Gemma Arterton is quietly enjoying her own career renaissance.
The actress shot to fame in 2008’s ‘Quantum of Solace’ playing Bond girl Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig, a role she quickly followed with headlining parts in ‘Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’, ‘Clash of the Titans’, and ‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters’, but no sooner had she hit the Hollywood blockbuster A-list that she began to bid a hasty retreat.
The 30-year-old star quit marching to Hollywood’s tune four years ago, telling the Guardian recently she simply “couldn’t do it any more”, and she now prefers smaller roles in indie films (she recently became fluent in French for ‘Gemma Bovery’), and this week she can be seen in ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’, a zombie film from first-time director Colm McCarthy (‘Sherlock’).
Gemma plays Helen Justineau, the teacher of Melanie (newcomer Sennia Nanua), a young gifted girl who could hold the key to the future of humanity. The two must work together when their military base is overrun by the walking dead, and they hit the road with Glenn Close and Paddy Considine in search of a cure.
But if “zombies” sound a bit too popcorny for the new Gemma Arterton, the actress explained to us why this new take on the genre – based on Mike Carey’s hit novel – has more brains than your average offering, and why it’s the perfect film for a post-Brexit Britain.
How did you get involved with ‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ and why did you want to do it?
Gemma Arterton: I got sent the script quite randomly. I hadn’t met Colm [McCarthy], the director, or Camille [Gatin] the producer, or Mike [Carey] the writer, it just came through quite randomly. I didn’t know anyone’s work and I just read it.
I’m not usually into this zombie type of film but it got me. I think it speaks on a deeper level. There’s real humanity within it and tenderness and love and delicacy, and at the same time there’s the violence and what you want from a zombie horror movie. But it just felt relevant. It felt relevant to now and what’s going on in the world, and particularly now what’s going on in the UK, so it just felt right.
Then I met Colm [McCarthy], the director, and I just thought, ‘yeah, he’s really interesting, and I want to work with him’.
What do you mean about the film being relevant to what’s going in the UK right now, specifically?
Brexit. [Laughs] The immigration crisis. People turning against each other. The older generation not making room for the younger generation; deciding that they want to stick to their ways, when the younger generation have got more open ways, more progressive ways of thinking.
It just feels right, and Mike Carey, who wrote it is just so fascinating when he talks about Brexit and immigration in relation to this film. I just wish that everyone could just sit down in a room with him and hear him out, he’s incredible, and he gets very moved and het up about it.
But yeah, when I chose to do it, my impulse told me to do it. It wasn’t like a thought out thing, that this is relevant to now, it just felt right. Also I knew that they were going for multicultural casting, gender-balanced casting, and I thought this is the sort of film that I want to be making now, with this new director who’s got something to say and he has great taste. It was an exciting project.
What I liked about your character and her relationship to Melanie is that, in any other film, it would have been a maternal thing, but it felt more like a human relationship rather than that.
The way I saw it was that they’re friends, rather than mother daughter. The fact that she’s mixed race and I’m white, you don’t necessarily connect that in the same way, and that was a clever [move], the way they subverted that was very clever. I think if we’d looked alike, you’d naturally think “oh, she’s thinking she could be her daughter”, but I think it’s more grown up than that.
The choice of having Sennia play that part… Sennia is very elegant, and very poised, and very capable. As much as she’s silly and a kid, and there’s those beautiful scenes where she’s playing with the Velcro, but she can actually hold a conversation and rule the room even with Glenn Close, Colm, and Paddy Considine in the room, she commanded the room in a non-bratty way, in a very capable way.
The fact that she plays Melanie meant that our relationship felt more like equals. I was learning from her, more than she was actually learning from me in it. And it didn’t feel like a patronizing relationship.
Did you know when you screentested with Sennia that she was the one?
Yeah. We could just tell. There was something about her. We had a real mix of different actresses of that age group, and they all had really incredible characteristics, but she had this thing where you could just believe that she could lead. She had that leadership thing. You wanted to listen to her.
I remember her sitting in her chair, and she’s quite ladylike Sennia, and she was sitting in her chair and she just looked like a little cat. And I was just chatting with her thinking, wow, you are making me feel like I’m out of control, and that’s exactly what we needed with her. Plus she’s very open and she wasn’t shy.
It’s hard with young actors because they’re in an adult world suddenly. She was just completely at ease in that world without being precocious. She was just herself – a kid – but also very, very sweet.
She used to come on set with her per diem, which was like winning the lottery for her, and she’d spend it all on presents for the crew. She’d come in and she’d be like to the cameraman, ‘I saw you looked a bit tired yesterday, here I bought you this hat to make you feel better.’ She’s just a really lovely person, so we were very, very lucky to find her.
Most kids her age would just spend her money on sweets.
Oh, she bought sweets as well. I’ve never seen so many sweets in my life. If everyone was tired, usually they bring on coffee on a film set, she was like “Haribo!”
No more Haribo, please!
You’ve talked a lot about forging your own path in the industry recently, is that something you advised her on too?
I didn’t want to patronise her. I just felt like… first of all, Colm and Camille [Gatin], who’s the producer, they were there for her in that sense. I felt like my role was more to just be there as her friend if she needed a little chat or whatever.
When she finished the film she still didn’t have an agent so there, that’s where I was like ‘do you want to meet my agent’, or ‘be careful with that agent’, things like that. But I think she’s really clever. If she needs help I’m there, but I think she’s going to be all right. I think she’s quite switched on and she’s got good taste. She’ll be alright.
What’s Colm like to work with, what’s his directing style?
He’s amazing. First of all, he’s a visionary, so he sees it. And then he trusts in the people around him to help realise that and then he’s just with the actors.
He’s worked with fantastic actors – Benedict Cumberbatch, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy – he works with great actors, so to have someone like Paddy Considine on set or Glenn Close, he just treats everyone as equals. Same with Sennia. The way he directed Sennia was the same way that he spoke to Glenn Close, he’s just a really excellent director.
Plus he’s got really great taste in music, he’s got great taste, and he’s boundary pushing. He’s not afraid to make a movie like this as your first feature – that’s really bold. He didn’t go the safe road, he took a risk. Putting a 12-year-old girl as a lead part is a risk, it could go wrong. Same with zombies and special effects. I think that he’s going to be a really important director for the future.
It’s so exciting to work with someone on their first feature. I just know that he’s what we need right now.
And the film leads it open for you to potentially work with Colm again on sequel.
I would love to work with him again. I know they’re talking about a prequel to this film, but I think that’s with the Rosalind Franklin crew that go missing.
[The Rosalind Franklin is a mobile research lab that the wanderers discover abandoned in central London during the course of the film.]
I would love to work with Colm again. I know he’s got millions of projects backed up, but it was such an exciting experience.
I’d love to work with Mike Carey again. I think he’s a really exciting voice for cinema as well, because he’s got that social-political background, and science fiction background, but he’s also really quite sensitive, so I think he’s interested in telling stories about women. I know he’s writing another film for Camille about a woman inside her own dreams, which is really fascinating. Just great, really detailed Chris Nolan-style stuff, but with a different spin… and less complicated [laughs], a less expensive spin.
How was Venice, being on the judging panel with Sam Mendes?
I loved it. I love being on film juries. I love talking about film. I love debating film. And I love hearing other people’s opinions and allowing that to – not change my opinion – but to take it in.
We had so many different people from Sam Mendes to Laurie Anderson, really avant garde taste, and I loved hearing their opinions, it was a real eye-opener for me. A real eye-opener. And intense, watching 23 films in 9 days and the shortest one was an hour and a half, the longest four. So it was an assault of films, but in a good way.
The only thing I would say is that there weren’t enough women writers in the festival. There was only one in competition, so I was a bit like grrrr about that but the new generation is starting to come through so hopefully in the next few years, who knows.
‘The Girl With All The Gifts’ is in UK cinemas from Friday, 23 September.
Image credits: Warner Bros.