‘I never thought I’d work in film’
Gemma Arterton is often pointed to as an example of how tough acting can be.Now sheis powering ahead with all-female company Rebel Park. She talks to Donald Clarke
It’s hard to think of an actor better suited to the lead in Lone Scherfig’s adorable Their Finest than Gemma Arterton. The Kentish actor stars as a screenwriter working on a patriotic film in London during the second World War. Dark, nicely spoken with classic English features, Arterton could have been plucked unaltered from a picture by Michael Powell or the Boulting Brothers. The film within a film – a Dunkirk adventure concerning plucky twin sisters – looks like just such a project.
“We were so excited about that,” she says. “The technicians loved getting all the old equipment out and shooting in the old style. We even shot all of the Dunkirk stuff in the oldest studio in Pinewood. It even smelt right.”
Yes, I half expected John Mills to pop up in the studio’s water tank. This is where they shot We can, at least, argue that attitudes to class have transformed since the second World War. Or can we? To most Irish ears, Gemma Arterton, a distinguished graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, stops few glottals and drops few hs. But the subject of her working-class background has arisen in interviews over the years. Last year, writing for The
Guardian, film critic Danny Leigh described her early career as a good example “of the assault course a young British actor has to contend with. But specifically, a working-class actor.”
In the new century, the public schools have fought back against the egalitarian gains of the 1960s. Has she ever failed to
The Cruel Sea, I imagine. “Yeah, yeah,” she laughs. “He was in practically every film at that time. Maybe he was hiding behind one of those huge lights.”
A lot has changed since those times. A lot has not. Their Finest has much to do with the role of women behind the camera. Figures suggest that the industry, over the past 70 years, has progressed painfully slowly towards gender equality. Their Finest may be directed by a woman, but we still have a long way to go.
“To be honest, I don’t think it has changed much until quite recently,” Arterton says. “It’s been in the media a lot and it’s now on the agenda. People are making an effort. The problem for me has been the lack of female screenwriters. There are great initiatives out there. But it has been very slow until recently.”
I always thought I’d be just a jobbing actor in the theatre. I remember in my third year at Rada, I did a budget calculating how much it would cost to live in London. You are told you might work once a year. That’s the life
get roles because she wasn’t posh enough? Would she know if that had happened?
“Errr . . . I don’t know,” she says. “Roles my contemporaries got? I can only speak from my personal experience. There have definitely been times when I have not got jobs because it was thought I was not posh enough. I know that. But I am about to play Vita Sackville-West, who is the poshest person there ever was. I think maybe it is a bit of a myth. Don’t forget that actors choose. Not all actors want to play posh. Ha ha!”
Arterton was born in Graves- end, the daughter of a cleaner and a welder. She began acting at school and fought her way into Rada on a scholarship. I get no sense that she was ever out of work for long.
“I never thought I’d work in film,” she remembers. “I always thought I’d be just a jobbing ac-
tor in the theatre. I remember in my third year at Rada, I did a budget – about the only one I’ve done – calculating how much it would cost to live in London. You are told you might work once a year. That’s the life.”
While still at drama school, she got a role in a Stephen Polia-
“There have definitely been times when I have not got jobs because it was thought I was not posh enough”