Gemma Arterton: 'I had to call up my agent and say ‘no more of that’'
PRESSURE: The Voices actress Gemma Arterton tells Kaleen Aftab why, at the age of 29, she’s turning her back on Hollywood
It was Gemma Arterton’s heart-shaped mouth that got Marjane Satrapi, director of The Voices, most excited.
“She became fixated with my mouth,” says the 29-year-old star. “It’s a little bit heart-shaped, but she made a big deal out of it. In every scene I had to wear red lipstick.”
The lips are especially important as, for much of the black comedy, the only part of Arterton that we see is her decapitated head in a fridge.
She’s been killed by a schizophrenic toilet factory worker, played by Ryan Reynolds, who despite lusting after her, chops off her head under the instruction of his Scottish cat.
When he starts dating a fellow worker, played by Anna Kendrick, he also gets advice from Arterton’s talking head in the fridge, as well as the psychotic cat and his loveable dog.
The British actress was offered the choice of playing either leading lady when she first chatted to Satrapi on Skype. She went for the less obvious of the two roles.
“I just wanted to do something non-connected to what I had been doing before, which was focused on the body and beauty. Anna’s part is more deep and profound; I just wanted to be a bit silly.”
It’s this desire not to be pigeon-holed that has led Arterton to turn her back on Hollywood.
The star had barely got her feet wet as an actress when she got the call from Bond producer Barbara Broccoli saying she had won the role of Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace.
Most actors would have been doing cartwheels.
“Just last night I was thinking about the moment that I found out I was going to be in a Bond film,” says Arterton.
“I wasn’t happy about it. It wasn’t like: ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be working with these people and it’s a dream come true’.
“It’s like ‘Oh, cool’, and it was a great experience and fun to go all those places, but the work wasn’t so interesting.”
She had a handful of scenes, wore beautiful clothes and died.
The pressure to take on such roles (she has also starred in the Hollywood fantasies Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans) was immense.
At first she was afraid to speak out as she felt it would sound ungrateful. Her mother was a cleaner and her father a welder.
They divorced when she was five and she lived with her mother and her younger sister Hannah, now also an actress.
It seemed a bit cheeky to start complaining about her lot when at the age of 21 she could buy a flat in London.
However, she reached breaking point two years ago just after making the action-horror Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. “I had to call my agent and say no more of that s***.”
Arterton realised she didn’t have to play the Hollywood game.
She received her greatest acclaim appearing as the titular character in Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe, which debuted at Cannes back in 2010, after which she started making annual appearances on the London stage.
Yet she has lost roles thanks to her perceived lack of star power.
“There was a film which is out now, so I can talk about it: Under the Skin. It was me that was meant to be doing it and they couldn’t finance it with me. [The director] said, ‘I’ve tried, but they need someone really famous to star in it’.”
She has accepted that. The film, which Arterton loves, was eventually made with Scarlett Johansson in the lead role.
She argues that her goal is longevity. “You have to do good work. I think in the long term it goes against you [doing pretty girl roles].
“That might last for 10 years, but I want to be working when I’m in my 70s and 80s. I don’t want to suddenly get to 40 and be like, oh, I just did those pretty girl roles.”
But it’s not necessarily the case that Hollywood’s loss is Britain’s gain. Arterton made Gemma Bovery, a French adaptation of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel loosely inspired by Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
“I had to learn French and for me that created this weird kind of disconnect because there is always a switch happening in my mind,” she said.
Now her French is fluent. That is partly because on the set of Bovery she met her beau, Franklin Ohanessian, who was working as an assistant director.
She’s been less guarded about being photographed with him than she was with her husband of three years, the fashion consultant Stefano Cattelli, whom she divorced in 2013.
Now she has a French acting agent and seems taken by the way celebrity life operates in Paris.
“There are no members’ places in France. There is nowhere to hide. The celebrity culture in Britain is something I’ve struggled with and you’re put into that culture even if you don’t want to be. In France you manage yourself much more.”
She recently had dinner with Isabelle Huppert, who has been giving her insights on the French movie scene.
The night before we met, Arterton says, “I dreamt that I wore a dress by David Bowie [another of her heroes] and you press a button and suddenly these wings pop out, with glitter and bubbles and everything.”
If she ever meets him, she says, it might be one of the few times she’s actually lost for words.