Written by Kenneth Lonergan and directed by Hettie MacDonald, “Howards End” is an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel of the same name.
The limited series, split up across four hours, follows the story of Margaret (Hayley Atwell) and Helen Schlegel (Phillipa Coulthard), two privileged sisters navigating society in Edwardian England and their complicated relationships with the Wilcox and Bast families, and the men who head those households. This series, unlike the Merchant Ivory film (1992), allows the audience to get a deeper sense of its characters and their intricate ties to each other. Without modernizing the story, Lonergan and MacDonald, fit Howards End into a modern context. Many of the issues the Schlegels, Wilcoxes, and Basts deal with, are issues present today; women’s rights, equality, sexuality, marriage, classism, and the widening gap between the rich and poor to name a few. The series which premiered in New York at the Whitby Hotel, Wednesday, April 4th airs on STARZ Sunday, April 8th.
The Knockturnal: Your character speaks a lot about homes and finding a home. What do you think, Margaret, specifically Margaret loves so much about Howards End?
Hayley Atwell: I think that she had a kindred spirit with Ruth Wilcox (Julia Ormond). I think Ruth Wilcox sees Margaret for who she really is. Howards End represents to her a sense of identity and a sense of place, and a connection with a woman who- although she was vastly different from her in her political beliefs and her social beliefs, saw who she was as a human being, and kind of offers Margaret, that sense of place where she can build her own home, later on, when she’s let go of Wickham Place. I think it’s quite symbolic.
The Knockturnal: What did you connect most to within Margaret? How are you both similar?
Hayley Atwell: I think we’re both quite analytical? I will try to think about different angles before I make a decision about it. I think that’s something that we probably shared although she seems to be- she’s incredibly academic, and, with incredible intellect. I was kind of in awe of her. I found it hard sometimes to catch up mentally with what she was saying, and what she was doing, because she was so ahead of a lot of people, and myself included. So she was quite, quite inspiring.
The Knockturnal: I think of Margaret as a mother with no children. She’s very parental to her other siblings. Can you speak a little bit about her relationship with Tibby (Alex Lawther) and Helen?
Hayley Atwell: Yeah so at the age of eighteen her parents- their parents died, so she was an orphan. They were all orphans. And because she was the oldest sibling, she very much took that role of parent. And I think when they get older, even though in a way Tibby is away at university. He’s back for the holiday, and with Helen as well, she feels like she still can’t quite let them go. There’s a brilliant line where she goes, “I’m dreadfully dependent on Helen.” and you realize as time goes on that, she is the parental figure, but also she depends upon them to give her a sense of purpose and identity. And so with the possibility of losing Helen, that is kind of the idea of who Margaret is in the world. Without the role of parent, she’s very kind of lost and at sea. It’s a complicated relationship.
The Knockturnal: Mr. Wilcox and Margaret have a very interesting relationship. Can you explain their dynamic? Why do you think they make a good fit for each other?
Matthew Macfadyen: I think they find each other attractive. That’s the thing. Even though he’s older than her, you know, I think she’s attracted by his sort of energy and his- he’s a very masculine man and he sort of gets things done. I think he’s lonely as well and fancies her and he likes her, and she’s bright and clever. They’re attracted to each other despite their huge differences, really. He’s very sort of conservative and capitalist, and she’s more intellectual. He’s not a navel-gazer. He’s not a man of ideas. He’s a man of action. But, they find something in each other, so it makes it interesting.
The Knockturnal: What drew you to this role?
Matthew Macfadyen: The quality of the writing and the story. I loved the Merchant Ivory film, so that was a real soft spot for me. And I got Kenny’s adaptation and it was such a joyful thing to read. It was an amazing thing to read. And it was long. You know, it’s four hours. It’s different to be able to explore over four hours. It’s a real treat as an actor. And I knew Hayley, I worked with Hayley before, so it was good. Really, it was a nice moment when the script came through.
The Knockturnal: So your character, Henry Wilcox, he really presents himself as aloof and kind of unemotional and kind of unfeeling, but we learn that he really is an emotional person. How do you think his exterior, kind of affects his relationship with his children and with different people he meets?
Matthew Macfadyen: I don’t think he would think himself as being unfeeling. He’s not a man who would worry about how he feels. That’s quite a modern thing. That’s like a post-Freud, “How are you feeling? / How do you feel?” He was a businessman and a capitalist. He was sort of interested in making money and making his business grow, and therefore the country grow, and therefore society grow. You need people like that. The brilliant thing about the story is that it’s so nuanced. It’s not black and white. He’s not just the sort of unfeeling man. There’s a lot of stuff in him, and there is in Margaret, and in all the others as well.
The Knockturnal: Can you speak a bit about Helen’s relationship with Tibby, and Margaret especially?
Philippa Coulthard: I think being three orphans, they are incredibly close. It’s such a beautiful relationship, that Margaret essentially raised Tibby and Helen, and she’s really indulged all of their idiosyncrasies and all of their academic pursuits and as a result- to have someone who is as audacious and free-spirited as Helen. And someone who is ridiculous and a hypochondriac, and a sort of consummate whiner, as Tibby. I think that she’s encouraged both Tibby and Helen to be both exactly who they are. There’s something really beautiful and idealistic about the way they all communicate with each other. They talk for hours about all different things.
The Knockturnal: Helen takes a particular interest in helping someone throughout the story. What do you think it is it about Helen, that makes her want to go the extra mile for that person and for people in general?
Philippa Coulthard: I think she’s a hugely empathetic person. She has a very strong sense of injustice. Largely as well, I think she feels sort of restless and stifled as such an educated and capable woman in Edwardian England. She has so much energy and she’s searching for somewhere to put it all. She wants to do good. Sometimes her attempts are very misguided and unhelpful. But I think it comes from a good place of wanting to connect with people and understand people and she’s an anthropologist. She wants to learn about other people’s experiences. She’s fascinated by other people’s experiences.
The Knockturnal: What drew you to this story and what drew you to the role of Helen?
Philippa Coulthard: There’s so much, I mean. As soon as I got the audition, I started rereading the book. It’s such a beautiful classic tale that’s so nuanced. There’s so much in the story and it’s a classic for a reason. There’s so much about it that is relevant. Ultimately, the relationship, and the character of these two sisters who are so admirable and the kind of women that I think every actress wants to play. They’re complex and flawed, but incredibly remarkable and very wise, beyond their years in many ways.