Gemma Arterton, 37, was born in Gravesend and educated at Rada. At 21, she made her professional stage debut at Shakespeare’s Globe and her film debut in St Trinian’s. The following year she landed the coveted role of Strawberry Fields in the Bond film Quantum by Solace. She has appeared on television Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Black narcissus; stage highlights include Done in Dagenham, Nell Gwynn and Saint Joan. She is now producing and starring in Funny womanthe television adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Funny girl, about a Blackpool beauty queen who moves to swinging ’60s London to break into the comedy scene. Arterton lives in East Sussex with her husband, actor Rory Keenan, and their young son.
Adaptation by Nick Hornbys Fun Girl because TV turned into something of a saga, didn’t it?
I read the book when it came out in 2014, loved it and tried to buy the rights. They had clearly already been sold – hey, it’s Nick Hornby! But a few years later the production company came to me and said Morwenna Banks had written a pilot episode, would I do it? I was working on a movie at the time and remember reading the script out loud in my trailer while laughing away. It was serendipitous that it 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 balanced. Strong and on. Whereas in real life I’m pretty stupid. My husband watched Funny womansaw the idiotic things she does and said, “Yeah, that’s basically you.”
Why have your comedic gifts been hidden?
I just haven’t had the opportunity, but it was physical theater where I started. We had a teacher with a Complicité background and it was all about telling stories through your body. But then you go to Rada and it’s all about the text and Shakespeare. It was never my strong suit. I have always approached roles from a physical angle. That’s always been my “in”, more than a character’s backstory. Sometimes you can get too cerebral with acting, but actually if you start moving your body, it triggers things.
To Funny woman, I wanted to do some clowning, so I worked with this amazing movement director called Toby Sedgwick, who trained at Lecoq (the physical theater school in Paris) and works a lot with Danny Boyle. We would do the most random, crazy exercises. Exaggerated movements, lots of things with red noses. People falling over or crashing into things always make me laugh.
Did you base your character, Barbara, on anyone?
Morwenna herself was a great inspiration. She put many of her own experiences into the scripts. Barbara Windsor is in there too. I also watched a lot of Lucille Ball because she is Barbara’s idol. I have the box set with me I love Lucy and was blown away.
How did you perfect your Blackpool accent?
I always use this amazing database of accents that the BBC has. I managed to find a recording of these brilliant Blackpudlian women in their 60s just chatting about life and I listened to it constantly.
Didn’t you get grief over your own accent early in your career?
Yes, because it was associated with people from less affluent backgrounds. It’s different now at drama school, but in my day we were told to lose the accent or you’d just play maids or whatever. It’s a shame because I had a strong working-class estuary accent. I feel a little sad that it’s gone.
Does it come out after a few drinks?
Yes! Or around my family. If I talk on the phone with my dad, my husband says my accent really changes.
Rupert Everett plays Barbara’s agent. Was he a jerk to work with?
Indeed he was. I have known Rupert since my first ever job St Trinian’s, so it was special to get together again. He created chaos. Usually Barbara was the driving force behind the scenes, but with Rupert I was in the back, which was fun.
Who are your own favorite funny women?
I loved French and Saunders growing up and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely fantastic. 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 completely off-the-wall. There were a few times in Funny woman when I thought, “What would Jim Carrey do?”
Barbara sings a Dusty Springfield song in one episode. Wasn’t there talk of you playing her in a biopic?
Yes, that’s what it was called So much love and it was about her time in Memphis. But she’s not as well known in America as she is over here, so it was hard to get off the ground. Maybe Fun Woman was my dusty moment instead!
I hear you love karaoke. What is your favorite song?
I always do Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. It has lots of key changes and is quite cleansing. When you sing karaoke, you can’t try to be cool. You have to go for drama. Powerballs are perfect.
Aren’t you a big Kate Bush fan too?
Who isn’t? Anyone who doesn’t like Kate Bush is not someone I could get on board with (laughing). It has been unreal to see her resurgence this past year. This means that the younger generation has 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 actor of color. I think that’s probably the way it will go. That’s my two cents anyway.
You were a vocal champion of Time’s Up and #MeToo. Have things improved?
I think. It’s very different out there now. There is also real solidarity between actresses. We didn’t see each other that often before, but it was nice to be together, to feel like we’re all in this together, instead of competing. Apart from that, a lot more work is being made about women or made by women. There are more women in top management roles at the studios. Most of the work I do now, I produce in some capacity. We aim for a 50:50 gender balance and for people to speak up if they feel uncomfortable. We’re starting to see that now, so it’s paying off, and I’m really proud.
You have a three-month-old son. Should conditions for working mothers also be improved?
It’s tricky. The working time is what is difficult because we have to film depending on daylight or night shooting. How do we create a space where it’s easier?
What surprises you most about being a new parent?
How you can function quite well on not much 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 fantastic. Ian McKellen plays the theater critic and he’s great at it. Then a TV drama called Sinnerswhich is a cool hesty type of thing.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
Something with painting or gardening. Still a creative job, but more practical. I have moved from London to East Sussex because I love being outdoors and want to get more into gardening. Last year we grew all kinds of vegetables. Next we plant fruit trees. So that’s my life now. It’s really cozy.