Playing Jane Austen’s final heroine, Rose Williams fuses the past and present in Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Sanditon.

Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue red


Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue red

Taken from the Autumn 2019 issue of Wonderland. Order now.

Period drama purists please excuse me, but ITV’s forthcoming adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon is a little — dare I say it — like watching a panto. When I meet the show’s lead, Rose Williams who plays our innocent and inquisitive heroine Charlotte, she can’t help but agree, “that’s a really good way of putting it”. That’s not to say Sanditon is set in a creaky school hall that smells faintly of mashed potatoes and disinfectant, but it does come with a knowing wink and a nudge in the script, thanks to Austen aficionado, Andrew Davies (screenwriter of 1995’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation). “He’s really cheeky and saucy and naughty,” Williams confirms, “like today, he was saying he watches Love Island… That kind of sums him up to be honest.”

Written in part before her death in 1817, Austen left 11 chapters of Sanditon that form the first half of our contemporary episode one. The titular town is being developed into a seaside resort by Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) and his business partner, the eccentric and ageing Lady Denham (Anne Reid). After Mr Parker’s carriage is damaged close to Charlotte’s family home, he and his wife take respite long enough to invite the eldest daughter of the Heywoods to stay with them in Sanditon in return.

Williams’ own Sanditon story is almost as fateful. After a request for an audition tape came through one Friday, she’d been offered the part by the following Monday. “It was across the Super Wolf Blood Moon in January,” she grins, “and I’m an Aquarius and the moon was in Aquarius, and I wanted to step into a challenge… So I think it had something to do with the moon. It was a witchy moment.”

Even acting itself is something that seemed to find its own way to Williams. Studying fashion and costume design while working in London’s Dover Street Market, her costume designer mum drafted her in to help on set. It was a stint working on E4’s sci-fi drama Misfits that made Williams decide she might want to step in front of the lens. “I felt a very kiddish feeling,” she tells me, “like, ‘I want to have a go!’ And that was what inspired me to shift gear a bit. And it was just my complete ignorance and naivety and boldness, I didn’t know how to do it… but I wanted to do it.”

After “a lot of very low paid, mad, awful jobs” (including a Tesco advert filmed in Hackney that never made it to screen and paid £50) and acting courses, Williams got an agent who “took a chance” on her and began to book series (Reign, Medici and Curfew most notably). None have quite had the pull of Austen and Davies attached to them, though; Sanditon being abandoned before Austen’s death meant the choice of writer for its imagined extension was pivotal and Davies, as Williams puts it, is “such a master of adaptation”. “It was like, ‘We’re all safe because Andrew is doing it’,” she says. “He writes just enough dialogue to say who the character is, but gives space for the actor to say it in looks too, it’s not overwritten… The first script – I remember I felt really emotional reading it, and with the audition there was a breakdown of all of the episodes and it made me cry. It gave me that same feeling, that you feel at the end of Pride and Prejudice, I felt my heart, and my heart connected to his words.”

Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue black outfit
Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue pink dress


Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue black outfit
Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue pink dress

It’s not just its missing conclusion that makes Sanditon a unique Austen text, Charlotte Heywood is a defiantly feminist protagonist who speaks her mind with plain transparency. Though Williams explains Austen was indeed “a boss” who was “100 steps in front of everyone” in writing the stories of strong women, Charlotte’s isn’t shaped by a marriage or lack of, like many other Austen heroines.

“It’s not at the forefront,” Williams says. “She’s inspired by Tom Parker’s vision of Sanditon, of building it… It’s more about the place and her finding who she is, through all of the characters… There is a love story arc, but that finds her… I feel like Jane Austen fans will like that, because Jane Austen never married, and [Charlotte] was modelled a little bit on Austen herself, she came from a family of loads of brothers and sisters, she was from a small village. There are similarities there.”

Still hovering in the period drama genre but with a much more sinister edge, Williams is now filming her first starring role in a feature. “It’s set early ‘70s in the East End, during the time there were blackouts,” she says of the film written and directed by Corrina Faith. The horror centres around Williams’ character, born into poverty and having trained to be a nurse, we meet her on her first day at work in a hospital. “As the night goes on,” Williams says cryptically, “things start to happen.” “It’s an extremely different beast to what I’ve been on before,” she explains the references Faith has already shared with her on their first week of pre- production: Shelley Duvall in Robert Altman’s Three Women, and “a couple of Korean and Japanese horrors with very specific colours and lighting”.

“There’s a lot more free reign,” she enthuses. “Lots of screaming, I had to have my honey and lemon in the morning… I would never in a million years have guessed that I’d be doing a Jane Austen adaptation and then be going to a ‘70s horror. That — the twists and turns and the unexpected surprise of what you can delve into — is something that I just love.” Casting directors everywhere take note, Rose Williams is set to adapt anything into her own.

Rose Williams is in Sanditon on ITV this Autumn.

Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue glittery black jacket


Rose Williams in Wonderland Autumn 2019 issue glittery black jacket
Ryan Saradjola
Adele Cany
Lily Walker
Brady Lea at The Only Agency using Malin and Goetz
Rebekah Lidstone at Frank Agency using Charlotte Tilbury
Federica Barletta
Special thanks
Indra Studios
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