The Duchess of Malfi’s Gemma Arterton: There’s bloodshed, incest, violence, lots of kick-arse stuff

"I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact they were filming it at first – it’s theatre, you’re not performing it for the cameras”

Gemma Arterton has had to endure many uncomfortable moments in the public eye, from her big breakthrough alongside Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace (she drowned in crude oil) to 2009’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed (kidnapped, abused, blindfolded, you name it).


Her most recent uncomfortable moment, though, came in March when BBC director-general Tony Hall announced “the strongest commitment to the arts we’ve made in a generation”. Up on the stage next to him was Arterton – her performance in the title role of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi at the Globe theatre had already been filmed for broadcast. A clip was shown, and Arterton smiled gamely – but then she is an actress.

“I had to do that thing at the BBC. When they showed a clip I was mortified. And then I had to go, ‘Oh yes, it’s great.’ To be quite honest, I don’t really believe in filming theatre, that’s not what it’s about. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact they were filming it at first – it’s theatre, you’re not performing it for the cameras.”

Arterton, who is as down-to-earth and straightforward as a Hollywood movie star could be, pauses a beat to think things through.

“I guess for people that can’t get to the theatre, and can’t afford it, and I guess for educational purposes as well, it’s great. When I was a kid I lived outside of London, and theatre was just not something that I did. It wasn’t until I moved to London when I was 18 that I started going to the theatre. 

She came to London from her home town of Gravesend in Kent to take up a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

“I remember going to my audition for Rada, and they said, ‘Have you seen much theatre?’ and I lied and said, ‘Yeah I’ve seen this Mamet play at the moment, and I’ve seen, er, this other play.’ But there was no way I could afford it.

“In fact the only stuff I could see was filmed stuff – I remember watching a Trevor Nunn production of A Winter’s Tale. So actually that [watching theatre on screen] is what I did when I was younger.”

Filmed theatre, in other words, is probably better than no theatre at all, and if theatre is to be filmed then The Duchess of Malfi is not a bad place to start. “It’s like Tarantino,” says Arterton. “There’s mass bloodshed, incest, violence, lots of kick-arse kind of stuff – and everybody dies in the end.” And Arterton herself gets to perform one of the most protracted and gruesome death scenes in the western canon, where the Duchess is strangled with two ropes, pulled in opposing directions, for nearly ten minutes until she dies. Yet that was nothing, Arterton says, compared with the nightly saliva shower. 

“Oh my god, there was so much spitting. My brother, Ferdinand, was played by David Dawson, who’s just a wonderful actor. He spat a lot during the play. There would be scenes where he would be shouting at me, and I’d just stand there and get sprayed with spit. And I’d have to sort of just take it. It wasn’t until we recorded it that people went, ‘Wow, you get pummelled.’”

The hope for the BBC is that Arterton, pummelled or otherwise, will provide enough celebrity sparkle to tempt a younger audience to some of their more recondite arts coverage. Yet she is not sure herself that she’s much of a draw.

“I’m doing a new musical at the end of the year at the Adelphi, Made in Dagenham [based on the 2010 film], and we’ve got to sell it out. I’m like, ‘How are we gonna sell out , with all these musicals that are closing, when the tickets are so expensive, and the theatres are so big?’ I’m not that famous… It’s not like they’ve got Keira Knightley or Natalie Portman. I’m sure people will see my name on the poster and they’ll say, ‘Who’s that?'”

Unlikely. From a lead role in the St Trinian’s film straight out of Rada, to the now-mandatory BBC period (in her case 2008’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles), to playing a Bond girl, to the excellent Alice Creed, and now with The Duchess of Malfi, Arterton is building up a body of work that is both credible and commercial. Now she wants more of the former.

Being a Bond girl brought her instant celebrity, but it’s been a hard tag to shake off. “Even when the reviews came out for The Duchess it was always, ‘Bond girl tries to do theatre’. I didn’t even have a big part in Bond! I’m proud of it, but it is a bit weird that it’s always brought up.”

She is actually a most unlikely Bond girl: naturally beautiful without being intimidating, and there’s still a trace of estuary in her English. But when she was making the Bond film, an American producer said to her that she would need to lose her accent, otherwise she’d only be playing maids and prostitutes.

“And then I saw him the other week, and I went, ‘Oi! Look: I just played the Duchess, you know. I just played a Duchess!”

Her career may be flying, but she won’t be the first in her family to star in a musical. That honour goes to her younger sister Hannah, 25, who next month will make her big-screen debut alongside Leona Lewis in Walking on Sunshine – “she’s busier than me!” says Gemma. Nonetheless you can see why Arterton senior said yes to an adaptation of Made in Dagenham, about the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 in which they demanded equal pay for women.

“That’s a good story for a woman to tell, because a lot of the time it’s quite boring when you read scripts – it’s always the same old s**t, you know, girlfriend or victim or whatever. You are looking for something that’s got a bit more balls to it, and a good story for women.”

Just one thing, though: can she sing?

“I can sing, but I’m not like Mariah Carey. And I can sing and act at the same time. I remember when I saw Les Misérables I thought, ‘Oh God.’ That’s X Factor-type musical theatre. I love the proper, Sondheim-y kind of stuff. I’m not going to be doing all the trills but hopefully it’ll be a bit more sort of… moving.”

No word yet, unfortunately, on whether the BBC will be filming it. 


The Duchess of Malfi is on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC4