Playing a Bond girl has long been synonymous with career suicide, especially for actresses just getting their start in the business. For British bombshell Gemma Arterton it was anything but. After portraying Strawberry Fields in the critically reviled “Quantum of Solace,” the actress has managed to straddle both the big-budget and indie realms in films as diverse as “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Tamara Drewe.”
This month she appears in two titles that couldn’t be any more different: Neil Jordan’s vampire saga “Byzantium,” and The Weinstein Company’s weepie “Unfinished Song,” in which she stars opposite Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave. In “Byzantium” (out this Friday), she plays a clandestine vampire — and mother to Saoirse Ronan — who prostitutes herself to get by; in “Unfinished Song” (currently playing in select theaters), she plays a senior choir teacher tasked with bringing a grumpy English pensioner (Stamp) out of his shell.
I sat down with Arterton in New York.
Since Bond you’ve been so remarkably busy. What’s this whole ride been like for you?
Yeah, it’s been kind of insane. I feel like I have two or three careers simultaneously. I have my theater career, which is sort of confined to England, and then I have my sort of Hollywood blockbuster career which is sort of international, and then I have my indie career. And this year has been an interesting one, because it been started off with this big blockbuster with “Hansel & Gretel” and then there’s these two films, which are definitely down the indie bit. Sometimes I feel like I’m being pulled in so many different directions, but that’s kind of nice, I like that. It’s been pretty intense. I mean, when it started, I left drama school, I was doing theater and then the Bond film comes out, and then all these different opportunities arose to do all these big movies and I kind of just went along with it. And it got a little bit out of control and I wasn’t very happy and I wasn’t really feeling it.
What film in particular caused that?
It was “Clash of the Titans.” It just didn’t turn out the way it was meant to turn out. You know, these studio pictures can be really great, and I had a great experience on “Hansel & Gretel” actually, but it’s not really the thing I wanted to do when I wanted to be an actor. I was doing like physical theater and circus stuff, and it was a different kind of circus [laughs] But it’s been great, you know, on the flip side having done those films made it possible for me to do something like “Byzantium,” which we found very hard to finance.
Which is shocking, giving Neil Jordan’s roots in the vampire genre.
I know, it’s ugly. Especially British film, the funding is mostly independent and there’s no sort of government funding anymore, which we used to have. And so, you know, it’s important that you have the sort of box-office credentials to get those things made, so it’s a real balancing act. But for me, personally, I got sort of tired doing all that blockbuster stuff, and I’ve kind of been trying to make conscious decisions to be a bit more grounded with the types of movies I’m making. So “Unfinished Song” and “Byzantium” are very, very different movies, but definitely a lot more in the zone I feel more comfortable in.
What was the film you did immediately after Bond? Was it “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”? That film really put you through the wringer.
No, I did that film after I’d made “Prince of Persia” and between “Clash of the Titans.” I went a bit straight on into “Clash of the Titans” right after that, but it was so great to do it though. I mean it was intense, very very challenging, three actors, I mean, a totally different direction. But I needed to do it for myself, because I just felt a bit like, Oh god, you commit to these movies and now I’m committed to them. I just needed to make sure that I could still act, in a way. So yeah.
But, on the flip side, I love the diversity, and I’m fascinated by the art form in general, you know, and it’s like going from doing theater to radio, which I do a lot of, you know, with these big movies. You just have to adapt so much, you still have to do the same thing as an actor, but it’s just a totally different way of doing. But yeah, I feel a lot more calm within my career, and I’ve just started my production company, and it’s been nice working with people from the conception of an idea and then actually making it happen, is so interesting and satisfying. I’m starting to make films that I really want to make.
You’re so active as it is. What were your specific reasons for starting it?
To be really honest with you, there are so many films that I read and I don’t get, because I’m not famous enough or whatever, and I’m always like, “Ahh, that’s the film that I want to make!” But I just don’t get it. So it’s like, “Well, maybe if I’m the producer, then I can make sure that I make it.” [Laughs] So it was kind of like, selfish reasons at first, for me to be able to be in whatever I wanted to do. But then, alas, I really have a goal that I feel about what I want to say about femininity. And I think, something like “Byzantium,” which as I said, was hard to get made because it was a feminine film.
A feminist film.
A feminist film. But, for me, I want to create more opportunities for female directors and female writers. Not just that, I’m not limiting myself to just that, but I think that’s something that I’m interested in — telling stories about that. There’s definitely a market for it. And I love writers, you know, a lot of my friends are writers, and I love working with writers. So it’s sort of my own personal quest, to do that too. And, you know, it gets to a point where as an actor you a feel a little bit helpless. It’s different in theater, because it’s a smaller group of people, and you’re very much integral to the whole process. But movies, often the work you put in and what actually comes out is so different from what it’s originally going to be, and it can be so frustrating. So, in a way, it’s being able to be a little bit more in control of the idea and what you really want to say.
It was frustrating for quite a long time, you know, I think on “Clash of the Titans” in particular, because the script was actually really good and they got all these really great actors. And it just went into post-production, and they re-shot everything last-minute, and it’s so frustrating to be attached to something that’s totally different from the outcome. So for me, it’s just to be a little but more in control of what I’m doing, so that what I’m putting out it actually what I mean, I’m really passionate about that.
This interview is continued on page 2.That kind of begs the question: have you ever entertained the idea of directing one day?
Yeah, I think that’s my ultimate goal, and I have a few ideas. I’ve always wanted to be a theater director, and when I started out, I was in a physical theater company, and it’s all devised stuff and… actually, I watched “Spring Breakers” last night, and it reminded me of how I directed physical theater, because I read the script and thought, I’m far too old for this…
You read for “Spring Breakers”?
Well I just read the script, I didn’t go out for it. I remember they sent it and I was like, “I’m too old for this shit.” [Laughs]. Even when I watched it I was like, “Oh my god, I feel old.” But I remember when I read it, thinking it was a really wordy script, like loads of dialogue. And then I watched it, it felt like they’d highlighted five key phrases and they just kept using that as a theme. And that’s how I’d direct physical theater, come up with five key elements and compiling something. So I always worked in this sort of physical way, and I feel really… Theater, for me, directing theater is less pressure in terms of finance and money and if you fuck up, nobody really minds so much. So that’s probably what I’d start off doing. I feel a little bit too young to do it right now, but reassuringly I’ve had really great actors who’ve said, “If you want to direct, I’ll do something…” But we’ll see. I think it’s sort of in my 10-year plan.
Moving on to the films at hand. I loved both, but in “An Unfinished Song,” which broke my heart…
I know! It’s so sad…
That scene with Vanessa Redgrave singing “True Colors”…
I remember when we shot that, everyone was crying. And the director, he wrote it about his grandmother, and he was in pieces that day. We had to wrap early, because he was crying so much.
So you’re the youngest person in the film. What was it like working with a cast of such seasoned veterans?
It was incredible to work with them both. I remember being really intimidated. Vanessa, for me, is possibly the best British actress, especially onstage. I’ve seen her onstage and she really inspired me, and so I was really excited but so nervous. And also with Terence, because I had heard all of this stuff about Terence being difficult, and actually we ended up becoming really good friends and really good pals. Like even now, we hook up and we talk about food, you know, we’re really good friends. And it was really lovely to just have the opportunity to work with them, and they’re so different. But it was bizarre, you know, being the younger one. Older actors are really insecure. I don’t think Vanessa is, I don’t think anyone could make her insecure [laughs] But they worry, you know, “Have I lost it?” I felt like I was sort of the galvanizer, I was the one that was holding everyone together and motivating everybody. Especially with the choir, it was actually really tiring because they were like kids, and I was really having to keep everyone focused. But it was really lovely, it was a really lovely job to do. It was just simple, and I had just come off making “Hansel & Gretel,” which was so not simple, so this was like easy-peasy, in a way. It was lovely.
And on the flip side of that, in “Byzantium” you’re working with a younger co-star. Now you couldn’t be her mother in real life, given your age differences or… maybe? I don’t think you could. You’re 27?
I think she’s six years younger than me [laughs] Unless I was just weirdly, genetically advanced.
But you do make for a believable mother-daughter pair. How did you work on your connection and making it believable?
Well, first of all Saiorse and I just had a really natural chemistry from the get-go. But my own relationship to my sister is uncannily similar in that I’m sort of a mother figure for her. And my mother is actually like the daughter, I’m like the mother to my mother. So I brought a lot of my own experiences in, and Saiorse and I spoke about that, and Saiorse is just so there and so open and giving, she just is able to… She’s just very psychologically empathetic and she really gets it, and that’s what makes her such a great actress. So we didn’t really do much in actual fact to bond, we just naturally did, and she listened to my idea back about this kind of conflicted mother-daughter relationship and weird kind of jealousies and controls and all of these things. But yeah, she was so wonderful, Saiorse. It’s incredibly that she’s only 19, she’s so far ahead of everybody.
Now, in my mind, the character that you play in “Byzantium” is your most outwardly sexual character since the titular one you played in “Tamara Drewe.” You seem very comfortable in that element on film. Can you speak to that?
Yeah, I think I am quite a sexual person. My friends will definitely vouch for that. I’m really cool with it as well. I think sexuality is really beautiful, as long as it’s for you and you’re doing it because it makes you feel good. But at the same time, I didn’t want her to be…she’s not the heroine of the piece by any stretch of the imagination. As much as she’s strong, she’s also a prostitute and she kills people. But I wanted her sexuality to be a very important weapon. She was raped when she was younger and then became this prostitute, so there’s this sort of horrible contradiction in how she uses her sexuality and it being a trapping as well as it being empowering for her.
With “Unfinished Song,” I deliberately wanted to try to play someone who is barely sexual. With the costumes I demanded they must not be sexual. But yeah, I love seeing somebody working it. I’m like “Fuck yeah, you’re so cool!” in the street. I don’t have a problem with it.
You don’t sing in “Unfinished Song,” but given that you trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art I’m guessing you have some chops.
I actually started off as a singer, I was in a couple bands. My sister’s an actress as well and she’s an incredible singer. We were both brought up in a very musical household. I used to sing in folk bands around the country. And then I trained classically so I’ve done operas and things like that. Next year I’m doing a musical on the stage and it’s scaring the living daylights out of me, but I’m going to do it. My biggest passion actually is music and singing.
What musical are you doing?
Did you see “Made in Dagenham”?
They made it into a musical and it’s brilliant. The composer is David Arnold who writes all those scores for the Bond movies and he’s a genius. It’s great — it’s all ’60s so it’s got this Beatles-y, Motown-y vibe to it. It’s cool.
If it takes off could you see yourself ever coming to Broadway?
Well that’s what they always hope. I mean it’s kind of weird because it’s such British humor and specific to a time. You never know if it will translate, but then “Billy Elliot” did. It’s that kind of feeling. I would love to do something on Broadway. It’s an absolute dream.