COVID-19 has had a grip on the world, but it has not slowed down Gemma Arterton. The outspoken actor and activist was quite productive during the lockdown. She managed to move many projects along, and has plans to star in a BBC special written by her husband, Rory Keenan. But, before we see the fruits of her lockdown labor, she stars in Black Narcissus, a three-part psychological miniseries airing on BBC and the FX Network. Gemma is also set to hit the big screen in the prequel to the Kingsman Franchise, The King’s Man. We speak to Gemma about what drives her latest projects, her passions for theater, and what she is looking forward to in 2021.
You are best known for your feature films, but you got your start in Shakespeare. What is it about his work that continues to excite you?
There are two things that I enjoy, and one is how it is basic storytelling that is echoed in almost all drama. It exists in superhero movies, such as having something Shakespearean in the Marvel films. All of his stories are relatable, and it feels so pure. The other thing is the language, and how he could get under the skin and make you viscerally feel the words. Maybe, it has something with the iambic pentameter and how it follows the rhythm of the heartbeat. The more Shakespeare that I do, the more that I discover, and especially when you are doing it during a play, it becomes exciting to continue to notice things about the language.
You have won some notable awards for your theatrical work. What are some of the few things about the live stage that drives you to pursue that craft?
Theater in the UK is so important, and it really is one of our calling cards. This is something that is in our blood. So when I thought about becoming an actor, I did not think about television or movies; I thought about being in theater. I love being on stage, and I love the immediacy. You are connected with the audience. I understood this interaction better because of the lockdown. You don’t have that on screen, and that energy is something I am craving now. Theater also has stages and in the middle of a long run, you may hate it, but you can make changes in your performance, and in the end, you are in love a different way.
You have a robust resume, but what is really interesting is your voice work on Watership Down. Did you enjoy your voiceover work?
Here in the UK, it comes around every Easter. There is something so relevant to what is going on with the environment. It was an amazing experience and was just thinking the list of actors to face the characters. I love voice work because they want a piece of me to be in the character, and I am grateful for the experience.
In addition to stage and screen, you were able to start a production company, Rebel Park Productions, in 2016. What motivated you to make this commitment?
This has been growing for a while, and I wanted to be more active at the inception of the project. As an actor, you really come toward the end, and this was an opportunity to start at the beginning. I think being in theater played a role too, because the physical work begins very early on. So at the time, before Me Too and Times Up, there was a lack of representation from female writers, actors, behind the camera, or female-led stories that needed to change.
Rebel Park Production has developed quite a strong library of work. Is there a particular film or short that you are most proud of?
Leading Lady Parts is a short that was made during the Me Too movement, and we were just really quick. We had everything written and produced in three weeks. It was very ‘in the movement,’ and everyone was excited about the project.
What are some lessons that you gleaned as a producer that prepares you to become a better actor?
Taking more care with my choices is something that I have been learning as a producer. There is a lot of work or care that goes into a project, and we shouldn’t be dismissive. So now, I take more care into each project, and consider why it is meaningful for me to invest into the project.
“I believe I will always work on behalf of advancing women, but the lockdown brought a new perspective. There are a lot of problems that COVID exposed, and homelessness is one of them.”
Next on the agenda is Black Narcissus, where a group of nuns encounters a hostile environment that monks previously failed to set up a community. The original story takes place in the Himalayas. Did production also take you to the mountainous terrain?
We shot in Nepal, and it took two and a half days of a journey just to arrive on set. There were four flights that led us to the middle of nowhere. But, it was an incredible place, and the backdrop was some of the most beautiful scenery I have seen in my whole life. We were right there between the Nepalese and Tibetan border, and we were able to go there and experience it all ourselves. There wasn’t electricity in many of the buildings, and running water and plumbing was an occasional problem. But, being there gave us a deeper understanding of what our character was putting themselves through.
Black Narcissus began as a book, but later became a suspenseful drama in 1947. Is your re-telling of the story close to the novel or the film?
Storytelling-wise it is closer to the book and by being a three-part television series, we were able to develop the characters. But, at the same time, we tried to pay homage to the film. The film is a cinematic masterpiece, and we incorporated many of those elements into the series.
Many argue that the golden age of television is now. It is the perfect medium to create a narrative that is rich in character development. Do you believe Black Narcissus benefitted from the miniseries angle?
This is a psychological thriller, and many of the conflicts are happening inside of the characters. Being a television series allows for the time to develop these narratives, and it allows us to honor the rhythm and pacing of the book. Also, the film had a Hitchcock-feel that can get under your skin, and we were able to commit to that approach because television gives you the time to explore the tension.
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Kelly Cornwell/Nylon Artists
Premier PR, Corinthia London
In addition to television, you are part of the prequel for the Kingsman franchise, The King’s Man. Did you appreciate the set and design for the feature film?
We had an incredible team for The King’s Man. Michelle Clapton from Game of Thrones designed the costumes and it elevated the feel of the film. There is this feeling of class and elegance throughout the film; almost a long epic-like quality. And because it is a period piece, it was fun to have the set lend itself to the language and mannerisms of that time. It is always so great to step on set and be transported to another era.
Matthew Vaughn is known for creating feature-rich worlds. What aspect of the The King’s Man did you enjoy the most?
We get some extraordinary performances from Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans. Ralph is extremely elegant and Rhys is a madman as Rasputin, and the juxtaposition of the two makes the film so much fun and entertaining. But, at the same time, the story is rich and emotional.
Besides movies, television, theater, and production you are also an outspoken activist. What are some of the deep concerns you have in 2020?
My gaze has shifted since COVID. I believe I will always work on behalf of advancing women, but the lockdown brought a new perspective. There are a lot of problems that COVID exposed, and homelessness is one of them. In London, it is terrible, but it will only get worse with the instability. So I have been devoting some of my energy to this charity called Shelter through The Storm.
“When I thought about becoming an actor, I did not think about television or movies; I thought about being in theater. I love being on stage, and I love the immediacy. You are connected with the audience. I understood this interaction better because of the lockdown. You don’t have that on screen, and that energy is something I am craving now.”
What are some things people can do to support these causes?
Donate. If you can do so during this time, then donate in any form. Another one to consider is the food banks, and helping stock the shelves. And always be mindful of the environment.
COVID-19 had most of the world locked down in early 2020. What did you do with your time?
I was quite productive with that time, and applied myself to developing some of my current projects. We lined things up so that we are ready to move forward when the world is prepared. I also started painting, and it was nice to get back to something that I loved and enjoyed. Also, my husband, Rory Keenan, and I have a project with the BBC that is shooting soon, which he, incidentally, wrote during the lockdown.
As 2020 inches to an end, many are excited about the possibilities that 2021 is bringing. What are some things you are looking forward to for next year?
I am looking forward to the creative fruits that people have been doing during the lockdown. I believe there is an immense amount of art that is about to emerge after COVID.
Gemma Arterton is photographed by Alexander Beer for the digital cover and print magazine of The Laterals in Corinthia London on September 14th 2020.
Black Narcissus is available to stream now, exclusively on FX on Hulu.