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  M.   December 04, 2011

By Amy Williams

Taking time out from her filming schedule to draw attention to the deforestation crisis in Brazil was a no-brainer for Gemma Arterton. Amy Williams discovers why the actress prefers trekking in the remote Amazon jungle to being ‘styled and polished’ for premieres

Acording to Gemma Arterton, A Turtle’s Tale: Sammy’s Adventures, an animated film that was released last March and which very few people over the age of eight will have heard of, is ‘honestly, the best movie I have ever made’ and ‘absolutely brilliant’ and ‘cute but with a serious message. There are oil spills and stuff.’ Gemma provides the voice of love-interest turtle Shelly.

That Gemma – a former Bond girl who has found fame through blockbusters such as Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time and Clash of the Titans, and plaudits via critically acclaimed movies The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe – should choose a film which is a) a cartoon, b) has the tag line ‘He’s Turtlely Amazing’, and c), in Gemma’s own words, ‘no one has actually seen’, tells us quite a bit about 25-year-old Ms Arterton.

One thing she appears not to do is take herself too seriously. Which is surprising for a young actress whose CV has steely ambition written all over it (when not filming, or voicing, she takes to the stage – this year in Ibsen’s The Master Builder). A colleague of mine said that she assumed Gemma was humourless because she never looked very happy on the red carpet.

‘That’s hilarious. Me? Nah, I’m not very serious at all,’ Gemma laughs, big brown eyes wide open with incredulity. ‘You should see me with my husband – we are complete idiots when it’s the two of us and we’re with our dog Perla. She’s a shar pei so she’s got this wrinkly nose and every time I look at her I smile.’

A Turtle’s Tale also alludes to an inner eco-chic – in fact, the reason that I find myself discussing the adventures of Shelly and big bad oil spills is because we’re here to talk about the environment, though less about turtles and more about trees, as Gemma has just returned from a six-day journey to the deepest Amazon with Sky Rainforest Rescue.

It’s a trip for which the humourless need not apply. Last year, when I travelled to the same region for the same project with singer Lily Allen, we got stranded in torrential rain on a mud road in an ill-equipped minibus, which we then had to push; we sat through statistic-heavy lectures in 38C heat, and consequently drank the eco-lodge bar dry of caipirinhas. I would bet on it getting a paragraph or two in Lily’s memoirs.

This time I’m meeting Gemma in the comfort of her publicist’s London office. We plonk ourselves on a sofa with a pot of tea. They don’t get many tourists in Acre, the huge Brazilian state on the border of Peru where Sky Rainforest Rescue is based, so it’s an experience over which we bond instantly. ‘It’s so far-flung, isn’t it?’ says Gemma, ‘The whole thing… You travel on three planes and arrive in the middle of nowhere. It’s the kind of place you know you’ll never just “end up.”’
When I ask her why she volunteered she gives the standard answer about having a break between films and wanting to develop her charity work, but I get a sense that this is far from a personal PR project. For starters, there was no Arterton entourage – there wasn’t even a plus one. Pretty brave, I say, to go it alone (albeit with a team from Sky and WWF). She explains that her husband of 18 months, fashion sales manager Stefano Catelli, ‘would have loved it’ but couldn’t get the time off work, and her publicist couldn’t get a visa in time. The cause suits her, she explains, having grown up in a hippie household. (She lived with her mother Sally-Anne, a cleaner, after her parents separated when she was five. Her father Barry is a welder.) ‘We went to Womad [the festival] every year and as children we were always clued up on being green and that kind of thing.’

Plus, Gemma is young enough to have been heavily schooled, at her Gravesend comprehensive, in 1990s hot topics such as the ozone layer – or lack of it – and global warming (‘I’m not really bookish, but I was actually quite good at geography,’ she says, ‘I always know where places are in
the world’). So she gets it and she is well aware that her job is to help reinvigorate an issue that is not as trendy as it used to be.
So here come the facts, folks: the Amazon rainforest is still disappearing at a rate of three football pitches every minute*, as swathes of forest are destroyed for farmland and the building of roads. Sky Rainforest Rescue aims to save one billion trees, and, working with local governments, has helped secure a change in the law, which allows cash incentives to be offered to local communities in order to encourage an economy based on saving trees and not cutting them down. Gemma doesn’t beat about the bush. ‘They are poor, so they have to chop down trees. It would be very narrow-minded of us to deny them the right to make money, or to have access to a decent road, so it’s about compromise,’ she says.

‘One girl I met walked five hours to her job as a rubber tapper [a sustainable use of the forest – utilising trees rather than destroying them], another told me that during the rainy season it takes three days to get to a hospital. Can you imagine?’

Conditions are tough – the remoteness, the oppressive heat, the poverty. It’s not something Gemma has ever witnessed before. She went from school to Rada, then straight into that very rare thing – back-to-back employment as an actor. There was no time for gap years or round-the-world airline tickets. ‘I wish I had taken a year out. I have a longing to go to India. We filmed some of Bond in Panama City and that was a real eye opener,’ she says. ‘We live in such excessive times, so being in the thick of things in Brazil does make you feel a little uncomfortable; it makes you rethink what you do have and what you can change. “Get on your bike!” I now say to myself.’

Out and about at home in South London, she says she rarely gets much attention and mostly hangs out with an extended group of friends. ‘That’s the great thing about getting married – your friendship groups merge, so we’ve got quite a big circle. And no one ever talks about work with me, ever. I hate it when people act differently around me just because I’m famous.’
She must have been recognised in Brazil. I can’t help but think the positive reaction she received from locals may have had slightly more to do with her movie-star status than the project she was promoting. ‘Well, there was one night when we were having drinks and a local girl came over. She was so sweet and kept saying “ohmygod”, but I don’t think she’d seen any of my films. People had just heard that there was a Bond girl in town. That often happens, and they don’t have a clue who I am,’ she says, giggling at a flashback. ‘That’s the night people were taking photos of me dancing on the tables!’ she laughs, not a bit concerned. ‘I mean, they’re not on the internet…yet!’

Gemma makes a good jungle Jane – more at home fresh-faced and in a headscarf than on the red carpet in designer garb. ‘To be honest, I find it the oddest thing to be styled and polished. It’s something I don’t recognise. Sometimes when they doll me up I look at myself in the mirror and think I look like a drag queen.’ She pauses for reflection. ‘Being in the jungle is a bit more me.’

Being a former devotee of bikram yoga helped her cope with the sweat-fest of jungle humidity. ‘I no longer get freaked out by sweating. I didn’t used to be able to perspire too much – I’d just go red and faint!’ She prefers drier forms of yoga now, she says, and Zumba dancing.

She’s an active sort, is Gemma: she likes to keep fit so she can do her own stunts. ‘There is
a scene in Prince of Persia where I had to ride a black stallion towards 15 wild horses that were galloping in my direction. Honestly, I thought I was going to die!’ she says.

Her next projects, the vampire film Byzantium with Saoirse Ronan, and Song for Marion with Vanessa Redgrave, are both stunt free – ‘Though I’m having to learn to play the piano from scratch and to conduct for Song for Marion. We could end up fudging it quite a lot,’ she laughs. Gemma did, though, arrive in the rainforest with a Casio keyboard on which to practise for the role, and luckily she’s mates with Goldie (who won the BBC’s conducting challenge Maestro), so she’s going to enlist his help.

I wonder if she had concerns over putting her face to the rainforest cause; if she’s worried that people might roll their eyes at yet another celebrity dipping into and quickly out of a poverty-stricken region. Is she concerned that she might not make a difference? ‘Well, yeah, I do think about that, but then everyone can make a difference. They say that if we all turned off our appliances at night
there would be enough energy to power Britain.’ So you’ve got to be in it to win it. ‘Exactly. Like
life in general. Like buying a lottery ticket – you might as well try.’

Gemma Arterton visited Brazil with Sky Rainforest Rescue – Sky and WWF’s campaign to help save a billion trees. Amazon, an exhibition of images by Sebastião Salgado and Per-Anders Pettersson featuring photographs from Gemma’s trip, is at Somerset House, London WC2 until 18 December.

For information, visit sky.com/rainforestrescue