” sees Gemma Arterton
playing Catrin, a young woman hired to write lines for women in British war propaganda movies. It’s a movie within a movie dealing with gender roles in the ’40s that at times feels all-too-relevant to today. We talked to the British actress about starring in a female-led film, working with the film’s director, Lone Scherfig
, and why she’s sick of hearing about likability.
” opens in theaters April 7.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kelsey Moore.
W&H: I’ve been waiting to meet you for a while. We’ve given you the “Hollywood Feminist of the Day” mention at Women and Hollywood three times. You say many things that are meaningful to us.
So first, let’s talk a bit about the movie. What drew you to this role?
Ga: Well, when you’re making a female-centric movie, the female role is often kind of strong and feminist, or she knows what she wants. I don’t think that’s helpful, because I think that women are all sorts of people, and we just need to tell stories about women in general.
I read this role and thought, yes, she goes along and finds her voice and all of that. But, she starts off as someone who is quite accepting of her situation and of the sexism of that time. For instance, one of the first things that she’s told is, “We can’t pay you as much as the men,” and she just replies, “Oh, of course.”
So, it was really helpful that it was set in the forties where it was just the way it was. But, at the same time, what I liked about her was that she was able to be observant, timid, and a bit more gentle. She’s surrounded by all these really strong characters, which meant that she could be not that strong. I found that quite refreshing; it meant that I could play something different than the usual.
W&H: Do you think we’ve been stuck in a place where women have had to be a certain way because we haven’t had enough women-centric movies?
Ga: Yeah. Do you mean because we’re not being shown to [our] full extent?
W&H: Exactly. So, women have to be this, but men can be all of this.
Ga: Yeah, it’s like that thing which I hate: “likable.” Who gives a fuck about “likable?” Often women have to be likable.
I remember doing a movie years ago called “Tamara Drewe
,” and she’s not a likable character — she cheats, she’s a homewrecker — and I thought, well, that’s okay. Then, I did another film [based on work] by the same author, Posy Simmonds
, and I really like her as a writer because of how she writes these women.
Women like Jane Eyre aren’t likable, you know. I find that really frustrating. I think that, in literature, we’ve got so many different types of women who aren’t necessarily strong or likable. In film, I don’t know why — maybe it’s because people who finance films are certain types of people — women just can’t be women.
W&H: We really wonder why they think this is what the public wants.
Ga: Yeah. I think it’s a really exciting time now, and I can speak from my own experience. I’ve started producing all of the films that I have on this year’s slate. I’m developing and/or co-writing projects. I made a film last year that I produced and wrote. These aren’t likable characters — they’re just multifaceted women. Sometimes they’re likable, sometimes they’re not.
I think that’s what we need to do. We need to give space for telling stories about actual, real women. That’s what I liked about this film. Even though she’s gentle and sweet, she’s not your typical female character; there are flashes where she’s impetuous, stressed out, or even pissy. I liked the script because it was an ensemble cast and there was enough space for this kind of character.
W&H: Absolutely. Did you start producing on your own because you felt that the scripts you were getting weren’t up to the standards you were looking for?
Ga: Yeah. I’m very luck to be sent so much stuff, but it’s very rare that I get sent something that really excites me — something that I’m passionate about.
That’s why I started developing. I’ve come across things or I’ve been sent scripts that would be really difficult to make. My passion lies where I just have an idea or work with writers. Sometimes, my agents will show me something and will tell me, “This isn’t good enough for you,” and I know it. It’s really, really tricky.
W&H: If you get, say, ten scripts, how many of them do you think are even worthy of your read?
Ga: Well, I have amazing agents that read everything for me. They’ll only send me stuff that they think are worthy for my read. But even so, with those I’d say maybe one in ten.
W&H: Yeah — not surprised. So, tell me if I’m wrong, but it looks like you made some bigger movies in the beginning of your career and have since moved yourself into a place where it’s more independent. Does this have to do with what we’ve just been talking about — the idea of “this is not what I want my life to be?” The overt and covert sexism? How have you shaped your career and choices?
Ga: It’s kind of similar to what happens to my character Catrin in the film. I started off just feeling grateful and not really aware of the fact that I was a creative artist.
Even though I’d started acting a few years earlier and I had done all of this physical theater — which is about devising theater and coming up with all of these ideas — I was suddenly in this place where I thought, “Well, thank goodness I’m even being considered for this, and this is how you do it.” I lost touch with who I was in the sense that I stopped doing theater, which is where I can really express myself.
In a weird way, I look back on those films and am grateful for them because they showed me what I didn’t want to do. They actually gave me the impetus to start my own production company and look at things in a different way. That said, that early part of my career was peppered with really important work that was the “true me.”
Also, I really enjoy collaborating. I love working with other people, and I love discussing ideas. That why I love working with director Lone Scherfig
and producers Stephen Woolley
and Amanda Posey
— they collaborate with their actors and writers, and everyone gets in the room together and talks. We talked with Lone and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe
six months before we started shooting, and I was able to give opinions and rework some stuff.
That is the way I work. In the theater, that’s how you work: you’re part of a team. When it’s a huge machine, that’s really hard to do. There are so many other people, and so you’re not able to get in a room together. So for me, independent, smaller projects are the way to do it. I can’t work in any other way now.
W&H: It’s interesting because a lot of what Catrin goes through in the film is still relevant. It felt really contemporary.
Ga: I’m so pleased. Lone will be really pleased to hear you say that, because even though it’s a period piece, we wanted it to feel current. I think that’s all in the script — with what she’s going through, all this propaganda filmmaking, and there’s so much stuff that is relatable.
Catrin is progressive. I don’t think that Stephen Woolley
, who is a massive feminist, would make the movie otherwise. It’s probably what drew him to the book in the first place — that it’s about film, but it’s also about a woman within the film industry and how that is.
Even today, I just played Saint Joan
in Josie Rourke
’s “Saint Joan
,” and we decided that I would be the only woman in the production — even though we had a female director who is hot on gender balance, cross casting, and all of that. She said, “ I think it’s right that you’re the only woman, because to be the only woman in the room is really saying something.”
Even though Catrin wasn’t the only woman in the film — she has “fill” to back her up — in the writer’s room, she’s often on her own, and that’s how it was back then. My character is based on a real woman, Diana Morgan
, who was a screenwriter for Ealing Studios
. She was brought in to write the “nausea,” what we call “slop” in the movie — the women’s dialogue. That was a real thing. Then she became a successful writer. She was an excellent writer, but she had to write under a male pseudonym because they wouldn’t put a woman’s name on the movie poster unless you were an actress.
That was the 1940s, and things started to change in the ’60s, but…still.
W&H: I feel like people who know Hollywood will recognize a lot of the dialogue and many of the things that went on for Catrin as things that still go on today.
W&H: How do you feel about the fact that women in the USA and other places are now talking about equal pay for equal work? Do you have thoughts on that?
Ga: I think it’s excellent. I think that equal pay for equal work is how it should be. I’ve spoken about this before. It’s tricky in the film industry to quantify that though, because sometimes someone’s worth is more. If it’s equal work, it’s really difficult to quantify.
W&H: I mean, it’s all gendered. Men are given more clout because the world values men more. So, we’re never going to have the same amount of clout because it’s just the way it is. But, I find it interesting that now something has shifted where women feel that they won’t be blacklisted for speaking up.
Ga: Yes, now they can say it.
W&H: Do you remember when it happened? I do have a theory regarding when it shifted, when women felt safer to talk about these issues.
Ga: Well, obviously the Sony hack brought it into the light. Then, it became a big talking point, and this is the thing: just talking about it is really helpful.
I have a friend who’s a director, and she hates being constantly asked, “What is it like being a female director?” I know Lone is the same way. My friend will say, “I’m a director. Don’t talk to me about that, because actually what you’re doing is making a problem.” But actually, the solution — what we want to get to — is where you just call yourself a director, or an actor, or a writer. But we’re not there, so we need to talk about it, and we need to make a thing of it.
I feel like that’s what happened with the pay conversation. There was a moment in time where it all just kind of blew up, and it became this thing that everyone was talking about. Now, it’s given people the confidence to say, “What is my costar getting paid?”
In the workplace, I think it’s different. I think people still don’t have the confidence to ask what their coworkers are getting paid. But, it being spoken about makes people understand that they aren’t the only one feeling this, or that it’s not right.
W&H: It’s interesting. Women on red carpets and in other interviews are always asked if they’re feminist, but men are never asked any of those questions. Do you have any thoughts as to why we put women through that? What is it about our world that we need to test women if they’re feminists now? Shouldn’t we all be feminists?
Ga: We should all be feminists.
W&H: Do you get asked that a lot?
Ga: Well, everyone knows I’m a feminist, so they don’t ask me. I even used to have this necklace that was a big gold chain that said “feminist” on it. Everyone just knows it. They don’t ask me anymore. But, I kind of find it the most preposterous thing to be asked because I’m like, “Well, yeah.”
I think the word has different connotations in different cultures. I think it’s seen as a negative thing in a lot of cultures, as if you’re a man-hater. But it’s not.
For me, “feminist” means somebody that believes that men and women are equal, and because we’re not there yet, feminism is a movement to get there.
W&H: Yes. For me, my work has been about women and raising awareness about women, so I always ask about female directors. But when I started ten years ago, no one talked about this at all.
Ga: I know. It’s crazy. I think it’s amazing that it is such a talking point now and there are organizations like Women In Film
W&H: And Women In Film
have been around for 35 years.
Ga: But it’s really gotten credence now, and people are really taking this kind of thing seriously.
W&H: Do you think that this is a feminist film?
Ga: Yeah. It’s a film that points women in a good light and gives women the space to talk. And we pass the Bechdel test.
W&H: She fights to be equal.
Ga: She does, and she does it in a way that’s not a kind of “Made in Dagenham
W&H: I love that movie.
Ga: I love that movie too — Stephen Woolley
made it, and I did the musical version.
W&H: How was that?
Ga: It was fantastic and one of my proudest moments, doing that play. But, that’s a different thing. It’s a political film and it was about that specific movement.
With this, there’s so much going on, and I think that’s why Lone is such an incredible director. There’s so much going on, and all of these things just kind of happen. They’re not in your face — you can just let them sink in. It’s so fast-paced that there’ll be a sexist remark that makes you gasp, then you’re on to the next thing, and I think it just washes over you. I think that’s more powerful in these kind of movies than shouting about it.
Also, I would hate to call this a feminist movie if it stops people who need to see it from going to see it. Loads of people didn’t see “Suffragette” because they thought, “It’s a feminist movie, and I don’t want to see that kind of movie.”
W&H: Yeah, but everyone went and saw “Beauty and the Beast
Ga: I haven’t seen it, but I think that’s great.
W&H: It’s had the seventh-highest largest opening ever in the United States. Okay, last question: Is there anything that people don’t know that you want them to know about you or the movie? Any misconceptions about Gemma?
Ga: There are a lot of misconceptions about me, but that’s okay. I’d like my work to speak for itself. I don’t feel like I need to prove anything too much — I just want it to go out there and see what it does.
Talks Sexism and Likability in “Their Finest
” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.