Why Hayley Atwell Didn't Feel Intimidated to Join the 'Mission: Impossible' Franchise (Exclusive) (2024)

What is it like joining a big-screen franchise seven movies in? According to Hayley Atwell, Tom Cruise and his Mission Impossible family went out of their way to make the process a welcoming one.

“You're not coming into something that's intimidating,” the British actress exclusively tells PEOPLE of joining Dead Reckoning Part One (in theaters now). “They're literally going, ‘Oh, my God, we're so happy to have you. Come and join us.’

“I loved it, I really did. And you could see from all the actors involved in it — some that are newer than others, some that have been there from the beginning — there's a real affection from [writer-director Christopher McQuarrie] and Tom and the environment that they create… There's no mistake, there's no sense of failure, there's no judgment.”

Atwell, 41, is no stranger to action-packed film franchises, given her longtime role as Peggy Carter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. First introduced in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, she went on to anchor Agent Carter, Marvel’s first female-led TV series, in 2015 and 2016. (She also told PEOPLE at the time about her unique upbringing; Atwell was raised in London with her mother but spent time with her American father of Irish and Native American descent. “I would spend all of my holidays from school in Kansas City. So I guess you could say that I was educated in England, but my spiritual home is in Missouri.”)

A Golden Globe nominee for 2010’s The Pillars of the Earth miniseries, Atwell got her start on stages throughout the U.K. — including training in dance that would lend itself well to onscreen action and stunt work. After Agent Carter and an appearance as Captain Carter in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, her action bona fides caught McQuarrie’s notice. “Should you choose to accept…” the filmmaker captioned a photo of Atwell in 2019. She responded via her Instagram, writing, “Mission: Accepted. Though I’m not the sort to follow orders…”

“I trained for five months before we began principal photography,” Atwell tells PEOPLE. “And part of that was to work out where my natural skillset lay and having Wade Eastwood, our stunt choreographer, working out what would be kind of a fun physical dynamic and where the chemistry would be with Tom.”

As Grace, a burglar and reluctant collaborator alongside Cruise’s IMF Agent Ethan Hunt, Atwell generates plenty of chemistry with her costar. “We were fully engaged with each other and present in a high intensity environment,” she shares. “The camera's kind of going, ‘Look, guys, they belong as a team working together, but they just don't know it yet.’ And she certainly doesn't want it. And he's like, ‘She's exasperating.’”

Although she’d only met Cruise socially, Atwell already had a sense of his qualities as a scene partner. “His reputation precedes him with actresses in that he makes them feel very safe, very seen, really respected,” she says. “He loves people to thrive, he loves intelligent women. He wants people to engage and be part of this process. And so when I read with him on the screen test, it already felt like we were workshopping it.”

Of MI: 7’s high-speed car chase scene, in which Grace and Ethan race through the streets of Rome — handcuffed together and pursued by Pom Klementieff’s vengeful assassin — the actress says it was a chance to show off the driving skills she had picked up during training. “I'm drifting. That's real. I'm sometimes in the passenger seat, sometimes I'm behind the wheel. Tom and I are really handcuffed together.

“For him to handcuff himself to her, an attempt to make her stand still for one moment, is so funny because I think he regrets it pretty quickly. And there's more danger probably inside the car for him than there is outside. So it's so delightful that you can add elements of characterization and humor in a car chase sequence that's that big.”

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She adds that McQuarrie and Cruise’s cinematic references for Dead Reckoning: Part One included Paper Moon and heist films like The Sting and To Catch a Thief. “I loved the idea that Ethan Hunt was going to be undermined by a Fiat 500 — brilliant. I thought, ‘Okay, this is the kind of movie we're making, I think I get it.’”

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in theaters everywhere now. Paramount Pictures has scheduled its sequel, the eighth film in the franchise, for June 28, 2024.

Why Hayley Atwell Didn't Feel Intimidated to Join the 'Mission: Impossible' Franchise (Exclusive) (2024)
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