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  M.   November 11, 2010

After a succession of big budget films have made her one of Britain’s most recognisable young actresses, Gemma Arterton is heading to the off-West End Almeida theatre, where she can truly be herself, finds Caroline Bishop.

She has been a Bond girl, taken leading roles in British film Tamara Drewe and television drama Tess Of The D’Urbervilles and, at 24, has the sort of movie star status that makes young girls scream when they see her in the street (it happened to her on the tube the morning we meet). Yet despite all this, Gemma Arterton says that playing Hilde Wangel in Ibsen’s The Master Builder at the off-West End Almeida theatre is “the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life”.

“Yesterday I had a bit of a breakdown actually when I left rehearsals because it was really getting to me,” she says. “It’s a really strange play in that you have to go really deep, to beyond your mind; it gets into you. I left rehearsal and I just burst into tears in the car. I phoned my husband and I was like ‘I don’t know what to do!’… I went home and he bought me some ice-cream and it was fine.”

The ice cream was praline and vanilla. The husband, fashion salesman Stefan, she married in June this year after meeting him in April 2009; they got engaged after just 10 weeks. “He’s very special. Puts up with a lot,” she laughs.

Arterton is surprisingly open in conversation. Just three years into life in the public eye, she has nevertheless been burned already – she was the subject of tabloid sneering earlier this year after expressing an opinion about how young female actresses are viewed – so I expect her to be brief in her answers and guarded in her manner. But Arterton, I quickly find, is quite the opposite. At the end of our chat she apologises for rambling, which she hasn’t, but she does talk without reservation and chats with an animation that is amusing, especially when she mimics her dad’s estuary accent or demonstrates the reaction of the star-struck girl on the tube: “OhmyGod ohmyGod ohmyGod it’s Gemma Arterton ohmyGod!”.

She blames this openness on her training at RADA. After growing up in a stoical working class household where “it was very much like, if you’ve got a problem, don’t talk about it, get on with it”, she then spent three years being encouraged to drop her defences. “And then I did open up and now I’m like Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” she screeches, laughing.

Some people, she has recently discovered, think she’s bonkers. “About three years ago,” she begins the story, “a dramaturg friend of mine who knows everything about every play ever written, I said to him, ‘if you could choose a role for me to play, what would it be?’ He said ‘Hilde Wangel in The Master Builder because you are her’.” Arterton hadn’t read Ibsen’s drama, so thought nothing of it. “Then in February I had a phone call saying ‘would you be interested in doing The Master Builder with Stephen Dillane?’ I thought ‘ooh that’s a bit weird, I’d better read the play’. I read it. I didn’t get it for about five or six reads, I still didn’t have a f***king clue! But I do remember thinking ‘this character is bonkers, what the f**k… how can you say that I am her?!’” She recently related this to her director at the Almeida, Travis Preston, who told her he feels all his cast are like their characters. “So I was a bit distraught in knowing that I might be a bit like Hilde, because she’s a devil!” Arterton lets out a laugh of raucous abandon, loud and hearty… a touch devilish in fact. “But also [it’s] amazing,” she adds, “because she is incredible.”

“I think I’ve learnt the most from doing those big movies in terms of the type of actor I am”

A heavily symbolic play, Ibsen’s The Master Builder centres on architect Halvard Solness (Dillane), who has reached the pinnacle of his career through ruthless ambition, but who now lives in fear of his younger employee. The sudden appearance of the bewitching Hilde forces Halvard to assess his life and works as he completes his architectural masterpiece.

“I find her incredibly hard to describe,” says Arterton of Hilde. “There’s this huge fairy tale element to The Master Builder. She’s also a princess and a troll and a devil and an angel at the same time, all of these things,” she laughs. “She is so mad. But you can’t think that you’re playing a bonkers person, you have to try to completely understand everything that they are doing, which is why I am really frantic at the moment.”

Despite the angst, Arterton is relishing being back in the theatre, where she finds actors as expressive as herself. “It’s amazing working with Stephen [Dillane], I’ve never worked with anyone that’s so open and not afraid to go places,” she says. “When you work in film I think that you get so used to self-conscious actors that are just worried about how they are going to look or what somebody is going to think of them, and I find that really tedious when I’m working in film, so it’s really nice to be in a room with people who don’t give a s**t, they just go for it.”

There is an admirable stubbornness about Arterton. A refusal to conform to these elements of the film industry that she dislikes and a refusal to shut up about it, even if she knows she will suffer the consequences. “I get in trouble quite a lot because I don’t give a s**t. I’ve been in situations where they’ve wanted me to be a certain way and I’ve said no, it’s not important. I’ve been in situations when they try and make you lose weight and ‘act but don’t do this sort of face when you are acting because you look ugly’. It’s like, ‘this is my face!’”

It is an outrageous instruction regardless of whom it is directed at, but what physical ‘faults’ Arterton would be accused of is hard to fathom. Even with no make-up on her pale, clear skin, her dark hair scraped into a bun and a nondescript jeans-and-t-shirt combo on her slim frame, she has a youthful, natural beauty about her.

Coming from RADA, the film industry’s image-conscious attitude was alien to her. “For three years you don’t give a f**k about how you look. I wouldn’t care about what I wore, about wearing make-up, nothing. Then all of a sudden you are thrust into this world that’s like, ‘oh you’re an actor but also you need to look a certain way’.”

“I remember calculating that I needed to make eight grand a year in order to live in a s**t place, eat and pay the bills”

So why not stick to theatre, where, she says “you are celebrated when you are yourself and you’re expressive and you’re free and uninhibited”? The answer to that makes me realise that Arterton is something of an accidental film star.

From Gravesend, Kent, Arterton got into acting through her local amateur dramatics group, mainly, she says, for the social scene. They did “jazz hands sort of stuff” such as Annie and Bugsy Malone, and it wasn’t until the teenage Bjork fan watched Dancer In The Dark that she realised there was a different type of acting. “It was the first movie that I’d actually watched that wasn’t blockbustery shove-it-in-yer-face-this-is-what-you’re-supposed-to-think kind of movie. I remember thinking ‘wow there’s something else’.”

After deciding to pursue a career in acting mainly because she thought it would be fun – “I said, ‘well I don’t really like maths or geography so I’ll do acting’” – Arterton wound up at RADA, a classical theatre training which prepared her for meaty character parts rather than blockbuster leads. “I was playing men a lot and really dirty roles, crack whores. I never thought I was going to end up as a princess.”

In her third year, she recalls panicking that she wouldn’t get work after the course. “I remember calculating that I needed to make eight grand a year in order to live in a s**t place, eat and pay the bills,” she says. “When you are in that situation you’d do any old thing that comes your way and that’s why most of my friends who are f**king amazing classically trained actors are on Doctors and The Bill most of the time.”

“There’s a lot of snobbery in this industry, especially from the viewers as well,” she adds. “They think that they know what it’s like to be an actor living in London and they don’t. Unless you are somebody that has a lot of money to start off with, you can’t just be selective, unless you are incredibly lucky as well and the right project comes along.”

Given her financial worries, it is unsurprising that when the big budget film world came calling, she grabbed it with both hands. Her first film role as the head girl in St Trinian’s was followed by parts in RocknRolla, The Boat That Rocked and Quantum Of Solace. Subsequent blockbusters Clash Of The Titans and Prince Of Persia – in which she played a princess – have enabled her to be financially secure. “What I’m proud of in my life is the fact that… from where I came from, I am living an amazing life in London with an amazing house and all these things which I wouldn’t have been able to get if I hadn’t have done those movies.”

But there is another reason she plunged headlong into films, which is that Arterton is very good at plunging into things. Her idea of a career plan, I come to realise, has been to do things because she thought they would be fun. Like a kid at Disneyland, she has had a wide-eyed willingness to try everything, without thinking of the consequences. “I’m somebody that doesn’t take myself too seriously,” she says. “I mean, when the Bond film came along I thought ‘brilliant. How much fun is that? I get to be a Bond girl’.” She didn’t think about how such a high-profile film might lead her career down a certain path. “I’m a little bit naïve and I didn’t actually realise. I just was chuffed that I was going to pay off my student loan.”

“I do remember thinking ‘this character is bonkers… how can you say that I am her?!”

She doesn’t regret any of the films she has done. “I think I’ve learnt the most from doing those big movies in terms of the type of actor I am. Because you go ‘oh I’m not that and I’m not that and I’m not that’,” she says with a wry laugh. But she did feel she was “dragged along a bit” by her snowballing movie career. Since then, her appearance in lower-budget films The Disappearance Of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe, and her West End debut last year in The Little Dog Laughed, imply she is attempting to have a little more direction. She says she feels her career has gone up and then down “and now I’m building up again in the way that I want, rather than the way that’s been suggested”.

But she acknowledges that it is thanks to the high-profile movies that she now has the luxury of being more choosy. “Now I’ve got that I can do what I want now, and I’m in a really nice situation, [it’s] an amazing situation to be in.”

All this explains why what looks to the outsider like a meteoric rise to international stardom feels to Arterton “like an anti-climax in a way because I absolutely haven’t achieved what I want to achieve yet, at all”.

So what is that exactly? Well, The Master Builder is a good start. “This is the sort of work that I’m like, ‘yes, this is what I want to put out’. Eventually I want to direct theatre,” she says, surprising me. “That’s always what I’ve wanted to do. I always like directors that know how to work with actors, so I thought it would be quite good to act for a bit first.”

She is even more of an accidental film star than I thought. Not only did she fall into an image-sterilised movie world where her outspoken nature is as welcome as a spot on a leading lady’s chin, but acting isn’t even her ultimate goal. Still, until directing calls, Arterton finds herself in the enviable position of combining juicy stage roles like Hilde Wangel with a continued presence in the movie world. However, despite having four films released this year she hasn’t shot a movie since 2009. “I wonder whether I’ll be any good on film afterwards?” she says and then laughs. “I’ll be very loud, they’ll be telling me to stop frowning and doing that ugly face!”