Gemma Arterton is in no danger of being typecast. In just a few years she’s tackled roles with a diversity for which most actors wait a lifetime from a heartbreaking turn as the tragic heroine in Tess of the D’Urbervilles to the lethally sexy vampire in Byzantium. She’s done gritty low-budget Brit flicks and glossy Hollywood popcorn movies. Heck, there’s even a turn as a Bond Girl on her CV (the wonderfully named Strawberry Fields). Widely varied projects, she’s irresistible to watch in them all.
What makes Arterton’s assent all the more impressive is that in a celebrity-saturated culture, she’s done it all without the coterie of high profile pals and nightly trips to the Groucho. Instead, it’s sheer talent that makes the RADA graduate so captivating to watch.
Arterton’s mesmeric screen presence and sultry beauty is, however, underpinned by a refreshing earthiness and lashings of self-deprecating humor. Her conversation is peppered with “darling”s and giggles. Ask anyone who’s met her and they will unanimously tell you this: “She’s lovely”.
Arterton calls me from a noisy Paris street one morning. Based in the city for a few months, she tells me she loves it there because it’s “beautiful, but a bit shabby.” A fittingly down-to-earth summation from film’s most grounded rising star. She talks to Un-Titled Project about women in film, playing the fame game and Gene Wilder.
Laura: It’s the cinema issue of Un-Titled Project so I wanted to start off by asking you if there was a specific moment you fell in love with film?
Gemma: I always think back to my childhood because it was so innocent. I didn’t want to be an actress or anything like that, so the films that captivated me really took me somewhere else. I always loved magic realism; even now, as a grown up, that’s really what I gravitate towards. I remember going over to my friend’s house and every time I went ‘round there I’d say “Please can we watch Willy Wonka? The Gene Wilder one.” For me that’s one of the best films ever made and also Mary Poppins.
As I got older I always remember seeing Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. I just had no idea what she was capable of and that a director could get that kind of performance out of somebody. That was really what made me want to become an actor, seeing her in that film.
When you were at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) how did you dream your career might go?
I absolutely had no aspirations of being a film actor. It wasn’t something that I thought was actually realistic at all. Even now, although I do films and am starting to get more experience with them, I still don’t consider myself a film actor. Theatre’s what I love more than anything and that’s why from the age of 12, I was doing circus stuff and physical theatre. So when I was at RADA the training was so theatre-orientated you really don’t learn about being a film actor and they’re very realistic with you in saying that you’re very unlikely to be one.
I even remember calculating that I could survive living in London on a theatre wage if I did one or two plays a year. It wasn’t in my mind that I would ever do any film.
You’ve done big budget blockbusters and tiny independent movies – which do you prefer?
No comparison. I’ve done my fair share of blockbusters and I’ve had good experiences as well as not-so-good experiences. Indie movies are way more satisfying, way more collaborative, way more creative. There’s less politics. Because I come from a theatre background, I like to be very much involved in the process and it’s not as easy to be involved when you’re on a massive project with a big budget and hundreds of producers. I’ve done that and I’m very grateful for that because it’s helped me develop my career so I can do smaller things. Now I have my own production company and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t done blockbuster movies. But it’s not my bag!
What are your motivations with setting up the production company?
The production company came about because I just got a bit frustrated with waiting for other people to make decisions. A couple of my friends and I -they’re already producers, we made a film together a while back The Disappearance of Alice Creed – we just thought, “we’re all on the same page.” We wanted to start creating roles for women that are genuine and not just chicks in the films that are there for the guy. [We want to make films that] aren’t biased, that aren’t male orientated and driven by the male opinion, but films that are honest about what it is to be a chick generally. That’s the start for us, creating more opportunities for female directors, female writers and, without limiting ourselves, keeping in a small-to-medium budget so we don’t have to go down the big studio route.
So you don’t have to sell out?
Exactly. If you keep the budget low-ish then you can be free.
You often hear people mention limited opportunities for actresses but it’s interesting that you mention female writers and directors.
Someone even said to me yesterday “Cate Blanchett gets so frustrated there’s no roles” and I’m like, “Fuck, that’s Cate Blanchett, one of the best actresses in the world struggling to find interesting roles because people just aren’t interested in making movies about 45 year-old women, or they don’t sell.” It’s rare. There are a limited number of people wanting to tell a story about that.
What fascinates me is that, in the theatre, it’s not like that. Some of the most fantastic plays ever written have a female protagonist who’s fucked up or 45 or whatever. In the film industry it’s not like that, and why is that? My limited opinion is that it’s because it’s a money-led industry and they want to know that they can get a lead guy and a lead girl who’ll put bums on seats.
We need to give more opportunities to the people that have written those scripts and to the people who want to direct those scripts. It’s not as simple as that in the industry, but that’s my mandate [laughs].
You have tackled some really diverse parts yourself. What gets you excited about a role?
It’s quite simple, I just go by what I think is right. I’ll also think about what I’ve previously doneI hate repeating myself. So it’s a mixture of intuition, trying to do something different, and stretching my range, I guess. But also I like to have fun. I think it’s so important to enjoy what you do and so often it’s what I think I’m going to have a laugh doing, even if it’s heavy. And in the last year [the decision’s become] so director-driven. I always knew the director was important, but now I really know that.
That begs the question, is directing something you’d like to do?
I find the idea of directing quite scary as you’re the captain of the ship, the one responsible for whether it sinks or swims. I feel like I’d be a much better producer than a director, at the moment. But I’ve always loved the idea of being a director. I would never say never, I’d have to find the right story that I really felt I could tell, and the right actors and the right team. I just made a movie with this amazing director who I’ve totally fallen in love with, Marjane Satrapi. She was just like, “Look, you just need to believe in the story and then find loads of people you love to help you make the film and then it’s easy.”
You’ve worked with some amazing talent across the board. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? And what advice would you give to a young actor about to leave drama school?
Nobody ever told me this, but it’s really obvious: you have to really give a shit about what you’re doing, otherwise it just doesn’t translate. Especially in this current celebrity-driven culture, if you don’t give a fuck about the story you’re telling or the actors you’re working with then you might as well go home. You have to be so committed. It’s hard to be an actor in this world; it’s not a reliable job. Sometimes I give talks at drama schools and I say to them “Make sure you really care about it and you’re not doing it for the wrong reasons.” The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given in terms of work was from my acting teacher and he just said, “Look Gem, follow your instincts ‘cause you’re always going to be right”.
Speaking about celebrity culture, do you consciously try to maintain a level of privacy?
I am quite conscious of that. I’ve been able to get a bit of training behind me in terms of where I can go, where I can’t go, how to do it. I just don’t like that side of it and I think you can avoid it. It’s not necessary. I’m also quite lucky because there have been so many times when I’ve thought “Oh no, there’s going to be people outside” and there just hasn’t been. [Laughs]. People really don’t care! I get away with walking around and people don’t recognize me, which is such a blessing. I don’t really want people to know my private life.
Of course with success as an actress comes premieres, photo shoots and so on. Do you enjoy that side or is it tedious?
It depends. For instance the Un-Titled Project shoot was amazing. I felt very relaxed and soulful. It was organic, but sometimes it can be a bit drab. It’s the same as anything; it depends on who you’re working with. It should be an artistic pursuit, that’s when it’s fun. Sometimes I am a bit insecure ‘cause it’s not really what I do.
Well fashion is a kind of performance in a way.
Yeah! You’re dressing up and trying different things. That’s a good way of seeing it.
Now that you know all the smoke and mirrors that go into making a film, can you enjoy it in the same way?
Absolutely. I love film. I love being taken away somewhere else and I offer myself to that. I would be so sad if I couldn’t enjoy a film because I make films. Obviously sometimes you think, “how did they do that?” but it hasn’t stopped me from being able to escape into a film. And if it’s a good film then you just forget you’re even watching it.
So if I said to you, “Gemma, you’re having a movie night in, iPhone off, bucket of popcorn” and let you watch a classic film, a guilty pleasure and a film you’ve never seen that you really should have – what do you choose?
I’ve never seen The Godfather, [when I tell people that] everyone’s like ‘Oh my god, it’s a masterpiece!’ I think I’ve deliberately avoided it because it’s the boys’ favorite movie, they always quote bits out of it.
My guilty pleasure would be a musical; I do like cheesy old musicals. And I’ve already told you my classic, the original Willy Wonka! Gene Wilder is such a genius. I can’t believe how amazing he is.
What talent out there at the moment would you like to work with?
Oh God, there’re so many talented people, so many young directors I’d like to work with. I’ve got a list I’ve written which is with me all the time, but it’s a bit weird to talk about in an interview because I don’t want to seem cheesy.
Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s met you says how lovely you are. How do you stay grounded?
I think it’s just something you can do or you can’t do. I really believe that if you’re a person who is aware, you would be aware if you’re being a dick. If you’re behaving like a dick and you know it, then you stop behaving like a dick. I like honest relationships that are genuine, and I’m aware of it when it’s not and I don’t engage with it.
When you’re away from acting what do you enjoy doing?
If I wasn’t an actor I’d probably be a painter. I love to paint and draw. Anything creative that takes your mind out of your head, or lets you look at the world from a different angle.
Can you tell us a bit about anything you have coming up?
The reason I’m in Paris is because I’m making my first French film [Gemma Bovery]. I say that reluctantly as I started learning French in February and I have to speak it by August in this film. Now I’m sort of able to have conversations and I’m living in France just to get speaking French. However, all my friends keep coming to visit me and all I do is speak English all day, which is not the point. And then I have a big musical that I’m preparing to do next year on stage.
You can’t get more diverse than that.
[laughs] I know! I love that, that’s what’s interesting for me.