Gemma Arterton: 'When I'm on a red carpet, I'm just putting on a character'
For someone who has played a demigoddess and a Bond girl, Gemma Arterton has a refreshing line in self-deprecation. Kevin Maher talks to the 24-year-old British star of Clash Of The Titans about how she remains grounded amid all the Hollywood hype. Out of the blackness, the cosmos swirls. Interstellar clouds whoosh by. And then it hits you. The accent. "The oldest stories ever told were written in the stars," purrs the dulcet tones, cut-glass nonetheless, of the disembodied spirit who oversees us all. This is how the multimillion-dollar Hollywood blockbuster Clash of the Titans begins - with the voice of Gemma Arterton's demigodess Io pulsating through the soundtrack like an old world BBC broadcaster. "Into this world a child was born," she continues, before popping up herself on screen, a vision of ancient Greek beauty, dressed demurely in a toga-style costume that befits her vaguely Olympian status. Arterton's Io subsequently becomes a key character in the movie, and a saintly guardian angel with a hint of va-va-voom, who watches over hero Perseus (Sam Worthington), as he battles giant scorpions, eyeless witches and slavering sea monsters in this synapse-splitting update of the 1981 family classic of the same title. And all the while Io is a calm and soothing presence, offering divine wisdom and plot exposition in equal measure ("Medusa was beautiful once?" or "If you kill the Kraken you will weaken Hades?"). And always, most importantly, she is doing so with a delicately posh burr, like classic era Joanna Lumley.
Thus, it is with something approaching relief to find that the real Gemma Arterton, the 24-year-old Rada graduate and former Bond Girl (Quantum of Solace), kicking back in an East London eatery, has none of the hauteur or formal rigidity of her Clash persona. Instead, tucking into a spinach salad and dressed down in blue denims and black sweater, this Arterton laughs a lot, is wildly self-deprecating, and wears her cover-girl looks of high cheekbones and brushstroke eyes with a lightly dishevelled honesty (there is no make-up) that ultimately says: I am, defiantly, normal.
The accent, for instance, is not hers. "I have an estuary accent," she says, proudly pointing to her Kent heritage, and working-class roots (Although, it must be noted that she is not exactly Eliza Doolittle, and barely drops a single "h" in our entire conversation). And though she admits that she's no Cockney sparrow ("I don't say, 'awrigh guv'nur'"), she is certainly not the posh princess that she plays in Clash, and indeed has been required to play in her next two movies - the summer blockbuster Prince of Persia, directed by Mike Newell (Harry Potter And The Goblet of Fire) and the Stephen Frears comedy Tamara Drewe.
"Both of those directors told me that I needed to change my accent when I met them," she says with a nonchalant shrug. "Mike Newell met me for Prince of Persia and went, 'Oh dear. Can't you do posh?' While Stephen Frears just went, 'Euuurghhh! Why do you speak like that?' And I said, 'Because that's where I'm from,' And he just said, 'Well, you need to sophisticate your voice.' And so he sent me to dialect people, to make me speak like a newsreader."
She is equally dismissive about her increasing reputation as a screen siren. "My character in Quantum Of Solace wasn't a bikini-clad Bond girl, thank goodness," she jokes, "because that would've been a disaster for all concerned." Or, later, she happily whips forward her hands and explains that she was born with a condition called polydactyly, which means she had six fingers on each hand. "There wasn't a bone there, it was just flesh and fingernail," she says, while lightly rubbing a pink mark next to each little finger. "My dad had it and so did my grandad, and I'm hoping my kids will have it, too. And I was born with a crumpled ear, look." She pulls her trademark bob partially to the side, and reveals, on very close inspection, a mildly misshapen upper ear. "You see, I was a bit of a freakish baby, an oddball. And I still feel like that now."
And yet, for all her freakishness and flaws, Arterton is certainly the woman of the moment. Clash Of The Titans has already made more than US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) globally and is the starter gun to a summer, and indeed a year, that's hers for the taking - after Clash, and before Prince of Persia or Tamara Drewe, Arterton is also starring in the ingenious British kidnap thriller, The Disappearance Of Alice Creed. Of her status as the new box office champ, she says she is quietly bemused.
"When I graduated from college I never thought I'd end up doing something like Clash Of The Titans," she says. "I always imagined I'd be doing theatre. But then this comes along, and you go for it, and you get it, and it's fun, it's imaginative and it's completely original." She describes the filmmaking process in glowing terms, with rising star Worthington as a general, marshalling the troops and making sure every single line "is believable and justifiable and not in the slightest bit corny", much the same way she enthuses about the film's spectacle and its penchant for old-fashioned thrills. "It's funny, because my mum used to read us the Greek myths for bedtime stories when we were kids, and inevitably the original Clash Of The Titans became a real family favourite. When I told her I got the part, it was the most excited she'd been about any role I've played. And I think the finished film has definitely lived up to the original. It's not just a big show, although it is that as well. It's got characters you care about, and that's what you need for it to resonate."
And true, the new Clash is a resounding success which, thanks to some sterling work from Ralph Fiennes as the brooding underworld villain Hades, and Liam Neeson as the imperious Zeus, has managed to rid itself of the sniggering campiness that crept into the original over time. Equally, the special effects that director Louis Leterrier and his team have concocted will satisfy the most jaded of blockbuster fans (this Medusa is particularly sinister). Yet there's more here at stake for Arterton than the fidelity of a big-budget remake. Instead, Clash Of The Titans has done nothing less than announce her full-scale introduction to the Hollywood limelight. And, as she explains, it can be a perilous place.
"The taste that I've already had of that world, of Hollywood and big movies, and being in that world, has already made me think, 'Why would anyone deliberately choose that life?'" she says, adding that she's happy to be on a break from that world, to have done a London theatre play (The Little Dog Laughed), and to be able to gain some perspective from it. "It's a demanding role, being a Hollywood celebrity or actor. You're constantly aware of what you're saying and doing, putting on an act. When I'm on a red carpet, I'm just putting on a character. A cheeky, goofy, character. But in the end, you don't have to do it. You don't have to pursue the fame thing."
She says that the downsides to the fame thing are manifold, and when you live in Britain as she does (in south London), they are keenly felt. "It's unfortunate about Britain, and it's a shame, but if you go to Hollywood then the public think you're on your high horse and they don't like you. As long as they can relate to you, they like you. But if you're successful, you're in trouble." Even before Clash was released, she says, she became a tabloid target. "I was brandished in the Daily Mail for having jowls and being fat," she says, noting in passing that she's actually a size 10. "And for a while it got me down. I was really depressed about it. I was away from home and doing these big Hollywood movies that are all geared towards body image anyway." She says that in one of her blockbusters, which will remain nameless (but seems most likely to be Prince of Persia due to shooting dates and plot description), "I'd done this big comedy scene, and they said, 'You need to work on your arms.' And I said, 'But what about my acting?' And they said, 'Don't worry about your acting, worry about your arms.' It's then that you have moments where you go, 'I don't know if I'm into this very much! Is this why I started acting?'"
Arterton was raised, with her sister, by her single mum Sally, who was a cleaner and, according to her daughter, "a bit of a hippie". She was encouraged by Sally to follow her dreams and to do only what makes her happy, which sounds nice on paper but, she says, was often infuriating. "I'd say, 'Why aren't you like other mums? Why don't you tell me to do my homework?' And she would just say, 'Look, whatever makes you happy. As long as you're not hurting anybody.' Which turned out to be good advice, I suppose."
She soon found that acting made her happy and, after a stint as Peter Pan's shadow in a school play, began a rapid ascent that ran from singing camp to drama club to performing arts college and eventually, at the impossibly young age of 17, to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Of the latter renowned institution she says, "At first I had huge hang-ups at Rada, because I was working class and everyone else was super intelligent and had been to Oxford. But I soon realised that they had their hang-ups, too, and would constantly say to me, 'Oh, you're so young. And you're so instinctual! It's not fair.'"
Typically, Arterton emerged from Rada, barely 20 years old, and was immediately snapped up to play the part of the sassy head girl Kelly in the St Trinian's remake. After that there was a sturdy performance as feisty Tess Durbeyfield in the BBC's Tess Of The D'Urbervilles adaptation, followed by a slim but memorable role as Daniel Craig's governmental contact in Quantum Of Solace (she is ultimately smothered in crude oil). Since then, she says, as her star has risen she has become ever vigilant for typecasting and is especially eager to avoid the "sassy babe" trap. "You have to be careful that you don't end up in a situation where you're saying, 'No, really, I promise, look, I can do more than just slow-motion walking.'"
It was this instinct, she says, that led her to the thriller The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, a superlative movie that sees her kidnapped, stripped, beaten to a pulp, and yet never quite the victim of her two sinister kidnappers. "I had just done Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia and I wanted to do something down and dirty, where it wasn't about how you look," she says. "So I found this script, which was risky, and which some people hated, but I really put my foot down and said, 'No, I want to do this.'"
She is engaged to someone who is, she says, blissfully anonymous and not involved with the movie business. He is not, as was rumoured in the press, Daniel Craig's stunt double. "We love that," she says, giggling coyly. "Gemma Arterton is engaged to Daniel Craig's stunt double! I quite like leaving it like that, because then nobody knows anything about him, and that's how I want it to be." And what does the future hold? After the summer onslaught of films, she has no idea what she will do next. She says that she is at a crossroads of sorts, and her fundamental mission is to negotiate her career - in both big and small movies - without going 'Hollywood' on herself. And for this, of course, she looks to family and friends, plus finger scars and a homely Kent accent to keep her grounded. But it's more than that, she says. "It's about remembering what's important in your life. And knowing what's going on around you.
"It is," she says, giving her final defiantly normal shrug of the afternoon, "about knowing that this is just a hobby for me. It's just a job. And life goes on around it. And always will." Clash of the Titans is in cinemas nationwide.
Published: May 1, 2010 04:00 AM