ABC

'Agent Carter': How Hayley Atwell Is Bringing A Feminist Icon To The Small Screen

Plus, the show's surprising connection to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Tonight (January 6), Marvel's highly anticipated "Agent Carter" finally premieres on ABC… And with it, the continuing adventures of Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) after the "death" of Captain America, but long before S.H.I.E.L.D. came to be.

Where the series picks up, Peggy is stuck doing the filing and answering calls for the mostly male Strategic Science Reserve… At least during the day. By night, she's breaking down conspiracies and trying to rescue the good (well, goodish) name of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) while kicking so, so much butt.

In advance of the premiere, MTV News hopped on the phone with Atwell to talk about movie crossovers, '40s feminism and why this isn't your typical spy show:

MTV News: I'd normally want to start by saying what's it like to return to Peggy Carter, but between the other Marvel movies and "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.," you really never left.

Hayley Atwell: I never left her! The exciting thing, in this season we get to develop her and we get to see the emotional cost and her personal struggles and the external obstacles she has to face. There's a real variety of who she is we get to explore.

MTV: The back-story we're getting here in "Agent Carter"... Is that something that was developed way back with the first "Captain America" movie, or did it change over time?

Atwell: It's growing and changing as it's being written. What's lovely is working in a collaboration with writers and producers who wanted my feedback. It was important to me this wasn't a formulaic, case a week, 22 episodes show, that this stands alone as essentially four movies in one. It's very tight, you get to see different aspects of who she is.

Episode one is the establishment of the characters, the introduction of the people she works with, the time and the place of where she's situated. Then when we get into the real meat in two and three and four, you'll see an injection of humor into it, and heart into it, and [that] these relationships have incredible stakes –- the cost is incredibly high for her.

MTV: It sounds like you have a fair amount of creative control over what happens with Peggy Carter… What's it like being on both sides?

Atwell: It's a dream. It makes it more of a collaboration rather than me just being employed as an actress, standing in place and reading my lines. Together with the producers and the writers, I can help to create and shape who she is. That means I'm incredibly proud of her, and it means I have a little more say in the direction I think she should be going in, and [what] I think audiences really want.

And also to be a great role model for women, for young girls too.

MTV: That's certainly one of the big themes for the series, the interplay between men and women in that era. How do you think it relates to what's going on now?

Atwell: We've come a long way. We've come a lot further than Peggy in 1946, but we've still got a long way to go. In terms of equality in the workplace, equal pay for women, we're still struggling in the Western world. We're still struggling for women, not to mention globally. With the tremendous insight we've had over the past few years, the actual brutal suffering of women all over the world, there's an actual need for women's education, and women's rights.

Those things that make Peggy relatable give her entertainment value, but also makes her have a little bit more depth.

MTV: The weight, the loss of Captain America plays in pretty heavily in the pilot… But is there a chance for Peggy to find a new love over the course of this series?

Atwell: It's only a year on, so the first season is very much about experiencing the loss of Steve. We think we've had the end of him, and his life; but he really carries on through the whole season. He's a very strong presence in her life there. That's when the missions get personal… There's something that involves the memory of Steve, which is crucial to the plot.

It's too early days for that, but they plant the seeds for potential interest in Enver Gjokaj, his character… And also with Jarvis, and Howard [Stark] himself.

MTV: Since "Agents of S.H.I.EL.D." helped set up the "Agent Carter" run, are we going to see you guys return the favor at the end of your run? Is there any back and forth?

Atwell: Not in season one. Season one stands alone as its own story, and I like that, because it's Peggy's world in the '40s. We are pre-S.H.I.E.L.D. She's working for the Strategic Scientific Reserve, and the U.S. Government as a secret spy working at a telephone company as a cover to hide that and disguise it.

It's very much its own beast, and its own thing, and I love that for that for that reason. It feels like we're doing groundbreaking television visually, and it enhances the quality of the writing.

MTV: It's a spy show, and it's set in the spy world –- but it's also set in the Marvel Universe, so you already have a super solider in the world, you have these different elements at play... How does that change the spy formula?

Atwell: It means that there is an element of tongue in cheek, and an element of entertainment. It also means anything is possible because it isn't just the Marvel world. It's not your typical spy show. Also because she doesn't have any superpowers we're having to rely on her wit and her intelligence, and her human powers which are a different thing.

MTV: We know you're going to appear in "Avengers: Age Of Ultron" and I believe you're going to be in "Ant-Man" as well. Is that something that's set up by the series, or are they their own thing?

Atwell: That's completely its own thing. The series stands alone, and very much focused on the journey she takes in 1946.

MTV: Before I let you go, who would win in a fight –- Peggy Carter, or Agent Melinda May from "Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D."?

Atwell: [Laughs] Oh my goodness. That's a fight I want to see. I think they would be so amazed at each other's level of skill that they would just go, "You know what girl? High five. Awesome." And then we'd go out for cocktails.