women’s rights, Atwell told EW’s Chasing Emmy podcast that it was important to her to keep the mood light on set.
“You never want to feel like you’re taking yourself too seriously,” she explained. “The work you take seriously, and what’s required of you, but I always find that creative sets… are the ones where there’s a lot of play happening. And if I can find ways to make people giggle or do little pranks it relieves any sort of tension and it bursts the bubble of people living in their own heads.”
Some of those “little pranks” involved “silly backstories” made up by Atwell and her castmates about why Lawther’s character, Tibby Schlegel, is so eccentric. “We had a running joke that Tibby’s troubles have all stemmed from the fact that Aunt Juley [played by Tracey Ullman] is still breastfeeding him,” she said, laughing. “And we were talking about Tibby always having imaginary friends, so I went on to Etsy and I got this really weird looking puppet and I just left it in his trailer one day.”
Atwell’s on-screen love interest was also the target of the actress’s practical jokes. Though the character of Mr. Wilcox is a self-assured titan of industry, Atwell and Macfadyen concocted a fan theory that Margaret Schlegel meant to destroy him. “We had an ongoing gag that in fact maybe this whole time Margaret’s actually kind of evil genius mastermind, and she’s set out to completely emasculate Mr. Wilcox, so by the end he’s a giant baby and he can’t string a sentence together anymore,” Atwell said. “We imagined him sat in his bedroom just in a giant diaper.” In keeping with that idea, she continued, “on the last day of filming I planted a diaper inside Matthew Macfadyen’s costume, and then a training potty in his bathroom, and I put a pacifier in his pocket.” Atwell also arranged it so that her costar “was given a cup of tea in a sippy cup with a bib” during their lunch break. “It was very naughty,” she admitted with a laugh.
To hear more from Atwell — including her problem with how Hollywood portrays romance and relationships — listen to the full interview above. And for more TV news, subscribe to the Chasing Emmy podcast here.
Howards End is available to stream on the Starz app or YouTube.