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‘AGENT CARTER’: Once wary of a comic-book role, theater-sprung British star Hayley Atwell takes her Marvel hero to the next stage

“I approached the job like I would anything,” says Hayley Atwell, star of the ABC/Marvel miniseries “Agent Carter.” (ABC/Bob D’Amico)
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HAYLEY ATWELL didn’t know quite what she was getting into. Marvel Studios had called and wanted the British actress to climb aboard its first Captain America feature film. Superhero projects weren’t her thing, though. Atwell did enjoy period dramas, but it’s rather a different beast when a time-spanning role meets Spandex.

Yet she took a shot, and that has made all the difference. That first film, in 2011, was a smash hit — a haymaker to the box-office jaw. Now, after two Captain America movies and her current ABC miniseries, “Agent Carter,” Atwell says she has a much stronger sense of just what it means to be a part of the live-action Marvel universe.

Atwell admits to not being too familiar with, or even interested in, the superhero movie genre when she signed on to play Peggy Carter for that first film. Coming largely from the stage, she wasn’t sure what to expect from the world of Red Skull and green screen.

“The first time I did a Captain America film, it was completely different from everything else I’d done,” the London native told The Post’s Comic Riffs (shortly after a flight across the pond, from the L.A. area where her show shoots, to her home in the U.K.). “I’d come from a theatrical background and done some adaptations of period dramas. It was a completely different world, and it wasn’t also a world that I was familiar with, because I wasn’t a fan of comic books, necessarily.

“So I approached the job like I would anything, really, just kind of learning, doing the best I could, bringing the world [of Agent Carter] alive and creating the most out of the character.”

For Atwell, reprising roles had been a rarity. But the chance to again portray Agent Carter was a special experience — with decades having passed from her 1940s-based performance to the present day, as she played a senior citizen who’s seemingly near the end of her life in the feature sequel, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Re-inhabiting the role created the possibility of filling in the gaps of Agent Carter’s contributions to the Marvel universe when she was in her prime.

“We see her vulnerability, her humor, her being strong at one point, her kicking ass at some point — but also just having an opportunity to show a different, kind of more well-rounded character,” Atwell says of the Agent Carter whom viewers see in the current ABC miniseries. “That was the one thing that was really important to me when I signed on to the series — was being able to show different sides of who she was.”

“We knew from ‘The Winter Soldier’ that she lived a full life,” Atwell continued. “She’s married, she’s had children. She’s able to achieve tremendous amounts. [‘Agent Carter’] for me was an opportunity to go: Okay, what is it that she did? How did she define herself and her destiny?”

Atwell may have preferred computer games to comic books as a kid, but she says that being “half American,” and growing up spending many summers with her American father and his family in Kansas City, gave her insight into this nation’s love affair with superheroes.

“When I think about Kansas City growing up, I think about lightning bugs, moonshine, hay barrels, humidity and also amazing home-cooking. My spiritual home resides in Kansas City,” Atwell, 32, told Comic Riffs. “[People my age] will now go and see these comic-book films, so it gave me just a sense of the scale.

“There’s so many more people in the States than there are in the U.K. There’s a much more vocal fan base. The comic-book world in the States, they’re very effusive and excitable, and that kind of taught me [that] when you do something that’s a successful franchise, you really do have an audience who are committed to supporting that.”

Atwell’s first fanboy experience was at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013, when she made her first trip to the annual pop-culture event to promote an Agent Carter one-shot she filmed that was released with the “Iron Man 3” Blu-ray. She called the event “eye-opening” and said that it helped her realize “how special Marvel was, and how they have the winning formula of getting these movies right. It gave me even more confidence to do [the ‘Agent Carter’] series knowing that it was already so well-loved. I felt like I was in very safe hands.”

The presence of fellow British actors Dominic Cooper (Howard Stark) and James D’Arcy (Edwin Jarvis) made Atwell feel right at home while filming “Agent Carter” at Marvel Studios in Burbank, Calif. Atwell attributes the chemistry she has with both fellow Brits onscreen to having known both actors for years.

“I think what it meant was that the ice was already broken between us. We already had an ease working together,” Atwell said of her long friendships with both men.

“We’d already seen each other be silly and do our best and do our worst, and so there was no facade between us. It was just: Let’s have the best, most amazing amount of fun that we can possibly have, and let’s be really good at what we’re doing.

“There was an ease on set. We were able to relax with each other and have a lot of fun. That was kind of the pact that James D’Arcy and I made — that we really have a lot of fun with this job and that we can look back on it and whatever the outcome was, and however it was received, we can look back with fond memories, just knowing that we had an absolute blast.”

Atwell admits that it may have taken some time for her American co-stars on the “Agent Carter” set to get used to the international trio’s very British sense of humor.

“There was a clear divide in the beginning between the English actors — James, Dominic and myself — and then the American actors [on the show] because we’d come on set [and ] be very, very silly Brits who knew each other very well, and they would come on set and take it very seriously and would really commit to what they’re doing.”

Part of being “silly Brits” meant constant pranking on the “Agent Carter” set, which Atwell frequently documented with photographs on her Twitter account.

While having no super-soldier serum in her veins, Atwell credits her rugby background with giving her the strength to perform one of her favorite pranks: throwing D’Arcy into a trash can.

And not unlike Steve “Cap” Rogers himself, she once again finds herself a performer out of her own time. Atwell says everything from her theater background, to her own DNA, play a part in her frequent success in period pieces.

“I suppose … because I come from theater, it’s a very literary-based work that I’ve done, lots of older texts, lots of adaptations of books,” she says. “I love scripts that are dense, and a lot of the time I find that the better quality comes from things that have been either written as plays or written as books first. I think it’s partly that.

“It’s partly my natural speaking voice and it’s partly my natural silhouette,” she continued. “Naturally, I kind of set into a period role probably more than I would do with these certain genes. I think it’s just kind of how I’m built. I’m a little bit late for my time. I think I was really meant to exist in the 1940s.”

“AGENT CARTER” continues tonight at 9 on ABC.

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