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  M.   February 08, 2016

Gemma Arterton is about to play feisty royal mistress Nell Gwynn in the West End — and a birthday today is not the only thing they have in common, she tells Nick Curtis

“She’s great fun, witty and fresh and real: she sort of represents this new wave of feminism without being stampy and shouty. She says it how it is.”

Gemma Arterton is describing Nell Gwynn, who she is playing in the West End transfer of Jessica Swale’s play about the orange-seller who became Charles II’s lover, stepping into the dainty shoes originally filled by Gugu Mbatha-Raw at Shakespeare’s Globe. Of course, the description pretty neatly fits Arterton herself, who also shares both an earthy sexuality with Swale’s seductive heroine and a birthday: Arterton turns 30 today while Gwynn would be 366.

The actress grumbles good-humouredly that she’ll mark her milestone with the technical rehearsal for the play after three short weeks’ rehearsal, and won’t be able to celebrate with her family in Gravesend or her boyfriend, assistant director Franklin Ohanessian, in Paris until after the run.

She had even been planning a bit of downtime after a hectic 2015. First she did her first all-singing, all-dancing role in Made in Dagenham, which won her an Evening Standard Theatre Award last year for Newcomer in a Musical, but which sadly closed after six months. (Arterton is still “the most proud of that out of everything I have done” and mourns its passing). Then she made four films back-to-back. But when she read Swale’s script it was a “no brainer”. The part of Nell, like the woman herself, was “irresistible”.

Swale’s play paints a picture of a remarkable woman. Nell’s mother was a brothel keeper and Nell was almost certainly a prostitute at some point — “Like one in every 10 women of the time,” says Arterton. Yet she became one of the first actresses to grace the hitherto all-male London stage, was praised by Samuel Pepys and won the heart of the king, who gave their illegitimate son a title, the Duke of St Albans, that still exists today.

“I think he really did love her: on his deathbed some of his last words were ‘don’t let poor Nelly starve’,” says Arterton. “It’s extraordinary she managed to do all this at that time. She wouldn’t have been able to survive at court unless she was really sharp.”

The script also abounds with clever parallels to our own age, with Charles defending London’s theatres against the puritan purveyors of austerity and Nell herself battling womanfully against exploitative “tits parts”.

Arterton cites Nell’s speech where she upbraids the dramatist John Dryden for writing women as feeble and flowery, “when actually, we are complicated”. Nell is sexually self-assured too, bawdy as well as bright: Arterton likens her to the rackety but defiantly independent character in Amy Schumer’s film Trainwreck. “At last we’re seeing writing that shows women for what they really are,” she says. “You know, they can be a bit mucky and nasty…”

There’s one further parallel between actress and role. Nell was a working-class woman as is Arterton, the daughter of a welder and a cleaner who split up when she was young. She made her stage debut in Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Globe and her screen debut as a foxy head girl in the 2007 comedy St Trinian’s after receiving a scholarship to Rada.

In the past she has said she has become thoroughly middle-class, living in Battersea and preferring almond milk, but now maintains that “if you are born into a class, being that in your soul and your guts, you will never be anything else”.

She admits to some confusion early in her career, when she was encouraged to lose her estuary accent and likens this to the adaptations Nell has to make at court. Like Nell, she feels she can now “chat happily to the rude boys down the street, or to the king. I am very comfortable with all classes.”

What does she think about the debate over the “poshing up” of the acting world? She points to non-poshoes such as Jack O’Connell, Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy (who was actually privately educated but acts as if he wasn’t), and says she doesn’t blame the Redmaynes and Cumberbatches for taking roles they are well suited for.

But she thinks that because we make so few films in Britain the industry is skewed towards products that will appeal to the US market with “an idealised view of what it means to be British. Make a film about royalty: that’ll definitely win an Oscar. Or a TV series about posh people: that’ll win Emmies.” She hastily adds that “posh films are good too” and says how much she has been enjoying the BBC’s War and Peace.