TheatrePeople.com, September 2014
'Our Show Is Special': Gemma Arterton On Made In Dagenham
Interview by Glenn Rice
Made In Dagenham is the West End musical event of the season, and it commences previews at the Adelphi Theatre in just a few weeks on 9 October.
The production is a co-creation of some of the biggest British talents from stage and screen, with a book by Richard Bean of One Man, Two Guvnors, music by James Bond composer David Arnold, lyrics by Jerry Springer The Opera's Richard Thomas and direction by Rupert Goold.
But the jewel in the show's crown is its casting coup of Gemma Arterton in the lead role of Rita O'Grady, a shop steward at the Dagenham Ford Motor plant who leads her fellow women workers in a game-changing strike for equal pay in 1968.
I met her when MID launched to the press in June, with some of the ladies from the real-life Ford Dagenham strike the show is based on also in attendance. I published an excerpt from our conversation then, but with curtain-up imminent, now's the time to present the full text of the interview, in which the Kent-born star talks about Made In Dagenham, stage fright, the dangers of working-class stereotypes, and her other work in London theatre, which includes acclaimed performances in Ibsen's The Master Builder and Webster's The Duchess Of Malfi.
Aside from her vaunted acting chops, Arterton is famous for her combination of aristocratic beauty and unaffected, unpretentious girl-next-door attitude. Justly so – she's lovely in both senses. What gets mentioned less often is the infectious cackle that regularly punctuates the breezy cadences of her speech.
How did you come to be in the show?
I'd seen the film, which I loved, and I thought it was absolutely amazing. It didn't get as many accolades as it should have, but it was so, so brilliant and it moved me a lot. Then two and-a-half years ago I was making a film called Byzantium in Ireland with [Made In Dagenham producer] Stephen Wooley, and he heard me singing, because I had to sing a bit in it, and caught me off guard by giving me a CD and saying 'listen to that'.
It was a rough assemblage of some of the songs from the show, some of which aren't even in it now. And I was sitting in my bath listening to my ballad, which I didn't sing today, and I got goosebumps. I had this vision. It was just so well written - it's so rare in modern musical theatre that you can be so moved by a lyric. And obviously I knew the story because I'd seen the film so I said to him, it's really good, OK, I'll do the workshop.
But I was really nervous because it's a huge deal to agree to do a musical, and also I wasn't a musical theatre actress. But after the first workshop I could see that the script and everything about it was so brilliant that I really had to get over my fears. I wanted to do it more than anything, because of the story and because of the message. So I got over it, and I said yes.
As a fellow Home Counties girl, can you relate to Rita?
What I love is that these were just factory girls who changed politics. Essex girls. That's something that moves me a lot, because it just goes to show that anyone can do anything really. I connect on that level.
There are lots of things about Rita that I've had to pull myself back a bit from in the workshops because actually I'm quite strong, and what's so interesting about her character is that she's not a leader. She's just a mum who works in factory, but she becomes that. So I've had to stop myself from being like that from the beginning.
But I know so many women like Rita, so many women I grew up with. I'm from Kent, I'm not from Essex, but it's not too dissimilar, there are a lot of things about it I connect with. Even Eddie's song [The Letter] that you heard today – that's my dad really, left without someone to cook him his dinner every day. I played it to him the other day and he's, 'God, it's so sad' and I'm, 'it's 'cause it's you, singin' about the fact that you ain't got anyone to do the washin' for you!'
That's what I love about this show – it's very human, it's got something we can all relate to. Sometimes in musical theatre it's so grand and fabulous that it's not real, and we want that, there's a place for that. But this show is different because it's rooted in reality. It has all that fancy frilly stuff - for instance there's a bit where Barbara Castle breaks out and does a big Shirley Bassey-style number - and we want that. But at the same we want grit and reality and we need to tell the story.
Are you a fan of musicals in general?
I'm a massive fan of musicals. When I started that's what we always did. I never went to the theatre, I just watched musicals on telly – Mary Poppins or whatever. That's how it started with me. Then when I started amateur dramatics we'd always do musicals and I've always loved singing. I've always wanted to be in a musical. But I've wanted to be in new one, and not be compared to anyone and able to make it your own - so luckily this one came along.
I love musicals. Actually, all I've been to see recently are musicals. It's bad, 'cause there's loads of really great theatre in London and I've just been going to musicals, to get an idea of how to do it. On Father's Day I took my dad to see Jersey Boys, so I've been seeing all the shows and I love it. When it's done really well it send shivers through your spine.
I saw Sunday In The Park With George when it was at the Wyndham's and I still remember it as one of the great theatre moments for me out of all the things I've ever seen. I was just so moved by everything – the music, everything about it, just went right through me.
You're not from Dagenham, so how have you nailed its character? Have you been there?
I have been to Dagenham. My sister lives in Essex - not Hannah but my other sister Marie, and she's married to an Essex boy from Brentwood. On her wedding it was full of Essex, and also we'd go there for parties, but it's different now.
Funnily enough, where I'm from in Gravesend is just over the river from Dagenham. I was driving 'round the M25 the other day and I thought god, Dagenham's really close to where I grew up, there's just a river in between. It's not too dissimilar but there is a big difference, because when you say 'I'm from Kent', and 'I'm from Essex' it's like a north-south divide.
Are the accents different?
Yes, the Essex accent is different now. The old Essex accent that [the Dagenham Ford plant ladies] have is much more like Medway, where I'm from. They say 'fou-wah', but now in Essex they just say 'four'. But in the old accent it's 'fou-wah', 'mou-wah', 'muvv-ah'; and it's much stronger than you think: 'strong-aah'.
So I've been listening to them today. We're all used to hearing the Essex girls from Made In Essex now, and when the auditions were taking place [the producers] said it was really difficult, because everyone's doing that now and that's not what it was then. It was much more earthy.
Had you met the Dagenham ladies before today?
No, today's the first time. I'm quite moved actually – they just remind me of my nan. I said to them, 'you look really nice' and they said (broad Essex accent) 'Oh yeah, we bin looking forward to it, we make an effort, we do'.
That's what I think is so charming about this story, and so poignant about it - and we talk about this in the script - is that they don't know all the lingo. They go to Parliament and they're all, 'Ooh, Gordon Bennett!' They just know what's right. It's not all about the lingo and what you wear and who you're with.
There's a great bit in the script where one of the characters says to Barbara Castle, 'Tha's C & A, innit?' and Barbara Castle goes (slightly mortified posh voice) 'Yes, it is' and the other character says 'Yeah, the zip goes…'. And it's so brilliant, because that's exactly it; those kind of people take you out of your grandeur and put you in your place, back to the fact that we're all the same really. That's what's so poignant about it.
We've seen some high profile musicals close in recent months. What's your view on the two weeks' notice period for show closures that seems to be in contracts more and more at the moment?
It's like Broadway. It always shocked me that a play could come down like that (snaps fingers) on Broadway, but now it's starting to happen in the UK. It's too expensive to keep the theatre running. There's that, but there's other things…Look at what Rupert [Goold]'s doing at the moment with shows that are transferring. They're selling out theatres and people want to see them because they're good.
Which is not to say that some of the shows that closed down weren't good, because they had something interesting, but I think you've got to be really bloody good to stay on, or you've got to be a show that the coachloads come down to. But for something that's topical you've got to be really brilliant. So obviously I'm nervous about it, we're all nervous about it, but what we can do is make sure our show is special. And I think it is, otherwise I wouldn't have said yes to it, because it's a big commitment.
How long are you booked in for?
So everything else is off.
Oh yeah, there's no phone calls from my agent any more. Hopefully it's because they know I'm in the theatre. Hopefully that's why, ha ha!
You've got three movies in various stages of production, but with The Duchess of Malfi and now this, are you consciously focusing on stage work for the foreseeable future?
It's not a conscious decision, it's just kind of happened that way. Now I'm just focused on this, but I've maybe got a new film I'm doing in the summer and I've got two films that I'm promoting that are totally different to this.
But this is my life for the next nine months. It's lovely, it's nice. The thing I'm most nervous about is that I can't leave the country for the next nine months. Literally two or three times a week I'm off somewhere else, so that's gonna be like 'eek!'. I could go stir crazy, but hopefully I'll be enjoying it.
What are the biggest challenges the show presents, and your role in particular?
Not making the characters stereotypes. The great thing about this script and about the film as well is that there's a collection of women and they're all different, But the danger with Essex girls and working class people is that you do the old (exaggerated Essex drawl) 'Awl-roit' . And there is an element of that, but we're making them individual and rooted in real women.
For me, as I said before, it's making Rita not so bolshie and strong from the outset, and finding her different nuances. There are moments, like when she's at the school and she's totally out of her depth and people are saying all these words just to confuse her. At the same she's like, 'Don't be like that to me!'. She's a great character to act within a musical.
Everybody Out, the protest song you performed today, looks like a lot of fun to do.
Oh, I love that one. But you haven't seen the finale song yet, Stand Up. Everybody Out, that's just the halfway song, ha ha!
How do you think you'll feel at your first preview? Do you get scared?
I quite like being nervous. You might ramp it up a bit too much, but it's musical theatre – it's not like doing Ibsen. I remember when I was really, really nervous doing Ibsen and I thought, I've got to keep it down. Sometimes, the first night you're so nervous that you're running on adrenaline and actually, in Ibsen you've got to push that adrenaline right down.
With this, you can use the adrenaline, it's all right. But I will be absolutely petrified, one hundred per cent. I just walked past the theatre and I'm like, 'Gnaah!' 2000 seats or whatever it is. I don't wanna know!