Photo: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
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. The following year she landed the coveted role of Strawberry Fields in the Bond film quantum of consolation. She acted on television Tess from the D’Urbervilles And Black Narcissus; include stage highlights Made in Dagenham, Nell Gwynn And Saint Joan. She produces and now stars in Funny womanthe television adaptation of the novel by Nick Hornby Funny girl, about a beauty queen from Blackpool 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 Hornby Fun Girl for TV became quite a saga, didn’t it?
I read the book when it came out in 2014, loved it and tried to buy the rights. Apparently they were already 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, would I do that? I was working on a movie at the time and I remember reading the script out loud in my trailer and laughing out loud. It was by accident that it came back to me. It just felt right – even if you read the novel, you wouldn’t necessarily think that I was playing it.
Characters I’ve played before tended to be a bit more balanced. Strong and turned on. Whereas in real life I’m pretty dumb. My husband watched Funny womanShe saw the idiotic things she does and said, “Yep, that’s basically you.”
How come your weird gifts got hidden?
I just didn’t have the opportunity, but I started with physical theater. We had a teacher from a Complicité background and it was all about telling stories through the body. But then you go to Rada and it’s all about the lyrics and Shakespeare. That was never my forte. I’ve always approached roles from a physical point of view. That’s always been my in, more than a character’s backstory. Sometimes acting can get too cerebral, but when you start moving your body it triggers things.
For Funny womanI wanted to do some clowning so I worked with this great movement director called Toby Sedgwick who was training at Lecoq [the physical theatre school in Paris] and works a lot with Danny Boyle. We did the most random, craziest exercises. Exaggerated moves, lots of red-nosed stuff. People falling over or colliding with things always make me laugh.
Did you base your character, Barbara, on anyone?
Morwenna herself was a great inspiration. She incorporated 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 from 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 Blackpudlians in the ’60s just chatting about life and I kept listening to it.
Didn’t you get annoyed with your own accent early on in your career?
Yes, because it was associated with people from less affluent backgrounds. It’s different in drama school now, but in my day we were told to drop the accent or you’d just play maids or whatever. It’s a shame because I had a strong working-class muzzle accent. I’m a little sad it’s gone.
Does it come out after a few drinks?
Yes! Or my family. When I talk to my dad on the phone, my husband says my accent is really changing.
Rupert Everett plays Barbara’s agent. Was it a hoot to work with him?
Indeed he was. I’ve known Rupert since my first job ever St Trinian, so getting back together was special. He wreaked havoc. Usually it was Barbara who was the driving force behind the scenes but with Rupert I was the one lagging behind which was fun.
There are more women in top management positions in studios. Most of the work I do now I produce in some form
Who are your own favorite funny women?
I loved French and Saunders growing up and Joanna Lumley was there 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 pretty crazy. It was in there a few times Funny woman when I thought, “What would Jim Carrey do?”
Barbara sings a song by Dusty Springfield in one episode. Wasn’t there talk of you playing her in a biopic?
Yes, they said 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 started. Possibly 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 many major changes and is quite cathartic. When you sing karaoke, you can’t try to be cool. You have to go for drama. Power ballads are perfect.
Aren’t you a big Kate Bush fan too?
who isn’t Anyone who doesn’t like Kate Bush isn’t someone I could get on board with [laughs]. It was unreal to see her resurgence over the past year. It means 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 like to see a younger black actor. I think that’s how it will go. That’s my two cents anyway.
You’ve been 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 real solidarity between the actresses. We didn’t get together very often before, but it was nice to come together and feel like we’re all together instead of competing. That being said, a lot more work is being done about women or by women. There are more women in top management positions in studios. Most of the work I do now I produce in some form. We aim for a 50/50 gender ratio and the ability to speak up if they are uncomfortable. We’re starting to see that now, so it’s paying off and I’m really proud.
They have a three month old son. Do the conditions for working mothers also need to improve?
That’s tricky. Working hours are the most difficult because we have to film depending on daylight or when shooting at night. How do we create a space where it’s easier?
What surprised you most about being a new parent?
How you can function quite well with little sleep.
What’s in the pipeline for you?
The critic, [a film] based on the novel by Anthony Quinn Curtain up. The production design and cinematography are stunning. Ian McKellen plays the theater critic and he’s fantastic at it. Then a TV drama called culpritwhich is a cool heisty-ish thing.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
Something to do with painting or gardening. Still a creative job, but more practical. I moved to East Sussex from London because I love the outdoors and want to do more gardening. Last year we grew all kinds of vegetables. Next we plant fruit trees. So this is my life now. It is really fun.