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Gemma Arterton interview: the former Bond girl on playing a troubled nun in BBC’s ‘Black Narcissus’

Gemma Arterton Black Narcissus
Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (Image credit: BBC)

Former Bond girl Gemma Arterton is part of a stellar cast, which includes the late Dame Diana Rigg and Jim Broadbent, as Rumer Godden’s classic 1939 novel Black Narcissus is brought to life in a new three-part series on the BBC1 between Christmas and the New Year.

Set in a beautiful Nepalese palace, Gemma — star of The King's Man, The Escape, Quantum Of Solace — plays Sister Clodagh who leads a group of British nuns to set up a branch of their order high up in the Himalayan mountains. However, once settled at the remote palace of Mopu, Sister Clodagh finds herself increasingly attracted to rich land agent Mr Dean (Alessandro Nivola). Forbidden love, desire and sexual repression are then at the heart of Black Narcissus as the group also find themselves entangled with the tragic history of a long dead Princess. 

Here, Gemma Arterton tells us far more about Sister Clodagh, filming in the Himalayas and the compelling story of the compelling story of Black Narcissus.

Gemma Arterton on her 'Black Narcissus' character Sister Clodagh

“Sister Clodagh is terribly competitive and in a constant state of feeling her past and battling with who she really is,” explains Gemma. “There’s this need to please, not just to prove something to herself but to others as well, like her superiors and also to God. She’s like the head girl at school who always has to be the best. Luckily Clodagh’s ‘school mistress’ tone came easily to me and I can relate to her because I’m quite direct too.”

Gemma Arterton tells us how meeting Mr Dean changes everything for Sister Clodagh in 'Black Narcissus'

“When she arrives in Mopu, everything around her, the landscape, the people, Mr Dean, all start to unlock things within her and the real Clodagh starts coming through. Her true self is this wild and free, impulsive, romantic rebel and that starts to reawaken. She’s conflicted and  in a constant battle with herself.”

Gemma Arterton explains how Mr. Dean reminds her of a life Sister Clodagh could have had

“Mr. Dean represents everything she is but is denying. As soon as she sees him, she’s reminded of Ireland, her past love, of this wildness that she really truly is. He goes against everything that she’s been trying to build in her life. He’s very loose tongued and blasphemous. She and Mr Dean are sort of soulmates but she knows she needs to try and avoid him as much as possible. Yet they need him to help set up the palace. You see she’s falling in love with him and he’s falling in love with her, which ultimately is the great tragedy of this story.”

Gemma Arterton reveals the challenges and magic of filming ‘Black Narcissus’ in the Himalayas

“It was overwhelmingly beautiful. It took us three flights and a week to get there. We were in the middle of nowhere in the Himalayan mountains and it was a really special bonding experience. These things don’t come along very often at all. There was something really magical about it.”

Gemma Arterton on how the nun costumes in ‘Black Narcissus’ helped with feeling the character

Gemma Arterton Black Narcissus

Black Narcissus: Nuns in the Himalayas, led by Gemma Arterton's Sister Clodagh (second from right). (Image credit: BBC)

“When you’re wearing a wimple everything is constricted. Your ears are covered, you can hardly see any of your face, your eyebrows are covered and it blinkers you. That helped in a weird way to make everything constricted. As soon as I started playing Clodagh, I felt myself getting very tight. I found myself getting shoulder and neckache playing her as I was so stiff. You can’t be expressive when wearing a habit which was really helpful. Emotionally, Clodagh has it all going on inside her but she doesn’t allow anyone to see it.” 

Who else is starring in ‘Black Narcissus’? 

Dame Diana Rigg and Jim Broadbent in Black Narcissus

The late Diana Rigg with Jim Broadbent in Black Narcissus (Image credit: BBC)

* Alessandro Nivola (American Hustle, Chimerica) stars as Mr Dean. 

* Legendary Bond and Game of Thrones actress Dame Diana Rigg, who passed away in September, plays fearsome Mother Dorothea.

* Harry Potter actor Jim Broadbent is Father Roberts

* Gina McKee (Bodyguard) plays Sister Adela.

* Other stars include Aisling Franciosi (The Nightingale), Rosie Cavaliero (Prey, Unforgotten), Patsy Ferran (Jamestown), Karen Bryson (MotherFatherSon) and newcomer Dipika Kunwar.

Has the story of ‘Black Narcissus’ been adapted before? 

Black Narcissus (1947 film)

Gemma's character Sister Clodagh was played by Deborah Kerr in the 1947 movie Black Narcissus (Image credit: Alamy)

Yes, and most famously the story was first adapted in 1947 into an Oscar-winning film starring Deborah Kerr (From Here To Eternity, The King & I) in the role of Sister Clodagh. 

When can we see Gemma Arterton in ‘Black Narcissus’?

The three 60-minute long episodes will be shown on BBC1 on December 27, 28 and 29 at 9pm and then of course will become available as a box set on BBCiPlayer.