Photo: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
Gemma Arterton, 37, was born in Gravesend and raised in Rada. At 21, she made her professional stage debut at Shakespeare’s Globe and her film debut in Saint Trinian. The following year, she landed the coveted role of Strawberry Fields in the Bond film. Quantum of consolation. On television, she has starred in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and black daffodil; Stage highlights include Made in dagenham, Nell Gwynn and San Juan. Now produces and plays the leading role in funny womanthe television adaptation of the novel by Nick Hornby funny girl, about a Blackpool beauty queen who moves to 1960s London to break into the comedy scene. Arterton lives in East Sussex with her husband, actor Rory Keenan, and her baby girl.
Adaptation by Nick Hornby Fun Girl for TV it became quite a saga, right?
I read the book when it came out in 2014, loved it and tried to buy the rights. Obviously they had already been sold. Hey, it’s Nick Hornby! But a few years later, the production company came to me and said that Morwenna Banks had written a pilot episode, would she do it? She was working on a movie at the time and I remember reading the script out loud in my trailer, laughing out loud. It was coincidence that he came back to me. It just felt right, even if you read the novel, you wouldn’t necessarily think of me playing it.
Characters I’ve played before tended to be a bit more collected. Strong and lit. Whereas in real life, I’m pretty dumb. my husband watched funny womanhe saw the crap he does and said, “Yeah, it’s basically you.”
How come your comedic gifts have been hidden?
I just haven’t had the opportunity, but physical theater is where I started. We had a teacher trained in Complicité and it was all about telling stories through the body. But then you go to Rada and it’s all about the text and Shakespeare. That was never my forte. I have always approached roles from a physical angle. That has always been my “in,” more than a character’s backstory. Sometimes you can get too cerebral with acting, but really, if you start moving your body, it triggers things.
For funny womanI wanted to do a bit of clowning, so I worked with this great movement director named Toby Sedgwick, who trained at Lecoq. [the physical theatre school in Paris] and he works a lot with Danny Boyle. We did the most random and crazy exercises. Exaggerated movements, lots of things with red noses. People falling or bumping into things always make me laugh.
Did you base your character, Barbara, on anyone?
Morwenna herself was a great inspiration. She put a lot of her own experiences into the scripts. Barbara Windsor is also there. I also watched a lot of Lucille Ball because she is Barbara’s idol. I have the box I love Lucy and he was impressed.
How did you perfect your Blackpool accent?
I always use this amazing database of accents that the BBC has. I’ve managed to find a recording of these brilliant Blackpudlian women in the ’60s just chatting about life, and I listened to it constantly.
Weren’t you saddened by your own accent early in your career?
Yes, because he was associated with people from less wealthy backgrounds. Now it’s different in drama school, but in my day, we were told to lose our accent or we’d just play maids or whatever. It’s a shame because I had a thick working-class estuarine accent. I feel a little sad that he’s gone.
Does he leave after a few drinks?
Yeah! Or around my family. If I talk to my dad on the phone, my husband says my accent really changes.
Rupert Everett plays Barbara’s agent. Was he a hoot to work with?
He was, actually. I have known Rupert since my first job at Saint Trinian, so it was special to be back together. She created havoc. Usually, Barbara was the driving force in the scenes, but with Rupert, I was behind it, which was fun.
There are more women in top executive roles at studios. Most of the work I do now, I’m producing in some way
Who are your favorite funny women?
She adored French and Saunders as a child and Joanna Lumley in absolutely fabulous. I know they’re not women, but I also loved Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, people who are brave enough to let go and be quite quirky. There were some times in funny woman when I thought, “What would Jim Carrey do?”
Barbara sings a Dusty Springfield song in one episode. Was there no talk of you playing her in a biopic?
yes, it was called So much love and it was about his time in Memphis. But she’s not as well known in America as she is here, so it was hard to get off the ground. Maybe Fun Women it was my Dusty moment instead!
I heard you love karaoke. Which is your favourite song?
I always do Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. It has a bunch of key changes and it’s pretty cathartic. When you sing karaoke, you can’t try to be cool. You have to go for the drama. Power ballads are perfect.
Aren’t you also a big fan of Kate Bush?
Who does not? Anyone who doesn’t like Kate Bush is not someone I can agree with. [laughs]. It’s been unreal to see his resurgence in the past year. It means that the younger generation has good taste, which is encouraging.
As a former Bond girl, who would you like to see as the next 007?
I would love to see a younger colored actor. I think that’s probably the way he’s going to go. That’s my two cents, anyway.
You were a vocal activist for Time’s Up and #MeToo. Have things improved?
I think so. It’s very different out there now. There is also a real solidarity between the actresses. Before, we didn’t meet often, but it was wonderful to come together, to feel like we were all in this together, instead of competing. Apart from that, there is a lot more work being done about women or by women. There are more women in top executive roles at studios. Most of the work that I do now, I am producing in some way. Our goal is to achieve a 50:50 gender balance and that people can speak if they feel uncomfortable. We’re starting to see that now, so it’s paying off and I’m very proud.
You have a three month old son. Should conditions for working mothers also improve?
That’s complicated. The working hours are what it costs because we have to shoot depending on daylight or on night shoots. How do we create a space where it is easier?
What surprises you the most about being a new parent?
How you can function quite well on little sleep.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
The critic, [a film] based on the novel by Anthony Quinn curtain call. The production design and cinematography are impressive. Ian McKellen plays the theater critic and he does it fantastic. Then a TV drama called guiltywhich is a cool heist type thing.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
Something with painting or horticulture. It is still a creative work but more practical. I moved from London to East Sussex because I love the outdoors and want to garden more. Last year, we grew all kinds of vegetables. Next we are planting fruit trees. So that’s my life now. Is really nice.