Gemma Arterton interview: The Girl With All The Gifts

Gemma Arterton chats to us about The Girl With All The Gifts, Watership Down, and Hansel & Gretel 2...

You might roll your eyes at yet another zombie movie – but The Girl With All The Gifts is genuinely something different. Based on Mike Carey’s critically acclaimed novel, it envisions a future Britain where society has been ravaged by a fungal disease that turns its victims into mindless homicidal cannibals. Where the film gets interesting, though, is that the timeline has reached a point where there is a generation of kids being born with a mutation of the infection, that seemingly lets them regain some of their cognitive functions.

In an underground bunker, a team of scientists led by Glenn Close, attempt to find a cure, and one girl in particular (played by excellent newcomer Sennia Nanua) seems to hold the answer. But after a security breach they a forced to go on the run, along with her optimistic teacher (Gemma Arterton) and a cynical soldier (Paddy Considine).

The film is a low key, intelligent take on the zombie movie, with some powerful undercurrents about the generational divide – it’s a film more influenced by George Romero’s social commentary than his blood and gore. Yet it also doesn’t skimp on the tension, and is a great adventure through a deserted Britain. We caught up with Gemma Arterton to talk about the film, it’s subtexts, and also what we can expect from the new Watership Down.

You made your film debut playing a schoolgirl in St Trinian’s, and now you’re playing a teacher – does that mean you’ve moved onto the next phase of your career?

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I guess! Now I’m getting asked to play teachers, and mothers, and business people, and I’m so much happier playing those parts! I’m definitely well into the next phase.

When you first got the script, did you think of it as a zombie move? There have been a lot of movies that actively avoid the word ‘zombie’, but this does really feel like a new approach. You really can’t tell that’s where it’s going to go from the opening scenes.

I didn’t know it was a zombie film. I think I was just sent the script and a brief outline of what creative work had been done [so far], and that was it. So I just started reading it, and then the word ‘hungry’ came up, and I thought this is like a monster type thing. I guess they’re not like regular zombies. I could feel that it was a genre movie obviously, but it felt much more routed in reality. The scenes were very, very well written – there were heavy dialogue scenes, and not just loads of exposition and action. It felt like a proper, human story, and that’s what got me.

12 year old Sennia Nanua is brilliant in the lead role, and it’s incredible that it’s her first film. What was she like on-set? Was she nervous at all?

I think she was a bit nervous at first, but then she was totally into it. And loved every minute of it. She’s a real natural, and was totally professional. She is really fantastic around adults – I think that’s something kids can get nervous at. She’s very grown up, and quite worldly. We did chemistry readings with 10 or so actresses and she just had this command, this elegance and poise. She was also quite naive and sweet, which we needed, but she really threw herself into it. She just carried the whole film. To do that at 12 years old, surrounded by the likes of Glenn Close and Paddy Considine, it’s not easy, and she was running rings around them. I really think she’s someone to watch.

The relationship between your character and Sennia’s character is the backbone to the film – how did you bond with her? Did you mentor her as an actor at all?

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I wasn’t really a mentor, I don’t think she really needed that – she was totally capable. But I was there for her. We were all aware of her being really brave and strong and not wanting to show that she was tired, but I was the one she could have a chat with. We were like friends. And we also messed around a lot together. But yeah, it was very important that our relationship was very natural and it felt like that anyway.

The film is about adults versus kids. There’s a lot of horror films about evil kids and adults’ fears of them, but this one seems even more directly about generational conflict, that the kids are evolving into something that will inevitably replace the main characters, with new values and a new way of doing things. Was that a subtext you thought about making it?

I think that Mike Carey completely had that in his head {when he wrote the novel}. Then Brexit happened, and it just felt like, wow, our grandparents are voting to leave, and all the kids are saying no – this is the world that we want to have and {the older generation} won’t let us be. And it just felt relevant. I could listen to Mike Carey talk social politics all day, he’s so fantastic, and I definitely think it was something that he was going for. It was in the script, it was evident. But it didn’t feel like something we were pushing. I loved that the feral kids had their own language. Not being able to communicate with the younger generation is a fear of even my generation now. Thats one of the many interesting things about this film.

What was it like filming in Birmingham pretending it was London?

{Laughs} We had to be careful with the kids because a lot of them were local, and we had to make them lose their Birmingham accents! But apart from that, it was funny actually because it made me feel a little bit sad – obviously Birmingham is developed, but a lot of the surrounding towns have been a little bit forgotten because of changing industry, so it just felt like this sort of sad place. It felt appropriate for the film – this place that used to be so industrious during the Industrial Revolution, just now overgrown.

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You’ve been in quite a few interesting horror/genre movies now – this, The Voices, Byzantium – is that something you’re interested in?

I don’t know. I like films that are bit odd. I just like films that when I read the script, I think “That’s a bit different.” With Byzantium it was that Moira Buffini had written this amazing script – it didn’t turn out the way it had been written. I guess with The Voices, I just loved the idea of it, it was tongue-in-cheek and funny. I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of blood and gore and that sort of stuff. I do like pushing into genre, I wouldn’t say I’m an out-and-out genre lover, but I like films that nudge into it.

You’re a voice in the new Watership Down – can you tell us about it?

I think that it’s going to be beautiful. The script is excellent, and it’s not going to be 2D animation. It’s sort of like a painting, I’ve seen some of the artwork. They are obviously animating it with CGI, but they are still having that sort of hand drawn quality. It’s got a really incredible cast of actors voicing it. From what I’ve seen, it’s going to be fantastic.

But again, similarly with The Girl With All The Gifts, it’s so relevant to what’s happening now, about turfing people out of their homes, and immigration, and war amongst your friends and family. It feels the right time.

Is it going to be as violent?

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Yes! It has to be. That film has to be violent for it to have an impact.

Finally – I really liked Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, even if it seems no-one else did! Is there still any talk of a sequel?

It was a great silly little film! No, I think they were going to, but now director Tommy Wirkola is taking over the world, and Jeremy Renner is as well, so it just didn’t work out. There was talk of it being on TV, but I’ve got nothing to do with that, and I don’t think any of the original people do.

Gemma Arterton, thank you very much!