Bond ambition: Gemma Arteron swaps Thomas Hardy for Ian Fleming

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Gemma Arterton graduated from St Trinian's to star as Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Now she's playing opposite Daniel Craig in the new Bond film. Is this the start of global domination for the girl from Gravesend?

The moment Gemma Arterton heard she'd be the new Bond girl is ingrained on her mind for ever. She was on a boat, just off the coast of Gibraltar, filming the comedy Three and Out with Mackenzie Crook. Dressed in full scuba-diving gear – what else would a prospective Bond girl be wearing? – Arterton answered her mobile phone to her agent, who immediately began humming the James Bond theme down the line; the role of Agent Fields in the 22nd 007 film, Quantum of Solace, was hers. So moved was Crook, he shed a tear for his co-star and uttered, "This is such a big moment in your life."

Crook's assessment has not been lost on the 22-year-old. Raised "in a house of women", as she calls it, Bond was not a big influence on her childhood, yet she's well aware of what it means. "It's such an institution in Britain, and such an iconic thing to be involved in," she says. "I'm so proud of it." At 5ft 7in, with pale skin and a chirpy estuarine accent, she may not be typical Bond girl material. What's more, how many Bond girls can claim to have been born with six fingers – on each hand? "It's my little oddity that I'm really proud of," she says. There's something devil-may-care about her attitude that makes her perfect casting.

The last time I met Arterton was 18 months ago, when she had come to Cannes to promote St Trinian's, the garish update of the film series in which she played the head girl of an anarchic private school. A total unknown, she was still in full costume after a promotional photo-shoot: black bob, crisp white blouse, pencil skirt, seamed stockings and killer high-heels. While she might've been looking "a little bit dominatrixy", there was still a fresh-faced innocence to the girl who had left drama school to come to Cannes. "This is my first feature film, so it's quite exciting," she said, breathlessly. "The casting director said to me, 'You don't know what's hit you yet.' And I said, 'No I don't!'"

Since then, her rise in the industry has been nothing short of staggering. Even before Quantum of Solace hits the screens, Arterton has already this autumn appeared in Guy Ritchie's gangster flick RocknRolla, and taken key roles in two primetime television dramas, Lost In Austen and Tess of the d'Urbervilles. With a forthcoming cameo in Richard Curtis's pirate-radio comedy The Boat That Rocked, you'd think her life would be unmanageable by now. "It's been kind of good," she reflects. "I've been working, working, working, and not had time to do anything else. I don't go out and go to parties and do all of that. That's when you start feeling the change ... I haven't had the opportunity to really be around any fuss, so I don't feel that different – just a bit more tired."

Little wonder she's feeling the strain. When we catch up again, Arterton has just finished a day's filming at Pinewood Studios and is planning a less-than-glamorous evening at her gym in Muswell Hill. She's midway through shooting Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a huge-scale adaptation of the popular Arabian Nights-style video game that will make Quantum of Solace look like a no-budget short.

So far, her anonymity has been preserved because she's barely recognisable from one role to the next. As Thomas Hardy's fated heroine Tess, she has chestnut-brown locks down to her waist; for Bond, she is a redhead. And Prince of Persia has forced her to darken her hair from its natural brunette colouring. "The other day, we were looking at pictures of my career so far – photo-shoots and things like that – and I wouldn't even recognise myself! That's handy because people don't recognise you, which is really nice for me, as I like doing normal things."

Quantum of Solace is set to change all that. Pairing her with Daniel Craig, now in full command of James Bond in what is his second outing, Arterton can claim her casting was destiny. "I was in the car on the way to the audition and the Bond theme tune 'Nobody Does It Better' came on the radio," she recalls. "I thought, 'This is a sign!'" Playing Agent Fields, Bond's MI6 contact in Bolivia when he arrives to investigate a mysterious group called Quantum, she claims that the film is set to continue the reinvention of the franchise that 2006's Casino Royale began. "It's a lot more – I hate to say edgy but it is more edgy. It's dirty and ragged. This one's a desert movie with loads of scummy places. It's not as crisp and slick."

There's no question, Arterton brims with the confidence of youth. You might even call her fearless. "I remember on my first day, everyone saying to me, 'Are you nervous? Are you nervous?' And I was going, 'Yeah, I suppose so.' But I wasn't. If Daniel had been wearing a tux that day, or said one of his catchphrases, I might've felt intimidated but he didn't." Still, she had to kiss Craig on that first day, "another surreal moment in my life" as she puts it. "At the time I can remember thinking: 'What on Earth is going on? This is insane! If I phoned up my mates now they would be killing themselves laughing.'"

Curiously, she compares her character to both Bond's lovelorn secretary Miss Moneypenny and Rosaline, the similarly "haughty" character she played in a production of Love's Labour's Lost at The Globe that first convinced the Bond casting directors to offer her an audition.

"With the Bond films, the women are so unobtainable to a normal guy. I wanted to make her someone you could go down the pub with," she says. "She's not particularly hot. She's just this girl that ends up sleeping with Bond. It's not like she's really saucy or anything. She's normal looking and not glamorous. But it is funny – people always say, 'Ah, you're the Bond girl, you're the Bond girl', and I don't feel like one at all!"

Perhaps this is just as well, given the so-called "curse of the Bond girl" that has often called time on the careers of those who play them. Arterton appears to have taken the whole experience in her stride, which includes acting opposite the series' renowned regulars. "I probably should get a bit more star-struck but I never do," she says. "I think it's because I've got my head in the clouds. I just turn up and do it. I remember the day Judi Dench [who plays MI6 chief M] was on set. I was like, 'Oh, yeah, there's Judi Dench and now I'm going to act with her.' I didn't get that worried about it. I probably should get really nervous but I just enjoy working."

Whatever Bond does for her, Prince of Persia is liable to do even more. Starring opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, she plays the Arabian princess Tamina in a sixth-century adventure she describes as "Indiana Jones meets Gladiator". Arterton represents yet another astute casting choice by the über-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who previously gave Keira Knightley her international breakthrough when he put her in Pirates of the Caribbean. How does she feel about the inevitable comparisons? "Well, Keira has done incredibly well," she says, carefully. "I'd love to get the parts that she gets. If I'm being compared with her, who knows...?" She pauses for a second as a thought occurs. "It's funny," she says. "Especially with girls, people always want to put them in little brackets. I don't belong in the same bracket as Keira. I'm completely different, from a very different background. I'm confident enough in my own ability to not worry about being compared with other people."

Brought up on a Gravesend council estate, Arterton's working-class roots – her father is a welder, her mother a cleaner – certainly differentiate her from Knightley. Raised with her younger sister Hannah, she went to a grammar school, which she left when she was 16. "I liked learning but I hated being confined in a space and being talked at," she recalls. "That's why I left." She didn't read much. "I was quite lazy," she says. "I was too busy going 'Argh!' and being silly." In truth, she sounds like a St Trinian's misfit. "I was quite naughty at school," she grins.

After her parents divorced, she and her sister remained with their mother. "She encouraged independence in us," notes Arterton. "I think that's really brilliant. She never tried to control us, and we've both ended up being really successful in what we wanted to do. She's very free and creative, and it kind of rubs off." Her mother's side of the family all have "this arty-punk streak", she says. "Her uncle was [the new-wave singer] Wreckless Eric so it's all trickled into us. There's something about being a punk rocker that stays with you even when you're older."

If punk flows through her veins, so does a restless desire to succeed. After leaving school, where she had first started acting, she went on to a sixth-form college to study the discipline more seriously. From there, she won a place at Rada but it didn't stop there. Winning her first role, on the TV show Capturing Mary, while still a student, by the time she won the role in St Trinian's there was little point in graduating. The industry was taking notice, as demonstrated when she took a cameo in RocknRolla. "We loved her," says Guy Ritchie. "We thought she was class. She only came on set for a day, but we all thought there was something brewing there."

While Arterton is well aware of the effect she has on men, if anything points to her potential, it's that she appeals to women as well. Her TV work this autumn proves that. In the quirky Lost in Austen, she was charming as Pride and Prejudice's heroine Elizabeth Bennett, who inadvertently swaps places with a modern girl, but it will be as Tess Durbeyfield that she will be long remembered.

She got the role during the middle of filming Quantum of Solace and literally jumped for joy, for this was her chance to prove she can really act. Understandably, she avoided watching Nastassja Kinski's take on the character for the classic Roman Polanski film. "I wanted it to be my Tess," she states, confidently. It's clear this role meant more to her than anything she's done to date. "I could not keep my mind off it," she says. "I was really nervous. I put everything into it."

Given her meteoric rise, I wonder how she's managed to stay so down-to-earth. "All the people I hang around with are really grounded," she answers. "Everyone wants me to be myself. I want to be myself. I feel sometimes that people think you've changed because you get picked up in cars or sent things, but they're things you don't ask for. They're perks – and it's easy to see how you could change, because you could get used to that. But I don't want to and I don't feel as if I have."

If anything has been difficult for Arterton during the last year-and-a-half, it's been finding time for love. "It's hard maintaining relationships," she says. "You have to have people who really understand you and your life, and trust you, and trust that you want to be with them and spend time with them – but you really can't because you're on the other side of the country." This is the point that her real friends have "come out of the woodwork", she's discovered. With all the craziness that's about to engulf her, she'll need them more than ever.

'Quantum of Solace' opens on 31 October

The 10 best Bond girls

1. Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder, Dr No (1962)

When Andress emerged from the sea in that white bikini, she created cinematic history. The scene was so iconic that in 2002 the producers of 'Die Another Day' repeated it with Halle Berry, hoping to inspire a new generation of men.

2. Daniela Bianchi asTatiana Romanova, From Russia with Love (1963)

A corporal in Soviet Army Intelligence, Ms Romanova woos Bond wearing nothing more than a black velvet choker... but their sex scene is not altogether private: watch out for those two-way mirrors, people.

3. Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore, Goldfinger (1964)

She may have been the oldest Bond 'girl' at 37, but Blackman had lost none of her appeal when she introduced herself with the immortal words "My name is Pussy Galore". Despite batting for the other team (she's in league with the enemy, and may be a lesbian) he entices her into a liaison in a barn.

4. Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson, Goldfinger (1964)

Bond finds Masterson gloriously golden in death, lying on their hotel-room bed naked aside from the gold paint all over her skin that has suffocated her. The picture appeared on the front of 'Life' magazine, and led to the urban myth that the actress really did die. She didn't.

5. Diana Rigg as Teresa Di Vicenzo, On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Diana Rigg was Bond girl extraordinaire to George Lazenby's only outing in the role. Rigg made Di Vicenzo a haughty and sensual object of Bond's affections. In fact, she was the only woman to really capture the heart of 007. They marry, but Teresa is killed in the film's final scene.

6. Jill St John as Tiffany Case, Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Case tells Bond her name came from her birthplace – the jewellery store Tiffany. "Good thing it wasn't Van Cleef and Arpels" is Bond's smooth riposte. Bond starts out using her to get into a criminal network, and ends up using her in other ways.

7. Lana Wood as Plenty O'Toole, Diamonds are Forever (1971)

"Hi! I'm Plenty," Lana Wood introduces herself to Sean Connery's Bond. "But of course you are," he replies. And so begins a relationship driven not so much by intellectual stimuli as the willingness of Plenty to allow James to remove her top.

8. Jane Seymour as Solitaire, Live and Let Die (1973)

Solitaire has a way with tarot cards and her abilities depend on not sleeping with a man. But prophetic powers are not required to interpret the symbolism in this film: during a dangerous voodoo ritual she is confronted with a very big snake. What can it mean?

9. Britt Ekland as Miss Mary Goodnight, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Bond's right-hand woman (above, left) is devilishly pretty but a bit scatter-brained, and her plans don't go smoothly: despite her desires for 007, she's the one who ends up hidden in a wardrobe while he has sex with someone else. Until, of course, they find themselves on the slow boat from China and, well...

10. Michelle Yeoh as Wai Lin, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)

She represented Malaysia for Miss World in 1983, but Yeoh is more than a pretty face, and manages to show off her martial arts skills in her role as a Chinese agent. While at all times maintaining a glossy unruffled beauty.

Words by Clare Dwyer Hogg

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