The face of Mappin & Webb and one of the stars of BBC hit period drama Poldark, British actress Gabriella Wilde reflects on her career, life in the country and working with Aidan Turner
Despite first impressions, Gabriella Wilde is no shrinking violet. Granted, with her angelic features and softly spoken voice, it would be an easy assumption to make. However, having pursued two of the most competitive industries, modelling and acting, she is by no means timid, and for those of you who watched the second series of the BBC’s hit period drama Poldark, in which she plays the feisty Caroline Penvenen, you perhaps wouldn’t be surprised.
Speaking to 27-year-old Wilde, her slightly reserved nature undoubtedly makes her come across as more reticent than some of her acting peers and she admits that she has never been one “to shout the loudest in the room”. And yet, this suggests that she is far more self-assured than many others in an industry that seems to be riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem.
Her most recent role as the brand ambassador of Mappin & Webb is more in line with Wilde’s work to date, having worked as a model before becoming an actress. With her natural elegance and poise – no doubt born from her English aristocratic heritage – Wilde was the ideal choice for the jeweller, which has more than 241 years of history and a Royal Warrant that was first granted by Queen Victoria in 1897. And the actress needed no introduction.
“I practically grew up with Mappin & Webb,” she comments. “My mum knows the brand for its jewellery and my dad for its silver. It is one of those brands that I feel has such a long-standing history.”
"I have hundreds of brothers and sisters, so my fondest memories are of growing up and playing with them in the country"
Wilde’s roots are similarly tied to English tradition and her family lineage can be traced back to Charles II. She is the daughter of businessman John Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, former chairman of the Watermark Group and grandson of Sir Fitzroy Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, 1st Baronet. Her mother, Vanessa Hubbard, was also a model when she was younger and sat for David Bailey CBE.
Wilde changed her moniker when she became an actress (her agent suggested it after coming across Oscar Wilde’s name on her bookshelf), but otherwise remains very close to her family. With both parents having children from previous marriages, the actress is blessed with many siblings: “I have hundreds of brothers and sisters, so my fondest memories are of growing up and playing with them in the country,” she says, smiling.
Her sister Isabella and ‘unofficial’ stepsister Cressida Bonas – while no blood relation, Bonas’ mother was once married to Wilde’s father – have similarly pursued acting careers. Describing herself as “incredibly shy” when she was younger, Wilde never considered acting, but at 14 was talent-spotted by Naomi Campbell. She joined Campbell’s agency, Premier Model Management, and the teenager soon found herself swept up in the frenzy of the fashion world, fronting campaigns for Burberry, Topshop and Abercrombie & Fitch.
“It was such a mad way to start within that industry,” she recalls. “I did a few shoots with Isabella Blow, which was amazing, then I met Naomi and she took me to her agency. I think I just got swept up in the ride of it all.”
“I think you need to have a very strong personality to exist in the modelling world and I wasn’t prepared for it”
Wilde also caught the attention of the press, which attempted to brand her as an ‘It’ girl and named her the second most eligible girl in Britain. However, she rejected these labels and by 18, had decided to walk away from modelling. “I stopped because it didn’t make me happy and I didn’t feel comfortable doing it,” she says. “I think you need to have a very strong personality to exist in that world and I wasn’t prepared for it.”
Her next step was to enrol in a fine art course at City & Guilds of London Art School, but she wasn’t there long before realising she wanted to act. Having never even appeared in so much as a school play, this decision came as a surprise to her family and friends.
“I still have friends who can’t understand how I could be an actress because normally I’m quite introverted,” she says. “It was never a route I had expected to go down, but was something I found I was interested in.”
In 2009, aged 20, Wilde made her acting debut in the film St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, appearing alongside Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Talulah Riley. Shortly after this, the actress appeared in an episode of Doctor Who, a role which saw her reunite with her St Trinian’s co-star David Tennant, and then The Three Musketeers alongside Matthew Macfadyen and Orlando Bloom. Her next big film – an adaptation of Stephen King’s supernatural horror novel, Carrie – was a box office success.
Her latest role in Poldark, which has won over millions of fans since it premiered in 2015, is possibly her most diverse to date. She plays the manipulative niece of wealthy landowner Ray Penvenan (John Nettles) – a far cry from one of the posh totties in St Trinian’s or the simpering girl next door in romantic film Endless Love (in which she starred alongside Alex Pettyfer in 2014).
“I still have friends who can’t understand how I could be an actress because normally I’m quite introverted"
“[My character] is really fun,” says Wilde. “She’s not what she seems and is very naughty and quick-witted. She’s a bit of a feminist in her own way for that time and while she’s restricted as an heiress, she’s still feisty.”
For Wilde, acting is far more rewarding and “creatively fulfilling” than modelling, as it challenges her to explore a different side to herself. “It’s an incredibly exciting thing to do. Every job is different and the things you learn and discover when creating a person are endless. I’m not a very outgoing person, but I think there’s a difference in being myself and playing someone else. I really separate the two.”
The actress finds this process very liberating, and explains how she always has to identify with her character before committing to the role: “Sometimes I read a role and just don’t relate to it on any level and so it’s not something I want to do. It has to come from somewhere truthful.”
It has been confirmed that Wilde will reprise the role of Caroline in the third series of Poldark, which is due to air later this year. Aside from evolving her character and starring alongside Aidan Turner (who she describes as “a really lovely guy”), the other aspect of Poldark that Wilde loves is filming in Devon.
Having grown up in Hampshire, the actress’ heart lies in the country, which is why after four years of living in Notting Hill she decided to uproot to Somerset, where she now lives with her husband, Alan Pownall (lead singer of electronic band Pale), and her two sons: Sasha Blue and Shiloh Silva. She may look the epitome of a girl’s girl, but again, Wilde is full of surprises, describing herself as a “real tomboy” and often finds herself wearing pieces from her husband’s wardrobe which, with two small boys under the age of five, is no doubt very sensible.
“I practically grew up with Mappin & Webb. My mum knows the brand for its jewellery and my dad for its silver"
“Don’t get me wrong, I love clothes,” she says. “My favourite brands are probably Céline, The Row and Chloé. But day-to-day I dress quite practically. I live in black jeans, and I like wearing T-shirts and jumpers.” The red carpet is the time when she feels she can dress up and show her feminine side, but even then, she stands firmly by the principle of “dressing comfortably and being yourself” as “there’s nothing worse than being in an environment and feeling unsure of what you’re wearing.”
By keeping her work and private life separate and having learnt from a young age to ignore any diatribe the press might print, Wilde finds it easier balancing her career with motherhood, although admits it is sometimes a struggle.
“It’s important to me to spend as much time with my children as possible, but it’s also important for me to work. It’s hard, but fortunately I’m very lucky to have a very supportive husband and family, and a job that allows me to bring them with me a lot. That’s a luxury a lot of mothers don’t have, so I’m very grateful.”