Tuesday, 4 January 2011

She’s got it

Gemma Arterton is hot. She’s gone from Tess to Bond to Hollywood, but is now returning to seduce a modern English village

Jeff Dawson

Published: 5 September 2010, Sunday Times

Gemma Arterton swishes into the reception area of her publicist’s Soho offices declaiming against her defunct phone. The quest to recharge it has resulted in her countermanding a PR diktat. "They told me not to come to the first floor, because they didn’t want us to meet before the interview," she chirrups in my direction while simultaneously petitioning the front desk as to the availability of power sockets. "Hello," she adds with a conspiratorial smirk. "I’m Gemma."

Beautiful, high-heeled and struttingly confident, Arterton certainly knows how to make an entrance... and exit. It was her brief but doomed turn as Her Majesty’s agent Strawberry Fields in 2008’s Quantum of Solace (death by sub-BP oil slick, starkers, sprawled on the bed) that gave her her big leg-up. With brown eyes, peaches-and-cream skin and long silky hair at the brunette end of the auburn spectrum, she is unquestionably a head turner. Garrulous, too, charmingly so — if apt to give her handlers kittens. Our brief walk up the stairs (duly chaperoned) reveals that the unseasonably cool August morning has necessitated her "rocking tights" under her little black dress. A giggling lech at a film poster on the stairwell elicits a confession that she’s got a bit of a thing for the French actor Romain Duris.

In the designated interview parlour, Arterton roots around and plugs in her fractious mobile. "Bloody thing. I hate it." In the old days, her accent — embellished with some world-class swearing — would be described as Mayfair cockney, the sloane girl slumming it, though in fact it’s quite the reverse. "Welcome to my office," she trumpets, her laugh — a frequent punctuation — laced with something of a saucy crack. Across the room is one of those screens, the kind that buxom bordello girls fling their corsets over in westerns.

Last night, she says, she was at some dinner, enjoying an evening incognito, when "this drunken toff" browbeat her into dancing with him, twirling her round the restaurant. "There wasn’t even a dancefloor. I was mortified." Armed with an industrial-sized black coffee and glass of water, she seizes the psychological advantage of a higher chair and back to the window. We are up and running.

'Welcome to my office,' she trumpets, her laugh laced with something of a saucy crack

These are exciting times for Arterton. Still only 24, she is the new It girl of British cinema, a position she is about to cement with the title role in Tamara Drewe, a sort of dark, rural bedroom farce, based on the Posy Simmonds comic strip. This year alone, not three summers out of Rada, Arterton has headlined two megabudget blockbusters, Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia, flouncing around as a brace of feisty muse/princesses. Squeezed in between has come the taut British kidnap thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, and a West End play, The Little Dog Laughed, not to mention the personal landmark of marriage — to a chap named Stefano Catelli, who works in fashion distribution. She’s not long back from honeymoon. "I don’t know how we managed to do it."

Tamara Drewe, like a sexed-up version of The Archers, should raise Arterton’s profile further. Directed by Stephen Frears, best known of late for The Queen, the film was a hit at Cannes. Loosely inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, it features Arterton as Wessex’s returning native, the local squiress who left for the smoke, reinvented herself as a successful journalist (albeit at The Independent) and has come back, sleekly refined after a nose job, to stoke the ardour of the yokels. They include the local handyman (Luke Evans), the resident author (Roger Allam) and an interloping rock drummer (Dominic Cooper). The ensemble includes the put-upon hostess of a writers’ retreat, Tamsin Greig, who lends her voice to the actual Archers, as Debbie Aldridge.

It’s the closest role to me, I suppose, that I’ve played. It looks like me. She’s a modern girl," Arterton says. "Sort of charming, quite witty and snide remarks, and stuff. That’s quite me. There’s a really great line where she says, ‘Before I had the nose job, I had no problem being taken seriously. Maybe when they removed that cartilage, they pulled out my brain by mistake.’ I am always saying stuff like that. Don’t assume that because you think this, I can’t do this."

Indeed. Despite Arterton’s earnest attempts to offset the commercial gloss with artistic cred, the popular press is still having difficulty digesting her, no doubt discombobulated by her appearance as a raunchy head girl in the St Trinian’s films. Despite broadsheet enthusiasm for Tamara Drewe, tabloid attention has focused on the fact that, in it, she sports a pair of slice-me-in-two denim cut-offs. "I have been known to wear shorts, but certainly not like those ones."

A few days before our interview, The Sun had celebrated the DVD release of The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a film in which Arterton appears half-naked and brutalised, with a snapshot of her breasts, beneath the banner "No bra-terton for nude Gemma". Arterton acknowledges that if she appears topless in a film, inevitably such images are going to enter the public domain. "I’m not an idiot." She suggests, with considerable colour, that if such things facilitate auto-relief for the brotherhood of Onan, then such is life. "You just have to deal with it and move on," she huffs. "I don’t even read that shit."

It’s the closest role to me, I suppose, that I’ve played. It looks like me. She’s a modern girl. Sort of charming, quite witty and snide remarks

Neither does Frears, apparently. The famous curmudgeon had been blissfully unaware of Arterton’s existence and so cast her as Tamara Drewe purely on merit. "Which I was grateful for. He’s a very instinctive man," she says. He also described Arterton recently as "so curvy... like a sort of line drawing in her own way". Might want to keep that to himself. Arterton and Hardy are inextricably linked, permanently inked. Behind the actress’s left ear is a tattoo of an angel wing, a souvenir from her breakthrough TV role, as Tess of the D’Urbervilles, for the BBC. "And I have this ring, as well, which they bought me." She flashes a clunky silver band on her right hand, which counterbalances the diamond sparkler on her left. "I had an amazing time on that job. The people I met on it changed my life." Tess was twinned with another frocksy heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, in the ITV’s amusing time-travel romp Lost in Austen.

Throw in roles in films such as Stephen Poliakoff’s Capturing Mary, Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla and Richard Curtis’s The Boat That Rocked and you have a remarkable entrée for any actor’s career. But then came Bond, James Bond. "I still feel like it’s not real. I don’t feel like it’s me in that film," she reflects. "When I left drama school, I didn’t really know what to expect or what I wanted. I just wanted to work."

Arterton’s background has been trotted out quite a bit. She grew up on a Gravesend council estate to divorced parents, her father a metal worker, her mother a cleaner. She supports Charlton Athletic. Rarely does an interview fail to mention her little physical idiosyncrasy. "The fingers," she anticipates. She was born with the rare genetic condition of having six fingers on each hand (until they excised the boneless appendages). "People are fascinated by it, which I understand. I’m proud of them, because it’s my little oddity. It’s my personal thing… It’s also a sign of wisdom." Not north Kent insularity? She laughs.

At school, Miss Spitfire put her extant digits to good use, playing guitar and singing in punk bands. "Tourniquet. And a band before that, Violent Pink, when I was 12. We were angsty girl punks. I think that’s my thing. I am a punk-rock star underneath that’s dying to come out." It was on viewing Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark that she came to believe acting might be her calling. "I was 17. I was a huge Björk fan. Still am. Before that, I was only watching blockbusters, and then I saw this film. It had singing and dancing, but it also had a f***ing journey." The local theatre group followed.

Though Arterton is the first one in her immediate family to have made it in the arts, there is a musical streak running through the distaff side. Her younger sister, Hannah, currently also at Rada, is a songwriter with a record deal. Eric Goulden, a cousin of her mother’s, is better known as the influential 1970s new-waver Wreckless Eric. Lately, a bit of genealogical digging revealed a German-Jewish great-grandmother who was a concert violinist.

Arterton claims not to be in awe of the business. Her husband has nothing to do with the film world. "It’s great, because I go home and we don’t talk about acting. Why would I want to talk about acting? That’s my job. Even though I’m very passionate about it, not everybody wants to listen to me bang on about it all day. I’d much rather talk about our dog and how many times a day she went to the toilet, which is what we do." (For the record, an apparently lax shar pei.)

She said the scales fell from her eyes after watching the first St Trinian’s film at her local flea pit. "You can hear people going, ‘This is f***ing shit, this is not even funny.’" As such, it’s since been the work rather than what ends up on screen that has become the chief interest. "I sort of have a clearer idea of what I want, and, yeah, I do want to do more theatre and the smaller films, because I enjoy the process a lot more. It’s the only thing that interests me. I’m not that bothered about the finished product."

Before, I was only watching blockbusters, and then I saw Dancer In The Dark...

It was fun making Tamara Drewe, she says, and has a grumble about the winding-up of the UK Film Council, which had helped fund it. "Having now made some Hollywood movies, big-budget movies, you realise that shitloads of money gets made making crap." She cites the difficulty in financing a film called The Keys to the Street (from the Ruth Rendell book), in which she has just been cast, a thriller written by Christopher Nolan (Inception). The script has been on the shelf for eight years. "You think, ‘Why on earth has this film been sitting around?’" Such ready dismissal of studio films can sail mighty close to blasé. She’s not done too badly. "Ridley Scott saw Alice Creed and loved it," she continues. "He wants me to meet for Aliens: The Remake, or something."

There is also a British cowboy film, In with the Outlaws, with Richard E Grant in the offing. More immediately, a sequel to Clash of the Titans seems on the cards. One may yet follow for Prince of Persia. In which case, what better hair shirt to put on first than a play by Ibsen? Arterton starts rehearsals in October for the role of Hilde in The Master Builder, opposite Stephen Dillane. "It’s going to be the most challenging thing I’ve ever done — very complex, so dark, so complicated and very deep, full of imagery and metaphor. It’s a classic, so I feel I have an obligation to play it particularly well.

"Somebody told me I was born to play that role," she sniggers. "She’s an absolute devil."

Tamara Drewe opens on Friday

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