All Myanmar Youths
As Gemma Arterton rode the crest of a wave in Hollywood after her role in Bond movie Quantum of Solace, it appeared life could not be sweeter.
Then tragedy struck. The actress’s beloved gran Helen Sarfas killed herself with a kitchen knife through the heart at 69 after a long and difficult battle with bipolar.
That was in 2010, and Gemma only now feels able to properly talk about it, after her most recent film brought up the emotions she had tried to hide.
The 32-year-old says: “My maternal grandmother had a huge effect on me. Still does. She was a remarkable woman.
She was bipolar and committed suicide eight years ago after living a very tough, difficult life. Who she was had a deep effect on me and stayed with me and will continue to inspire me.”
Gemma is soon to be seen in The Escape, about a woman who feels trapped by family life.
It echoes the struggle of Helen, who had found it hard to cope with her domestic life. And Gemma felt she was with her on the shoot – particularly as it was filmed in Kent, near where she grew up and her gran lived.
She adds: “She had these dreams and hopes that were put on hold to raise five children whom she loved dearly but it wasn’t enough.
Family life, domesticity suffocated her and she gave up a lot for them. I always felt very moved by that sacrifice, a sacrifice all too common for so many people, particularly so many women.
“She was with me on set. I felt her and I thought about her so much, especially shooting in Gravesend.
“Everything was so evocative and familiar, we even shot at my mum’s house, so the smells, the air was what I knew so well.”
It is 10 years since Gemma burst on to the scene as Strawberry Fields in 007’s Quantum of Solace.
Fresh out of drama school, she was propelled into the limelight, enjoying subsequent roles opposite Jake Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time), Justin Timberlake (Runner Runner) and Ben Affleck.
But alongside the blockbusters, Gemma also loves the smaller, independent films and co-wrote and produced The Escape. She plays Tara, a suburban mother and wife who seemingly has it all but is desperate for something more just for herself – so decides to run away.
Gemma says: “It’s a story with universal relatability. I think we’re all looking for an escape. My grandmother was artistic and wrote poems, some of them were published and no one in the family even knew.
“My mother would be on set with me and say, ‘You know this is your grandmother’s story.’ But it’s a universal story about a woman who’s fighting to breathe while being choked and escaping from her happy life.
“It’s a fragile subject and very personal to me. There’s so much of me in it, it really came from inside me and then shooting in Gravesend, it’s like a mirror of what my life could have been had I never left maybe?”
Unlike the recent crop of public school luvvies, Gemma came from a solid working class background.
Her dad Barry was a welder, and mum Sally-Anne, a cleaner. The pair divorced in 1991 when she was five.
But she had performing in her blood, her great-gran was a violinist.
And after getting into Gravesend Grammar School for Girls, Gemma found her passion –making her debut in a school production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Boy Who Fell into a Book.
She won a festival prize for the role and later got a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By the time she graduated she already had a role in 2007’s St Trinian’s and Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla. Six months after leaving, she began filming on Quantum of Solace.
She had lead parts in TV’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles and Lost in Austen – and became the face of Avon’s 007 make-up range.
It was a rise too spectacular for even Hollywood scriptwriters to imagine. And Helen was one of her biggest supporters. She described Gemma’s career as “the stuff of fairytales”.
Helen said in 2008: “I’m so very pleased and proud. Success hasn’t come easy for Gemma. She never had a silver spoon in her mouth. The nearest she came to Hollywood was on holiday.”
Gemma says when she finally made it to Tinseltown it was “an alien world”.
She adds: “The Bond was an experience like no other and it opened a lot of doors for me which I will always be hugely thankful. But it feels like a lifetime ago.
I had done a few studio films and I was getting concerned about the path I was on. I knew there would be no going back if I kept going.
“So I decided from there on in, I’m going to focus on what I really love and that is independent cinema and theatre.”
Her smaller hits include the 2010 weepie Song For Marion, Byzantium and 2016 war movie Their Finest.
Gemma, who divorced fashion consultant Stefano Catelli in 2015 and is dating Peaky Blinders star Rory Keenan, says she is intrigued to see the reaction to a film where a woman leaves their children, when The Escape opens later this summer. Especially as it comes in the wake of the #MeToo campaign.
She adds: “Leaving her children behind, for a woman, is seen as the ultimate taboo. Men walk away from their families all the time but barely an eyebrow is raised. We’re conditioned, ‘Women are monsters for doing it.’
“We should be tackling these stories all the time, but especially with what’s been happening in the past six months.
“Female actors feel a sense of growing power, but there’s a very long way to go. Women film-makers only amount to something like 8%. But what has been achieved so far is massively heartening.
“It feels like it couldn’t come at a better time to give a really loud voice to women’s struggles and experiences.”