You might know Gemma Arterton as a Bond girl. When she started out, the English actress appeared in blockbusters like “Quantum of Solace,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Prince of Persia,” even “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” She doesn’t do those anymore. For the last five years, she’s turned herself from Hollywood's next "It" girl into a serious and respected thespian who makes indies, in England and even in France. In fact, she just headlined George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan” in London.
This month, she’s staring in “Their Finest,” a docudrama that focuses on the English film industry during World War II. She plays a screenwriter hired to pen the female dialogue for a propaganda film — not an evil propaganda film, but one meant to raise morale and inspire optimism among the English population as their country is routinely blitzed by Axis powers.
We talked to Arterton, 31, about how important art is in troubled times and how good it felt to ditch Hollywood.
So, let’s talk about a much happier time than right now: England during World War II.
[Laughs] Funnily enough, this film seems relevant now. When we were at Sundance, people were talking about how a movie about propaganda films addresses this fake news thing. The flip side of that is our need for entertainment. That’s why “La La Land” was such a massive success. It came out at a time when people were like, “We need something that’s colorful and has music and dancing in it.” Film and art in general is, now more than ever, so important to people. It’s exciting to think, in these crazy times we’re living in, about what’s going to come out of that in terms of art. If you think about what happened during the first World War and the second World War and then after the Cold War, there was so much good art that came out.
The film they’re making in “The Finest” is kind of like “Moonlight” meets “La La Land”: It’s socially conscious but it also wants to be a mainstream entertainment.
It’s what they say in the film: “authenticity infused with optimism.” You want people to feel something they can relate to but is also optimistic. It’s interesting how films come out and then an event will happen that makes it seem really relevant. I did this small film last year called “The Girl with All the Gifts,” which came out after Brexit. It’s all about people turning against foreigners and people who are different to them. It came out and it just felt so relevant. That’s the weird thing about art.
They take so long to make that there’s no way to know what will happen before they come out. Then they seem to speak to the times, but by accident.
There’s no way we could have known what was going to happen. I Just did a production of “Saint Joan” in London, and we decided to set it in the financial district now. When I’m on trial, all these men in suits are trying me. It felt so relevant after the election, and with what was going on with women in America speaking out. But we had decided to do it in that style six months before the election happened. People kept coming to see it and saying, “It’s so relevant!”
“Their Finest” is also partially about women working in the film industry. Your character is fighting to get recognized as a screenwriter.
My character was based on Diana Morgan, who was a screenwriter for Ealing Studios at the time. She was initially hired to write what was called “nausea,” which was female dialogue. [Laughs] Then, because she had a real talent for it, she became one of the leading writers for Ealing during their heyday. But she was credited as a man on the credits, because you weren’t allowed to have a woman’s name in the production credits at the time. There are a lot of women throughout history who’ve done that, like George Sand [aka Amantine Lucile Dupin], who have to give themselves a man’s name.
You almost exclusively work in independent and French films now, which is a shock to those who know you from blockbusters, like “Quantum of Solace” and “Clash of the Titans.”
Yeah, it’s been quite a shift. It’s been a really good shift, though. I wasn’t very happy or at all fulfilled. It’s like when you have loads of crap in your room. You just throw it out, and then you can see clearer. That’s how I felt. I didn’t need all of that crap, and it wasn’t serving me. Now I can see properly and I’ve got space. It’s much better that way.
It’s good to get away from what’s popular or trendy.
You have to find people who are on the same page as you. I thought the film industry was just Hollywood blockbusters. I thought that was how everyone felt. Those were the people I was around. When I left that, I was like, ‘Oh no, there’s a different way of doing it! There’s loads of people who don’t feel it should be this way. So go with them instead.’
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge