“All right then, it was Leonardo DiCaprio when I was 12 years old,” Gemma Arterton reveals when asked about her schoolgirl crush, “but never in that obsessive-writing-fan-mail-chasing-down-the-street sort of way. We’re English, we’d never do that. We’d never degrade ourselves in that way.”
The English apparently have other ways to degrade themselves over their crushes, as evidenced in Stephen Frears’ comedy of manners Tamara Drewe, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Posy Simmonds, which itself is a contemporary reworking of Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Arterton (Quantum of Solace, Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time) plays the title character, a woman who returns to her hometown of Ewedon in the lush western countryside of England to stir things up after she’s grown up and gotten a nose job, and who quickly becomes the talk of the town and the object of desire for the men of the village who once spurned her.
“Thomas Hardy had such an insight on the complicated world of being a woman and the complexities,” Arterton explains. “I actually think that Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd is Tamara Drewe but 200 years before. These characters are conundrums – we never really completely get them, and 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.”
That particular conundrum extended to Ms. Drewe for Arterton. “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?’” she says. “Then I thought, ‘Hang on, I’ve got to play her because I need to work out why and why this book has become such a hit. There’s something about her.’ So that’s why I wanted to play her, and ultimately I think it’s because you pity her, I think. Everyone can relate to somebody or something that happens in this film at some point, and I think that’s the beauty of it. All the characters are flawed, they’re all struggling, they’re not doing very well at running their own lives like the rest of the world.”
Tamara is a little difficult to warm up to, truly, since she spends her time messing with the head of Andy Cobb (Luke Evans), who spurned her foolishly in their shared adolescence, while frolicking with rock star malcontent Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) and later indulging the philandering nature of author Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), with whom she had a teenage infatuation.
“My biggest revelation when I was playing Tamara is that she gets herself into these dramatic situations because she writes about them and she sort of is her own muse in a way,” Arterton explains. “She uses everybody around her in order to do that. It’s interesting, one of the reasons I wanted to play Tamara was because I see that character often in many different ways and with people I work with. I know one particular writer that creates and manipulates drama in order to write about it. I just think it’s accurate.”
“She does need constant affection, but she’s not an idiot,” she insists. “She’s a nice girl deep down, and I think the three men – like in Far From the Madding Crowd, actually – are these archetypal men, so you’ve got the father figure, the lover and the provider. Ultimately, what we all want is a mixture of all of those things. So if that guy turned up, maybe that’s the one, but she kind of dabbles with all three because they satisfy what she needs at that time. It’s a mixture.”
So was there anything in Arterton’s own life that she drew on to portray a woman who returns to the hometown that mistreated her to rub her success in their faces? “No, I actually have been really supported all my life. My town where I grew up was a working-class town on the Estuary,” she says. “They all love it, and when I go back there, they’re really sweet. The only person I’ve done that to is my sister, who told me I would never work as an actress. She doesn’t say that now. My younger sister who is now trying to be an actress, ironically.”
Incidentally, she’s also kept the big fake nose she had to wear in the flashback sequences to explain where Tamara came from. “It’s one of my most treasured possessions,” Arterton attests. “It’s in a frame in my downstairs loo where we always keep novelty things. It has a picture of me – given to me by the hair and makeup artist – scowling wearing it, and it says, ‘Gemma, darling, you’ve never looked better.’”