Gemma Arterton likes it indie

We spoke to the British actress about learning French and steering her career away from where playing a Bond girl was leading her.

Gemma Bovery

Arterton and Fabrice Luchini in Gemma Bovery

When I told people I was going to interview Gemma Arterton at TIFF, few of their faces lit up with recognition. This isn’t because Arterton isn’t prolific or high- profile—it’s because you may well only have seen her once, depending on what kind of film you’re drawn to. The 28-year- old British actress’s career up to now has been extremely diverse, taking her from high-profile gigs as a Bond girl (Quantum of Solace) to the title role in a BBC production of Tess of the d’Ubervilles to working with Neil Jordan in a dark vampire film (Byzantium) to playing the comely object of affection in the French dramedy Gemma Bovery, directed by Anne Fontaine. It’s her first release of 2014, the second of which is Marjane Satrapi’s dark, demented The Voices, where she spends most of the movie as a decapitated head. Suffice to say that while Arterton may not be a household name on this side of the Atlantic, she’s certainly making the kind of bold choices that lead there.

“It keeps things exciting for me,” she says when questioned about her role choices. “It’s about slightly adapting the way you approach character. You have to understand what film you’re in, and I think that’s a really tricky thing to do sometimes. It’s the same on stage — I do a lot of theatre — you have to understand the world that you’re in, you can’t just play yourself in every single movie.”

On the set of Quantum of Solace
On the set of Quantum of Solace

Arterton has been vocal in the press about her discomfort working on blockbuster productions; while she doesn’t name names, the fact that her upcoming slate of films is mostly made up of indies (and a stint onstage in a West End production of Made in Dagenham) seems to point to a shift in priorities. “I wouldn’t say that (blockbusters are behind me). I never go see blockbusters in the cinema, but on the plane I watched Maleficent and I thought, ‘Oh, it’s good fun,’ you know… It’s not the most creative process and I get really frustrated because I’m a perfectionist and I get frustrated. So many times with those things, I’ve been disappointed at the end product being transformed into a totally different thing. For me, that breaks my heart. Everyone puts so much of themselves into it that it’s a waste of time. With a film like Gemma Bovery and with theatre, you’re there. Everyone is as important as everybody else.”

Gemma Bovery is adapted from a graphic novel by Posy Simmonds that reimagines Gustave Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary in the present-day French countryside. Arterton is the titular character, a young Englishwoman who moves to a rural French village and sends the male population into a tizzy, though none more than the local baker Joubert (Fabrice Luchini). Joubert happens to be obsessed with the Flaubert book and sees frightening parallels between the seductive young woman across the way and the tragic figure of Madame Bovary. Gemma Bovery is actually Arterton’s second time playing the titular character in a Posy Simmonds adaptation, after 2010’s Tamara Drewe.

“I thought I was much more suited to Gemma, but when they sent me Gemma Bovery I thought, ‘I hope Posy Simmonds doesn’t mind!’” she laughs. “I asked her and she said, ‘Oh no, I knew it was you as soon as I saw you!” Evidently, Simmonds wasn’t the only one who saw the resemblance. “I didn’t speak any French (before doing the film). I spoke a bit of Italian and a bit of Spanish. When I met Anne, she had been meeting an actress who could speak French — there aren’t many in the U.K., because we don’t learn languages, which is a shame — and I had prepared a little phrase that I was repeating to myself in the taxi: ‘Comment allez vous? Ah oui? Je ne parle pas le français mais je peux essayer’. It was very basic. And as soon as I opened the door and said, ‘Bonjour!’ she said, ‘Okay, c’est toi!’”

Arterton learned French during a six-month intensive period and now speaks it fluently; after filming Gemma Bovery, she moved to France. “I’m proud of myself,” she says. “It also means I can start working in French cinema, which is much more exciting for me. One day I might work with Michael Haneke… you never know!” she laughs. “My dream year would be to do a really good play in London, then a little indie film or a little French film and do three things a year. That’s what Kristin Scott Thomas does!” ■


Gemma Bovery is in theatres (in French) now. Read our review here.

The film screens with English subtitles as part of the Cinemania festival at Cinéma Impérial (1430 Bleury) on Nov. 15 (3 p.m.)