Gemma Arterton on Her Latest Period Drama ‘Summerland’ and the Importance of LGBTQ Stories
English actress Gemma Arterton is no stranger to period films, but in “Summerland,” a cozy and life-affirming drama set during World War II, she has the opportunity to show a different side of herself. While the film has romance, her character, writer Alice Lamb, isn’t your typical romantic heroine. Living alone in a remote village, she prefers her work and her own company to any other person, but her world is put into a tailspin after a young boy, Frank (Lucas Bond), an evacuee from the London Blitz, arrives on her doorstep.
Arterton recently spoke at length with Entertainment Voice about taking on the role of Alice, whose cantankerous nature, fierce independence, and disdain for community events have earned her a reputation of being an oddball — some local children even believe that she is a witch. However, she has emotional scars from being left by her true love, and once Frank invades her life, some of her youthful innocence is recaptured, and a surprise twist in the third act sees her past coming together with her present.
Originally, Arterton read the script, which was written by her close friend and collaborator, acclaimed playwright and theater director Jessica Swale, with a view to produce. In an earlier version, Alice was older. “I just fell in love with the story. It really took my breath away, actually. I remember reading it on the sofa at home and just bursting into tears and being really surprised by the twist. I really wanted to be involved in making it happen.”
Afterwards, she called Swale. “I said, ‘Let’s make this and you should direct it.’ At that point, she hadn’t directed anything on screen. And then, she said, ‘Why don’t I rewrite it so you can play Alice?’ That’s a real gift, because I hadn’t played anyone like that before. It was a real opportunity for me to flex another muscle.”
“I think we’re quite different,” said Arterton when asked if she related to Alice, a strikingly unusual woman for her time. “She’s unapologetic, which is so not me. I’m very, very apologetic. I guess I did relate to her in the sense that she’s very driven, very into her work. The thing that I most related to is this innate spirituality that she has lost over the years and become a cynic. It had been there, and it’s something that, meeting Frank, he brings that all back to her. I definitely am someone who believes in a higher power or something like that. Apart from that, it was a pretty big departure for me.”
Although Arterton has never never experienced a responsibility as massive as having a child thrust upon her, she certainly related to that feeling of being overwhelmed and unprepared. “Of Course, there are things where you think, “My god, I don’t know how to do this. How am I going to manage this?’ Then you kind of have to change the way that you approach things, and your perspective has changed. Throughout my career, I guess there’s been moments like that.”
Like all children, Frank is curious, and his questions lead to Alice’s letting down her walls. We see this especially after Frank asks her why she’s not married and she admits to having loved someone once. “We shot that scene in five minutes,” recalled Arterton. “We had to get it because the sun was going down. It was one of those sort of serendipitous scenes where we just sort of did it. I really loved the energy of that scene. The relationship between us, that’s pure Lucas being Lucas. He was just perfect for the part of Frank, very, very cheeky and inquisitive.”
But the turning point comes when Alice admits to having been in love with a woman. Frank’s acceptance of her being gay brings her to tears. Arterton revealed that this was her favorite scene. “I just remember reading that scene and thinking it was so beautiful and progressive, and the innocence of a young child just accepting somebody for who they are, without all of the hang-ups we’re taught throughout life, without the prejudices and such that came him through the years due to society and upbringing and whatnot, how disarming the innocent child can be.”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, another actress who is also always at ease in period roles, plays Vera, Alice’s former lover who appears mostly in flashbacks. According to Arterton, she was the perfect person to play the part of “someone, if you were in a relationship with them and they broke up with you, you’d never get over it.”
“She is really irresistible. And, as a person, she has a real positive energy. She lights up a room when she comes into it. She’s so up for anything. There’s a scene where we had to jump into a lake and it was freezing. We were laughing our heads off because it was so ridiculous. Why would anyone want to jump into a lake in October? (Laughs).” Luckily, Swale told them to have fun with the scene as opposed to trying too hard to be romantic.
Arterton gushed about shooting on location in a picturesque part of East Sussex, especially Alice’s seaside residence, a house full of character that eventually becomes a warm home. “We were so, so lucky to be able to shoot there. It’s a very protected part of the English Riviera. That house, it was like it was [constructed] for ‘Summerland.’ The lady who lives in the house, Carolyn, she had never allowed anyone to shoot in her house before. She’d been asked many times and always said no. We approached her, and she read the script and said, ‘Oh, gosh, you have to shoot this film here. It’s my house.’ We were so blessed to always have that view, the view from the house.”
The beautiful weather, which was unseasonable for the fall months in which they were shooting, also made for a halcyon setting. “If you’ve ever been to the U.K., it easily rains, but we had this amazing weather through the whole of the shoot. All the crew was sitting out on the cliffs eating their lunch everyday. It was really idyllic.”
Adding to the richness of the experience was the fact that Arterton got to work so closely with a trusted friend. “This was her first feature. We made a short film together before this. She’s directed a lot in the theater before, but this was a whole new landscape for her. She took it on so energetically and gracefully. It’s so nice working with a friend, there’s this kind of shorthand there. You can have these secret conversations in the evenings about how you want to do the scenes and things like that, and I felt I could call her anytime to talk about the scenes and how it should be. And there was a real trust between us.”
Arterton also worked extensively with Swale during pre-production, beginning with the rewrite of the script. “We even went to Cannes together to sell the film. That was the first time I’d ever done that. We were really invested in it. She knows what she wants, but she’s very good at letting you try stuff out and be free, and that’s always great in a director.”
“Summerland” comes just three years after Arterton starred in “Their Finest,” another film set during WWII. “I don’t think it’s an intentional thing,” she answered when asked what brought her back to that period. “We have a great tradition in the U.K. of making period films, and we all enjoy watching them. I think the second World War from a female perspective is quite interesting. Definitely, ‘Their Finest’ is a reaction to seeing a lot of male-gazed war films, and the experience of what it was like at home for the women.”
Although the war plays a major role in “Summerland,” Alice and her neighbors seem far removed from the atrocities. “‘Summerland’ could be set now,” reasoned Arterron. “I think the only reason we set it during the second world war was that so it could be an evacuee story, an excuse for a boy turning up on someone’s doorstep.”
She continued, “I always really enjoy making period films. I like putting myself into different periods and how you have to adapt your performance accordingly, and all the research that goes into learning about that period and what was going on.”
Arterton also played a lesbian in last year’s “Vita & Virginia,” another film set during a time in which women who loved other women were mostly forced to keep their private lives hidden. What does it mean to her to be able to bring to life these LGBTQ stories?
“I think it’s so important. People have always been gay. There’s always been people who fall in love with people of the same sex and their stories haven’t been told, or maybe they couldn’t even tell them at the time. And, also, for the people who are watching the film, for them to relate to characters from another era is really, really important.”
Arterton pointed out the significance of the commercial success of films like “The Favourite.” “The more that we show people from diverse backgrounds and sexual orientations, the more accepted, hopefully, they will be in society. “
Are there any time periods that Arterton has yet to visit in her work that she would like to? “I would love to do the seventies. That was such a cool time. I do, actually, have a couple projects in the pipeline that are set in the seventies. And, also, I think I’d like to do something that’s set in the late eighteenth century, with all those crazy outfits and wigs that were going on at that time.”
Next up, Arterton will play a nun in the limited series “Black Narcissus,” an adaptation of Rumer Godden’s novel. “It’s about a group of nuns who travel to Nepal to set up a nunnery and their faith is completely challenged when they get there.”
She’ll also be co-starring in the blockbuster “The King’s Man.” “It’s a prequel to the ‘Kingsmen’ films with Ralph Fiennes and Rhys Ifans and Djimon Hounsou. I’m really excited about it. It’s really good fun. I play a nanny called Polly who is quite badass. And, going forward from that, I have four or five projects that I’m producing that are in the pipeline and will hopefully go next year, and I’m doing a French film this summer.”
In the meantime, Arterton has been making the most of her time while she and the rest of the entertainment industry wait patiently for productions to start back up again. “Jessica Swale and I are actually writing a TV series together at the moment. It’s a new endeavor for me, because I’ve never written before, and that’s been great. And I’ve been using the time to develop stuff my production company has. Usually, when I’m ff doing acting stuff, it’s quite hard to focus on that stuff. It’s been really good, actually, to have the time to knuckle down with that and get stuff ready.”
“Summerland” releases July 31 on VOD.