Gemma Arterton finds habit helps with ‘Black Narcissus’

Rick's Reviews

Gemma Arteron stars in the FX limited series “Black Narcissus.” (Photo courtesy of FX Network)

(KGET) — Ask any actor if it is more enjoyable to take on a role as a hero or a villain and the majority will say that playing bad is always good. That’s because they can go to extremes when bringing the character to life.

Gemma Arterton saw the other side of the acting coin with her work in the new FX limited series “Black Narcissus” launching Nov. 23. She had to find a way to play the character of a young nun helping establish a mission in the Himalayas in 1934 while trying to keep her emotions under control.

The English actress found a surprising aid in helping her maintain the proper emotional, spiritual and physical form to play the role of Sister Clodagh.

“The essence of what I had to do for the whole thing was, kind of, maintain control, which is so enjoyable to play. There were absolutely moments where I totally lose control in various ways,” Arterton says. “I found that the posture and the habit – the actual costume, the habit – really helped because the nuns weren’t supposed to touch or even keep your gaze outside of the habit.

“I found that incredibly helpful. We were completely constricted. I mean, we had these wimples on that covered our ears, and our hands were, sort of, inside our robes. So, there was nothing you could really do with your body. So, I became really stiff, which I found really helpful. And knowing that you only have this to convey anything was really, really helpful because it just meant you had to, kind of, really limit yourself.”

Her efforts can be seen in the three-part limited series based on the best-selling 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. The story unfolds in a remote clifftop palace once known as the “House of Women.” It is a place that holds many dark secrets. When the young nuns of St. Faith attempt to establish a mission there, its haunting mysteries awaken forbidden desires that seem destined to repeat a terrible tragedy. 

The book was made into a feature film in 1947 starring Jean Simmons. Deborah Kerr played the role of Sister Clodagh in that production.

Arterton wanted to explore with her version of the role the reasons for why Sister Clodagh is the way she is. She saw the character as a freethinking person who has shut down by joining the order.

“That was always something that she was struggling with, and when she comes to Mopu. This kind of reminds her of the island where she was raised,” Arterton says. “The beauty of the place starts to get under her skin, and so the control starts to shift and crumble.”

Arterton comes to the limited series having played a wide variety of roles. Along with appearing in the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace,” she was in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and the remake of “Clash of the Titans.”

Joining Arterton in the cast of “Black Narcissus” are: Alessandro Nivola as Mr. Dean; Aisling Franciosi as Sister Ruth; Jim Broadbent as Father Roberts; Rosie Cavaliero as Sister Briony; and Diana Rigg as Mother Dorothea. This was one of the final acting roles for Rigg who died in September.

Arterton was especially excited about getting to work with the acting legend. She was friends with Rigg’s daughter, Rachael Stirling, who was in a play with Arterton’s husband, Rory Keenan, when she was waiting to hear if she had landed the role in “Black Narcissus.”

She told Rigg she was going to be part of the limited series even before she was cast.

Arterton says, “And she said, ‘Oh, it’s a wonderful film, darling. That’s a wonderful film.’ And I didn’t know that she was going to be in it.

“And then we were on set, and we are in our habits, and she was so wonderful. I mean, she’s so fun. She would have been a great young Clodagh, actually. What an absolute honor to have worked with her on this.”

The work of both Arterton and Rigg can be seen when the limited series premieres with all three episodes starting at 8 p.m. Nov. 23 on FX. 

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