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  M.   June 23, 2013

By Bob Strauss

We knew Gemma Arterton was no angel.

Well, maybe she is. She sounds nice enough on the phone.

But yeah, the English actress doesn’t shy away from messy movie roles. She met a bad Bond Girl end in “Quantum of Solace,” was kidnapped and abused throughout “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” and wrestled with all kinds of bloody demons in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” earlier this year.

Still, playing a vampire hooker in the new film “Byzantium” seems extreme, even for her. She loved every minute of it, though.

“There were all these facets to the character that I wanted to convey,” Arterton says. “Her resilience and love and protectiveness, but at the same time her controlling nature with the daughter. The sexuality of the character, the ruthlessness, the intelligence that she hides with her sexuality: When you come across characters like that, they’re so much fun to play.”

Byzantium” is directed by the eclectic Irishman Neil Jordan (“Interview with the Vampire,” “Mona Lisa,” “The Crying Game“) from an original script by playwright Moira Buffini, who also wrote the screenplay for the Arterton-starring “Tamara Drewe” and the most recent screen adaptation of “Jane Eyre.” Arterton stars as Clara, a 200-plus-year-old vampire who doesn’t look mature enough to have a teenage daughter but does. That’s Eleanor, played by Saoirse Ronan; she doesn’t approve of her mom’s chosen profession, but shares her need to feed, since Clara also turned her way back in the 18th century day.

Now hiding from both the law and ancient forces who are out to get them in a rundown British beach resort, Clara easily turns a derelict hotel into a brothel. But getting money out of men is intertwined in her mind with a thirst for revenge, which becomes understandable when details of her sad, complex backstory are revealed. She seems to revel in wickedness now, but does she really? And is she maybe, possibly, a good mom as well?

This character’s got a lot to chew on.

“When I first received the script, it was totally different,” Arterton reveals. “It wasn’t even a vampire movie. It was about this weird relationship between these sisters who were maybe really mother and daughter. Anyway, it was about a young girl who had mental problems and told her psychologist that she was living with a vampire. The Clara character was a prostitute, you weren’t sure if she was a vampire or she wasn’t.

“For me, even when the film became a vampire movie, this complicated, weird relationship between mother and daughter remained constant. I related to it very much because my relationship to my sister was very similar and I was more of a sister with my mother, who was a single parent as well. So the project felt very authentic to me in a weird way, even though it turns supernatural.”

All of that can make a person long for a little reality — and, well, niceness. That kind of explains why you can also see Arterton at the moment in an atypical, for her anyway, cutesy dramedy about an a cappella chorus of British pensioners, “Unfinished Song.”

Arterton plays the upbeat choir director who puts the seniors through adorable renditions of ditties like “Let’s Talk About Sex.” But she also has to cope with the cranky husband of a cancer-stricken singer. That couple is played by acting legends Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave.

“I wanted to do something that was very real,” Arterton admits. “I tend to be drawn into genre stuff, and it was nice to do something real, simple and character-based. It was very rewarding; actually, I realized acting is quite simple (laughs) when you’re playing a character that’s close to yourself.

“I wanted to find a character that was really non-sexual — that was quite a challenge, really! — and it was a lovely film to make,” she adds. “It was really lovely to work with Vanessa and Terence. She’s one of my all-time favorite actresses and just watching them work was a privilege.”

What about him?

“I was really worried because I had heard Terence was the grumpiest guy in the world,” Arterton acknowledges. “Actually, the relationship we have in the film is kind of the relationship we have in real life. By the end of filming, we were really good pals and we’re still in contact with each other.”

Next up for the actress is a shady, troubled lady in the fall gambling thriller “Runner, Runner,” opposite Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake. And Arterton’s recently formed a company, Rebel Park Productions, with some like-minded women who want to make challenging, female-focused projects.

Gemma Arterton may be nice, but to be honest, she loves a good, Byzantine bad girl.

“Oh, I just get so excited!” she says. “The fact is that Clara was written by a woman, and it really does make a difference because we are so complicated. It doesn’t make sense, oftentimes we’re enigmatic and you can’t pin down why we do some things. So when that kind of role comes up and it feels authentic and it’s not just a chick and she’s not just a girlfriend or she’s not just a doctor … I read things sometimes that say ‘She’s really intelligent, she’s a doctor,’ and she’s just a girlfriend, really. So when flawed and multifaceted roles like Clara come up, that’s exciting.”


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