Saturday 24 February 2018

'The zombie metaphor is deep when you think about it - humanity turning against each other' - Gemma Arterton

Gemma Arterton
Gemma Arterton

Fed up with inequalities and the pressures on women to conform, a few years ago, Gemma Arterton had given up on the film industry. As her new movie, The Girl With All The Gifts, comes to cinemas, she tells Gemma Dunn what's changed In a world of entitled celebrities, scrambling for an identity, it's refreshing to meet someone like Gemma Arterton. Someone who has realised who, and where, she wants to be.

Refusing to work with directors who lack respect, and shunning big-budget blockbusters which fail to address - and indeed eradicate - the gender pay gap, the 30-year-old Rada graduate has come a long way since her big-screen debut in 2007's St Trinian's.

"It was a different time, and not just for me," she recently told The Observer. "When I started talking about how I didn't enjoy parts of my job, and talking about body image, I got in trouble. So I stopped.

"It's easier to conform and shut up. That's the way it's always been with women. Easier than putting yourself out there and having an opinion, to which someone might retaliate. I'm sure there are people who don't want to work with me because they think I'm difficult - 'one of those feminist girls' - but to be honest with you, I don't want to work with them. And that's fine. Now."

Arterton - strikingly beautiful, and sporting a statement silk trouser suit when we meet for our interview - has shaped a career she's proud of.

This year alone, the Gravesend-born star has clocked up starring roles in A Hundred Streets, wartime romantic comedy Their Finest, French drama Orpheline, sprawling saga The History Of Love, as well as theatre stints in the West End's rip-roaring play Nell Gwynn and musical Made In Dagenham.

The 2016 credits don't end there. Her latest jaunt sees her take on the zombie-thriller genre, a field she admits "is not usually my bag".

Based on author Mike Carey's 2014 novel of the same name, The Girl With All The Gifts follows the terrifying vision of a post-apocalyptic Britain, where humanity has been all but destroyed by a fungal disease that eradicates free will and turns its victims into flesh-eating 'hungries'.

Set at an Army base in rural England, Arterton plays Miss Justineau, the resilient teacher to a small group of children seemingly immune to the effects of the disease, including 10-year-old Melanie (Sennia Nanua), with whom she forms a strong bond.

"I was sent the script without knowing anything about the writer Mike Carey or director Colm McCarthy and so I read it blindly," explains Arterton. "I got sucked into it. It's about relationships and humanity, that's really what moved me.

"It's very thought-provoking. The zombie metaphor is deep when you think about it - humanity turning against each other, and humans eating each other and coming back from the dead. What does that mean?

"It felt relevant because it's about this new young blood, the next step in human evolution, and who has the right to decide who gets to live and die. If nature is evolving then surely that's what takes precedence? And that really interested me."

So, in a real zombie takeover, Arterton should fare pretty well now, right?

"I don't think I'd be that great, actually," she admits, breaking into laughter. "The reason I like Miss Justineau is because I actually feel like I'd react that way. I look for the humanity in people all the time and I don't think I would feel at ease killing anyone, obviously.

"And seeing children in that way is quite disturbing," she adds. "I'd find it hard, but I think I'd survive."

But for all the questions the film raises, it also tackles some very real issues, including equality in Hollywood, enthuses Arterton, whose silver-screen credits also include Quantum Of Solace (she played Bond Girl Strawberry Fields) and J Blakeson's 2009 indie flick The Disappearance Of Alice Creed.

"There are more roles out there," she says, in reference to strong female castings. "It's a great time at the moment, but [the roles] aren't easy to come by or easy to get made.

"I know that our producer on this film, Camille Gatin, was told time and time again to change the sex of Dr Caldwell [played by Glenn Close in the film] or Miss Justineau, because they could easily be masculine characters as well. But she fought for it," Arterton adds.

"This is the first gender-balanced, racially-balanced film I've done," she quips, clasping her hands together. "And I think that's really great!

"It says a lot about where we're at in the UK at the moment and how films should be made. Colm has made loads of TV [Murphy's Law, Peaky Blinders] and is very experienced but this is his first film, and for him to be able to say that, is a really great example for other film-makers to follow."

Arterton makes for easy company, perhaps because she's freed by her choice to surround herself with projects that suit her - which also includes an upcoming stint on stage as Joan of Arc in Bernard Shaw's electrifying theatre classic, Saint Joan, and The Escape, a film she's set to star in and is co-producing.

"I'm shooting in Gravesham, where I grew up," she reveals of the latter, smiling broadly. "So I'll be back there and I keep calling my friends saying, 'You've got to come on set', and they're like, 'We'll make tea!' And I'm like, 'No, you should get paid if you're doing that but yeah come, come!' It's nice!

"It's with Dominic Cooper and Dominic Savage is directing it," adds the actress, who is rumoured to be in a relationship with French director Franklin Ohanessian, following her separation and subsequent 2015 divorce from Italian fashion consultant Stefano Catelli.

"I co-wrote it with Dominic Savage and it's about a couple who move back to their hometown once they've had kids and she loses her mind..."

Returning back to her roots also means she gets to spend time with her nearest and dearest - "I'm very close to my family, so as much as I can see them, I do" - including her actress sister Hannah Arterton (The Five, Walking On Sunshine).

"People often say to us, 'Isn't that weird? Do you go up for the same roles?' And we don't," Arterton says, of sharing the profession with her 27-year-old sibling. "We look really different and we're very different.

"But it's so lovely to be there for each other. She understands and I understand, but she doesn't need any advice," Arterton concludes warmly. "She's got her own path, and equally with me."

The Girl With All The Gifts opens in cinemas on Friday, September 23

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