It would be hard to imagine a more refreshing and exuberant personality than Gemma Arterton. She speaks openly and avidly without the multiple layers of filtering that is the normal defensive position of most actors in the limelight.
Looking radiant in a blue Chinti and Parker dress, the statuesque 31-year-old British actor is animatedly enthusiastic about her new film, Their Finest, a World War II ‘dramedy’ set in London, in which she plays Catrin Cole, a writer hired to pen the screenplay for a wartime propaganda film. Directed by Lone Scherfig (An Education), the film also stars Bill Nighy as the eccentric lead actor Ambrose Hilliard.
‘This film is a lovely warm story that is optimistic and gives you a sense of hope and I think the world needs hope these days,’ says Gemma. ‘I also liked the fact it revolves around a female character who is a feminist without knowing it. Catrin is a gentle soul, living in a very sexist era where women were far from being treated as equals, but she also knows when to put her foot down to defend herself and not get pushed around.’
Away from the silver screen, Gemma has gone back to her roots on the stage at the Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden, where she recently played Joan of Arc in the Bernard Shaw classic, Saint Joan. She also recently signed up for My Zoe, a drama directed by Julie Delpy and co-starring Daniel Brühl, as well as beginning work on the biographical drama Vita & Virginia, in which she plays Vita Sackville-West, the London socialite who had an affair with literary icon Virginia Woolf, played by Eva Green.
“This film is a lovely warm story that is optimistic and gives you a sense of hope and I think the world needs hope these days”
In Their Finest, you play a Welsh writer hired to work on a British WWII propaganda film. How was it being on set?
It was a very lovely atmosphere making this film and I particularly enjoyed all the scenes where we’re brainstorming as writers. I’m involved in trying to develop several films myself and I think the process of creating stories for films is so interesting and I would hope that our film inspires other writers.
Do you think the feminist message underlying the film is compelling?
There is a powerful message there, yes, but it’s done in an indirect way rather than stamping your foot about it and being very outspoken. My character stands up for herself when she needs to and she becomes very caught up in her work when she realises how important the work can be and how proud she is to be making a contribution and doing something that has value.
Are you drawn to darker kinds of stories?
Yes. I have a tendency to want to make more troubling and disturbing films. Often I’m playing women who are up against it and dealing with difficult situations. I like being in a state of tension or danger in a role, it makes me feel like I’m working very hard and pushing my limits. But with this story, I was so pleased to be part of a film that gives you a good feeling and makes you happy. When I look at the world today and how there seems to be so much fighting everywhere I think it’s important to remain optimistic and hopeful.
“When I look at the world today and how there seems to be so much fighting everywhere I think it’s important to remain optimistic and hopeful”
What are the most important factors when you’re considering a role?
Playing independent-minded women makes things more interesting, although I don’t necessarily seek out roles where women are trying to break down or escape social barriers or constraints. But if they do come my way, I’m very happy to jump on board. It’s important we keep making more films where women are shown to be independent and very capable.
When you started out as an actor, you were initially more interested in theatre than film. Has that changed?
My background is theatre and the stage was where I saw myself working. I never thought that I would make movies and when it happened, I was panicked by it all. I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage things and I had to be very careful not to allow myself to be overwhelmed by how fast things were going. But I need to go back to the stage from time to time. I love the intimate nature of theatre productions that you often don’t have working on films, especially the blockbusters. That’s why I would much rather shoot small, independent films like Their Finest and The Girl with all the Gifts. I probably shouldn’t say that, but those are the projects that mean the most to me.
Are you confident in your career choices?
At the beginning of my career, I was poor as a church mouse and I was happy just to be able to work and earn a living. I didn’t have that much choice but at some point, I thought that those weren’t the kinds of films I want to be doing. That’s when I started looking for the projects that meant something to me and trying to find the best scripts possible. I started producing and now we have two productions we’re working on. I enjoy being able to be part of that creative process.
“I love the kind of attitude the French have. They just do their own thing and don’t give a f***!”
You have a home in Paris. How is living across The Channel?
I love Paris. I love being able to speak French and work in French films. Being part of another culture and living in Paris has opened up a new world to me and it’s made a big difference in my life. I also love the kind of attitude the French have. They just do their own thing and don’t give a f**k!
You’ve been fairly outspoken about women’s rights and creating better roles for women in film and decent roles for women once they get past 40. Does ageing worry you?
No, I look forward to getting older and wiser! My role model is my grandfather: even in his mid-nineties, he gave the impression of being in his mid-twenties. He was very sharp-minded and looked like Clark Gable with his moustache and his hair. He was still sexy. And I secretly hope that I’ve inherited his genes!
Their Finest is released nationwide on 21 April.