Hayley Atwell on Howards End, Facebook and feminism

2 Nov|Tom Hodgkinson

Hayley Atwell at Emery Walker's House in Hammersmith

For issue 57 of the Idler, says Tom Hodgkinson, I went to interview the lovely Hayley Atwell to talk about playing the role of Margaret Schlegel in the new adaptation of EM Forster’s Howards End, now starting in the US on Starz. Here are a few highlights. Pics by Chris Floyd

Why Hayley ditched Twitter and Facebook
Tom Hodgkinson: Tell us about your attitude to different social media, Facebook, Twitter?
Hayley Atwell: I came off Twitter. I had close to a million followers and I had women, girls in particular, saying, “Thanks to your character, I’m seventy days self-harm free”. They would project a lot on to me, that I was their saviour. I understand it was a fifteen-year old girl thing. I’m sure I did it when I was that age. But I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I wasn’t sure what I felt either way so I came off it for a bit. And I came off Facebook. I found that there were probably only about ten people on Facebook that I actually would have gone for a cup of tea with. The other thing I felt is that it stopped me from being able to have face-to-face conversations with people. I would know what my godchildren were doing and looked like, but not because I’d spent any time with them. My best mate doesn’t know that I’ve seen all this. It’s not a conversation. So I actually found that social media was making me very lonely. I would see other people’s posts, and we only project what we want the world to see, so it was all bullshit. So I came off of it and went back on Instagram. But I made some social media rules that I now live by, which is to never post when hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Don’t look up ex-boyfriends. Don’t look up people that you’re jealous of. Don’t Google yourself. Do not read comments. Contribute positively. Don’t engage in controversy or become too political.

Hayley on bohemia, money and talented women
HA: Yes, my parents were self-made and I was as well. So I relate more to the Basts [Leonard Bast is the lowly clerk, longing for a richer intellectual life, in Forster’s book] in that respect, as opposed to the Schlegels, who were born into security.
TH: You didn’t have the trustafarian private income.
HA: Exactly, there was none of that for me. So I, of course, chose a really secure industry to go into [laughs]! I relate to Bast’s desire to advance himself based on literature and art. The tragedy is that that becomes his downfall. He was born in the wrong time. I was born in a time when all of that was available and open to me despite the fact that we didn’t have the income that the Schlegels or the Wilcoxes do [the thrustingly named Mr Wilcox is one of the main characters]. But the Basts have a terribly tragic end because they are the constructs of their time.
TH: Do you think it’s really saying that it was futile at that time for people to live an artistic or bohemian life without money?
HA: I think it’s showing it was virtually impossible. The very few that did break through had an exceptional talent or found their way. They were rare.
TH: You had the occasional one, D.H. Lawrence for example, who came from a humble background.
HA: Even fewer women, if any. I think of Mary Wollstonecraft. She was born into a secure household but then the family lost all the money. She became a teacher and then later started her own school. But her family had fallen into poverty. So you have the occasional woman like that.
TH: I read some of the letters that she wrote to William Godwin, the first great anarchist, and it seems there were quite a lot of bluestocking women, who were translators. More than you would have thought, considering it was the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth century.
HA: You think about all the lost talent and potential of women who, given the situation, might have been pioneers. I imagine the Schlegels would be a part of that.
TH: Forster was perhaps reflecting something that was going on at the time.
HA: Definitely – with the Bloomsbury set and the Suffragette movement. But the Schlegels are not as political, I think. Margaret is not really bohemian.

Why are movie stars unhappy?
HA: I don’t know many happy movie stars, to be honest.
TH: Why are they so unhappy?
HA: It’s a goldfish bowl experience that they have. There is a hysteria that surrounds them. It attracts addictive personalities but it also perpetuates it – that kind of environment of excess. That can be very lonely for the person in the middle of it. Not knowing who to trust. Their ego becomes very fragile. It becomes tough taking constructive criticism.

Hayley on not having a telly but loving Mary Killen on Gogglebox
TH: Why don’t you have a telly?
HA: Partly because I travel so much. I grew up with telly. Pot noodle and the television. I find that I can be more discerning on a laptop. It’s a different thing. It helps me monitor what I put into my head. I’m so susceptible to my environment.
TH: So you don’t crash out in front of the telly in the evening?
HA: Yes, but it’s on BBC iPlayer. It’ll be Gogglebox. I love that, and cooking programmes.
TH: Gogglebox is pretty much all I watch as well.
HA: I love Mary [Killen] and Giles [Wood] from Wiltshire. I saw her on the King’s Road the other day and was completely star-struck.
TH: Have you seen Game of Thrones?
HA: Er… yes?
TH: Stewart Lee does a routine about it. He hasn’t seen one single one, nor have I.
HA: I’ve seen two episodes so I’m not part of that inner circle… I do get a bit suspicious about things that attract mass hysteria. I don’t want my opinion to be hijacked by the popular vote. When I discover something, it’s so special for me because I’m not just following like a lemming. I did love Fleabag and I loved The Crown. But I love off the wall stuff. I’m a fan of Mighty Boosh and I loved Julian’s wife, Julia Davis, in Nighty Night.

For the full interview and all the pics, get the mag direct from us.