The London It-Girl Won’t Mince Words
A very amiable Gemma Arterton has just arrived and is disarmingly appraising my locket. “Beautiful,” she says, sitting down to order a coffee. We are in a French café on the King’s Road in London and the 24-year-old is early. Surprising for an actress, no? “Actually, I’ve just walked my husband to work,” she smiles. “He’s a sales manager at a fashion company near here.” In a beige t-shirt and black harem pants, but without a scrap of make-up, Arterton’s look is more fashionable London media-type than Hollywood starlet.
“It’s Victorian as well,” she says, letting me inspect her engagement ring in return. Star of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans, Arterton has recently married her Italian beau. At pains to keep details of the small Andalusian wedding and her new husband under wraps, she admits she’s learning Italian, or trying to.
“Oh, I just know stupid words, made-up words.” Curious, I ask her to expand. “Stefano [her husband] made up this word, ‘limanene,’ which is like little hands slapping you. Like this,” she leans across the table to demonstrate, quickly fluttering her hand in front of my face. “So, when someone’s been an idiot, you go, ‘li-ma-ne-ne,’” she says laughing, shaping the vowels Italian-style. A confident delivery and Queen’s English pronunciation betray theatre training at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and combined with her delicate looks, it’s of little surprise Arterton’s first big break was playing a British Bond girl in 2008’s Quantum of Solace.
Relaxed and in a good mood—“Look at the size of that coffee, it’s like a bowl!”—Arterton is keen to talk about her new movie The Disappearance of Alice Creed, in which she plays a kidnap victim. A small-budget British indie thriller, Alice Creed premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year to great acclaim, which was followed by packed out screenings with standing ovations, four-star reviews in the British press, and a Raindance nomination in the 2009 British Independent Film Awards.
“I’ve only really enjoyed two film jobs I’ve been on. Alice Creed was one,” she starts, adding that the other is UK indie Tamara Drewe, based on Posy Simmonds’ comic strip that ran serially in The Guardian. “Alice Creed was very gruelling for me. The first day of filming was me being kidnapped and kicked and my clothes cut off and I thought, ‘This is so unglamorous,’” she says. “But to be honest with you, anything beats coming off Prince of Persia.” Ah, that’s interesting, the lead in the Disney video game-inspired production wasn’t all that?
“Oh, it was so opposite to what I ever intended,” she says, to my surprise. “It was big, it was brash, it was Hollywood. I needed to shake all that off and get down and dirty and real with a script like Alice Creed that was tight and where everything was fully formed and was all about the acting. I needed to challenge myself. I’d started thinking, ‘Can I actually act?’” There is no question that Arterton can act; she pulls off the role of the kidnapped and abused Alice Creed with a simple, compelling authenticity. Did she get what she needed from the part?
“Honestly, on that job… I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience where I felt like I wasn’t sure if I was acting or not. In certain scenes, I was really quite petrified and in a state of real anxiety,” she says, pausing to sip her coffee. “You’re like, ‘Now have I gone beyond knowing what I’m doing?’ And then, when I watched the final thing, I was kind of dreading it, you know: the nudity, the violence…” She trails off. I step in and ask if there are rules for actresses and nudity.
“I thought there were rules, but there are no rules,” she says with conviction. “When I accepted Alice Creed my American agent said, ‘I don’t know…’ And I thought Disney wouldn’t want me to do it. I thought they’d have quite a lot of control over my career, but they didn’t at all, which was brilliant.”
So, she’s not too fussed about nudity, almost a given considering Alice Creed? “Well, it’s a load of bollocks really. I think it’s ridiculous that someone will get paid eighty grand, as one actress did, just to have a flash of boob. I think it’s gratuitous.” She warms to the theme, discussing her love for French cinema where sex and nudity aren’t frowned upon. “They embrace it. If Juliette Binoche gets her boobs out, nobody is going to write about it in The Sun. Whereas, if I get my boobs out, it’s like, ‘Gemma Arterton gets her boobs out in a film.’”
And here she speaks from experience. “There was one movie I don’t speak about very often where I was really taken advantage of: Three and Out. It was my first nudie role, and I had a sex scene. It ended up being published in The Daily Mirror. They couldn’t have got hold of the pictures through anyone but the film company,” she says, her brown eyes looking pained before adding a qualifying, “I think. To sell the film, you know.”
I am beginning to understand why she enjoyed her experience on Alice Creed so much, where she worked with a small team and a cast of just three. “On Alice Creed, I knew and trusted everyone implicitly. It was just like a play,” she says. “It was the first movie I’d done where I was valued as a woman in the film. I wasn’t that young girl. I was just as important as the other actors. Just as respected.” Presumably, this is in contrast to the blockbusters she’s been in, which she says are also less respectful of the scripts. “On one movie I signed up for, the script was actually quite good,” she says. “And then it got absolutely pissed on because they wanted to people-please. They’d show a rough cut to a test audience, who’d say, ‘But I want so-and-so to get together.’ You know, stuff like that, and before you know it, you’re in a film you’d never have signed up to do in the first place.”
I raise my eyebrows in question. Most actresses this early in their career wouldn’t have a bad word to say about such high profile movies, but then maybe she’s not like most actresses? “I don’t want to be a celebrity or a famous actress,” she says, taking a mouthful of porridge while I try to work out if she really means it. “I’ve been really worried about this year,” she says. “Everyone’s been saying, ‘Everything’s going to change.’ I had Sam Worthington [Avatar and Clash of the Titans] going, ‘Your life’s going to change.’ I don’t want my life to change. I have an amazing life.” She goes on to tell me that she never reads her own press anymore, having suffered negative comments about her apparently over-curvy figure. “You go out to a premiere, but the next day you get the criticism. I’ve been called fat or whatever. Most of the time it’s not true what’s written. It’s so petty and horrid and it really hurts you. I say that I’m like five months clean, five months clean of Googling myself.”
It’s starting to piece together, that despite her movie star looks, Arterton is a serious actress who, weighing up the highs and lows of celebrity—“It’s a choice. For me it’s not about being famous, it’s about being recognized for your talent”—is drawing the conclusion that it’s not for her. And while undoubtedly benefiting from the blockbuster exposure, she has neatly sidestepped into more soul-nurturing projects like a forthcoming theatre role in Ibsen’s The Master Builder in London’s West End, Alice Creed, and Tamara Drewe.
She is contracted for Clash of the Titans 2, naturally. But still, “Doing Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe has been life-changing. Of course, the risk is you won’t be in any more Hollywood movies because you’re too risky, which I don’t mind. Like, I really would not mind, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I would rather be doing small roles in theatre.” But rather than small roles, Gemma is being handed the kind of scripts most actresses could only dream of. “When I meet people, it isn’t for the sexy girl in shorts role anymore. All of a sudden I’m meeting people to play Courtney Love and Marianne Faithfull, or to play a fucked-up heroin addict. And then it’s not about your body, it’s about your ability.”
Suddenly our time is nearly up. The very able Arterton leans over to check the time on my mobile phone. She has a New York flight. So, when will we be seeing her next on screen? “I never like to talk about these things before they come to fruition,” she says. “But I’ve been offered two roles in amazing movies. Cool, strong females leads. One is a Michael Winterbottom film and the other is a Corsican saga by Luca Guadagnino. They’re not big in Hollywood, but they’re big to me,” she says with a smile. And that’s all that seems to genuinely matter to this amazing, and beautiful, actress. Buona fortuna, Gemma Arterton.