Monday 20 January 2020

Gemma Arterton: Chasing the big time

Gemma Arterton
Gemma Arterton

Declan Cashin

'Promise you'll let me nap afterwards?" Gemma Arterton enquires with a naughty, sleepy glint in her eye, as she sinks deeper into the sofa in the swanky suite in London's Soho hotel. It's easy to see why James Bond was so beguiled by her charms.

Alas, our encounter is not quite as sexy as it may initially sound. Moments before, the 24-year-old's publicist had stuck her head in to tell us that our interview slot had been extended to 25 minutes. Arterton responds to the news graciously and pleasantly, and remains admirably bubbly and chatty throughout our chat, but the poor girl is clearly knackered.

Though it's hard to tell from looking at her -- all fresh-faced with her dark hair tied back, decked out in a demure grey cardigan, big-collared black blouse and dark trousers -- Arterton is working around the clock at the time of our meeting. She's spending her nights starring in the West End production of The Little Dog Laughed, while using her days to fulfil her publicity obligations for a raft of movies.

Day & Night is nothing if not attentive to the needs of the talent. Therefore, I strike a deal with her: give me 15 minutes of good interview material, and then she can catch a powernap for the remaining 10 before her next press sit-down. "Deal!" she exclaims, while I turn my head to hide a smirk. This is clearly going to take all the time we've got.

That's because the British lass is up to her proverbials in work right now. In the past month alone movie audiences have seen her play a goddess in the guilty-pleasure blockbuster Clash of the Titans, and a kidnap victim in the gritty thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed.

Now she's back in CGI/big-budget/Hollywood tentpole territory with Jerry Bruckheimer's videogame-to-silver screen adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the movie that might just yet catapult her to superstardom. Arterton plays Princess Tamina, guardian of a mystical dagger that has the power to -- in Cher's immortal words -- turn back time.

It's the sole female lead in the action-adventure romp, and Arterton more than holds her own opposite a beefed-up Jake Gyllenhaal and weighty thesps including Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina. Prince of Persia, with its rumoured $150m budget, is unquestionably Arterton's biggest project to date, and Disney obviously has hopes of turning it into the next Pirates of the Caribbean-style franchise.

The actress herself had just seen the finished film for the first time two days beforehand. "Thankfully they've done a good job on it, and I really like it, because I've worked on other movies where I've gone, 'ARGH! I wouldn't have signed up for that if I knew how it was going to turn out!" she says with a laugh.

She admits that it was a tough shoot, two months of which were spent on location in the searing heat of Morocco. "The hardest thing I had to work at was getting fit," she reveals. "Before this, I had just made Tess of the D'Urbervilles, where I spent my days hanging around in a corset, eating cake. All of sudden I had to run up mountains and get into fights in desert heat. I trained six days a week for the part, which is so unlike me."

Luckily -- and somewhat bizarrely -- her drama school training at the prestigious Rada stood her in good stead. "I'd done three years of fight training with swords and bow and arrows," she says, adding with evident pride: "My partner and I were the only females to win a distinction for it at higher level."

What came easiest during the shoot was her chemistry with co-star Gyllenhaal. "When I met Jake, we had this chemistry and this spark, and I'm delighted that it's come across on screen," she says.

"Jake was offered the part in Avatar, but chose this instead. I think this is going to Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt-ise him. He's already A-list, but in terms of Hollywood leading-man status, this is huge for him.

"He's a proper actor, isn't he? He makes his character an action hero that you actually give a shit about. That's because Jake is so normal and down to earth, with a great sense of humour."

Arterton then pauses before addressing the rippling, sinewy, pecs-and-delts elephant in the room. "Plus he's hot -- ultra, ultra hot. It's funny because I didn't see him that way during filming, but then I was watching the movie with my publicist and we were like, 'He is fucking hot!'"

It's an opinion that many hold of Arterton too. Born to a mum and dad who worked as a cleaner and plater respectively, Arterton can't help but be grounded, despite her Rada training. It's also become well known that the actress was born with polydactyly, meaning she had an extra finger on both hands. "My grandad and dad had it too, so I'm really proud of it," she says with a smile. "I had an operation to remove them, but it's still a bit sensitive because they have nerve endings and all that."

Before she'd graduated from drama school, Arterton had starred in the revived St Trinians movies, as well as playing Agent Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig in his second Bond outing, Quantum of Solace.

It's one movie Arterton still speaks fondly of, even though it was very poorly received in comparison to Casino Royale. "I think the thing people missed was the fun," she says of Quantum. "Bond was on a vendetta, and it was deliberately a really cold, action story.

"But my character in it was the light relief and I liked that. Also because she wasn't the main girl, I felt like there wasn't that much pressure on me. I had to get my kit off, but it's not like I had to do the big iconic bikini shot. I was so relieved when I met Olga [Kurylenko, the main Bond girl]. I was like, 'You're so hot, it's all yours!'"

As for whether she is ready for the ensuing hoopla that Persia is sure to invite, Arterton says she'll take it all in her leisurely stride. "That's another reason why I'm so grateful to Quantum of Solace: it broke me in gently," she says. "I remember when I was first cast, there was paparazzi at my parents' house and all that craziness. But now I'm over it; my parents are over it; the press knows who I am. I've had a taster, which makes this easier."

Then, of course, there are the obvious comparisons that will be made between her and another English rose who made her name in a similar Bruckheimer-Disney commercial juggernaut: Keira Knightley. "I was out for dinner the other night with Keira because I'm working with her boyfriend Rupert [Friend] in Little Dog," she says.

"I was a little starstruck at first because she's so elegant and gorgeous. I'm not as elegant as that! We're from very different backgrounds with different things to offer. I guess the press would love for us to be getting into catfights on the street, but it's not going to happen."

Surprisingly, Arterton only has one other movie planned after Persia -- Stephen Frears' comedy Tamara Drewe. Then again, she does have a wedding to plan to a stunt artist named Stefano whom she refuses to discuss, except for saying: "I think as an actor you need to be with someone who's supportive, and secure in themselves, because this is a really weird job."

With that, our time -- the full 25 minutes, natch -- is up. "You owe me a nap," she exclaims, delivering a slight slap on my arm. Next time, I reply, and she flashes a smile as I'm ushered out of the room, the hint of a naughty glint flashing in her eye once more.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is out today. See page 12 for Paul Whitington's review

Irish Independent

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