Five months of stunt training with Tom Cruise sounds like a particularly intense crash course in action filmmaking – but for Hayley Atwell, it was a walk in the park.
The actress, who plays elusive thief Grace in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, was thrown straight into learning the ropes of stunt work and choreographed fight sequences with Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie from the moment she had her first screen test. However, simply mastering the ins and outs of performing the action set pieces wasn’t the biggest challenge.
She explained to Zavvi: “Part of my screen test was a stunt test with (stuntman) Wade Eastwood. He would take me through a choreographed fight sequence, testing my fitness levels, coordination and working out where my natural skill set lay.
“After that, McQ and Tom would join us and watch that test to see what I had learned. Throughout this process, you’re told that if you get this part, you’re going to be creating so much of the character’s physical behaviour together, as this is directly tied to your screen chemistry – so in the five months of training I did, we were working out a way where we can perform those sequences with elegance, in a way that almost feels like a dance.
“Because of all this training, by the time we get to the location, I’ve already established what my physical behaviour will be, so then all the discussions with Tom become about where else we can find the chemistry, and finding where the comedy is within the action. Different takes mean performing the choreography in different styles; trying it out where she’s out of control, or more vulnerable, because I’m safe and secure in knowing the different steps.
“Tom will always be working out what the film language is as it evolves; is it something more comedic like What’s Up Doc?, or something more comparable to The Thomas Crown Affair or The Sting? These are the films we’d be looking toward and the questions we’d be asking as we would be going along.”
Cruise has a reputation for being one of the most intense men in the business, but this wasn’t the experience Atwell had when training with him.
“He’s so kind – when he gives you feedback, it doesn’t feel like critique. There’s never any judgement, as he encourages you to throw 10 choices out there to see what sticks; sometimes it doesn’t land, or it’s a choice that slows the pace down when thrown into a sequence, but it’s all in service of the storytelling.
“McQ and Tom leave their egos at the door when they come to work each day, and humble themselves to the process of making movies.
“They’re students of film, and are thinking of the audience the whole time – so when fleshing out those action sequences, it’s entirely in service of the audience and fulfilling their expectations, which is why they’re so eager to try so many different things within a scene.
“As an actor, it feels very liberating, as there’s no self consciousness about your decisions with the character. You just go to work.”
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in cinemas now.