Gemma Arterton looks great simply when she attended the Women's Prize of the Year
Women of the Year 2019: Gemma Arterton
I am sitting in the basement of a glamorous London hotel chatting to Gemma Arterton over paper cups of tea. She is make-up free in black jeans, a jumper and a pair of ‘ancient old Chelsea boots’, and is mesmerisingly beautiful. We are supposed to be concentrating on her astonishing performance as Tara, a married mother of two inThe Escape, a film in which the dialogue was entirely improvised and for which Arterton, also a co-producer, has wonBazaar’s coveted award. But her joie de vivre makes it difficult to remember we are not just there to have fun. And Arterton is fun, whether exclaiming over homemade coffee cake or choosing a deliciously sparkly pair of Jimmy Choos for the upcoming fashion shoot. This is not to imply that she doesn’t take her work seriously; a good word to describe her approach to acting is ‘dedication’. She researches, she reads, she visits locations, she asks questions, she listens. Her interest in everything she takes on, her sincerity and her warmth all inform the intelligence with which she approaches her work.
Although only 32, Arterton is a professional lifetime away from those inevitable post-Quantum of Solace, lace and lipstick offers to play what she describes as ‘sexy girl in this and sexy girl in that’. Over the past decade her roles on both stage and screen read like a cast-list of factual and fictional female stand-outs, a multifaceted pageant from the past, a sequence of the tragic and the triumphant, the misunderstood and the wise. They have included Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the Duchess of Malfi, a Dagenham Ford-worker activist, Joan of Arc and Nell Gwynn. Her gorgeous depiction of Marilyn Monroe’s innocence and knowingness in Sky Arts’ ‘UrbanMyths’ series focused on the 47 takes Monroe needed to say ‘It’s me, Sugar’ inSome Like It Hot. More recently, Arterton has played the poet Vita Sackville-West and a reclusive writer in World War II inSummerland, and will soon take on the enigmatic 1960s singer Dusty Springfield (Arterton loves to sing).
ButThe Escapeis very much a story of today. In her anonymous uniform of jeans and a parka, Tara is a young-married, stay-at-home mum, who Arterton says ‘you would not look twice at if you passed her in the street’. She lives in Gravesend in Kent, the town where Arterton grew up, in a nice house, with two nice cars and a well-stocked fridge. Materially she wants for nothing. But she is not happy. Her boorish husband Mark, superbly played by Dominic Cooper, just doesn’t get her. He loves her in his own selfish, on-the-brink-of-abuse way, a relationship that Arterton says is ‘past its sell-by date’. Physical satisfaction is a one-sided process in Mark’s favour. The opportunity for a woman to say no to sex does not present itself easily within marriage, the backlash too great to risk. So Arterton’s Tara gives in to early-morning ‘conjugal rights’; in one agonising scene, she splays the fingers of one hand behind Mark’s back, stretching upwards in a silent yell of despair. As the camera lingers in an unforgiving close-up on Tara’s face, devoid of cosmetic gloss, the subtlest shift of expression reflects an inner despair, then her full beauty emerges when a rare smile illuminates her face, a curtain drawn back, sunshine flooding a darkened room. But the script belongs to the actors. Arterton found improvisation liberating and exciting. ‘It is up to you to react, and that can change everything in a moment.’ The transition she makes from acting the part to being the part is seamless. It is a brave, disturbing, profoundly moving piece of cinema. As theGuardianreviewer said, in a film with ‘no wrong notes’ it was also ‘unbearably painful’. When I sawThe Escapealone, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the day, I was grateful for the cover of dark glasses even before I emerged into the street.
The contrast with Arterton’s next film (Vita and Virginia, out next spring) about the love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki) could not have been greater. Arterton went from a story where language is sometimes not needed at all to one in which ‘language was everything.Vita and Virginia’s way of seducing, of getting to the nitty-gritty, of pretending to be something else’.
But there is a consistency in her choice of parts. ‘It is all about the complexities of a character,’ she explains. ‘ Every time I do a project now, it’s a creative adventure, an experiment in seeing what I can do.’ And it is her fascination with the process of creativity, the balance between factual and emotional research that gives such depth to her performances. ‘I can have all that technical information in my brain and yet in the end it’s going to be something that comes through me.’ As a producer on her last three films, as well as on the BBC’s Time’s Up-inspired comedy shortLeading Lady Parts, she is an active supporter of ERA, Equal Representation for Actresses. She is not sure yet if she wants to write, but she definitely plans to direct. Her passion for being part of a collective of women, working together, bouncing ideas off each other, is ‘what we are all striving for: making great parts for women and giving women directors and writers more voice’.
As she changes out of her jeans into a slinky mini-dress for the razzle-dazzle of theBazaarphoto-shoot, I watch the way she zones out of the buzz of activity from cameras, lights, hair, make-up that hovers around her. She is totally focused, in the moment. Nothing will distract her. As ever she is playing her part to perfection, a role model to applaud.
Video: THE ESCAPE Official Trailer (2018) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper Movie HD
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