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Woody Allen's new muse
Taps newcomer to star opposite Farrell and McGregor in "Cassandra's Dream"
By MARK DANIELL - For JAM! Movies


Hayley Atwell hits the red carpet at Roy Thompson Hall. (Sun Media/Craig Robertson)


This isn't how it goes. Before any actor's big break, the script calls for a few years scuttling between bit parts and jobs of the 'Can I take your order' variety.

But Hayley Atwell's story called for something different.

After scoring television roles on the BBC's "The Line of Beauty," and captivating theatregoers in "Women Beware Women" and "Prometheus Bound," she heard Woody Allen was looking for an actress.

"My agent, actually, knew that Woody was looking for someone in London," the British-born actress says over coffee in a hotel suite high above Michael Lee Chin's ROM Crystal in downtown Toronto. "So myself and many, many other people were put on tape and told to read a couple of lines from a script that had no name.

"We knew nothing about the characters, we didn't know the context of the story, nothing."

Figuring her reading had gone badly, Atwell, 25, threw herself back into the auditioning process and blanked out her reading. "I thought it went so wrong, because I didn't know what I was doing, that I forgot about it."

Then, several weeks later, Woody asked to see her in New York. "I was asked to read the script, told him I loved it and then he offered me the part.

"It was based on, literally, two lines of dialogue. He hadn't seen any of my previous work, so it did fall into my lap and it was very spontaneous."

Filmed last summer, "Cassandra's Dream," which had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, is Woody Allen's stab at family tragedy.

Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as two "nice" brothers struggling with everyday issues. McGregor's character wants to ditch life schlepping around their father's restaurant, while Farrell's hopes to work in his garage and buy a house with his girlfriend (played by Sally Hawkins).

When their lives take a disastrous turn, the entrance of the mysterious uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) offers them a chance to escape their monotonous existence, if they're willing to kill one of his business enemies.

Atwell's Angela Stark is an actor who becomes involved with McGregor's restaurateur. Eager to impress her, he creates a facade of a glamorous life, borrowing cars from his brother's shop and promising her a new life in California.

"She's a young girl who knows what she wants," Atwell says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ears. "So, she uses the one thing, the only thing really, that she has, which is her sexual power to get what she wants."

As the brothers angst over committing possible murder, Stark prods McGregor's character towards the abyss with hints of infidelity. "I tried to find redeeming qualities in her and I really couldn't," she frowns. "But then I thought, 'Well, that doesn't matter.'"

As the film spirals to its "Match Point"-like end, Angela is oblivious to the terrible things her boyfriend has done. "I think what happens is, while she might be shocked and saddened by the incident," she says cryptically. "I'm sure she gets over it quite quickly and moves on."

Her experience playing the femme fatale role to that point limited to her imagination, Atwell enjoyed working under Allen's free wheeling style.

"He knew what he wanted to come out of a scene," she says. "But he also gave us the freedom to play with our characters a little bit."

So though Atwell's Angela casts McGregor's cad under her sexual spell, she does it wearing the most ordinary things. "She wears khaki colored pants and floaty tops," she says. "What was lovely about this type of character was how she could have this effect in her Gap clothes."

Life with Woody, Colin and Ewan

"I was more intimidated by the sheer thought of it," Atwell says, recalling her reaction at hearing that she'd landed a part alongside two of Hollywood's most sought-after leading men.

Having grown up watching Allen's films, she felt she could make a home inside "Woody's stylized world."

Shifting forward in her chair, she cracks open a bottle of Fiji and continues. "I grew up watching his movies. My mother has had films of his at home since I've been four-years-old."

Colin and Ewan, however, was a breed of movie star she wasn't used to. "Of course I knew who they were," she smiles, knowingly. But she wasn't sure how they'd take to the new girl.

Immediately, though, her fears were set at ease. Ewan, as it turned out, had also gone to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, from which Atwell graduated in 2005. So the pair became fast friends, discussing the various teachers and different acting projects they'd done there.

"He gave me some advice that was very helpful," she says thoughtfully. "Calming advice and technical advice and other things that he's picked up along the way."

As for Colin's reputation as something of a party boy, she says he's a "real gentleman."

"They are both incredibly down to earth," she says, getting up to draw the curtains when a mid-afternoon sun starts to bleach our corner table. "They were just so excited and grateful to be working with Woody that we were all feeling it together.

"Just because I was new, didn't mean that I was feeling it more or less."

Reflecting on the reception that has greeted the film as the quartet promote it in North America, Atwell recounts a piece of advice Colin gave her when they were coming off the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month.

"After swarms of people had been calling his name, 'Colin, Colin,' he turned to me and said, 'How amazing is that? Never get used to that kind of appreciation. Can you see why, if people get used to that it will ruin their lives?' And I thought that was amazing.

"That he's still grateful for it and surprised by the attention," she trails off. "It's a credit to his character."

Atwell says that it's hard for her to see her work objectively, so she's still partial to Allen's earlier films, like "Hannah and Her Sisters" and "Manhattan," but she did hint at the fortuitousness of getting this role.

"It did fall into my lap and it was very spontaneous," she muses. "I guess that this was a big chance for me. But you can be given a chance and really blow it.

"I just had to make sure I didn't."

"Cassandra's Dream" is in theatres November 30th.
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