The first time we see Gemma Arterton in her new film, Byzantium, she is biting off the nose of a lecherous punter in a lap-dancing club.
Soon after, dressed in a stripper's outfit and running shoes, she shows a good turn of speed for a 200-year-old soucouyant and then garottes another man with cheese wire. Byzantium is a vampire film, but we already know it's altogether darker, sexier and more gleeful than some recent incarnations of the genre. At the heart of the action are Clara (Arterton) and her daughter, Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan), and their battle against an all-male cabal that wants to hunt them down.
The 27-year-old Arterton has always been drawn to the weird and eclectic – the film that made her want to become an actress was Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark – but that has not stopped the girl from Gravesend being wooed by Hollywood. Popcorn-friendly roles in Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia have been interspersed with smart, subversive turns in The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe. On the phone from Berlin, we spoke about big and little films, clubbing in your 50s and the secret of a perfect lemon meringue pie.
What are you doing in Berlin?
I'm shooting a film called The Voices directed by Marjane Satrapi, who is brilliant. She's a graphic novelist who did a book and film called Persepolis. I've never had such a good feeling with a director – she's incredible and I'm really happy because I know we're making good stuff.
I've heard a little about The Voices; it sounds quite an odd premise. Something about an evil pet cat and a good pet dog…
It's about a guy who has schizophrenia and we see the world from his point of view. It's hyper-real, hyper-colourful. His cat and dog talk to him, which he thinks is completely normal, and he works in a toilet factory, which he thinks is the best place in the world. There are various women he works with in the factory and he ends up accidentally killing one of them, which is me, and then he chops my body up and puts it in the fridge. My head is talking to him while it's in the fridge. But sometimes the camera pans off out of his vision and into the reality of his life, which is horrifying. It's like Psycho meets Fargo and it's one of the best scripts I've ever read.
Byzantium has been called a "neo-feminist vampire movie" – is that how you see it?
Yeah, I guess so. Moira Buffini, the writer, is a real feminist and that's how she proposed it to me. There's this massive contradiction in the film in that my character, Clara, is a woman who sells her body and also ends up killing people she doesn't think are worthy of this world, such as pimps and rapists. So she uses her sexuality to do that.
Moira used this line and I loved it: she said: "It's more fuck you than fuck me." But it's more complicated than that, because it's about what it is to be a single parent, and how hard that is and how brilliant you have to be as a person to get through it for 200 years.
Your mother brought up you and your sister mostly on her own. Was she an inspiration for Clara?
There are similarities. Both Clara and my mother are parents who seem younger than their daughters in many senses. Our house was like a softer version of Absolutely Fabulous at times – this complicated mother-daughter relationship in which sometimes the daughter is the mother.
At what age did you realise that your role was to be the more grown-up one?
Um, when I was about three or four. I think it's part of my personality – I'm quite maternal. My mum and I are both very practical; we are real doers and we are both very creative, and any artistic ability I might have comes from her. She always had music and art in the house and was always painting and visiting places. But in terms of our personalities, we're quite different.
Is it true that she has started clubbing again in her 50s?
She's been clubbing for the past 20 years. That's what she does.
Are you at home waiting for her, looking at your watch?
No, I go clubbing with her sometimes. Whenever I tell people that she does that they are so shocked, but loads of people in their 50s go clubbing. It's not that odd.
In Byzantium, Clara goes into this male-dominated realm and sets about restoring some balance. Is that a metaphor for your experience of working in the film industry?
The film world's not as harsh as that! There's definitely inequality, it's very prevalent, but in Byzantium she's flat-out rejected, so she has this vengeance. I don't want to sound scathing of the industry but I see things all the time that are not great for women when it comes to equality. But it is changing; I don't think it's as boys' clubby as it was.
What can you do about it?
This year, I'm only working with female directors, coincidentally; Marjane is the first. And I'm starting my own production company so that I can be a little more instrumental in the whole process. You need to take it into your own hands and create parts for women, and for female writers and directors. Otherwise, the process can be quite frustrating.
Is it still the case that it's hard to get financing for a project if, like Byzantium, the leads are women?
Yes, it's true. Very much so, unless you get someone properly famous in the lead role. We are talking very, very famous.
How many women are there like that: one, two, a dozen?
If you got someone like Natalie Portman to play Clara, then it probably would have got financing immediately. But because they were going for people who weren't as well-established – and probably cheaper as well, let's be honest – it's harder. Originally, we had somebody quite well-known playing the Darvell part in Byzantium, which Sam Riley plays, and he dropped out at the last minute and all the funding just went down the drain. And he's not even in the film that much. So it just goes to show that backers like to know that they have got a famous male lead in there.
Much of Clara's clothing comes from Soho sex shops. Were you involved in picking the outfits?
Yeah, we wanted the clothing that she wore to be part of her kit, part of her killing kit, so everything was very conscious. The costume designer, Consolata Boyle, is very put together and sensible and it was fun going to these shops with her and her looking at the fabric quality and the seams. These clothes were so disgusting, but she'd go: "Ooh, it's very beautiful, this colour."
It looks like you worked out a lot for the role. Would you have reacted differently if you had been asked to lose weight rather than tone up?
Definitely. I wanted to make it believable that Clara could kill somebody and overwhelm someone. So many times, I see films where the woman is too feeble and I don't believe it. I wanted her to be dangerous and lethal. There's nothing worse than when you see a woman killing a guy and you think, yeah, you'd probably snap if they pushed you over.
You've always mixed Hollywood blockbusters with smaller independent films. Is it hard to turn down the big money when you're offered it?
I actually made a decision at Christmas only to do stuff that I really care about. When I started, I always tried to do theatre, so I never thought about the career of a film actress, what that entailed. Because in the theatre, you're so free to do whatever you want, there are no repercussions. When you do film, you have to be a bit more careful because the stuff is around for ever and you can watch it two years later on a plane and think, oh for fuck's sake, it's still going around, that film…
So you have to learn to say no?
At first, I was grateful to be considered for anything, but you have to get over that and be a bit more responsible. At the moment, I'm thinking, what is it I really want to say? Who do I want to work with? It means shutting out a lot of stuff, which is scary because then you might be broke or you might not get work for ages. But you feel better in your heart. So I think that's what I'm going through at the moment, which is quite cool because I get to make a film like The Voices. It just makes me feel better in my heart – it's wanky that, but it's fundamental too.
Are you still pleased you did the Bond film Quantum of Solace?
Yeah, I don't have any shame in that one. That was really a good experience for me. Sometimes, me and my agent have chats and I go: "God, I wish I hadn't done so-and-so film" and she says: "Don't say that because it's all part and parcel of where you are now." It's true I can't really say that because, who knows, maybe I wouldn't have been able to do Byzantium without that profile kick.
Whose career do you admire or aspire to?
I don't aspire to anyone's career, although there are actors who I think are good. I think Emily Watson is wonderful, and someone like Rachel Weisz has done a thing that I'd like to do, playing around with genres and theatre. Everyone always talks about film, but theatre's equally important to me.
I've heard you are a serious cook. What's your signature dish?
I'm quite well-known for my lemon meringue pie. I make it from scratch: you have to make your own lemon curd and you have to make your own pastry. The pastry has got to be a good bake because the lemon curd is heavy and soft and wet. Then of course there's the meringue on top, which is notoriously tricky. I make it quite tart and lemony, and if you get it right, yum.
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image: © Dave McLear