Gemma Arterton: ‘Everyone in the industry knows I'm a pain’A decade after playing a Bond Girl, she has finally made a film she is proud of. The actor talks about breaking the mould and the joy of being difficult
Saturday 14 July 2018
Gemma Arterton’s favourite things. “Oh, I love going on marches,” she beams. “They’re such an amazingly galvanising, brilliant community.” She brought her mum along on a women’s march recently, “and she loved it, too. She just loved the energy you get off it. It’s like carnival, people really together, and they’re singing and they’re chanting.” She throws her head back, exhilarated by the memory. “It’s like, you feel power.”protest march is one of
The 32-year-old has not always felt powerful. Her career began on the 2007 St Trinian’s movie, and a year later she became a global sex symbol as a Bond girl. “The first six years of my career were all about me learning what I didn’t want to do,” she admits. “If I’d been really, really strong-minded back then, I would have turned them down. But I wasn’t, so I own that.” She pauses for a moment to reflect.
“I think self-belief is very rare in young actors. Whenever I meet a really confident young actor, I just think, ‘Fuck, yes, go on.’ I wasn’t that person when I was younger. I wish I was.”
The terrible truth is that while Arterton is telling me this, I can’t concentrate. Her beauty is quite unlike anything I have ever seen in real life, and hopelessly distracting. We meet in a north London studio, following her photo shoot, but there is no artifice in the minimal makeup or artlessly swept-back hair, and the miraculous perfection of every feature is mesmerising. Such are our delusions about the power of beauty, the idea that it might ever confer disadvantage feels counterintuitive. And yet, for years, the Rada-trained actor found herself underestimated because of her face.
“My taste in film and theatre has always been very marginal, very arthouse, very out there, and then it always surprised me that I got these mainstream roles. I’ve done so many things that were not meaningful, and I have always wanted to do meaningful work, and I don’t get sent those meaningful scripts.” She has no regrets, she adds quickly, about her decorative roles. “But I found, in my experience, that people just think you’re a bad actor.”
|Gemma Arterton with her mother at the Million Women Rise rally, March 2018|
Following her Bond role in Quantum Of Solace there were more blockbuster parts, in Clash Of The Titans and Prince Of Persia, but soon she was gravitating towards smaller independent movies, playing Tamara Drewe in the eponymous Posy Simmonds adaptation. She starred in the British noir thriller The Disappearance Of Alice Creed and the Irish horror movie Byzantium, and in 2011 was nominated for a Bafta Rising Star award.
So Arterton has always been busy; in 2016 she appeared in no fewer than five films, and won an Olivier award for playing Nell Gwynn in the West End. Nevertheless, there is an under-realised quality about her body of work, as if she has still been waiting for the right role.
|Gemma Arterton: ‘I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved.’|
Photograph by Philip Gay
So when the writer and director Dominic Savage confided to her that he’d “not made a thing yet that I’m really proud of”, her reply was: “Me neither.” Arterton told him how she longed for the elegiac subtlety of French cinema, “where it doesn’t really have to have much plot”.
Savage went away and wrote a screenplay that even the French might find a trifle avant garde, containing not a word of scripted dialogue, nor even much recognisable plot. The cast had to improvise every line and scene in the film, with no rehearsals, and barely anyone says a word on screen for the first 30 minutes. The usual industry channels would never have funded such a film, but by luck a maverick circle of City investors financed the whole £1m budget, “and didn’t even try to interfere”. Arterton is not only the star but an executive producer, and her share of the risk makes me think she isn’t faking the relief on her face when I tell her I adored the film. “Oh my gosh, thank you. I mean, wow, thank you. Oh, thank you so much.”The Escape is quite hard to describe, partly because it eludes conventional genre categories – comedy, thriller, romance – and partly because not a lot happens. It feels like a modern-day movie version of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the seminal 1960s exposé of the misery simmering within suburban housewives who discovered that domesticity, sugared by consumerism’s little treats, does not deliver the happiness they’d been promised. Arterton plays Tara, a stay- at-home mother of two in a modest executive home on an aspirational cul de sac in a soulless satellite town in Kent – the kind of place where a barbecue in the back garden counts as a big weekend, and where Tara’s husband, played by Dominic Cooper, is considered a catch. Nice-looking, reasonably successful, he loves his wife, but is too obtuse to notice her descent into suffocating despair until it’s too late. Deranged by domestic confinement, depressed by lazy sex she pretends to enjoy, Tara snaps one day and stuns them both by running away to Paris.
|Top by Roksanda, from harveynichols.com. Main photograph: dress by Diane von Furstenberg, from harrods.com. Stylist: Melanie Wilkinson. Makeup: Emma Lovell at The Wall Group. Hair: Perrine Rougemont at Caren. Photograph: Philip Gay for the Guardian|
Savage drew heavily on Arterton’s own biography and sensibility, so it’s easy to see why some critics have assumed that the film’s unhappy marriage must echo the actor’s. In 2010, Arterton married Stefano Catelli, an Italian fashion sales manager, but the pair separated two years later and are now divorced. She has only ever said positive things about her marriage in public, but naturally I wonder if elements of it inspired The Escape. She won’t be drawn on this.
What makes the marital dissonance on screen so gripping is the subtle ambiguity of interactions between the couple, which appear mundane but are freighted with significance. Her husband seems to find awkward silences over dinner in a restaurant companionable, but to Tara they sound more like fire alarms, screaming at her to run for her life. His apparent oblivion to her distress makes us sympathise with her – but is she to blame for deceiving him, instead of telling him how she really feels?
“He’s not a bad guy,” Arterton says. “In Gravesend [where she grew up], we all know that kind of guy, and he’s not a bad guy. What he is, he’s just… I think he’s just out of his depth. He’s not creative. He’s not open-minded. He’s just quite traditional, and not on the same wavelength.”
Just as the New Yorker’s short story Cat Person left readers arguing about whether a bad date was the man’s fault or the woman’s, The Escape will divide audience opinion. Already released in France, it seemed to make one journalist very angry. “You make a film about a boring wife who’s fed up,” he challenged Arterton in an interview. “She’s always sad, she whinges all the time, she doesn’t stop crying. Why are we compelled?”
“I was so pleased by his reaction!” Arterton exclaims. “I think he hated the film, he was so angry and pissed off that he had to tell me, and I thought, well, that’s good. That’s great. I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved. It’s meant to create polarising opinions.”
|Gemma Arterton with Daniel Craig in Quantum Of Solace|
I assume Arterton considers The Escape a feminist film, but she shakes her head firmly. “Oh, God, no. When I think of feminist films, I think of things that inspire or strengthen or empower. And it’s not necessarily empowering. I don’t know if Tara’s empowered.”
She pauses to consider. “I think it’s feminist in that it gives the opportunity to hear a female voice that you wouldn’t necessarily hear. It’s not necessarily someone who’s doing the right thing, but maybe you can empathise with her. You know, I don’t even know what the word ‘feminism’ means any more.”
Arterton’s own feminist credentials are well established. Born in Kent into a close-knit working-class family – her father a welder, her mother a cleaner – she and her younger sister were raised by two “incredible strong women”, their mother and their aunt, after their parents separated. For a lot of the girls she grew up around, marriage and family life were the big ambition, but Arterton couldn’t wait to escape to London, and always imagined she would act in the theatre.
Becoming a blockbuster sex symbol instead was “a surprise”. I wonder what she makes of the view that it’s a bit rich to capitalise on one’s looks and accept parts like a Bond girl, then complain about being objectified. “That’s true,” she agrees equably. “Yes, that’s fair enough. I don’t regret doing those roles. I just think, oh, I could have done better, really.” In 2013 she created her own film production company, Rebel Park, which is overwhelmingly female, and she says, “I think people in the business know my agenda.” She has been a vocal campaigner for women’s rights – in particular, equal pay – ever since starring in the theatrical production of Made In Dagenham, about female factory workers fighting for this cause.
As a younger actor, she never dared ask what her male co-stars were earning. “It did cross my mind, but I thought, better not go there.” Because? “I’d just be told to shut up. I’d look stupid.” And now? “Oh yes, yes! Now everyone knows I’m a pain in the arse, so I wouldn’t worry about it. They just go, ‘Oh, her again, going off about something.’ I don’t mind being a pain in the arse if it’s for the right reasons.”
It’s not the case, then, that she’s worried a “feminist” film would put people off? “No, no. I’m not afraid of the word ‘feminism’, or ‘feminist’. I just think we need to come up with a new word. It’s maybe a bit dated, and we need something a bit more modern. I feel like -ist at the end of the word is usually against something, like, racist, sexist; it’s like, negative connotations, and I think we’re past that. We need to come up with something else.”
Although very involved in the Time’s Up and 50:50 movements, leading the move to wear black on the red carpet at the 2018 Bafta awards, and optimistic about the changes that are being made, Arterton suspects there are plenty of men guilty of exploitation or harassment in her industry who will escape censure. I ask if she can think of any in particular who should be worried. “Yes.” She looks conflicted. “You know, I struggle with all of this, because you don’t ever want to wish ill on anybody. It’s very complicated. I know of somebody who is probably worried. He’s not a bad person; he just has a drink problem and gets carried away. He’s not a bad person. He just does stupid things when he’s drunk.”
Is she comfortable, I ask, with the #MeToo movement’s agenda extending beyond sexual harassment and assault to target men like the American comedian Aziz Ansari for being insensitive on a date, or selfish in bed?
“I didn’t feel very comfortable about the whole Aziz Ansari thing,” she offers uneasily. “I thought it was odd. The fact that it was this huge exposé. Yes, and I did feel for him. I felt for her as well, but it was just like, we’ve all been there. There’s been times where I’ve been like, oh, this is shit, why am I going down this road? I could say no, but I didn’t.”
To then write about the private encounter is, she thinks, “Not cool. We need to take responsibility for our own bodies and say no. It’s so powerful. I know there are a lot of times when women are afraid to say no, because they feel like they’re going to be overpowered. But I would like to think that if I said no, then the person I’m with would, sort of, hear that. It’s a two-way thing.”
The sex scenes in The Escape are strikingly unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies. The camera remains trained on Arterton’s face, so we can’t fail to see the gritted teeth and deadening disappointment her husband doesn’t even notice. Even when tears are streaming down her face, he still doesn’t get the message, and says: “I can’t tell whether you’re laughing or crying.” “But it’s not abusive,” Arterton stresses. “Because she could say no.”
Arterton’s feminism sounds so moderate, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could take exception. I notice, however, that she hasn’t posted anything on Twitter since late 2016, and wonder whether her final tweet, posted on Equal Pay Day, provoked the violent, misogynist abuse that puts so many women off the platform.
“Well, I quit because I thought life was too short to be getting trolled about equal pay.” Did the abuse go as far as rape and death threats? “No, it was, ‘Shut up you stupid cow – equal pay is a myth,’ you know, all that bullshit. I think it’s been a year and a half or something since I’ve used it and it’s so good. I just love not using it. I feel much lighter. Before, I’d go on Instagram with my spare time, and now I read something.”
Arterton recently finished filming Vita And Virginia, in which she plays Vita Sackville-West, pursuing a relationship with Virginia Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki).But none of the scripts she’s read since sounds remotely appealing. “I’m finding it difficult to get a connection to them. This year I have just not accepted any work. It’s sort of troubling. I’m really struggling, you know, and some of them are really good scripts and great film-makers. I don’t know whether it’s just me being a bit picky, but this is why I’ve started to produce as well. I just want to try and make a film that’s more unique, and find new voices.”
I wonder if she can see herself ever accepting another decorative role again. She laughs. “No, unless it was like some fucked-up version.” Not even for big money? She shakes her head. “I care so much about what I do. I care too much, actually, sometimes. I can’t even deal with knowing that there’s reruns of certain films I’ve done. Carrying around work that you’re not proud of is not a great feeling for me, so I just don’t do it. I can’t.”
In The Escape, Tara leaves her marriage because it can’t accommodate her true identity or artistic impulses, and by the end of the film the character could easily have said: “I was presenting someone else which wasn’t me, but now – where I’m at, I just feel like, yes, it’s me. It’s less mainstream and that’s actually who I am.” But it’s Arterton who says the words – and she is talking about her career, not her marriage. Having spent 10 years trying to escape the identity of a starlet – a “Bond girl” – she is now definitely free.
• The Escape is released on 3 August.