Gina Bellman, the New Zealand-born JFS girl who burst on to our TV screens in 1989 as a sexual fantasy in the title role of Dennis Potter’s Blackeyes, doesn’t much want to talk about those days now.
“Do we have to?” she says, slumping into a National Theatre armchair. The slump conveys a certain boredom with being asked about that period — how, as a 23-year-old ingenue, she coped with the salivating tabloids, the paparazzi parked outside her home and sudden fame. But it’s also because Bellman has particularly earned today’s lunch break. She has no fewer than five roles in her latest show — a National Theatre revival of Georg Kaiser’s expressionistic 1912 play From Morning To Midnight. It’s the result of Bellman telling director Melly Still that, after five years in America, it’s time to get her hands dirty again. “It’s sort of bitten me in the bum. Every one of those characters has a completely different physicality.”
Still’s production stars Adam Godley as a dependable bank clerk who turns his back on everything that he has hitherto been. The trigger is an exotic Italian woman who wants to make a withdrawal. Bellman plays the exotic Italian — among others.
So, no, we don’t have to talk about Blackeyes. There are plenty of other shows. We don’t even have to talk about Coupling, the Friends-like sexy sitcom that, 10 years later, launched Bellman back into the public consciousness with the role of the ditzy Jane.
But there is a kind of continuity to Bellman’s career. Her most high-profile roles have always been informed by her beauty, right up to the character of Sophie in the slick American TV series Leverage, which Bellman played for five years until it ended in 2012. A cross between Mission Impossible and The A-Team, the raven-haired Sophie (Bellman’s roles tend to be raven-haired) was a glamorous con-woman with femme-fatale looks whose special skill was to inhabit any character and dialect.
The show had a huge (mostly American) following. And, after the network announced the series’ end, Bellman wrote a fascinating newspaper article about the Twitter relationship between stars of US television and their devoted fans. From Morning To Midnight is her first acting job since and social media is unlikely to see a massive increase in traffic by fans of early 20th-century expressionistic drama.
“It’s just that it’s such a long time ago,” says Bellman of the subject she would rather not discuss. “I mean I know it was this very powerful time in terms of my life, and I suppose it was representative of something that came to follow, in terms of sexuality on screen and extreme fame. But it seems like it happened to another person.” And yet, at 48 and without, as far as I can tell, the merest smear of make-up, Bellman is not so very different from the 23-year-old who swept to fame a quarter-of-a-century ago. At least on the outside. The figure is professionally trim; the eyes still have it, and so do those sculpted cheekbones. What is on the inside might be a slightly different matter.
“You think you’re sort of handling everything in a really mature and wise way,” she says. “It’s not until you have hindsight that you go: ‘God, young people today are so much more together than I was then. So much more prepared for that kind of existence.’ I think I was under the illusion that I was very mature at that time in my early 20s.”
The sense of being comfortable “in my own skin”, both professionally and personally, has been a long time coming. Her marriage to Zaab Sethna is part of that. The birth of their daughter Romi four years ago is an even bigger part. But Bellman has in the past admitted to feeling like a fraud as an actor — a “pretty girl who was hired for her looks, not her talent”, she said in one interview.
“Every person has parallel tracks,” she reflects. “You have your personal life or your life as an artist, or whatever it is you do. I’d had a failed marriage and then I met my [current] husband just after the Leverage pilot. I had wanted a child for a long time and I had Romi very late. So maybe I felt there was a void in my life. And then, career-wise, I was never comfortable with the whole sex symbol thing. It was never me and I never wanted that. I don’t like dressing up and I don’t like putting on make-up, or doing the red carpet. The only red carpet events I go to are if I’m supporting a friend. Mariella Frostrup is my best friend so if she’s doing something for work and really wanted me there, I’d go. But the last thing I want to do is put a dress on and stand in front of paparazzi.”
She must have had enough of that when her career took off. “There’s an element of that,” she concedes. “But I’m a tomboy really. I don’t like crowds or attention. But you’re on the wrong track if you think I had a lot of painful insecurities.”
Still, any professional doubts she may have had (possibly the result of having no formal stage school training) were expunged by working with Mike Leigh in his National Theatre portrait of Jewish north London, Two Thousand Years. “After you’ve worked with Mike Leigh, something stays in your brain about how to approach memory and character. I couldn’t work any other way.”
And working on the 77 one-hour-long episodes of Leverage allowed Bellman the time to “hone my craft, to feel comfortable in the character, and to experiment. It’s taken me a really long time to feel the confidence that Leverage gave me — that feeling of ‘I know what I’m doing’, of nothing being scary any more, and liking the unexpected.”
The daughter of an electrical wholesaler, Bellman was 11 when her family moved from New Zealand to London. “New Zealand was very outdoorsy,” she recalls. Was it Jewy? “It was very un-Jewy. In fact, to compensate, my parents were quite observant. So we did go to synagogue every Saturday. And my mum’s always made a kosher home. When we came to England I went to Rosh Pinah first and then to JFS, so I always had a Jewish education. It was very much that liberal, north London Two Thousand Years kind of thing, with wannabe socialist, Guardian-reading parents.”
Is that life as far behind her as those heady days as a sex kitten? “I wouldn’t say I’ve rejected it [though] I haven’t married ‘in’.” And for her daughter’s sake, Bellman is seriously considering reviving something of her past Jewish life.
“All Romi’s cousins are being raised in Jewish homes so I would want her to feel a connection with them. So I think I will start her in cheder in a few years.”
But, for now, Bellman is enjoying a new-found confidence on both her “parallel tracks”. It’s time to rejoin rehearsals to get her hands dirty.