Hayley Atwell was born in 1982. But looking at her on a recent December afternoon on the set of ABC’s new series Marvel’s Agent Carter, you’d swear she walked straight to work from the 1940s. Her hair is in pin curls. Her outfit is an elegant vintage pantsuit. She practically radiates femininity. And then, in the midst of a thoughtful sentence about her new job, she lets out a loud, hearty burp.
“Get that down!” she says, grinning and pointing to a reporter’s notebook. “I love it because I look so glamorous and ladylike. The truth is out!” Let the world know: Hayley Atwell is no delicate flower. And neither is the character she’s about to introduce to TV. One of Marvel’s classiest butt-kicking bombshells, Agent Peggy Carter made her cinematic debut in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger as an officer with the SSR, the top secret government agency, tasked with turning Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) into a shield-wielding hero. Her popularity led to a short released on the Iron Man 3 Blu-ray, which became the basis for the series, debuting Jan. 6. But this isn’t just another random satellite in the Marvelverse, which has been launching projects across all platforms, from film and TV to Netflix. Carter is both the studio’s latest attempt at conquering TV and its first female-fronted project. That makes it a big swing for Marvel after the middling success of ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Then there’s the fact that Carter is the first Marvel property run by women—longtime writing partners Tara Butters and Michele Fazekas (Resurrection)—which is a little ironic for a story that takes place in an era when women with power were all but nonexistent. Both behind and in front of the camera, Agent Carter is changing the rules of the superhero game. “It’s absolutely vital that we’re saying to Hollywood—and to the world—female-centered roles are important,” Atwell says. “They are watched. They are bankable. The audiences want them.”
Comic-book fans in particular have been champing at the bit for a stand-alone heroine for some time. While many expected Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to be the first, a slew of other projects are already in line: a Wonder Woman movie (slated for 2017), a female Captain Marvel film (expected in 2018), and a Supergirl TV series (in development at CBS). But Agent Carter will beat them all to the punch. In a way, she’s the most obvious choice, especially for TV, because she’s so relatable. She can’t fly or shoot lightning bolts, but she’s brilliant, hardworking, and stubborn, yet vulnerable. “We’ve always said her superpower is the fact that other people underestimate her,” Butters says. “And she often uses that to her advantage, because she doesn’t have superstrength.”
That gumption is going to come in handy because when we first see Peggy Carter again, things aren’t so swell. It’s 1946, a year after the war’s ended. Carter is still working for the SSR, but with the men now home from the battlefront she’s been sidelined from all the fun stuff—until Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), father of Tony, gets himself into trouble when his inventions fall into the wrong hands. Carter is helping clear his name, covertly hunting down his creations and the bad guys who stole them. (Does that make her a double-secret spy?) While there are conventional villains on the series (we can’t say who, but at least one is connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), the toughest nemesis Carter faces is rampant sexism. “In the ’40s, women were looked at as second-class citizens, which is really difficult to swallow nowadays. But back then it was a very different issue,” says Chad Michael Murray, 33, who plays one of Peggy’s chauvinistic SSR co-workers.
For Atwell, getting to continue playing Peggy after the first Captain America film was a dream come true. With only bit parts—including one in Woody Allen’s 2007 film, Cassandra’s Dream—and West End stage work under her belt, the actress was a relative unknown in the States when she stepped into Peggy Carter’s shoes. And it looked like the role would be short-lived when First Avenger ended with a time jump to the present. But following a screening of the Agent Carter short at Comic-Con in 2013, Marvel co-president Louis D’Esposito broached the idea of a TV show. It just took a long year and a half to finally come to fruition. “It was so hard because I wanted the job so much that I had to be really back-footed about it and not ask too many questions, because it would only upset me if I didn’t get the answers to them,” Atwell says. “But on day one of this job, I just pinched myself and just went, ‘It’s finally here.’ ”
As Marvel set out to tell a story with a strong message of female empowerment, it brought in Butters and Fazekas, who head up the series alongside Chris Dingess (Reaper). The duo, who were busy getting Resurrection off the ground when they were asked to do Carter, are among a handful of showrunners juggling multiple series—and an even smaller number of females doing so, which puts them in a league with Shonda Rhimes and Julie Plec. But the assumption that they were hired solely because of the gender of the lead is “inherently sexist,” Fazekas says. “No one tells Chris Carter or David E. Kelley, ‘Wow, why do you write women so well?’ ” she continues. “There is this preconceived notion that women only write women stuff and men can write anything. I think that was a deliberate choice on the part of ABC and Marvel, which was a smart choice.” Butters interjects: “I actually think it’s because we’re geeks that they picked us more than because we’re women.”
Still, Atwell says she’s “relieved that it’s two women” guiding the ship. “Obviously they’re in positions of power here at Marvel, they’re very well-respected in their fields, but I’m sure that they’ve come up against obstacles to get to where they’ve gotten to. And so I feel that they can relate to the situations that Peggy’s in, which means that they’re going to have much more insight into what she goes through and give much more truth to the writing of it.”
Because Captain America is presumed dead after the events of First Avenger—in which he crashed a plane full of nukes into the Arctic—a sense of grief will play a large role in keeping Peggy grounded as she attempts to live a double life in the wake of such a big loss. “What do you do when you’re no longer punching Nazis in the face and making out with Captain America?” Dingess asks. “What’s the chapter after that?”
That chapter involves Peggy losing her mojo and going into a self-imposed exile out of fear of growing too close to anyone—the 1940s aren’t an easy time to be a single lady—even as she throws herself into her secret missions. “We show the cost of her strength,” Atwell says. “She’s got her work, and she’s got her private grief, but when they are combined, that’s when it gets dirty for her.”
Viewers will come to learn that Peggy doesn’t need saving, which makes Agent Carter a series not just for women but for everyone. “I don’t think you have to have any comic-book background to enjoy the show,” Butters says. “It’s Alias in 1946.” Dingess concurs: “This is really a story about a badass secret agent—male or female—digging into a mystery, overcoming tremendous odds, getting heat from all sides, and digging themselves out of a hole. It could be Jack Bauer.” Of course, he might not look quite as good in pin curls.
For more on this winter’s most promising TV programming, pick up this week’s issue of EW.