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Why ‘Their Finest’ Star Gemma Arterton Shies Away From Term ‘Strong Female Character’

British actress Gemma Arterton has specialized in playing versions of famous heroines in literature, be it Elizabeth Bennet or Tess of the D’Urbervilles or the tough-as-nails star of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” But in her latest film, “Their Finest,” she’s thrilled to be playing an “ordinary” woman.

Based on Lissa Evans’ novel “Their Finest Hour and a Half” and directed by Lone Scherfig (“An Education”), the film is set in London during World War II when the British ministry was utilizing propaganda films to boost morale. Arterton plays Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is brought on to handle the women’s dialogue — commonly referred to as “the nausea.” The film, opening this week, features an outstanding ensemble, including Bill Nighy as a washed-up actor and Sam Claflin as Catrin’s fellow writer and sparring partner.

Arterton is next set to play Vita Sackville-West in “Vita and Virginia,” about her relationship with Virginia Woolf. She spoke to Variety about working with female directors, remarkable women, and why she shies away from the term “strong female character.”

How did this story find its way to you?
I’m friends with the producer, Stephen Woolley, who I worked with on “Byzantium,” and he sent it to me. I read the book as well, which is fantastic. You’re always looking for untold stories and many times they’re women’s stories. What surprised me is that it centers around a woman who’s really quite timid. I guess she’s allowed to be because all of the other characters around her are so full. I found that to be really refreshing, a film about a woman finding her voice.

She does some amazing things, but you’ve said you liked that she was kind of ordinary.
Right, it’s nice to show a woman who’s capable and makes her own choices, but has her own pitfalls and difficulties and stumbles along to find their way. It’s more inspiring and tangible to me. I think it’s important to tell stories about women, both the ordinary and extraordinary.

There’s long been a lack of strong female characters on screen, but do you find that’s improving?
I actually prefer the term “female-centric” instead of “strong female” because I don’t think you always have to be strong in films to be an interesting character. But, yes, I do think it’s changing. We’re still seeing male-driven films, but there are more and more movies interested in telling these stories. And we have so many great champions.

Have you worked much with female directors? And was the atmosphere on this set different in any way?
I have — weirdly in the last few years, it’s sort of what I’ve been doing. I put it out there I wanted to work with more women and several projects came along. And this was different. It’s not just about having a female director, there was just more women on set in every position. And when that happens, they feel like they can be themselves more. Plus, Lone is just amazing. She gives you so much of her time and she’s so smart and has such an understanding of text and what actors need.

You have terrific chemistry with Sam Claflin in this film; did that develop naturally?
I think it happened naturally. We’d met a couple of times. Oddly enough, the first day of the shoot was our first kiss. We were both really nervous, obviously. He actually pushed me over by accident — I had a massive bruise on my leg. It started like that.

Is there a secret to good chemistry?
Honestly, a good casting director is key. Lucy Bevan cast us, and she knew us both and I think she knew we would get along. I don’t have chemistry with everyone. Sometimes you can really like someone and it’s not there. I was dating someone in real life and we did a film and we were supposed to be falling in love. You see the film and there’s nothing there. You’re like: “Well, that didn’t work out for a reason.”

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