IN AN unremarkable office in a rain-spattered London, Gemma Arterton looks at me through thick-rimmed specs.
Hair in a ponytail, no make up to speak of, she’s dressed in civvies – skinny black jeans and boots, a nude-coloured blouse underneath a big coat she pulls round herself because it’s a bit parky. Arterton, 27, looks much younger than in the pictures of her on red carpets (why do stylists make women look much older than they really are?) but it’s not only that, or the glasses, that make her look unfamiliar, it’s also that it’s been a while since Arterton’s been around. Not that it’s going to stay that way.
Coming up in the next few months, she’s got the decidedly low-fi Song for Marion, the hi-tech Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, vampire flick Byzantium with Saoirse Ronan and Runner, Runner with Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake.
“It’s always like that with me,” she says. “I do tend to get overexposed. I wish it was a bit more spread out.”
Spread out it isn’t, but that’s not to say there isn’t variety. In Song for Marion, a quiet little thing that will have you bawling, Arterton plays Elizabeth, a music teacher and part time community choir leader who works with a group of plucky oldies, not least the stoical Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) and her grumpy husband Arthur (Terence Stamp). Marion has terminal cancer but she loves to sing in the choir. Arthur adores Marion, although he struggles to show it, but he can’t stand the choir. You don’t have to be a genius to work out how it plays. But I’m warning you, take tissues.
“Everybody cries at it,” Arterton says, smiling. “You’d have to be pretty cold hearted not to be moved in some way.”
I’m not exactly representative as I can usually shed a tear watching Gareth Malone’s The Choir and there’s never been a cancer storyline in that. “I’ve never watched it,” Arterton says, when I ask her if she checked out Malone for tips. “I should’ve. Singing is amazing though. It’s like a therapy. It really gets it all out.”
Actually, that’s not really something that I’d imagine Arterton struggling with. She’s softly spoken but as sharp as a tack. She might be a little more cautious since the days when she managed to land herself with a reputation for being outspoken – in fact, what she did was simply express opinions (not very forcefully actually) about the pressures on young women to look a certain way (it could be that, reasonably enough, she was prompted by being described as “distinctly jowly” by a certain tabloid), and to stay schtum in her business (Arterton had made it clear that she’d like to be seen as more than “a piece of ass”). I don’t believe for one minute that these opinions have disappeared, it’s just that she’s much more canny about sharing them in interviews. I can’t help but feel simultaneously impressed and disappointed.
“Sometimes I’d say things and they’d come out and my publicist would phone me and say ‘OK, you’re not a spokesperson, be careful, don’t bite the hand that feeds you’. So I learned to do that a bit. I started talking about myself or feminist stuff, not the industry.”
Arterton has obviously been burned by past experience. She tells me about being misconstrued in print and it’s obvious that it has upset her, but it’s also clear that she’s a bit baffled by it.
“I once said something like if you’re a beautiful women you don’t get taken seriously in Britain, something like that. It was written as I’m a beautiful woman and no one takes me seriously and so the response was ‘how dare she, she’s an ugly cow’.” She rolls her eyes. “So I was doing a play at the time and I went for dinner after the show. There was a rowdy group of girls upstairs and they came over and they were like ‘everyone in our office loves you because you say what we think. You were saying what real women think’. That meant so much to me.
“I can’t help but be honest. I wish I could be a bit less honest, not honest, but have more boundaries but I am very open.”
Well, that’s true to an extent. On acting and the industry, she still holds forth with healthy disdain and pleasingly salty language. But on her personal life she’s much more reticent. Arterton is from a distinctly un-showbiz background. She grew up in Kent. Her mum and dad (a cleaner and a welder) split up when she was five and she grew up mainly with her mum and younger sister, Hannah, in a council flat in Gravesend. In 2010, Arterton married Stefano Catelli – a sales manager for a luxury goods company, in a ceremony in Andalucia. Life in between projects is “normal” she says, and maybe the way to keep it like that is to not make it the subject of interviews.
“As long as you protect your heart,” she says. “There have been times when I’ve made it too personal. I’m happy to talk about the industry and my work in it but I tend not to go into personal stuff. It’s good that way. And the last few years have been really nice because I haven’t had any major problems.” She knocks on the table. “I say that now, it’s all going to start up again I’ve got three films out in three months.”
Arterton’s career has been a bit of a masterclass really. She did a bit of acting while she was still at school, won an award, landed herself a grant and went to RADA when she was 18. Her first professional role was in the Stephen Poliakoff TV drama, Capturing Mary. The ascent continued from there. Before she’d even graduated (“I’d finished, I just hadn’t graduated”) Arterton landed the part of Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost at The Globe theatre, garnering serious praise for her performance. On the big screen it started (inauspiciously, one might say) with St Trinian’s and the Bond movie Quantum of Solace (a part she described as “secondary totty”). Then there were the blockbusters (Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans), British indies (Tamara Drew, The Disappearance of Alice Creed) and celebrated runs on stage – in The Little Dog Laughed and Ibsen’s The Master Builder.
A career marked by this much variety doesn’t happen by accident. It’s clear that Arterton makes choices – curious to some, intriguing to others – about what she wants to do and how she wants to work.
“For me, that’s the instinctive way to do it,” she says. “I’m not very good at doing the same thing, or similar things. I don’t like it. I get very bored. When I have the conversation after we finish a project about what do we do next I always want something totally different.”
Song for Marion was “a reaction” to a horror comedy that was very violent and action-led (the upcoming Hansel and Gretel: Witchunters with Jeremy Renner). And she’s right, it couldn’t be more different. Arterton is effortless as perky Elizabeth, who’s all warmth and motivational speeches. She clearly loved Terence Stamp (“I wanted to punch his face he was so cute”) explaining that the connection that develops on screen was happening off-screen too. “He’s so lovely. We’ve stayed in contact since.”
The next few projects might mark Arterton’s return to big budget, Hollywood-type fare, but it’d be a mistake to think that she’s fulfilling her desire to do projects that fit that mould. She’s got her eye on a musical turn next, having grabbed herself the lead role in the stage adaptation of Made in Dagenham. Her agent wasn’t sure, she says with a roll of the eyes, but she won out.
“Sometimes I think maybe I should have a niche, but then I’d be so bored. That’s not why I’m an actor, to be successful in...” she decides not to name whatever it might be. “I don’t even know what I mean by successful in that way, I just want to do it.” She laughs. “I just like doing it.”
Arterton once said, after making The Disappearance of Alice Creed with Martin Compston and Eddie Marsan, that she wanted the role to “check she could act”.
It was a startling thing to say because, of course, within it is the inference that there are plenty of projects for which acting is surplus to requirements.
“Ugh, yeah,” she says, sounding faintly horrified. “There’s an actress, a friend of mine, she’s very successful in theatre. She always gets great reviews and she’s won awards, but she really wants to have this Hollywood career. I’m like but you’re f**king respected in the theatre and in telly and British film, why would you want to do that? I would trade it all in for that. I don’t know. Some people want that. Interestingly, I don’t want that so much.”
Of course, I can’t help but notice the “so much” tacked on the end there. Maybe it’s that Arterton’s been in it enough to know that the lure of Hollywood alone is not for her. Perhaps other actors have similar experiences but stay quiet about it because they reckon it’s what they should be doing.
“I think they do think it’s what they should be doing, but there is no right or wrong way in Hollywood. There is no formula. The Hollywood agent’s goal is to get you an Oscar or an award of some sort. Usually they’ll look at the career of someone else and say well that’s how they got there because they did that movie and then that movie and then they started getting sent the interesting stuff and now they’re really famous. And that’s true for some people, but then you get someone who comes out of nowhere and does some tiny little movie and f**king smashes it. So there is no formula, so you don’t have to do those things. It’s such a game of chance, the whole thing.”
Arterton admits that she was a “bit burnt” by her Hollywood experience but having made another movie there she’s starting to feel a bit more comfortable, a bit less scared. She’s also learned that she’s got more control than she maybe once thought.
“I never really thought I was in a position to be choosy or say ‘hmm, I’m not sure about that person’, or ‘how about that Director of Photography?’. But when you start talking like that it’s interesting how much people start to listen to your opinion. I’ve been having meetings with producers in LA about projects I want to get going and they take me seriously. I realise that it’s an attitude that you have to have about yourself. If you are soft and a pushover then you will get pushed over. You have to be strong. They respect that there.”
The only place it seems that Arterton countenances a bit of vulnerability is in her acting work, not that it holds her back.
“The other day I was shooting something and I was really nervous about working with the actors because they’d written the script as well. I was thinking I’ve f**king got on stage at the Globe on my own in front of all those people when I was 21 and yet I can’t do this. Why is that?”
Arterton never speaks with more animation than when she’s talking about acting. Without hesitation she picks out the moments from her career that she identifies as high points. There were some performances of The Master Builder with Stephen Dillane when she’d come off stage and not really known what had just happened, “It’s scary but it’s also when you know it’s good.” And there was a moment during the making of Alice Creed.
“Eddie Marsan was beating the s**t out of me and I was so petrified I had a panic attack,” she beams. “He wasn’t really hitting me but he was acting so f**king brilliantly that I didn’t know my line. That’s what we’re aiming for – not quite knowing what’s real. Those are the things you’ve got to make sure that you remember because they are special. They’re the shining lights in your career. Remember that. Remember that. Remember that.” She repeats it like a mantra.
• Song for Marion is in cinemas from 22 February.