The Performance: Gemma Arterton
“Hallo, it’s Gemma!” The voice on the line is musical as Gemma Arterton apologizes for the early hour, which the London caller imagines to be “something silly” in L.A. Although the cheery-sounding actress is most closely associated with big-budget popcorn movies (" Quantum of Solace,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Prince of Persia”), it’s her dark, twisty new thriller, “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” which opens Friday, that more suits her tastes.
“People are always surprised when I say Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke are my favorite directors: ‘But you’re so pop!’ They’ve seen me in something very mainstream, which is not necessarily what I would go to see at the cinema myself,” says Arterton, whose musical tastes also run just to the side of mainstream, with Björk, Kate Bush and Radiohead being favorites. “‘Alice Creed’ came out in the U.K. between ‘Clash’ and ‘Prince of Persia,’ so it really challenged people’s perceptions of me.”
The big screen also tends to put the actress in tony surroundings, impersonating posh ladies (and the occasional immortal), another bit of cinema trickery not true to her life.
“My parents are working class; that’s our world. Mum’s a cleaner. We were quite poor and Mum was a single parent. I always liked performing, so I did it as a hobby. When I was 16, someone said, ‘You should do it properly.’ So I went to performance college, which there was one in Kent where I grew up,” she says of her “very, very normal” hometown.
She moved to London at 18 to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a full scholarship. The difference between the two schools, she explains, is “it’s really hard to get into drama school, like RADA, and you take it very seriously when you do. Performance college, you just muck about a bit. That’s what we did.”
There wasn’t time nor desire to muck about during the making of “Alice Creed.” The actress spends a fair amount of it in restraints as a kidnap victim fighting to survive. Writer-director J Blakeson’s feature debut is a claustrophobic drama about the mental and emotional warfare waged among her and her two captors.
“You’re always trying to raise the stakes, even if you’re doing a scene about ordering some toast.” And for this film, she says, the stakes are “the maximum they can be. But you know, it’s so funny, J, when he was casting the film, was really worried he wouldn’t get anyone for Alice because no one would want it. But I loved it. I jumped on it.”
To be fair, among the role’s demands are: being terrorized for the entire month-long shoot; severe physical discomfort (leaving Arterton with very real bumps and bruises); and significant nudity. The actress says the emotional nakedness was a far greater challenge.
“Everybody always wants to talk about the nudity because I think a lot of actors make a big thing out of it. To me, if it’s necessary, it’s absolutely fine. But I was panicking about the fear and the crying. I was so concentrated on that all the time, I wasn’t even thinking about the rest of it, which was great; it took away the nerves and everything. I think it’s because she’s in a state of fear the whole way through — it’s so relentless. And then it goes up again and up again and up again for four weeks.”
For Arterton, though, there was no comparison between indie and blockbuster worlds for creative fulfillment.
“I get to play someone who’s constantly working stuff out, constantly lying or manipulating and thinking on the spot. She has to become quite feral in her way,” she says, happily, of her role in the three-character film, as opposed to the massive undertakings of “Clash” and “Persia.”
“That’s great as an actor — you can’t rest at all, you have to constantly be working. And having come from a movie where I was sort of sitting around all the time, waiting to be called on set, [to then be] raging pretty much all the way through, it was really, really stimulating.”