In her latest screen project, “Funny Woman,” Gemma Arterton (“The King’s Man”) plays a beauty queen turned comedy queen at the height of the Swinging Sixties.
Based on Nick Hornby’s book of the same name and adapted for screen by writer and comedian Morwenna Banks (“Slow Horses”), “Funny Woman” tells the story of Barbara (played by Arterton) who, after winning the title of Miss Blackpool, decamps to London to seek her fortune. There she finds herself moving into comedy before landing the lead in a hit sitcom.
The show, which Arterton also executive produced, explores stereotypes, feminism, class and societal change. “We’ve got it running through our series, this thing of, ‘Well, you can’t be funny and attractive,’ which is an outdated notion now, especially in the last 10 years, but it wasn’t for a very long time,” Arterton says. “[Society] put women in boxes like that.”
Hornby’s book, while fiction, was inspired by real events and real people. “I met up with him during the shoot, and I said, ‘So where did it come from?’” she recalls. “And he said he had been talking to an actress who was very glamorous but she’s also very, very funny and nobody knows this, because she’s never given the opportunity to do that side. He said he wanted to write something that challenged the funny woman.”
Read on to find out how Arterton came to star in and produce “Funny Woman,” which drops in the U.K. on Sky Max and streamer NOW on Feb. 9, and her future plans.
How did you get involved in “Funny Woman”?
So it was a bit of a weird situation. My production company, Rebel Park, we read the book when it came out, and loved it and tried to get the rights to make it into a film or TV series or something. But they’d already been snapped up by this other production company called Potboiler. So we were like, “Oh okay, leave it be.” And then three years later, or something like that, I was sent the pilot episode by Potboiler, and they said, “Would you like to play Barbara, and come on board and co-produce it with us?” I was like, “This is crazy.” It was really serendipitous and it was such a no-brainer, because obviously I loved the story anyway, but what they’d done, getting Morwenna Banks to write it, was genius because she’s so perfect for this project. She grew up in comedy, she’s worked in comedy her whole life. She is kind of Barbara in a way.
What appealed to you about the project?
First of all, the character of Barbara […] I connect very much with her. It’s a character that maybe people would not expect me to play because they think I play all these demure, strict people, but I’m not like that at all, I’m really, really silly. I love being funny and love making people laugh. And she’s from a working class background and all of this other stuff that runs through the series, about class and all of that. [And] I’m always drawn to things that show the behind the scenes, you know, the writers’ room and how things are made. All my favourite scenes in the book and in our series were when they’re coming up with this [sitcom] and creating that.
The [Sixties] is definitely my favourite period; if I could have lived then that would be when I would go back in time, it was such a turning point culturally and societally, so much going on at that time that was just blowing up what had happened before and it was a really exciting time. So it just all felt like a really fun thing to explore.
What’s the experience of having that behind-the-scenes input as a producer been like?
It’s great. When you’re an actor, you come on at the end of a long process that’s been going on for years and you kind of take for granted how much work has gone into getting a project to that point where they’re shooting it. I mean, sometimes it takes years and years and years and lots of knockbacks and changes of writers or changes of directors, whatever it may be. But [producing] is really satisfying and what I really love is putting projects together and thinking about the team, whether that’s behind the scenes, so the production designer, the DOP, the costume designer, all of that, and then the cast and putting it all together. You feel then you’re putting out work that is what you imagined. Sometimes I’ve struggled with seeing a film if I’ve not produced it and going, “Oh, I would have done it differently.” I definitely feel like with “Funny Woman” – all of the creative decisions – we really, really thought about everything, and it just feels like what you see is what we intended.
What kind of preparation did you do to play Barbara?
Because we’ve been developing it for years, I did loads of prep for a long time. But one of the most important things that I did was a clowning workshop […] I started off doing physical theatre, that’s where I came from, really, that’s what made me want to be an actress. So I’ve always loved kind of devising and, you know, playing around and stuff. And we did this workshop for a week where I just wore a red nose and was finding my inner clown. But it was really, really helpful. And there are scenes in “Funny Woman” where I know I’ve put the metaphorical nose on. You can’t see it but I’m wearing it and that was really helpful. Morwenna is an expert in women in comedy. She has literally written books about women in comedy and she gave me loads of stuff. She’s a font of knowledge in this particular subject.
[Also] a lot of watching of comedy. Lucille Ball is Barbara’s idol and growing up I hadn’t watched “I Love Lucy” or any of Lucille Ball. So I bought an “I Love Lucy” boxset. I watched that and that really informed a lot of the physicality to her comedic style and a lot of comedy from that time.
What was it about wearing a red nose that changed how you moved and emoted?
Well, it’s like a mask. As soon as you put it on something else happens. It’s weird. So you could do exercises with other masks, and I did wear different noses and I did wear different masks and stuff. But the redness, I don’t know, there’s something that you find… this sort of innocence and open-to-the-world and that’s the clown thing, I think. There’s an innocence that we needed to find. Front-footed but also this innocence, that’s what my clown was. Very clumsy, very outgoing. I felt like she would get herself into scrapes very often, very accident prone, run into things. There was one day I did actually crash into a door and almost knocked myself out.
Is it tricky to film a dramatic show about comedy?
We’ve been really kind of caught up in that because obviously, there’s “funny” in the title and it’s got comedy in it, but it isn’t really [a comedy]. I’d say it obviously has funny moments, but there are also loads of dramatic moments and important issues and things like that. I was more concerned about the comedic side because for me that was a new thing that I hadn’t [done before]. I felt like all the other stuff is the drama stuff, I can do that. It didn’t feel hard to film something about comedy. I think that’s probably because Morwenna is an amazing writer and it was all in the script and we didn’t have to worry too much. She had a really good balance, I think, of the comedic moments and when they needed to land and then other stuff.
You act and produce – would like to direct someday as well?
It’s definitely something that I feel like I will do. It’s just about commitment. I find it hard to commit to something for so long and with directing, you do have to commit to it. As an actor, you come in, you do it, and then you forget about it for two years, and then it comes out again. Whereas with directing, you’re living with it until it comes out. So I think it will have to be something that I really love, really believe in, and that hasn’t come to me yet. And I have thought about directing theatre as well. Maybe I’ll start there.
Is there a role that you that you really would love to play someday that you haven’t had the opportunity to do yet?
I don’t think so. Again, I’ve got friends that are like, “I will play Medea, I will play Lady Macbeth” and I don’t have that. I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just a bit too airy fairy or something but I quite enjoy seeing what happens. Actually funnily enough, it’s more like I’ll read a book and I’ll go, “Oh, if they ever make this into a film, I want to be that part.” It’s usually that.
Apart from “The King’s Man,” it feels like you’ve been choosing slightly more indie projects over the last few years. Is that perception correct?
Yeah, I think it’s just sort of what’s been coming at me as well. I’ve been working on my own stuff that I’ve either been producing or that’s come to me. I’ve exec produced a couple of things like “The Escape” and “Vita and Virginia.” So these are things that I’ve been working on myself. I was talking to a director yesterday that I’ve worked with, he’s like, “You should be in America doing all this stuff.” [But] I’m not going to chase anything. I just feel like if it’s going to come, it’s going to come. I’m a little bit over that hustle and stuff. And I’m happy with the work that I’m doing. For the most part I feel good rather than cringing every time something comes out. I just feel like yeah, it’s smaller, but it’s more satisfying for me creatively. But at the same time, I’m not snooty about the bigger, shinier things. It’s just that you get presented with what you’re presented with.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.