Watching Gemma Arterton in The Escape is like glimpsing a parallel life. Here she is in close-up, improvising scenes in her real-life hometown and acting out a story that could have been her own.
The film’s writer/director Dominic Savage chose to shoot the movie in the Kent town of Gravesend, which is where Arterton grew up – in fact, one scene with her on-screen mother (a well-chosen Frances Barber) is filmed in her own mum’s back garden.
The Escape tells the unsettling tale of a lower-middle-class mum of two struggling with depression, who falls out of love with her husband and her everyday life before making a big decision. She can’t cope with the pressure of mundanity or motherhood and needs to escape.
It’s a life that the 32-year-old Arterton understands. “Where I came from, it’s quite normal for the wife to stay at home, look after the kids and not have a career,” she says.
“It’s something I witnessed when I was growing up – not with my family but people around me. I thought, ‘Wow, if I’d married my childhood sweetheart and done that, where would I be?’ I think I would have descended into a dark place.”
Like her character Tara, Arterton is naturally inquisitive, her intelligence and talent whisking her away from Gravesend, via Rada, to a role in St Trinian’s, then to the world of James Bond and beyond.
Arterton with Daniel Craig in James Bond: Quantum of Solace
She’s tackled big-budget action in Prince of Persia and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – adding a dash of panache to two dreary pictures – while proving her credentials in two less mainstream films, the black comedy The Voices and last year’s Second World War drama Their Finest.
“Gemma is from the world we show on screen,” says Savage of her role in The Escape. “She understands those lives and what it would feel like to be trapped. She might have been a young mum living in Gravesend, like a lot of her contemporaries.”
Arterton admits that “it was weird going back there to shoot”. In real life, her parents divorced when she was young and her mother, a cleaner, raised her. “But I had a happy childhood and didn’t feel as though I had to get out of this place. It was acting that allowed me to escape.”
It’s not an easy film to watch – feel-good moments are in short supply – but Arterton demonstrates immense courage, not only in coming to grips with the character and story, but also by improvising much of the dialogue, and allowing Savage’s cameras to get so close you can almost count her freckles.
Indeed, it was her intimate relationship with the camera that helped her through the film’s frank sexual content. “The thing I hate about sex scenes is when they’re pornographic – wide shots with bright lights and naked bodies,” she explains. “But this was all about the faces and it didn’t really matter what we were doing.”
It also helped that the actor playing her husband, Mark, was her friend Dominic Cooper, who also appeared with her in 2010’s Tamara Drewe.
“Dominic and I are very close,” says Arterton, “it’s like he’s my brother.” She erupts into laughter. We are talking about the sex scenes, after all. “I know that sounds weird! But we’re so comfortable with each other.”
Gathering her composure, she says, “I felt very safe with him. I didn’t feel at all exploited, even though it’s awful to go through and I find it really hard to watch those parts. Luckily, because Dominic and I are friends, after doing these prolonged scenes where he is basically raping me, we could switch off afterwards and try to have a laugh,” she adds.
“That’s the way we dealt with that intensity. I’m like that anyway. I don’t like to dwell. I don’t like taking it home, though I would go back to my flat in Gravesend, sit there and go, ‘Oh God!’ And it does affect you to be in a place that is so personal. All those nostalgic memories make you feel vulnerable, remembering being a kid there. It was very weird, very.”
The most difficult part of shooting The Escape was working with the two children who play her little boy and girl.
“That was really, really challenging because usually I’m quite playful around kids. But here I couldn’t do that because it wasn’t my role. By the end of the shoot they really hated me; when I came up to them they would run away. It was really traumatic for me because I love kids.”
Arterton was married to Italian businessman Stefano Catelli between 2010 and 2015; she doesn’t have children of her own, “but it’s definitely on the agenda,” she says.
“I always thought that when I have kids I will slow down, but I’m actually taking on less work these days, maybe just two films a year.”
She’s just started shooting the action comedy Murder Mystery alongside Adam Sandler, Jennifer Aniston and Luke Evans, having also filmed Vita & Virginia, in which she plays the poet, writer and gardening enthusiast Vita Sackville-West.
The film tracks Vita’s relationship with fellow writer Virginia Woolf (played b y Elizabeth Debicki from The Night Manager) during a period in the 1920s that saw both women at the zenith of their creativity. “They did have a love affair that was very short-lived, but the rest of it was just this amazing friendship,” says Arterton. “Making that was a really lovely experience.”
After the pressures of The Escape, it was the perfect contrast.