‘Mission: Impossible’ Star Hayley Atwell Has Waited Over 17 Years for Her True Blockbuster Moment

‘Mission: Impossible’ Star Hayley Atwell Has Waited Over 17 Years for Her True Blockbuster Moment

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In 2013, when Hayley Atwell took the stage for Trafalgar Studios’ production of The Pride, she had no idea that future co-architect of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Christopher “McQ” McQuarrie, was in attendance. Atwell had already read for McQ and Tom Cruise’s 2012 film, Jack Reacher, but on this particular occasion, McQ was so gobsmacked by her live performance that he took the actor out to dinner and stated his intentions to write a role for her someday. Well, someday became 2019, as McQ and Cruise needed a new leading lady to play Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One’s master thief, Grace.

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Atwell has waited over 17 years for an opportunity like this in a blockbuster film. Yes, she’s played the fan-favorite Peggy Carter at least a half-dozen times in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but her big screen opportunities were almost always in service of another character’s story, that of Steve Rogers/Captain America. In Dead Reckoning Part One, Atwell is finally at the center of a tentpole feature, and that is evident when Grace gets the better of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt multiple times during the first half of the film.

“I was finally given the trust and the platform … to show more range and to show more emotional depth in a franchise or something of this size, which I hadn’t been afforded before,” Atwell tells The Hollywood Reporter in a conversation conducted ahead of the SAG-AFTRA strike. “And so I have this eternal gratitude to Tom and to McQ, who provided the resources and the support system every day on set so that I could thrive. It’s been a deliverance of a long time coming. After 17 years in this industry, I’ve finally been able to do something at this level, with this quality of filmmaking, and I’d never been afforded that before.”

In a production filled with indelible moments, Atwell will never forget a rainy day in Rome, where she drifted during a car chase, all while Cruise was handcuffed to her. 

“There’s about 20 minutes of footage of us (drifting) over and over again,” Atwell says. “And then Tom led a round of applause from the crew, and McQ said, ‘Tom put his life in your hands just then and he wouldn’t have allowed you to do that had he not believed that you could look after him, too.’ So they’re never short on their praise for when actors come in and deliver for them. That’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

Below, during a conversation with THR, Atwell also discusses Grace’s real name and backstory, before previewing Dead Reckoning Part Two’s Arctic location in Svalbard, Norway.

So, if I recall correctly, McQ was impressed by your work in a play after you were already in the mix for Jack Reacher, and he’s kept you in mind ever since. Is that the basic origin story? 

That’s correct, yes. McQ saw me in The Pride in Trafalgar Studios about ten years ago. He took me out for dinner after and said, “That thing you did on that stage, I want it. I want to bottle it. I don’t know what the character or story would be …” So he’s never forgotten it, and he quoted back a line to me from The Pride the other day. It’s like, “Wow, it really stayed with him.” The character is overcome with this really difficult period in life, and she just says, “All that wasted time.” And so he said it to me. McQ is a really good actor. He’s very engaging. He delivered it in such a beautiful, emotional way, and it took me right back to that moment.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance

As a highly trained actor, how did you take to a process where the story and the character are still in flux throughout production?

I think my classical training allowed me to surrender to the process of it, without sounding too arty. When you do a degree of three years, you’re trying out lots of different things and failing on a daily basis, or at least you’re feeling like you are. You’re taking lots of risks and you don’t know what skill set you have. You’re still honing in that toolkit. So it put me in good stead of having a work ethic, and if I trust the filmmakers I’m working with to only put into the movie the thing that’s gonna serve the story, then there’s a freedom in it and I can try lots of different things. 

With Grace, I really wanted her to be more than one thing, because we are all more than one thing. She has her moments of self-assurance and then self-doubt, and courage and then fear, in the face of these high stakes. So that sense of not knowing, that hypervigilance, is with her throughout, and I just felt like I could ground her and give her a bit more depth than just relying on the physical visual spectacle that we were creating.

So there’s footage of the cast watching Tom’s motorcycle jump on day one, and almost everybody started laughing once he went over the edge. Was the laughter a way to cope with the sheer terror of what he was doing? 

I think it was just the exasperation. We’d heard about this, and we’d seen him in preparation and training for it. We’d seen the engineers design and build that ramp at that location. We’d seen him that morning jump off the helicopter over that precipice to test the wind, and so the laughter came out of just awe. A man was risking his life for the movie and to delight his audiences. I actually laughed more once I’d heard that the canopy had successfully been deployed and he’d made it back to the ground. I laughed even harder when the first words out of his mouth were something like, “Okay, I think I can go further off the motorbike.” He was immediately giving himself notes about how to do it better next time. He was like, “Okay, yep. We got that one. Let’s move on.” So the sheer dedication to craft and to entertain just takes your breath away.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Hayley, you are the only person in recorded history who’s experienced a car chase in Rome while handcuffed to Tom Cruise. 

(Laughs.)

So, what do you want the history books to know about this experience?

That being outside of your comfort zone can lead to very unexpected beautiful things if you trust your scene partner and if you’ve done the preparation that it takes to be able to put yourself in a situation like that, not only to do it safely, but also to be able to throw out different performances. And Tom, as we all know, is so diligent in his preparation and his discipline, and that becomes very contagious for me to want to also meet him at those intense places. I also knew that there was this huge safety net there and that he’s not reckless, so we were able to have fun with it.

Ethan pulls her file and then extrapolates as to what Grace’s likely backstory is, and I loved the way you played that moment with this almost prideful look on your face. Do you think he was right on the money?

Yeah, it helped me a lot, because I’d already started shooting before they’d written that scene. So I wasn’t sure exactly about the backstory that they would give her, and I’m really pleased that they did say that she’s an orphan. Her need for survival turned her into an opportunist and someone who wanted nice things, “other people’s things,” because she hadn’t come from any sort of privilege or luxury. And I thought, “Okay, that makes sense for the choices that she makes and the way that she changes the plot and pulls the rug from underneath his feet.” She’s not doing that because she enjoys watching other people suffer. She’s doing it because she has a very strong need to survive and be hyper independent in the world.

I know this is an action franchise, but I do try to work out a psychological profile for a character I’m playing, so I can root her in something that often comes from a core wound. And I thought, “Well, how great,” because it shows me there in that moment that if human beings are wired for connection, then that is the reason why we can survive our attachment to our primary caregivers or the world that we are born into. But if she can’t do that, then she’s very fearful of other people. She can’t trust them. Maybe she’s been betrayed by them, and so out of that comes why she does the things she does. And I thought, “They’ve hit the nail on the head of being able to have the audience not despise her or dislike her for all the things she does,” particularly to Ethan at the beginning of the movie. You go, “Okay, so she comes from that perspective. That makes more sense.” It’s a more humane way as to why she does the thing she does.

When Ethan asks for her name, she says, “How about Grace?” which implies that it’s not her real name. I think you can actually see a few letters of her real name on a passport later in the film. (Writer’s Note: “Fr Mar” is visible on the third-act passport.) But do you know her real name yet?

It wasn’t until after we finished filming and McQ had inserted a closeup of this passport where you do see those couple of names, that he sent me the name and some backstory about the name and where it came from. And I thought, “Oh, that’s such a good Easter egg.” And who knows if that is another alias? But I think it’s probably gonna be explored more in Part Two. Their attention to detail when it comes to little things like that is really fun for an actor. It’s also fun for the fans to be able to go back and go, “Oh, that moment was planted early on.” It’s a lovely callback and shows the attention that McQ as a filmmaker puts into things that seem, on the surface, as sweeping visual delight and spectacle. He’s put a lot of thought into each of the characters’ lives, and I I love that.

In Venice, there’s a moment where Ethan says, “Your life will always matter more to me than my own,” and it cuts to Grace, who has tears in her eyes that are on the verge of falling. Did you play it as her being moved by Ethan’s words, or were the tears a residual effect of recent tragedy? 

At the time, we did lots of variations where she’s still defiant and still unwilling to trust him. She’s coming into this world where she would have to give up the independence that she has not only enjoyed, but also depended on to survive. And so I knew that would be a very emotionally conflicting moment for her. In retrospect, where we ended up taking it is that deep down, whether she’s aware of it or not, that’s something she’s always wanted to hear from another human being. It’s the idea that someone else has got her back, without an agenda. She says, “You don’t even know me,” so she’s definitely not earned that from him by that point at all. But deep down, she really wants that relief of having someone look out for her. 

Also, the cost now of caring about another human being and being cared for is a lot for her to take, because the cost of caring and trusting someone for the first time means the risk of losing that person or being betrayed by them. So, in that moment, she’s just on the verge of really wanting to believe that it’s real, because it’s something that she’s always wanted. So when she says, “Promise me you’ll be on that train,” I feel like later it’s her going, “When you said your life wouldn’t be more to me than my own, I need you now to prove it.”

So, don’t get me wrong, you’ve had some amazing moments in Marvel movies, but I’ve honestly always felt like there was some untapped potential there, something McQ has now fulfilled in Mission. You’re as active as you’ve ever been and you show a wide range of your abilities. So do you feel like this is the center stage moment you’ve been waiting for in a blockbuster film? 

Yes. (Laughs.) On this level, yeah. I’ve had plays or productions that I’ve done in London, which, of course, is to a live audience, and so it’s not lived beyond the performance that night. It’s not immortalized on camera. But yeah, I feel this sense that I was finally given the trust and the platform to do lots of different things and to show more range and to show more emotional depth in a franchise or something of this size, which I hadn’t been afforded before. And so I have this eternal gratitude to Tom and to McQ, who saw it in me and provided the resources and the support system every day on set so that I could thrive. They are generous enough to let me try and find my own way through this, without pigeonholing her as one thing, and it feels like it’s been a deliverance of a long time coming. After 17 years in this industry, I’ve finally been able to do something at this level, with this quality of filmmaking, and I’d never been afforded that before.

Hayley Atwell and Esai Morales in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Hayley Atwell and Esai Morales in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance

As AI and the ongoing attack against truth became more and more relevant this year, both issues served as real-life character development for your big bad, The Entity. So, what was the internal response to this real-life and real-time character development of your villain? 

The idea was brought very early on into production meetings, and my understanding of the story from the beginning was that it was this unquantifiable force that’s impossible to control. It knows us better than we know our own next move, and it’s faceless, ultimately. And I thought it was clever of (co-writers) Chris (McQuarrie) and Erik (Jendresen) to go, “Well, this makes for the perfect villain with global high stakes. It affects potentially every great power in the world.” So then it becomes a question of what do you do once you get that power? And the fight for that power in whoever possesses this key, they possess a different kind of global power that’s never been seen before, so that changes the trajectory of human beings. And then they grounded it in character, with a messenger of the Entity, played brilliantly by Esai Morales. He has such a charismatic, enigmatic presence on screen that’s chilling. To me, it spoke to the spreading of fake news, unregulated social media and the global powers at play that affect the lives of individuals and communities, and the potential repercussions of all those things. So I thought it felt very apt.

Are you allowed to tease your experience shooting in the Arctic for Part Two

Only insomuch as nothing has ever been filmed in the Arctic for a movie of this scale. People thought that it would be impossible, and luckily, Team Mission just came in and totally invalidated that belief system. I can say that the main focus was the safety of the cast and the crew,  but also the respect of the landscape out there. The territory feels unowned in a way because it’s so majestic and raw. At times, in minus 55 with a wind chill, having to get action dialogue in that takes a tremendous amount of organization and focus. So how they put that together and weave that into the story, I don’t know, but it will remain the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been on this planet and will probably ever go.

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Hayley Atwell and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Skydance

Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing in front of a crackling fireplace, what day on your Dead Reckoning Part One will you likely recall first?

(Laughs.) It would be drifting in Rome with Tom in the passenger seat, handcuffed to me, with three cameras attached to the windscreen, which impaired my vision. And then it started to rain and the ground was getting wet, which obviously affected the drift. There were stunt cars, and we were beside these very old important monuments. People had come out to watch, and obviously, the crew was watching. I also had to work out whether Tom was speaking to Hayley or Ethan was talking to Grace, when he would say, “Slow down or take a left.” If it was Ethan talking to Grace, she can rebel against exactly what he’s saying and do the opposite. He would also come up with suggestions that he wanted me to try and say, and then we did it. So there’s about 20 minutes of footage of us doing it over and over again, and then stopping to get out and go, “Well, I hope we got some good stuff.”

And then Tom led a round of applause from the crew, and McQ said, “Tom put his life in your hands just then and he wouldn’t have allowed you to do that had he not believed that you could look after him, too.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s generosity and trust from Tom and how hard he’s seen me work to make sure I can do this for him and for the movie.” It was a beautiful surprise to me, because I just thought, “Well, you told me to train really hard to be able to do it. So I did it.” It was a validation because they know what it takes technically, physically, mentally, emotionally to have done that and executed it well. So they’re never short on their praise for when actors come in and deliver for them. That’s a moment I’ll never forget.

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Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.