'I had a chip on my shoulder at RADA because I felt common ... I still have it a bit'
An outspoken critic of the way female actors are treated by Hollywood, Gemma Arterton explains to Jane Mulkerrins how she lost out on roles because moguls felt she was not a big enough star
Gemma Arterton wasn't among the estimated 100,000 people who took to the streets of London for the Women's March in January, protesting at the inauguration of Donald Trump. Instead the self-described 'staunch feminist' was stalking the stage that afternoon as the 15th-century warrior, martyr and feminist icon, Joan of Arc, at the Donmar Warehouse.
"I did think, 'the matinee isn't until 1.30pm, so I could just go along early in my costume'. How f****** cool would that have been?" grins the 31-year-old, who won rave reviews for her performance in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. "But my first costume was 'normal Joan', before she cuts her hair off, before she's in the armour - and I really wanted to go in my armour."
We're sitting in a French cafe in Brooklyn at the end of a week-long US trip for Arterton. I almost didn't recognise the Gravesend-born former Bond girl when she first arrived - she chopped off her hair to play Joan, and is sporting a chic pixie crop. "I still catch myself in the mirror and go, 'oh yeah, I've got short hair'," she says, giving it a tousle. "But when I wear a dress now, I look cool, rather than… pretty."
The previous night she pulled off both with aplomb in a floor-length paisley number at the New York premiere of her latest film, Their Finest, which opens in the UK this week. Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a softly spoken secretary from Ebbw Vale hired by the Ministry of Information to script propaganda films during the Second World War. Based on a novel by Lissa Evans and directed by Lone Sherfig (who also directed the Oscar-nominated An Education), it has an undeniably feminist flavour. Catrin's role is writing "the slop" - women's dialogue - for which, she's told, she'll get "no screen credit", and won't be paid as much as "the chaps". She is based on a real-life Welsh screenwriter, Diana Morgan.
It's not difficult to draw parallels between wartime propaganda film-making and latter-day Hollywood. While the language on set may be studiously PC now, Arterton has talked in the past about being the lone woman on a film, employed as "just the totty" and "a piece of ass", in big-budget blockbusters such as Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans. In response, she set up her own production company, Rebel Park, in 2014 "to create more opportunities for female directors and female writers". In development are currently "one comedy, one really mad f*****-up film, and a TV series".
It's given her a greater insight into the brutality of the business. "When you make films about women, you can't get financing in the same way you would if it was a film about men."
And, as a producer, Arterton has been issued with The List, a document I had always assumed to be apocryphal, which ranks actors and actresses according to their bankability. "Oh no, it really exists," Arterton says, rolling her eyes. Actresses are graded from A+ - the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley - downwards. "I'm like, a C," laughs Arterton. "I know, because I am sitting in the meetings trying to get financing for films that I'm in," she insists. "And they're like: 'We love you, but could you also get…' [insert category A actress]?"
Indeed, she has lost out on roles because of her perceived lack of star power. She was originally lined up as the lead in 2013's acclaimed sci-fi film Under The Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer. "But they couldn't finance it with me," she has been quoted as saying. "Jonathan called me and said: 'I've tried, but they need someone really famous to star in it'." That really famous someone ended up being Scarlett Johansson. "It's just the way it is," shrugs Arterton.
Still, Arterton spent her 20s amassing an impressively sizeable and varied body of work, which includes her debut, straight out of drama school, in St Trinian's, closely followed by her turn as Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace; Stephen Poliakoff's TV drama Capturing Mary; British comedies Tamara Drewe and Song for Marion; the thriller Byzantium; action flick Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, plus West End theatre, including the lead roles in Nell Gwynn and The Duchess of Malfi. "My parents are real grafters, and I think I've inherited that from them. My dad has worked six days a week since he was 14."
Arterton mentions her family - her mother, Sally-Anne, a cleaner, father, Barry, a welder, and her younger sister, Hannah (28), also an actress - frequently and fondly. Though her parents divorced when she was five, it's clear the family remains close.
"They've always been really supportive of me and just let me get on with it," she says. "I think, for my parents' generation, there was the idea that being an artist was a posh person's thing to do, and a bit w***y. I've got other actor friends who still struggle with that - they come from working-class families and feel like it's not a proper job." Still, she says: "My mum's side of the family are very creative. My great- grandmother was a concert violinist in Berlin, my grandmother was a published poet, and my mum's cousin has quite a famous punk band, Wreckless Eric."
Educated at Gravesend Grammar School for Girls, at 18 Arterton won a full scholarship to RADA, where, surrounded by Oxbridge graduates, she felt conspicuously common. "I had a chip on my shoulder about all of that. I still have it a bit; I think I'm not the most intelligent person in the world."
The feeling was not helped by RADA urging her to lose her strong Kent accent; today, it fluctuates between plummy and almost RP, to broad estuary. When she becomes most animated and excited, she drops her Hs, Gs and Ts all over the place.
Her Gravesend upbringing also influenced the initial post-RADA years. "Coming from a working-class background - we were poor - then going to a drama school where they tell you, and rightly so, that you're probably not going to work most of the time, and suddenly being given all these opportunities when I left… For the first seven or eight years of my career, I was doing stuff because I thought I should, or I thought I was lucky to get that part. And I am grateful - it set me up."
She bought her flat in Battersea, where she still lives, at just 21. "But it sits really badly with me when I make something I'm not proud of, or doesn't say what I want to say." Indeed, being dubbed a 'former Bond girl' seems in contradiction to her committed feminist ideals. "I don't want to slag off that film, because I really enjoyed it - I was 21, and it was a trip." she says. "But would I do it now? No."
With the fame and financial recompense of those early blockbuster roles also came scrutiny over her looks. Arterton has been celebrated for being a 'healthy' size, which probably brings its own form of pressure.
"I look after myself, in my way," she says. "I eat well, because I need the brain energy, and I do yoga and exercise, because it makes me feel good.
"There are definitely other standards out there, but I've deliberately decided to extract myself from that scrutiny as much as I can." This includes not looking at social media. "As much as I'm a fighter, things get to me, so I decided that it wasn't good to be on social media."
She has also tried to keep her personal life private, declining to even confirm that she'd married Stefano Catelli, a sales manager for a fashion company, in 2010. The couple broke up a little over two years later. On the set of Gemma Bovery, in 2014, she met the French assistant director Franklin Ohanessian, but reportedly they broke up last summer. Whether she'd ever remarry, she can't say. "I don't really know my feelings on marriage any more. It wasn't even really important to me when I did it. I was young , and just thought, 'yeah, let's do it'."
She's more definite about motherhood. "I absolutely want to have children," she nods. "But how do you do it all? I think the only way you can is if you have a really brilliant partner." She breaks off and laughs. "I see a therapist, who said: 'You know, there are people out there that are like Mark Rylance'." The actor and former artistic director of Shakepseare's Globe is, it seems, her therapist's model of the perfect mate. "Yes, if only everyone was like Mark Rylance!"
As for balancing motherhood with work: "I don't think the word sacrifice should come into the equation," she says. "Men don't feel like they are making sacrifices when they work hard and don't see their kids enough." This is a topic she has mined for her forthcoming film The Escape, directed by Dominic Savage, which she co-created, produced and stars in, with her longtime friend Dominic Cooper. It is, she says "a very personal film. It's my musings about creativity, motherhood, and the woman's place within that. I don't know how it's going to go down, it's quite controversial". The idea for the story came from an article she'd read about a woman who walked out on her husband and children - "to which, we all go, 'Ooh', but loads of men decide to do that. That's what interested me: why we have completely different standards for men and women."
Further questions about a woman's place will be posed in her next film, Vita & Virginia, directed by 30-year-old Chanya Button and written by Eileen Atkins.
"It's basically a two-hander about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, their love story, and the way that they inspired each other," says Arterton, who will play the bisexual novelist, poet and garden designer, Sackville-West.
"This is the first time I'll have played supremely posh, and I'm a bit nervous," she admits. "It's all financed and ready to go - a film about two women, can you believe it?"
Perhaps, we conclude, almost 90 years after Woolf wrote her feminist essay, A Room of One's Own, things are finally moving in the right direction.
- 'Their Finest' is in cinemas from April 21.