Here’s Gemma Arterton’s problem: For all the great British television dramas that have found rabid, if cult-ish, audiences in the United States, a seeming blockade remains on many of the United Kingdom’s film exports. American multiplexes, always hungry for the next big franchise to milk, have effectively kept small Brit movies from the majority of this Downton Abbey-obsessed country.
Which means few Americans care, or even know about, her multiple BAFTA — the UK’s top acting prize — nominations for her roles as an abducted woman in The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe. In the former, she writhes and screams and projects steely resolve while choking out her lines in one terrifying scenario after another; the latter cast her as a sassy young journalist opposite Dominic Cooper and Luke Evans. Those are the kind of movies she likes to make, the films that “have no special effects or anything like that to distract from the story.” Tamara Drewe, in fact, was a hit in both the U.K. and France, taking in over $8 million in a limited release.
In America, those two movies made the briefest of theatrical runs, and combined for less than a million dollars at the box office. Instead, in this country, Arterton’s attempts to play the blockbuster game haven’t worked out so well. She’s best known for being plucked, fresh out of drama school at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, to play Bond girl Strawberry Fields in 2008’s Quantum of Solace. The rest of her American efforts have been relative nonstarters; she was last seen on big screens here alongside Jeremy Renner in the campy, Tarantino-influenced revenge porn fairy tale Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which bombed with domestic critics and, after a weak No. 1 opening, was disavowed by audiences. In between the two roles, she had costarring turns in Clash of the Titans and a Prince of Persia adaptation that bombed so hard that it sent Jake Gyllenhaal into a brief career wilderness.
Those sorts of flops could be fatal blows to an actress’s chances of being a marquee-topping megastar, but they hardly bother her.
“I don’t really mind. I kind of like it that way,” says Arterton, a tall brunette from working-class Kent, England, about the fact that her best roles are often under the radar. She’s chatting with BuzzFeed in Manhattan, where she doesn’t have to deal with paparazzi; check out the tabloids and newspapers at home in London, and it’s obvious what a difference an ocean can make. “I don’t want to be really famous. I’m in a good place in terms of being able to walk around the streets and do normal stuff. I wouldn’t really like it if it was crazy. I see other people, friends who are really famous, and they can’t do anything, can’t go out, and I really hate that.”
“I remember when Hansel and Gretel was on its way, all of the people I was doing junket with were saying, ‘Oh my god, we’ve done this research and we’ve done all this tracking and all of this stuff,’” Arterton adds. “And I was like, what? I really couldn’t care.”
Granted, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the creative side of the business to profess a deep concern for the bottom line, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that her blase attitude toward ticket sales is more than posturing. This is the beginning of the second act of her career, and it will be nothing if not adventurous.
As with any actress not in the current Lawrence-Chastain-Hathaway holy trinity, getting a juicy part in a non-tentpole movie can be an uphill battle, a fight against skewed studio priorities and dice-roll economics. So Arterton started her own production company, which she’s tentatively calling Rebel Park Productions. She’s prepping to hopefully co-direct her first feature — based, she says, on a play in which she once performed on stage (the exact play, she teases, will remain unidentified for now). She’s got a cast ready, though a lot is fluid in the development process. All the same, the larger mission of steering the industry in a new direction, even if just slightly, is on course.
“I think it’s a cool time for chicks right now, good female writers and things like that,” Arterton says. Of course, she’s realistic; all the gung-ho enthusiasm in the world doesn’t mean much without the backing of some serious coin. It’s a symptom of the go-big-or-go home mentality of today’s film industry, so she’s looking to fight the fever by keeping production costs down — under $4 million, max — and recruit collaborators willing to work for scale, trading paydays for pride.
“Unless it’s got a big male lead or a really famous female, it’s hard to push these movies and make them mainstream,” Arterton acknowledges. “But that’s not really what we’re aiming to do with my company; we want to make cool films.”
She’s got a head start in that quest, starring, even before she gets the company running, in a pair of recent British movies that are finally getting American theatrical runs. In Neil Jordan’s dark and nothing-like-Twilight flick Byzantium, Arterton plays a vampire-stripper-killer alongside Saoirse Ronan, a role that uses her tantalizing looks, threatening gaze, and ability to seemingly sink into the darkest depression. Then there is the polar opposite, a role as a perky music teacher volunteering as a conductor for a seniors choir in Unfinished Song. The latter — which co-stars Terrence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, and former Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston — was the first time she’s sung on film, though she’ll put her voice to good use in the upcoming staging of the musical Made in Dagenham, which should launch in the winter in the U.K.
Unfinished Song was nominated for three British Independent Film Awards; Byzantium was met in Britain with mild critical praise and unanimous recognition of its ambition, but the movie had little box office success. Again, Arterton shrugs off the poor receipts, despite her much deeper emotional investment in the vampire flick.
“I’m really proud of it and it’s got really good reviews but it hasn’t done well, but in a way I’d rather know I’m proud of a movie that’s saying something and doing something,” she reasons, acknowledging the impossible logic of the movie industry. “Loads of movies that I love, people don’t even know exist. It’s the difference between making a good movie and making just a money-making movie.”
Though she doesn’t have a producer credit, Arterton counts several of her upcoming movies as the sort of small character studies that will undoubtedly burnish her street cred more than her bank account. First, there is her just-completed turn in The Voices, which is being billed as a psychological-paranormal dark comedy. The movie features Ryan Reynolds as a factory worker who accidentally kills the woman on whom he’s crushing, and during an ensuing mental breakdown, he starts receiving advice from his cat and dog, who are effectively the devil on one shoulder and angel on the other.
“I think it’s really going to transform his career, he’s incredible in it,” she says, while noting the familiarity of the predicament that Reynolds, whose career cooled with the failure of The Green Lantern, is facing. “He’s similar to me in many ways in that he’s known for doing these blockbuster movies and he’s not kind of happy about that and he’s trying to change it, making more sort of low-key decisions.”
Arterton dreams of moving to Berlin, living in a cheap apartment and joining the underground art community there, but first she must learn the language; shortly after we speak, Arterton will head to France to begin work on her first French film, an endeavor that has motivated her to become fluent in French. An updated adaptation of the classic Madame Bovary, it is, quite appropriately (but entirely coincidentally), titled Gemma Bovery, which was enough of a sign from above that convinced her to take the part.
“I started learning [French] in January and then in February I got a script about an English girl called Gemma who’s learning French and goes to France, and I was like, ‘Fuck, this is my life!’” she laughs.
Hansel and Gretel actually proved a hit overseas, where the appetite for American 3-D films has continued unabated, taking in $170 million abroad for a $225 million overall take. That was good enough for Paramount to announce a sequel, though Arterton says she hasn’t been approached by the studio or seen a script. If it comes her way, she has little choice but to participate.
“I’m contractually obliged,” she says, laughing. “You know, I did have a good time making it. It’s a really good team and they shot it in Berlin, which is my favorite city. So many times they say they’ll make a sequel and they don’t.”
Not that she is all that worried. If there is no second go-round on Hansel and Gretel, she’ll be happy to push forward with her smaller, more personal endeavors, content to eschew the major spotlight for which she once seemed destined.