How Mission: Impossible's Hayley Atwell brought her "scrappy" Dead Reckoning newcomer to life

Hayley Atwell in Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning
(Image credit: Paramount)

Hayley Atwell is no stranger to the world of spycraft and espionage, having successfully operated in the shadows for years as Agent Carter in the MCU. For her next trick, Atwell is starring as thief Grace opposite Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. As Atwell tells GamesRadar+ and Total Film, however, her role doesn’t completely rely on slyness and subterfuge.

"We did five months of training before principal photography began," Atwell says, listing Pilates amongst her regimen. "As well as the fight choreography and a lot of the drifting I did with [stuntman] Wade Eastwood, we looked at sleight of hand tricks but also the dancer’s body."

"Everything was about making the fights look as elegant as possible. At the same time, though, I wanted it to feel that she was a little bit scrappy, that she had not really had any formal fight training, she was an opportunist. As she went along in her life, she learned on the job. So, we don’t want to make it look too competent or perfect."

Grace enters Hunt’s orbit early on in Dead Reckoning. Unlike Cruise’s IMF agent and his team of specialists, Atwell’s sticky-fingered newcomer is an “outsider” with her own goals in mind. "Artful Dodger was absolutely one of the references we used," Atwell says, referring to Charles Dickens’ tricksy Oliver Twist pickpocket. "She’s sort of grace under fire."

"She is a lone wolf. She describes herself as ‘strictly single-o’, which means when she takes jobs as a thief, she doesn’t really know who the job is for, she doesn’t care. She lives in a kind of hyper-vigilant survival state at all times," Atwell reveals.

The actor adds, "It’s sort of by accident and kind of a botched job that she finds herself opposite someone like Ethan Hunt. She has absolutely no concept of who he is or what this world is. In some ways, she’s the audience. If they’re coming into this world, they will be like; ‘What have I got myself involved in here? How do I navigate this space?’ In some ways, we’re seeing the world through her perspective."

Grace under fire

Hayley Atwell in Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning

(Image credit: Paramount)

While Cruise and Atwell butt heads on-screen, the British actor couldn’t be more effusive about her co-star away from the camera, someone who she describes as a "consummate professional" always "searching for what’s going to feel most alive for the audience."

"His energy is contagious and invigorating," Atwell remarks. "Part of the fearlessness that he carries – and that I also feel inspires me – is that he is so well-prepared and disciplined when it comes to being specific about the details that go into a stunt… It means you can create a sort of freedom within the performance. All the preparation has led you to be able to relax and give in to the foundational training."

Atwell continues: "So, for me, there was a creative freedom to perform moments where [Grace] is more reckless or full of self-doubt. Because all the preparation meant that I knew I was capable of doing those things safely."

Atwell’s work in creating Grace culminates in a gripping and intense train sequence, one that’s only been partially glimpsed in Dead Reckoning’s trailers. For Atwell, it was the most physically demanding part of the actioner – a set-piece that was spread out over multiple years and involved several stunts being left on the cutting room floor.

"I mean, just the size and scale of it, and the length of time it’s in the film – that was months and months and months and months. We came back to it a year later to do pickup shots and when I saw it on the call sheet I was like ‘Okay, here we go."

"There’s so much of it, of course, that didn’t make the movie because we shot so much story. I did the splits in the carriage car at one point and I climbed onto the roof while there’s a sea of chairs beneath me. There’s so much that we shot because we kind of wanted to get this feeling that this was a runaway train that was going to hold us in its grip the whole time," Atwell says of the sequence.

Mission: Masterclass

Hayley Atwell in Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning

(Image credit: Paramount)

With all the emphasis on physicality, then, it comes as little surprise when Atwell confirms she spent her first 100 days on-set without a line of dialogue. 

"I’m so used to language. Language has always been the first tool that I learned from drama school and understanding the classics and plays… So, coming into a franchise like this and spending 100 days purely about physical behaviour and gesture, I felt like ‘Am I expressing enough?’ because I’m so used to being vocal as my main thing," Atwell says.

"Then what was clear was you’d look at the playback and it just felt alive. The physical presence had come from the chemistry I’d found with Tom and the preparation I was doing with this incredible, world-class stunt team. So, you feel her energy and emotions without her having to say anything."

Far from being restrictive, the plan led to a "masterclass" in filmmaking from director Chris McQuarrie and Cruise – something that is indicative of the open, collaborative nature during production.

"Anyone who comes onto that set is welcome to watch playback, watch the monitor. Tom and McQ will explain something technically that’s going on or how this piece of technology didn’t exist a couple of years ago"

"So, there is this sense that you’re part of this workshop or masterclass in pure cinematic experience and how they create it. That, to me, in between takes – that’s where I did all my talking and all my questions. For the camera, I found this new language that was just not having to be vocal."

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in cinemas on July 10 in the UK and July 12 in the US. For more from our chat with Hayley Atwell, check out the Inside Total Film podcast and more coverage on:

Bradley Russell

I'm the Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, focusing on news, features, and interviews with some of the biggest names in film and TV. On-site, you'll find me marveling at Marvel and providing analysis and room temperature takes on the newest films, Star Wars and, of course, anime. Outside of GR, I love getting lost in a good 100-hour JRPG, Warzone, and kicking back on the (virtual) field with Football Manager. My work has also been featured in OPM, FourFourTwo, and Game Revolution.