E. Randol Schoenberg: Woman in Gold


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."


Murder Most Mysterious

Atom Egoyan explores the case of the West Memphis Three in Devil's Knot

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan didn't know what he was letting himself in for when he decided to make a dramatised account of the West Memphis Three case.

It had been explored from different angles before - most notably in a trio of acclaimed documentaries by co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, and another by Amy J. Berg - but Egoyan felt the story of the latter-day "Salem witch hunt" in a small, deeply religious neighbourhood known as Robin Hood Hills in West Memphis, Arkansas, following the horrific discovery of the bodies of three missing eight-year-old boys, bore retelling.

The director was, therefore, surprised when his film based on Mara Leveritt's book, Devil's Knot, and starring Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, was panned by North American critics after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. Speaking a few weeks later at the Zurich Film Festival, he's still angry about what happened in Canada, if somewhat buoyed by the film's warmer reception in Europe.

 So what went wrong?

"There were a few critics that were prepared to engage with the film and to take it seriously, but for the most part there was this kind of dismissal because they already knew the story," he says.
"There is a kind of elitism where they don't understand that this is a very powerful story that deserves re-investigation, and that there are a lot of people who might go and see a film with Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon who would not see a documentary. So when they say, 'Watch the documentaries', I don't think that's really responsible."

For Egoyan, the tale of the West Memphis Three isn't just another murder story, but "one of the most extraordinary pieces of mythology in contemporary American culture".
Three teenagers - Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jnr and Jason Baldwin - were convicted of the killings. They were released after 18 years in jail - a rare deal negotiated with the state of Arkansas set them free, though they remain convicted felons - and to this day, no one knows for sure what happened on May 5, 1993.

Egoyan's film feels haunted by the young victims - Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore - whom, he agrees, have sometimes been squeezed out of the frame by the tight focus put on the plight of the supposed killers. The boys' fate, though, is the mysterious heart of the story: they went out to play in the woods together, and no one - except for their murderer(s) - saw them alive again.

"Something happened that was so unimaginable," says Egoyan. "These three boys went into this forest and the next day their naked, mutilated bodies are found, tied with their shoelaces, submerged in the water, with absolutely no evidence. No DNA. No blood. No footprints. No branches moved. It's eerie, and it is supernatural. It is the stuff of mythology. You couldn't create that."

The subsequent police investigation, arrests and trials (Misskelley was tried separately because he had confessed) took place amid a "Satanic panic", making Echols - a young Goth interested in witchcraft and heavy metal music, and, significantly, the only one of the three suspects to be sentenced to death - a particularly easy target for a police force and community desperate for answers.

"He was an outsider and didn't understand - or he wasn't coached properly - that one of his roles playing a defendant is to feel innocent," says Egoyan. "He never did. It's quite odd. He maintained his outsider role and actually seemed to revel in it."

In the film, Ron Lax (Firth), a private investigator working for the defence, and Pam Hobbs (Witherspoon), the mother of Stevie Branch, both initially believe that all of the suspects are guilty. However, their certainty becomes eroded by doubt, and they are left despairingly adrift in a sea of confusion. "The real question I wanted to deal with in this film is the notion of powerlessness," Egoyan says.

"It's a very different point of view to a documentary. A documentary is about pointing a finger and saying, 'Go after this person'. I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in this idea of bringing the viewer into a place where you want something to resolve, but it doesn't. And that is ultimately the Devil's Knot. The more you try to undo it, the tighter it gets."

Though he didn't write the screenplay, and Devil's Knot is his first feature based on a true story, it fits neatly into an oeuvre that frequently includes characters seeking the truth, or who construct false realities to cope with their lives, or are wrestling with questions of guilt and responsibility.

Asked why these themes and ideas keep recurring in his work, the filmmaker says that it comes partly from growing up as the son of Armenians, 1.5 million of whom were killed by the Ottoman government in the Armenian genocide of 1915, although Turkey still refuses to recognise the event.

"You're dealing with the fact that there's this cataclysmic historic event which you're taught is an absolute reality, but which is denied," says Egoyan, who explored the genocide and its legacy in his controversial 2002 film, Ararat. "So you're often in these bizarre conversations and that becomes a part of your formation - I mean to this day - I suppose. So there is that political aspect of it, which is just part of one's upbringing."

On a more personal level, he says he had a "strange experience" where the "young woman I was completely obsessed with, for like five years, during my teen years, was being abused by her father at the same time. I understood that there was something creepy and unusual about it, but she was in denial and, certainly at that time, no one was talking about those issues," the filmmaker says.

"So I think the combination of those two things in my life - the one which is kind of a grand, familial communal tale and this personal one - have had a very strong effect on me," he surmises.

Egoyan isn't optimistic about the real killers ever being brought to book. Pam Hobbs once suggested that Terry Hobbs, her ex-husband and Stevie's stepfather - a man with a history of violence and a strand of whose hair was found in the shoelace binding Michael Moore - might have been involved in the murders. She was on set almost every day and Egoyan says that they had what were often "odd conversations".

"The film doesn't really address this but [Terry] is still in her life. And it's the oddest relationship," the director says.

"He is a dark, malevolent man. But just because he abused his daughter, just because he had violent outbursts, just because he had this dark personality, it doesn't mean he could have done it.

"This is the thing about the crime. The more you look into it, the more impossible it is."

Originally published in The South China Morning Post, May 27, 2014