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  M.   October 31, 2010

Gemma Arterton on the benefits of growing up, and her journey from St Trinian’s head girl to Ibsen heroine

The other day Gemma Arterton attended an audition with “a very famous actor”. The actor looked at her CV, and said: “You’re in this for the art, aren’t you? I can see that from [the fact that you did] St Trinian’s.” Arterton, who is 24, tells me this with only the merest trace of indignation. “I think he was testing me,” she says. “But I’ve only been working for three years, and you can’t be creative at the beginning of your career. I left drama school [Rada] with a lot of debt. My student loan was £25,000, and I come from the kind of family where you’re not allowed to be in debt. So when you get offered a job, you’re going to say ‘yes’. It’s only now I can reflect on what I want to do next.”

Arterton followed her turn as St Trinian’s head girl with that of Strawberry Fields in Bond film Quantum of Solace. But this year has a somewhat different flavour – and don’t let the men’s magazines, who love nothing better than to stick her in fishnets and something tight by Alexander McQueen, tell you otherwise. Yes, she briefly wore supremely short shorts when she took the starring role in Stephen Frears’s Tamara Drewe. But the film, all dappled sunshine and bitchy literary types, was hardly a blockbuster. And now, as the nights draw in, she is to appear as Hilde Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder. In case you don’t know it, this isn’t just ordinary Ibsen, dark as a forest, sombre as a priest; it’s Ibsen in his difficult late period, chilly and strange as a hoar frost. “People say that it’s one of the best female roles ever,” she says. “I just have to trust myself that I can do it.”

Arterton is a working-class girl from Gravesend, Kent – her mum was a cleaner, her dad a welder – and the only thing about snooty Tamara with which she identified was the fact that she’d swapped the provinces for London. “People say: ‘Don’t change, Gem!’ But if I hadn’t developed a bit, I’d still be the mouthy cow I was when I was 15.” How mouthy was that? “Very. I was straight out of [Andrea Arnold’s gritty 2009 film] Fish Tank.” Looking wicked, she proceeds to do a pitch-perfect impression of one of its characters – and the nicely spoken Arterton we know from the screen swiftly disappears. No wonder, then, that in spite of her extreme gorgeousness, she is able to travel to the theatre incognito, on the tube. “Yeah. In London, everyone is embroiled in their own lives. That’s the nice thing. In my yoga class the teacher said: ‘You probably get this all the time, but you really look like Gemma Arterton.'” She laughs. Did she confess in the end? Apparently so. Better to have your cover blown, she thinks, than to hear your yoga teacher say what a terrible actor you are.

The Master Builder is at the Almeida Theatre, London N1 from 12 November to 8 January

Rachel Cooke
# The Observer, Sunday 31 October 2010