A roundtable chat with Gemma Arterton of “Tamara Drewe”

There’s no getting around it. Gemma Arterton is extremely attractive and also striking, and even more so in person. That’s especially so if you’ve found yourself seated right next to her at a roundtable with about 11 or 12 other writers and the prior two males you’ve sat next to at that table (no names) seemed as if they might have recently rolled out of bed and thrown on a gallon of expensive aftershave/cologne. The utterly tasteful Ms. Arterton, however, was appropriately dressed and scented, though she did remove her huge and apparently uncomfortable pumps to reveal perfectly painted toenails.

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Tamara Drewe,” a romantic farce with tragic overtones that opened this week for its initial run in four theaters in L.A. and New York, stars Arterton as an autobiographical newspaper columnist whose recent plastic surgery has transformed her from large-nosed semi-ugly duckling to tiny-nosed brunette bombshell. It’s a comedy with tragic overtones drawn from the the graphic novel of the same name by cartoonist Posy Simmonds, which is itself a sort of homage to Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” The film was directed by Stephen Frears, a director noted for tremendous versatility who confuses us critics by changing his style with just about every film. His output has ranged from from such recently enjoyable, grandma-friendly arthouse fare as “The Queen” and “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” to low down tales of crime and skullduggery like my personal favorite, 1984’s “The Hit.”

I was not blown away by much about this particular movie, however, including parts of Arterton’s performance, but that’s me. It has fared reasonably well over at Rotten Tomatoes and may well please other fans of this sort of English countryside comedy, which I usually enjoy myself. Ms. Arterton has also generated good reviews in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” as well as co-starring in “Clash of the Titans,” “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and as Strawberry Fields in “Quantum of Solace” alongside Daniel Craig’s 007, forever tagging herself with the sobriquet “Bond girl.” Still, at 24, she has a maturity and self-possession about her that, at the very least, makes her more of a Bond woman. Or maybe it’s just that she’s tall.

The first question asked was in regards to whether Ms. Arterton was comfortable in the countryside setting of “Tamara Drewe.”

“I think I belonged there,” the actress responded. “Like Tamara, I think I’m actually supposed to be there. I was brought up in estuary London, on the Thames estuary, in an industrial town, but all my family are fishermen and farmers. That was the generation before, but I think we are supposed to be there. I did like it, but after about two weeks I freaked out and needed to have pollution and buses driving past every minute.”

Then came a question about the impressive prosthetic nose sported by Arterton during some flashbacks set prior to her character’s life-changing rhinoplasty. Did that false nose resonate personally in any way?

“I always wanted to have a big nose. No, everyone has insecurities, but I’m not going to tell you guys about that.”

She did, however, keep the movie proboscis. “It’s one of my most treasured possessions. It’s in a frame in my downstairs loo where you always keep novelty things. It’s got a picture of me — it was given to me by the hair and make-up artist — scowling, wearing it. It says ‘Gemma, darling, you never looked better!'”

Even though “Tamara Drewe” is only based on “Far from the Madding Crowd” at one remove, did she look at the 19th century novel by Thomas Hardy?

“Yeah, because when we were filming it, Stephen was sort of ‘it’s not ‘Far From the Madding Crowd,’ but I actually believe that Bathsheba from ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ is Tamara Drewe, but 200 years before. She absolutely is. So, for me, it’s really helpful to read that. I’ve played two Thomas Hardy heroines now and they’re incredible characters. They are unbelievably advanced and Thomas Hardy had such an insight on the complicated world of being a woman.”

Gemma Arterton is

“These characters are conundrums; we never really completely get them. Especially Bathsheba — she’s promiscuous, she’s petulant, she’s spoiled, yet everybody loves her, yet she gets her own way. Why do we like her? We don’t know, but there’s something about her. She’s a heroine. She’s kind of like Cathy from ‘Wuthering Heights.’ Stephen, I suppose, was very much thinking about the film, and it’s ‘Tamara Drewe’ and it’s modern. But, for me, it was another thing to draw on, and it’s such good material. I thought, ‘Why not use that?'”

Someone confessed that Ms. Arterton had broken their hearts on multiple occasions.

“Because I always die?”

No, and she doesn’t die in every movie. It was more her ability to actually cry believably onscreen. How does she manage it?

“When I was at drama school, everyone used to try and cry all the time, because it showed that they were a good actor, right? I never could do it, so I thought, I’m never going to act ever, because I can’t cry. Then, I did [the 2007 BBC dramatization of] ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ and I had to cry and I couldn’t stop crying. I actually cried too much in it. I don’t know, I just think like the character when I’m doing it.”

“When I was playing Tamara, I would write every day, before I went on set, a little journal, or a part of her book, either one, just to get into her thought patterns. Then, you start thinking like the character and then, when something makes you cry, it makes you cry. I don’t really know how it happens. If you asked me to cry now, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m not sad.”

My turn: Since, as Tamara Drewe, Ms. Arterton was laboring to think like a writer, I asked if she’d ever written anything herself.

“No. It’s funny. I’d never had the confidence to and I’d always admired writers and their ability to say, ‘Here it is, read this. This is what I think or what I’m trying to convey.’ Then…I always do it with characters, I write a backstory. With Tamara it just became this sort of autobiography which she does ultimately write, and it was really funny. I remember writing it and showing it to Moira Buffini, who wrote the screenplay. She [said], ‘This is really good. You’re really good.’ I said, ‘Maybe that’s because I’m writing as the character.’ I’m not writing my own life, it’s dull as dishwater, but as Tamara it’s sort of sassy and sparky. So, maybe that’s what I should do if I want to write, just be different characters each day and dress up.”

Maybe she should try dressing up as William Shakespeare, I suggested.

“Yeah. I may get on to a winner with that one.”

Then came the semi-inevitable question about what is was like to work with Stephen Frears as an actor. Did she think the famously style-free director actually had a style in regards to directing actors?

“I don’t think he does because he works very differently with every single actor. Everybody on set he works differently with. He’s just very sensitive to everything. I suppose with me he was very intuitive. He really trusts his intuition. The main thing is that he spends most of his energy and time casting it correctly. Really. Not just getting the right person to play that character, but getting the right three people so that the relationships work. It’s all taken care of. That’s genius casting. We never rehearsed, ever. We’d just get on the set and it’d work because all the actors were right for it. Then he’d direct it if it needed to go over there, or you were overdoing it a little bit, or he needed to see more of [something], but it was very sort of simple.”

“He’d hate me saying that because he hates it being called ‘simple.’ But it was, it was straightforward. When you see every single film Stephen’s done, he’s creates this world, utterly. You believe it, and that’s where his energy lies. He trusts everybody he works with to do their job. He doesn’t have to tell anyone what to do. That’s how he works.”

That led to another predictable question with a predictable answer regarding whether the actress would like to work with Frears again. Of course she would, though she noted Frears proclivity for variety and that it was a couple of decades between his working with Michelle Pfeiffer in 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons” and last year’s “Cheri.” (The gap was only one decade for John Cusack, who worked with Frears on 1990’s “The Grifters” and 2000’s “High Fidelity.”)

That was followed by some very spoilery, but interesting, talk about the character of Tamara Drewe, who Arterton feels is perhaps not so much in love — or even in like — with any of the men in the film as wanting to be loved by everyone. “She needs constant affection and attention. She gets herself into these dramatic situations because she writes about them. She sort of is her own muse, in a way. She uses everybody around her in order to do that…”

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“One of the reasons I wanted to play Tamara is that I see that character often in many different ways in people I work with. I’ve known one particular writer that manipulates and creates drama in order to write about it. I just think it’s accurate. I think it’s real.”

Then came a comment I found particularly interesting. “When I first read the script, I thought, ‘I don’t even like her. Why are we watching a movie about her? Who cares about this sad girl?’ And then I thought, ‘Hang on, I need to play her because I need to work out why this book has become such a hit. There’s something about her.’ That’s why I wanted to play her. Ultimately, it’s because you pity her, I think.”

“Everyone can relate to someone or something that happened in this film at some point. I think that’s the beauty of it. All the characters are flawed. They’re all struggling. They’re not doing very well. They’re running their own lives like the rest of the world. When you watch [most] movies, everything sort of turns out okay in the end. This one doesn’t, really — it sort of hangs.”

The topic of creating drama led to a question about the two teenage girls, very well played by Charlotte Christie and Jessica Barden, who emerge as major plot catalysts.

“They are like these little imps that [make trouble via social media]. I was just talking about this whole self publication [via Twitter, Facebook, etc.] or whatever you call it. Tamara does that. She publicizes herself through her work. She’s happy to write about her own experiences. It’s ironic that these two girls come in and tamper with her life and she can’t deal with it,” Arterton said laughing. “They create the drama she can’t.”

Some more discussion of Tamara Drewe’s romantic quandaries — how Arterton sees her as being genuinely attracted to aspects of all three of the males she becomes entangled with during the story despite not actually loving any of them — finally gave way to a question brought on by the fanish obsession of the teenage characters for Tamara’s rock star boyfriend played by Dominic Cooper. As a teen, did she have a rock star or actor obsession? Has she had a chance to meet or even work with said star(s)?

“I haven’t actually [met] my high school crush. I actually fancied an actor, because I was always into actors, obviously. I’m reluctant to tell you who it is just because now I actually might meet him. I don’t have a crush on him anymore but, yeah…”

“Oh come on, who is he?” said the inquiring mind, who happened to also be from England.

Gemma Arterton in
“Oh, alright, then. It was Leonardo DiCaprio when I was 12 years-old. You never know, you might meet them. I never thought I’d have the opportunity to meet him. But it was never in that obsessive, writing fan mail, chasing down the street sort of way. It’s because we’re English,” she concluded with a chuckle. “We’d never do that. We’d never degrade ourselves in that way.”

  

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