There’s not a word uttered in the first I don’t know how many minutes. The men just get down to business, boarding up windows in the sad, anonymous flat, going to the hardware store, soundproofing—the menace begins with their silence. The silence ends with the muffled screams of the woman they snatch off the street, whisk away in their van, and hastily sequester. They gag her, cuff her to a bed, scissor off her clothes, prepare the bedpan, show her the loaded gun. From this claustrophobic set-up things only gradually loosen, or rather unravel. The Disappearance of Alice Creed, J. Blakeson’s feature debut, is taut, bracing, immensely resourceful, and twisty as all hell, sometimes too much so for its own good.
Best then to say as little as possible about the narrative, but it should spoil very little to discuss the acting. The always marvelous Eddie Marsan as the elder of the kidnapping duo is riveting, a control freak prone to losing control, a barking attack dog who just wants to have his belly rubbed, his goatee rendering his face rat-like every time he blows his top and the crinkles round his nose bunch up as though about to crack. As the junior, cutie-pie criminal, Martin Compston, the young actor who made an auspicious debut in Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen, has a tougher time in a perhaps unfairly demanding part as the centre of more than one game of trust. But I'm guessing it’s Gemma Arterton as Alice that you’re probably most curious about.
Arterton drew attention for her brief but memorable role in Quantum of Solace—mostly the sort of attention that’s accompanied by involuntary salivating—before appearing in such straightjacketing and spectacularly lame mega-movies as The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and the new Clash of the Titans. Her name has of late most often been preceded by the term “Bond Girl,” which seems condescending when weighed against her RADA training, her eponymous role in BBC’s Tess d’Urbervilles, her already impressive body of stage work, and her upcoming starring roles in Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe and Burden of Desire, in which she’ll play a Haligonian. None of which, I freely confess, was I even aware of before preparing to interview her. But I suspect Arterton’s profile is about to change.
I met with Arterton in the lobby of a Toronto hotel. She was genuinely lovely, very friendly, thoughtful and chatty, twisting her dark locks while working through her responses. She seemed happy just to be discussing work that didn’t involve her wearing copper bikinis or enunciating hambone lines about time and destiny.
JB: What drew you to this project? It promised to put you into some nasty situations and couldn’t have seemed like the most appetizing shoot.
Gemma Arterton: It was appetizing to me because I’d just finished a film that I felt like I hadn’t acted in at all, or if I had it must have been terrible. So I wanted to make sure I could still act! [Laughs] I wanted to choose something really terrifying, something difficult. I also just liked the script. I was mostly getting things just like the things I’d already done and they mostly seemed really boring. I knew if I kept playing those roles my shelf life would expire quickly. This script came along because the casting director was a believer in me. I read it and thought it was brilliant. It was a glamourless role, very raw, visceral, so I went to meet J. He later confessed that before we met he just assumed I wouldn’t be able to do it. His preconceptions were absolutely fair. People don’t know what you can do until you do it.
JB: I guess he hadn’t seen your stage work? Or Tess?
GA: No, he hadn’t seen the stage work, and Tess isn’t really his type of TV. But I finally went in to read for it and he gave me the part on the spot.
JB: Were you at all nervous about placing yourself in such a vulnerable position with someone who hadn’t made a feature before?
GA: You know, I probably should have been. I guess I’m just a very trusting person. But the script made me think he must have a very good mind for psychology, and his short film showed tremendous potential. Everybody has to start somewhere. Someone gave me a role once that they probably had doubts about. Sometimes you just have to have faith. It was actually kind of great that he was a first-time director because he kept discovering what the film was really about along with the rest of us, and that’s how it should always be on a film set. It felt like a genuinely collaborative effort, very free and creative, which was such a contrast for me having previously made these very controlled movies.
JB: You spend so much time bound and gagged. Were there moments when things became too claustrophobic?
GA: I’m not the type of actor that likes to get too carried away. I always go for it in a scene, but as much as I can I then try to snap out of it right afterwards, you know, tell a joke, take a brake. But there were scenes where it got to be too much. There was one particular scene where I got so wound up. I asked them please to take me out of the handcuffs, and I ran into the toilet—which was actually the toilet you see in the film—locked myself in and just… [loudly gasps for air]. I just needed to get it out, but then I went back and we got on with it. When you’re crying all day it takes its toll. That’s only natural, that it emotionally wears you down. By the end I was just exhausted.
JB: Did you ever feel like you were playing multiple roles? You have these layers of acting going on, one being you, Gemma, trying to inhabit Alice, another being Alice trying to play the willing participant in, well, let’s just call it a scheme within the scheme.
GA: It’s true. Some of the most satisfying scenes to play are the ones where Alice is lying. One of my favourite screen acting moments ever is where Ben Kingsley’s lying about smoking on the plane in Sexy Beast. It’s brilliant because he’s making it up as he goes along. The audience knows that—you can see him calculating it in his head and yet it’s so subtle. Anyway, for me, as soon as I plan something it just becomes terrible. But if you’re very alert and working closely with your fellow actor it usually comes together. Eddie and Martin are fantastic. Even when the camera was just on me they would give it their best. Sometimes you’d hear them say, “Jesus, I just gave my best performance when the camera wasn’t even on me!” [Laughs]
JB: But of course their performance, albeit indirectly, does wind up on screen, because if things are working in the way you’re describing then what they’re delivering is reflected in what you’re doing, right?
GA: Absolutely. To me it’s so frustrating when actors don’t stick around when they’re not on camera. My first-ever job I had to do a scene—it was a Stephen Poliakoff film—and the actress I was working against wasn’t there. My first-ever acting job and for my whole scene I was doing it to a cross with a prompt reading the lines. What does Stanislavski say? Acting is reacting. If you give, they give. That’s how you get the best work. I have to say I was genuinely petrified at times with Alice because Eddie was so scary. Sometimes I didn’t know if he was going to punch me. Of course he was completely in control.
JB: He’s also scarier with the beard.
GA: I know! He’s actually got this cuddly, kind face.
JB: Sort of gnome-like.
GA: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s right. He’s the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet, always all, “Darling, are you all right?” Then as soon as he puts the balaclava on and starts shouting it’s terrifying. He snaps right in and out of it. That’s proper acting.
JB: Though it’s extremely selective with what it reveals, the film seems to demand that you imply a great deal of back-story for Alice.
GA: I did create a lot of back-story. I made all these little films of myself—I had quite a bit of free time out there on the Isle of Man. It was really helpful to get a sense of who Alice was. But when it came to performing all that work seemed really irrelevant because Alice’s situation is so extreme. If there were a film about Alice Creed before being kidnapped you’d see a completely different person than the Alice in our film. Over its course she transforms, becomes much more brutal, ruthless and manipulative. It’s her method of survival.
JB: In a way, your character remains the most mysterious, doesn’t she? We actually learn far more about her captors.
GA: I love that, because we’re usually so spoon-fed in cinema nowadays. I get frustrated with that. It’s nice not knowing every detail.
JB: Does playing a character like Alice, being at the centre of such a traumatic story, teach you something about others or yourself you weren’t aware of before?
GA: I learned a lot about thinking on the spot, the fight or flight thing. Your brain goes to this other place where you lose sense of time and space. And I learned a lot about myself actually, and about my work. One of the reasons I was making this movie was because I doubted myself quite a lot. I wasn’t sure if I could access those things needed for the role. What I learned was that if you’re focused on working intensely with the other person you can achieve almost anything. You’ve got the director to support you. You’ve got the other actors. You’re not doing it on your own.