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  M.   January 05, 2010

Since her debut with 007, Gemma Arterton has resisted the starlet trap and opted for surprisingly gritty roles

Gemma Arterton is, in her own words, a freak. “I was born,” says the 23-year-old former Bond girl (Quantum of Solace) and St Trinian’s starlet, casually thrusting forward her hands, “With two extra fingers.” She rubs softly the raised pinkish knuckle scars on the side of both hands and continues, “There were no bones in them, just the fingers and the fingernails.” Arterton, dressed down in denims and black winter woollies, and munching on a rocket and goat’s cheese salad in an East London rehearsal studio, then cocks her head to one side, parts the hair of her trademark bob, and adds, “And I’ve got a crumpled ear, look!” She taps the mildly swollen flesh at the top of her right ear, and sighs, “I was a freakish baby. A bit of an oddball. And I still feel like that now.”

Which is perhaps easy to say if, like Arterton today, you’re sporting sculpted cheekbones, smouldering brushstroke eyes and a rising Hollywood career. And yet the star of BBC One’s Tess of the Urbervilles in 2008 wears her beauty and her nascent stardom lightly, and projects the chirpy mien of someone unimpressed by cover-girl kudos. And there is little cause to doubt her. She has recently returned, for instance, from a blockbusting Hollywood sojourn, shooting two of the biggest movies of summer 2010, the video game adaptation Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opposite a newly buffed Jake Gyllenhaal, and the mythological epic The Clash of the Titans, co-starring Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson. But she mostly speaks of these high-gloss experiences in less flattering terms. As a proud RADA graduate, she found the obsession with body image over performance style troubling.

“On one of the movies, I’d just done this big comedy scene, and all they said was, ‘You need to work on your arms!’ ” she recalls, looking down perplexedly at her own arms, as if to say: “Hey, when you’ve had 12 fingers, everything else looks OK from here.” She continues: “And I said, ‘But what about the acting?’ And they said, ‘Don’t worry about the acting, worry about your arms!’ I just wanted to say, ‘Screw you all! I’d rather do a play!’ ”

Enter, stage left, The Little Dog Laughed. A scathing Hollywood satire from the playwright and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane, it marks Arterton’s West End debut, and only her second time on the London stage since playing Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Globe in 2007. “It’s daunting, and it’s scary,” she admits, “but it’s something that I have to do.” The play, she explains, is an exorcism of sorts, for it is allowing her to explore the kind of Hollywoodian duplicities that she has experienced recently in the studio big leagues.

Her role, for example, is that of Ellen, the occasional New York girlfriend of a rent boy called Alex (Harry Lloyd). Ellen’s dreams of settling down with Alex are seemingly scuppered when the latter falls for Mitch (Rupert Friend), a rising Hollywood movie star who is suffering, according to his ferocious agent Diane (Tamsin Greig), from “a slight recurring case of homosexuality”. Naturally, the tension, the humour and the biting commentary reside in Diane’s attempt to sanitise Mitch’s private life for the sake of his career. It is, Arterton says, an eerily accurate representation of real movie-star dilemmas.

“I have worked with people like Mitch, who face these issues every day. I have gay actor friends who can’t say that they’re gay. There’s even people who we all know that are gay but they can’t talk about it. As soon as [she gives the name of a high-profile actor] says, ‘I’m gay,’ then people will see him only as gay. It’s so strange, and it’s why the play is fascinating.”

Issues of image and reality swirl around outside the play too, she acknowledges, adding that she fully expects, just like Keira Knightley in The Misanthrope, to receive tougher press scrutiny than your average 23-year-old theatre actress. “When you put yourself in these huge popcorn movies you get out there, in the public arena, more than anyone else,” she says. “But that also means that you’re out there to be criticised more than anyone else. With Keira Knightley, she’s brave to do her play. Because, for some reason, if you’re successful in Britain, people tend not to like you. But if you’re a successful woman, and beautiful, in Britain, you’re even more disliked.”

Arterton, typically, has been assiduous in avoiding the “successful beauty” pitfall. Her next movie, for instance, is an ingenious British thriller called The Disappearance of Alice Creed. It’s a decidedly unglamorous affair for Arterton, who, as the titular kidnap victim, is tear-smeared, mascara-stained, stripped, throttled and dressed mostly in an unflattering mauve tracksuit throughout. “I wanted something that was getting down and dirty, and really not about how you look,” she says. “I wanted to be, like, f***ing hair and make-up everywhere, just not giving a f***! And yes, I get tied up, beaten, and there’s nudity. All the things that made people go, ‘You should not do this!’ But I put my foot down.”

The results are impressive, and the movie will certainly be regarded as one of the most inventive British films of the year. It has a giddy, David Mamet-style rigour in the incessant flipping of power between kidnap victim and kidnappers (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston). Arterton gets to demonstrate some genuine dramatic chops, especially in the emotionally mercurial central scenes in which she’s forced to play Alice pretending to be brave, while actually being scared, yet secretly not scared at all (it’ll make sense when you see it). In these moments she holds the screen entirely with huge, compelling, sad-eyed close-ups, doing so much, it seems, with so little.

They are piquant counterpoints to a career that might have seemed, at a cursory glance, to have consisted mainly of a few desultory lines as the agent Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace (“Mr Bond, my name is Fields, I’m from the consulate!”), and a series of swaggering musical montages in St Trinian’s. “But audiences don’t know what you can do until they see it,” she says. “You want so much to prove yourself, and say, ‘Look! I can do this over here, as well as slow-motion walking!’ ”

Arterton, born in Kent and brought up by her single mum Sally, a cleaner, says that she knows the exact week when she decided to become an actress. She was 17 and attending the Miskin Theatre college in Dartford (“p***ing about all day, doing roly-polies”), and within the space of two days she saw Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in the cinema and watched Sean Penn being interviewed on Inside the Actor’s Studio. “Before that acting was just a social activity,” she says. “But that was the week I decided I wanted to do it seriously. That was the week I got the drive.”

Otherwise, she describes her childhood as unremarkable, and her hard-working mother as an inspiration. Indeed, the working-class values of her parents (her father is a welder), she says, have been a rock for Arterton and her younger sister Hannah, also an actress, who is now at RADA (“She’s very petite and blonde. Yes, we’re like Kylie and Danni Minogue!”). Any deviation into diva territory is met, she says, with withering contempt. “As soon as I say, ‘I can’t go out in that dress, I’ve already worn it before!’ my dad will say, ‘Listen to yourself! Stop being stupid!’ ”

Similarly, she makes no attempt to hide the Estuary vowels in her busy speech rhythms, and proudly remembers dressing down her Prince of Persia director Mike Newell when he told her to change her accent. “When he first met me for the film he said, ‘Oh dear. Can’t you do posh?’ I thought, ‘I can’t believe he’s asked me that!’ So I said (firmly, through gritted teeth), ‘Of course I can, I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic F***ing Art!”

Her personal life, she says, slipping uncharacteristically into publicity speak, is personal. There have been rumours, nonetheless, that she has dated a 19-year-old Spanish stuntman and then moved on to Daniel Craig’s body double from Quantum of Solace. Of the latter gossip she guffaws, “I love that story, and so does he!” She flushes coyly, adding: “All I can tell you is that ‘he’ is my significant other and he’s not even in the industry. Nobody knows anything about him and that’s how I want it to be.”

The future holds more Arterton projects. She will follow her two summer blockbusters with the lead role in Stephen Frears’s comic-strip adaptation Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds’s story of a newspaper columnist who becomes a small-town glamazon after a nose job. Frears, who had not seen any of her previous work, gave Arterton the job after a single meeting (“I said, ‘Please, can you audition me! You might regret it otherwise!’ ”). And then, of course, the blockbusters themselves have possible “contractually obliged” sequels attached, meaning that the whole process can start all over again at the end of the year.

Arterton, however, is not about to celebrate her vertiginous ascent just yet. For maybe it’s her self-described freakishness, or maybe it’s those working-class mores, but she seems remarkably unimpressed by her own successes, and truly unwilling to buy into her status as a serious big-screen player. She closes our conversation, for instance, with this meditation on her own fame. “The minute anyone says, ‘Oh my God! You’re so amazing!’ I just have to go, ‘Shut up! Please!’ I am normal. I have just one rule — don’t believe the hype!”

The Little Dog Laughed begins previewing at the Garrick Theatre on Jan 8; The Disappearance of Alice Creed opens on March 12; Clash of the Titans opens on March 26; Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time opens on May 21

Source: Times Online