Gemma Arterton Interview

Gemma Arterton plays a decapitated head in Marjane Satrapi's The Voices, due out on Friday. In 2010, I met her to discuss The Disappearance of Alice Creed. The following article was published in The Scotsman.

Published Date: 24 April 2010
SOME people, Gemma Arterton says, mistake her confidence for arrogance. "I'm never saying, 'I'm amazing!'" she says. "I just have strong opinions." Today, at a private members' club in London, the 24-year-old who has gone from a council estate in Gravesend to a James Bond movie and two Hollywood blockbusters, is bracingly self-assured and outspoken – but not arrogant. To me, she just seems honest.

Even so, a hint of self-congratulation would be forgivable. When we met in Cannes in 2007, Arterton was just one of several newcomers touting the first film in the re-booted St Trinian's franchise, and still at drama school. Fast forward to 2010 and she has already scored one box-office hit with Clash of the Titans since the turn of the new decade, while the soon-to-be-released Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, in which she plays Princess Tamina, is expected to be even bigger. Arterton has no plans to become Queen of the Hollywood Blockbuster, however, and in between has delivered a curveball in the shape of The Disappearance of Alice Creed.

The antithesis of a megabucks SFX juggernaut, writer/director J Blakeson's feature debut is a down-and-dirty psychological thriller, with Arterton cast as the eponymous kidnap victim, locked in a battle of wits with her captors (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston). She spends much of the film hooded, gagged, and handcuffed to a bed, her face streaked with tears and black mascara; she is stripped naked at one point, and suffers a series of indignities. It is the kind of role that many actresses would run a mile to avoid, and even Arterton admits to being scared by Blakeson's "tight" script when she read it. Rather than putting her off, though, her fear inspired her. 

"Why do something monotonous that doesn't challenge you, unless you're just Jennifer Aniston and you don't mind that sort of lifestyle?" she says. "I couldn't do this any more if it was just about getting another paycheck. This one was scary, and I didn't know if I could achieve what was needed." Even the audition, where she realised she'd be expected to be in tears within minutes, was "petrifying". "But I did it and then I was like, 'Well, I can do it.' That's how you grow and that's how you learn. In real life there is nudity. In real life there is violence, there is sex. If we didn't have these in movies, we would just have Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia, and there would be one type of genre only and it would be kids' movies." 

The resulting film is closer to the kind of movies she likes to watch than anything else on her CV. "I don't have anything against blockbusters, but I generally just don't go to see that sort of thing." Apparently, European extremists such as Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier – auteurs who make demands on their actors as well as their audiences – are more her taste. And the fact that they're not everyone's cup of tea just seems to add to their appeal, because "you can't live your life being the darling and pleasing everybody". 

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is in the Haneke/von Trier ballpark, and Arterton's participation in it, at a point when the 24-year-old RADA alumna is on the verge of major stardom, feels like a statement of intent: a way of defining herself as a serious, risk-taking actress, rather than just being known as the "totty", as she's often described her roles to date, in big-budget behemoths. 

"Yeah," she says, "because when I get fat and have children, and get wrinkly, I don't want to not have work because I have lost my appeal. You see it happen in Hollywood with your starlets: their momentum goes and then they're gone. I want to be in it for the rest of my life." She claims that Hollywood stardom does not interest her. "And especially now that I've had a taste of it, it's not why I got into this in the first place. I'm happy to work in Europe and make films like this and do theatre (she recently made her West End debut in The Little Dog Laughed]. I'm happy to do that now. But I think it was important for me to 'get one in'," she says, referring to Alice Creed, "and I'm so lucky that it's come out between (Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia], because, hopefully, it will show people that I can do other things – and I'm not afraid." 

Importantly, Alice Creed was not about glamour or looking beautiful. For once, Arterton says, she didn't have to worry about her skin or her hair, or having to go to the gym – all "tiring and boring". "I let myself relax and it was all about the acting. For me, it can really be frustrating when you're just seen as the totty" – there's that word again – "and I know that I've always taken acting so seriously." Inside she feels like a character actress, but she is self-aware enough to realise that it is her choices that have "put myself in that (other] category. So I have to prove my salt. And now is the time." 

Arterton is something of a paradox. A self-described oddball, she recently played up to her sexy image by doing a photo/video shoot for GQ, but at the same time is prepared to talk about being born with a "crumpled ear" and an extra finger on each hand ("I find imperfections brilliant," she laughs). 

Her unease at being labelled a bombshell is summed up by the way she handles the red carpet. It is not Gemma we see posing at premieres, but "Gemma Arterton the Actress". "In real life I'm not actressy," she says. "I am not considered in my manner. I am not graceful. I am geeky and I joke and I am boisterous and I am silly. It's not starlet-y, and it doesn't fit into Hollywood, it really doesn't." Therefore she has learned to adopt a persona for her public appearances, she says, approaching them as another kind of acting challenge. "I have to do that, because otherwise I will fall over or say something offensive or I will be silly." 

Her unease is compounded by her distaste for what she sees as the misplaced idolisation of actresses, "when really we should idolise people because they're talented or they're intelligent, or they're doing something notable, rather than the fact that they've got a great arse or they look really good in Dolce&Gabbana. That, to me, is really boring, and is something that has been put on to me, and I really don't feel comfortable with it."

Listening to Arterton talk, it comes as no surprise to learn that she grew up surrounded by powerful female role models, or that she considers herself a feminist. Her parents divorced when she was five, and she and her younger sister, Hannah, were raised by their mother. "I really admire anyone that can do that," she says, admitting that she and her sibling could be difficult, "because we were very opinionated as well. She worked her arse off and very selflessly brought us up. My aunt as well, she's a real feminist, so I've had strong women around me all my life. Of course you then grow into one yourself." 

Her father is still a presence in her life, and has apparently always had a liberal attitude to her work. He watches everything she does, but at the time of our interview had yet to see The Disappearance of Alice Creed. Arterton suspects it won't be easy for him. "When you see your daughter getting beaten and stripped naked it's going to have an affect. But I do warn people." Will her mother see it? "I don't think she will be able to watch it. But I do think about that, sometimes, when I watch films. Like in Monster's Ball, that very explicit sex scene, I think, 'God, did Halle Berry's mum and dad watch this? What do they think?' But, you know, if we didn't do it I think films would be incomplete. It's not like every single film needs to have some sort of nudity in it. But, you know, people get naked."

Whatever anyone thinks of The Disappearance of Alice Creed, there is no denying that it is a bold move by Gemma Arterton, who next month will return to Cannes as the star of Stephen Frears' eagerly anticipated new film, Tamara Drewe. Whether there will be more blockbusters down the line remains to be seen. For now, though, her sights are set elsewhere. "I want to do things that scare me and challenge me. I want to feel I am working as an actress and not just turning up and prancing around."

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