Gemma Arterton may not be the most recognizable name to some, but for anyone who loves good independent cinema, she certainly has a face you will recognize.
In the last few years, in particular, the Brit-born thesp has become a filmic force etching fascinating and rich portrayals in projects as diverse as Chanya Button’s Vita and Virginia as Vita Sackville-West to Elizabeth Debicki’s Virginia Woolf; Dominic Savage’s The Escape, co-starring Dominic Cooper; Lone Sherfig’s Their Finest; Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovary; Marjane Satrapi’s The Voices, opposite Ryan Reynolds; and Neil Jordan’s Byzantium with Saoirse Ronan.
She can soon be seen in the charming and bittersweet new film Summerland, written and directed by Jessica Swale, and set in Southern England during World War II. Arterton plays Alice, a maddeningly irascible writer whose deliberate life of solitude is upended when Frank (Lucas Bond), a young London evacuee, is delivered to her doorstep. At first, she refuses to capitulate to any kind of bond with the boy but then slowly begins caring for him. We also learn through flashbacks about the great love of her life, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and why the romance was ill-fated.
The original screenplay also probes centuries-old ideas about myths and legends that speak to pagan notions about what heaven might be.
Arterton seamlessly slips into this fascinating and deeply-nuanced character, slowly allowing the viewer to peel away at some of her layers. It’s a captivating performance that creeps under your skin.
Her first feature film was the cult hit St. Trinian in 2007. She was then cast as Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the BBC remake of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel opposite Eddie Redmayne. Her next few credits were big studio films, beginning with playing Bond girl Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace followed by major roles in the remake of Clash of the Titans, Disney’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters and Tamara Drewe, as the titular writer.
In 2016, she started her own production company, Rebel Park Production.
Onstage, Arterton has recently played Joan of Arc (in the George Bernard Shaw play) and Nell Gwynn, which was written by Swale. She’s also been featured on the West End in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Little Dog Laughed, Ibsen’s The Master Builder and the musical version of the film Made in Dagenham, to name just a few of her theater credits.
Interesting to note that both Arterton and Mbatha-Raw played the lead in Nell Gwynn onstage. Mbatha-Raw originated the part at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015, and Arterton played it when the play transferred to the West End.
Awards Daily recently spoke with Arterton, via phone from the UK.
Awards Daily: Gemma, how early in the process were you attached to Summerland and what was it about Alice that made you want to play her?
Gemma Arterton: I read the script before anyone—Jess (Swale) and I worked on a play together, Nell Gwynn, and shortly after that I asked her if she had any material that wasn’t being made. And she sent me Summerland, but I read it as a producer rather than as an actress. Alice was originally written as much older than me so I honestly didn’t have any designs on playing her. I just loved the story. It moved me to tears. I just loved all the magical realism in it. I loved the world of it–I thought it was really unexpected. Then I called Jess up, shortly after reading it, and said, ‘you have to direct this and I’ll produce it.’ And she said, ‘well, why don’t you play Alice?’ And I said, ‘Oh! I’d never even thought about that.’ And she said she’d write it to accommodate me. So there’s a lot of her rethinking the script and writing to my rhythms and my character to a certain extent. So it came about in a very roundabout way, not the usual way that I get a script or role.
AD: I loved that Alice is her own person and has a ‘screw you’ attitude—even during wartime. The chocolate bar scene is priceless. That must have been fun to play.
GA: Oh, yeah, I loved all of that stuff. I wish Alice could stay like that for the whole film. (Laughs) It was a real joy playing someone so bold and cantankerous. Unapologetic—which is not like me. My personality. I’m constantly apologizing for everything, so I took great joy in that.
AD: Maybe you can take a little bit of her with you.
GA: I think I did.
AD: The chemistry you had with Lucas (Frank) was a key ingredient to the film’s success. Did you do chem reads? How did you land on Lucas?
GA: My goodness, well, it was a very long and specific search…I was away for a lot of the casting process but then we did do chemistry reads with the final few Franks. And he (Lucas) is a lovely, kind-hearted, sweet person who had that magic. And he’s sophisticated enough in his intelligence that he knew, technically, what to do as an actor. If we’d have gone for a younger boy, it might have been a bit more difficult to achieve what we had to in such a short amount of time. We didn’t have much time to shoot this film. He was always focused…And he had a great amount of energy throughout the day. With some children you have a certain window of time where you’ve got them and then they’re gone, they’re not attentive anymore. He was so interested. He loved every minute and was always present and there with us.
AD: Speaking to chemistry, you and Gugu! We only get flashback glimpses of their story but it’s pretty dense and powerful. Can you speak to creating those scenes?
GA: I think with the casting of Vera it was pretty important to cast someone with that immense warmth and energy so that even in those short moments you really are left with a lasting memory of her. We’re friends and we’ve hung out so there’s this sort of shorthand there. It was really in the script, as well. The short moments that we had; Jess really made sure that they were full of meaning. It was a joy to work with Gugu. She just lights up the screen. And I felt very comfortable with her. There were scenes in there that we obviously, inevitably cut– beautiful scenes where they’re at University and telling [one another] they love each other—other stuff—it was gorgeous. I was very lucky to work with someone so generous and up for it!
AD: I appreciated how complicated Alice is. We don’t get much backstory, except for the little she shares about her father—small hints at who she is. Did you have her backstory mapped out?
GA: Yeah, I always do a backstory for every character I play. I wanted to work out her childhood. Her parents were obviously scientists and doctors and her father, who she was very close to, died. But in terms of the way that she was when she was a child—I always do that. It helps me build the character. But, you’re right, it’s nice getting those little glimpses. One of my favorite scenes is when she tells Frank about how they sent off her father when he died and you get a glimpse into her childhood and that she did believe in myths and magic, even though she’s made a career out of disproving (them).
AD: Summerland and last year’s Vita and Virginia both tell complicated LGBTQ stories.
GA: For a long time I felt that there weren’t enough films about people from all sorts of backgrounds and sexual leanings and orientations. I was raised by—well, my Aunt is a lesbian and I’m very, very close to her. And she and her friends, they always felt there wasn’t enough out there for them. Now, times are obviously changing. In the last few years there have been some really fantastic [films], The Favourite…it’s becoming much more mainstream. One of the things I like about Summerland is it takes a film that would normally be a niche film and puts it into mainstream, which is exciting. And could reach an audience that wouldn’t necessarily see a film about two lesbians. But it’s never something that I deliberately looked for. These stories come along and I just fall in love with the story or the character or whatever it may be. There’s never really ever been, in my career, a gender role goal—apart from working with more women.
AD: Your career, in the last few year especially, reminds me of someone like Jane Fonda’s in the ‘70s, committed to strong female roles in films that have something to say.
GA: Wow. Yeah, I guess so. I think, for a long time when I was younger, I was just doing the work that came along. I was very grateful to even be given any work so I wasn’t being as creative with my choicemaking. And it got to a certain point where I thought, ‘why am I doing this, if I’m not doing films that I would go to see, that I would be interested in seeing myself?’ So I had a little bit of a change of heart and mind and created my production company and started approaching projects in a different way. There was a time–It’s changed a lot now–but I was frustrated by the lack of diversity in what we were doing, especially in the way that women were being presented in films at the time, so, yeah, it’s changed for me and I’m much happier now.
AD: You have extensive stage credits. Do you enjoy bouncing back and forth between stage and screen and do you prefer one medium over the other?
GA: I love variety, in general, and in life. I started as a theatre actor and never had any designs on being a screen actor when I was younger. I was trained in theatre. That was always my first love. As time has gone on, I don’t prefer one to the other but I’m, very much at the moment, enjoying screen—just because I don’t want to live in a character’s shoes for too long. (Laughs) Sometimes I find that doing plays, if you’re doing a six month run, it may be a little too much. I also love how you can do anything, ANYTHING these days onscreen. You can really turn the world upside down…But I love doing comedy onstage; one of the hardest things to get right and also the most rewarding. You just feel alive. You really feel it right there and then. So there’s nothing that really beats that.
AD: Your performance in Summerland is one of the best I’ve seen this year. What would awards recognition mean for you at this stage?
GA: Well, to be honest with you, I’m very flattered. That’s so very kind of you to say that. I mean, gosh, I’ve never really been one that’s ever been nominated for awards! (Laughs) So it’s not something that I’ve sort of chased. I would obviously be incredibly flattered.
AD: There was talk of a Dusty Springfield biopic project. Is it still in development?
GA: Yeah, it’s still in development. I think we’re taking a slightly different route with it because we found that Dusty Springfield is a huge icon in the UK and in Australia and in South Africa, but outside of that and particularly in the States, she’s not as well known. So we were struggling a bit to get people to get on board with a film about her. And so what I think we’ve decided to do is make more of a TV show, like a three-episode or something, which I’m really happy about, having just made some TV for the first time in 15 years. I love the amount of time we can spend with characters. Because it’s a biopic and even though it’s a small amount of time in her life that we want to concentrate on–when she made (the album) Dusty in Memphis that only really spans a few years in her life—with a film you have a finite amount of time whereas with TV we can really delve into the character. It’s still alive and I’m optimistic that we’ll get there.
Summerland is in select theaters & VOD/Digital Platforms on July 31, 2020.