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  M.   November 06, 2011

By Emine Saner

Gemma Arterton used to be ‘the girl from the Bond film’, but three years on she has stopped feeling grateful and begun speaking out about her industry

The first film role Gemma Arterton played was Mickey Mouse. She was five, her younger sister, taking on the role of Donald Duck, was two, “and there’s this video of us, where we’re watching Mickey Mouse and I’m making my sister act it out with me. And I’ve really got it down! I used to do that stuff all the time, just copying.” Disney films were pretty much the only art in her childhood, she says. “My family was never cultural in that we never went to see plays, my mum wasn’t very into films.” It wasn’t until she was about 16 that she realised that acting could be a legitimate job.

From that realisation – then on to a performance arts course, before a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) – to here has been a dizzying climb. Since she graduated four years ago, Arterton, 25, has done Shakespeare and Ibsen on the stage; forgettable roles in big-budget action films Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans; glorious performances as Tess of the D’Urbervilles on the BBC and in last year’s film of Posy Simmonds’ graphic novel (and Guardian comic strip) Tamara Drewe.

Her role in 2009’s dark indie thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed, and her theatre work, offset some serious typecasting: in too many films, most famously in Daniel Craig’s second James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, Arterton appeared as little more than the sex object. Three years on, she is still referred to in newspaper pieces as “Bond girl Gemma Arterton”. But if her CV makes it look as if she was unable to say no to anything, at least it propelled her into a place from where she can pick and choose. “It’s nice to be in the position where you don’t have to do a big movie just because it’s got so-and-so in it. You can say no. That’s a luxury. In the past I’ve done things that I’ve been like, ‘why did I do that?'” Like what? “You can guess,” she says. “I thought, ‘you don’t have to do those things.’ There’s an obvious reason why people do those movies, but you don’t have to.”

Along the way Arterton has earned herself a reputation as someone outspoken about the pressures on young women in her industry. She has complained about the pressures to be thin (in one particularly vicious piece, the Daily Mail sniped that she was looking “distinctly jowly”), and the pressures to keep her mouth shut. In a world where many young stars have all their personalities and opinions media-trained out of them, Arterton is a rare find.

In a PR office in London, I sit across from her over a huge boardroom table. Reading from my notes, it feels as though I’m interviewing her for an office job. She said in one interview it was hard to be a feminist in the acting world. What did she mean by that? “It’s such a male-dominated industry,” she says, eyes rolling. “You can be a feminist, it’s just difficult because it sometimes comes back at you. Actually, in the last year I’ve found it less, because people know I’m a feminist now.” I wonder how they know. Does she wear a badge? “I found, sometimes the way I’m spoken to, or regarded … In the last year, the respect for me as an actor rather than as just the girl from the Bond film has changed. I think a lot of it is down to that I am now choosing who I am working with. I meet somebody, and it’s a two-way decision. It’s not me going, ‘please will you employ me?’ Now it’s, ‘am I going to be able to collaborate with you and have a conversation that’s not about how big your trailer is?’ It’s become easier that way.”

When she first started, she says, “it was if the world had done me a favour. Especially on the bigger movies, it was like, ‘you’re lucky you’re here, so don’t speak up’, and that was frustrating.” She is weighing her words so carefully that I feel I have to keep poking her. Does she mean her ideas weren’t listened to, or there were things she didn’t want to do? “Yeah. Or things I just don’t believe in that seem important. I’m not really supposed to do big commercial movies because I don’t really believe in the … ” She lets the sentence hang. “The industry is quite chauvinistic generally. Expectations of women, girls, what they should look like, how they should be, what they should say, what they should wear, how their hair should be, what colour their skin should be. It’s always going to be like that. It’s not so much like that in theatre or independent film, and that’s why I’m sort of gravitating towards those now, because otherwise you’re fighting a losing battle and never going to win it. You’re just going to be known as the mouthy one who gets in trouble for saying what she thinks. I thought to myself, do I say stuff or do I silently be a feminist. What’s the best thing to do?”

Can you be a “silent feminist”? Surely Arterton has to speak out, because if not her, with her cleverness and her success, then who? “Sometimes it’s hard, because I am a sensitive person, I’m not a warrior, and sometimes I say something and I can feel a bit hurt about the way it’s perceived.” Why does she care? “Often things are misconstrued – you say things and they are written about in a different way. And sometimes it’s just not the right thing to do. You can become more known for being a spokesperson than an actor, and I don’t want that to happen. But then, you look at someone like Vanessa Redgrave, and she’s amazing. She just doesn’t give a fuck. I think I still care a little bit too much [about what people think] to be that person. She’s so accomplished, she can say what she wants. I often get: ‘you’re not very talented, so why are you even standing there?’, so I feel a little bit like, ‘maybe I shouldn’t say anything then.'”

Anyway, I say, it’s refreshing to hear a woman describe herself as a feminist (even one who has stripped to pants and suspenders for men’s magazines – perhaps, like the totty bit-parts, those days are behind her now, too). “I wish more would admit to being, because most women are feminists. I think it’s hard to watch when you see people not helping the sisterhood. I don’t know why it’s still a taboo to be a feminist. I think people think you’re going to have a big old hairy muff and be mouthy and spit on men.”

I shoot a look at the PR officer, who is sitting at the other end of the table, armed with a huge wedge of papers and notes. We are supposed to be talking about Sky Rainforest Rescue, for which Arterton is an ambassador. It is two years in to a three-year project, run by the broadcaster together with WWF, to conserve 1bn trees in Acre, an area of Brazil around the size of Belgium. Arterton went there in July, to visit some of the projects aiming to limit deforestation by providing local families with livelihoods, such as building new rubber processing units so people can get higher prices for sustainable rubber tapping, which means trees will be conserved rather than felled for grazing. “It’s easy to cut down trees and get cattle to graze on the land and then sell the cattle, but then that part of the rainforest becomes barren. It’s not really their fault, and that’s what the initiative is about – giving them other options, because they don’t really want to cut down the rainforest, they love it. It’s about making the trees more valuable alive than dead. I got to meet farmers who have these very dedicated lives. We trekked for hours to get to them. I tried my hand at rubber tapping, which is quite hard – they produce a small amount of rubber really, if you think about the amount of time it takes. Like anything, when you go to somewhere where they don’t have what we have, you feel very grateful.”

She is wary of celebrity involvement in charities – she also works for the Prince’s Trust and a charity for the blind – but is pragmatic about what she offers: “I particularly like this campaign because it’s not preachy. It’s not, ‘I’m doing this.’ It’s me just being there and showing something, rather than being like a saint. I’m not. The reason they ask you is that people know who you are, and that’s what you bring to it. I think some people can feel you are being a bit high-horsey, which I understand as well. We do, especially people who work in showbusiness, have a lot of privileges. Sometimes things can be a bit meaningless in the job I do – not in the creative, work side, but I spend a lot of time doing publicity and promotional stuff and it’s much more gratifying to do this kind of promotional stuff than talking about a movie.”

Arterton says she has her mother and aunt to thank for her views. “They were both very instrumental in my upbringing. My aunt is a lesbian and very, very feminist. I was brought up by these two women who were very independent and it makes you … We were never man-haters or anything, just like, ‘It’s good to be a woman.'” Her father, a welder, and her mother, a cleaner, broke up when she was five, and she describes her family as “big and dysfunctional” but happy. After the separation, Arterton grew up with her mother and younger sister on a council estate in Gravesend.

She says drama school was “intimidating. I’ve always been the sort of person who throws themselves into things. But I didn’t know about Shakespeare or Stanislavski, and when I went to Rada there were lots of Oxbridge graduates there, and I found that really intimidating. Then I moved in with my friend who went to Oxford, one of the cleverest women I know, and she said, ‘I just wish I could switch my brain off and [act more instinctively] sometimes.’ Everybody had their insecurities, wherever they came from.”

You couldn’t guess her background from her accent, which is as plummy and English as a warm crumble. Stephen Frears, who directed Tamara Drewe, sent Arterton to a vocal coach, as if she were Eliza Doolittle, to tone down her Kentish twang. “When I was at Rada they did say I should change it – it wasn’t going to do me any favours, is what one particular teacher told me. And so I did, but now it’s just found its own ‘estuarine’ sound. It’s funny because people do judge you by how you talk. It comes and goes. If I go back home, or I’m with my dad for 10 minutes, it comes back. If I have a drink it comes back. My sister has such a broad accent, it’s like, ‘alriiiight baaaabe’. I remember my family getting all ‘why are you talking like that?'”

Arterton, who got married last year, is close to her family and seems grounded, unfazed by the attention she gets. Does she ever feel too separated from her family and old friends’ experiences? No, she says, adding that she always brings her family on set, takes them to premieres and on trips. “We do get these amazing perks with our jobs, like going to Paris and staying in a nice hotel. It’s nice to bring my family to those kind of things because they are like, ‘woah!'” She acts this out, shouting the word and throwing her arms wide. “But I still go into a hotel room and I’m like, ‘wow!’ and I go round opening all the drawers, looking at the minibar. I don’t take any of this for granted.”

Gemma Arterton visited Brazil with Sky Rainforest Rescue. An exhibition with photographs from her trip is at Somerset House, London WC2 until 4 Dec. Details: sky.com/rainforestrescue