Photography: Suki Dhanda/The Observer
Gemma Arterton, 37, was born in Gravesend and trained at the Rada. At 21, she made her professional stage debut at Shakespeare’s Globe and her film debut in San Triniano. The following year, she landed the coveted role of Strawberry Fields in the Bond film Quantum by Solace. On TV, she starred in Tess of the D’Urbervilles AND Black narcissus; stage highlights include Done in Dagenham, Nell Gwynn AND Saint Joan. He now produces and plays the lead role in Funny womanthe television adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Funny Girl, about a Blackpool beauty queen who moves to bustling 1960s London to enter the comedy scene. Arterton lives in East Sussex with her husband, actor Rory Keenan, and their young son.
Adapted by Nick Hornby Fun Lass for TV it turned into a real saga, right?
I read the book when it came out in 2014, loved it and tried to buy the rights to it. Of course they had 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, would I do that? I was working on a film at the time and I remember reading the script aloud in my trailer, laughing. It was serendipitous that it came back to me. It felt right — although reading the novel, you wouldn’t necessarily be thinking of me playing it.
The characters I’ve played before tended to be a little more level-headed. Strong and lit. While in real life I’m pretty silly. My husband watched Funny womanhe saw the idiotic things he does and said, “Yeah, it’s basically you.”
Why were your comedic gifts hidden away?
I just didn’t get the opportunity, but physical theater is where I started. We had a teacher with a Complicité background and it was all about telling stories through one’s body. But then you go to Rada and it’s all about the text and Shakespeare. He has never been my forte. I’ve always approached roles from a physical point of view. This has always been my “in”, more than a character’s backstory. Sometimes you can get too cerebral with the acting, but really, if you start moving your body, things get triggered.
For Funny womanI wanted to do some clowning so I worked with this great movement director called Toby Sedgwick who trained at Lecoq [the physical theatre school in Paris] and works a lot with Danny Boyle. We did the most random and crazy exercises. Exaggerated movements, lots of red nose stuff. People falling or crashing 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. There is also Barbara Windsor. I also watched Lucille Ball a lot because she is Barbara’s idol. I got the box set I love Lucy and was blown away.
How did you perfect your Blackpool accent?
I always use this great accent database that the BBC has. I managed to find a recording of these brilliant Blackpudlian women in the 60’s, just talking about life, and I listened to it constantly.
Didn’t you suffer from your accent at the beginning of your career?
Yes, because he was associated with people from less well-off backgrounds. Now in drama school it’s different, but in my day they told us to lose the accent or you’d only play waitresses or whatever. It’s a shame as I had a thick working class Estuarine accent. I feel a little sad that he’s gone.
Does he come out after a few drinks?
YES! Or around my family. If I’m on the phone with my dad, my husband says my accent really changes.
Rupert Everett plays Barbara’s agent. Was he a hoot to work with?
It was, actually. I know Rupert from my first job ever San Triniano, so it was special to get back together. She created a stir. Usually Barbara was the driving force behind the scenes, but with Rupert I was the one in the background, which was fun.
There are more women in management roles in firms. Most of the work I do now, I’m producing in some way
Who are your favorite funny women?
I loved French and Saunders when I was growing up and Joanna Lumley inside Absolutely fabulous. I know they’re not women, but I also adored Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, people brave enough to let go and be quite extravagant. Have been there a few times Funny woman when I thought, “What would Jim Carrey do?”
Barbara sings a Dusty Springfield song in one episode. There was no talk of you playing her in a biopic?
Yes, it was called So much love and it was around his time in Memphis. But she’s not as well known in America as she is here, so it was tough to take off. Perhaps Fun Woman it was instead my Dusty moment!
I hear you love karaoke. What’s your favorite song?
I always do Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. It has a bunch of key changes and is pretty cathartic. When you sing karaoke, you can’t try to be cool. You have to go for the drama. The power ballads are perfect.
Aren’t you a big fan of Kate Bush too?
Who isn’t? Anyone who doesn’t like Kate Bush is not someone I could get along with [laughs]. It was unreal to see her reborn last 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’d like to see a younger black actor. I think that’s probably how he’s going to go. It’s my two cents, by the way.
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 real solidarity between the actresses. We didn’t meet often before, but it was nice to be together, to feel that we are all together, rather than competing. Apart from that, a lot more work is being done on women or done by women. There are more women in management roles in firms. Most of the work I do now, I’m producing in some way. We aim for a 50:50 gender balance and for people to be able 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 improve?
This is tricky. The working time is what is difficult because we have to film depending on the day light or night shooting. How do we create a space where it’s easier?
What surprised you most about being a new parent?
How can you 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 stunning. Ian McKellen plays the theater critic and he’s fantastic. Then a television drama called Guiltywhich is a nice robbery-type thing.
What would you do if you weren’t an actor?
Something with painting or horticulture. Still a creative work but more practical. I moved from London to East Sussex because I love the outdoors and want to do more gardening. Last year we grew all kinds of vegetables. We then plant fruit trees. So this is my life now. It’s really funny.