By Jamie Neish
British-born Gemma Arterton has quickly been rising through the ranks since breaking out in St Trinian’s six years ago. Her latest role, as a sexed-up vampire in Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, sees her try something completely different.
Byzantium centers on two mysterious women, Clara (Arterton) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), who seek refuge in a run-down coastal resort. However, when Eleanor reveals their secret, that they’re 200 year-old vampires, to Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), it’s not long before their past catches up on them with deadly consequences.
You’ve done period drama, action adventure and Bond. What was it about Moira
Buffini’s script that made you decide it was a vampire film you wanted to do next?
Well, the original script I read was much more about the mother and daughter relationship between Clara and Eleanor and only hinted at the vampire stuff. But when Neil [Jordan] came aboard, he wanted to make it more of a genre piece. For me, it was never just, “Oh, it’s a vampire movie”, it was much more about the characters at its core, what it was like to be a trapped, ageless mother having to care for her daughter. And the genre elements sort of fed into that. It’s probably the first film I’ve done that’s more in line with what I like to watch, which is anything supernatural and fairytale-like.
Are you much of a horror fan yourself, then?
I wouldn’t say I go to see horror films for the sake of seeing a horror film, but I’ve always been fascinating by the genre because it always makes you feel something. But I wouldn’t go to see a horror film because it’s got a lot of gore in it. I’m much more interested in the stuff underneath the surface. I think it’s such a broad term, horror, and even this film is more art-house horror.
What research was involved to play Clara?
I had to learn to lap dance, that way the first thing. I made up a whole pole dance because I wasn’t sure how much I would need. I watched a lot of documentaries on brothels and what it was like for people to live that way, the day to day. That was what I was least familiar with, so I wanted to make sure I was able to portray that side of Clara as accurately as possible. And then there was a lot of physical preparation. I had to do a lot of training because vampires are obviously incredibly strong, so I needed to be able to have a convincing creature-like presence. We also did a lot of work on the script together, Saoirse and I, for a couple of months before filming started to get that relationship are strong as possible.
It sounds as though you had a lot of time to develop a relationship with Saoirse.
Yeah, yeah. We had a rehearsal in London two months before production began and that was the first time I met Saoirse. Our relationship was very natural, very touchy feely, plating her hair and playing with her face. But we didn’t have any bonding sessions, no shopping or bowling trips.
What was it like to work with Neil? He’s quite experienced in the horror genre. Did you feel intimidated at all?
Yeah. I think when you work with someone who you’ve admired for so long, it’s only natural to feel nervous. But once I’d gotten over those initial nerves, it became such a joy to work with him. And I think we’re going to work together again, which is very flattering. It was a great relationship that we had. He’s very interested in actors. He loves the process and has a huge amount of respect for the profession, which again made the working relationship easier. He’s constantly pushing the boundaries and very vibrant with his direction, which makes you want to work harder and to figure out how you can take what you’re doing to the next level. It was a magical experience, a very playful environment.