THE TELEGRAPH – Gabriella Wilde’s career started unconventionally, to say the least. She is recounting the fairy-tale-like story over an afternoon coffee in a London hotel, peppering the retelling with apologetic looks and half-shrugs. ‘It is totally ridiculous,’ she says. ‘I don’t identify with it at all any more, I feel like it happened to someone else.’
This comes from someone currently starring in Poldark, one of the BBC’s biggest and most successful series. As Caroline Penvenen, the coquettish orphaned heiress who refuses to play by polite 18th-century rules of behaviour, Gabriella’s standout performance last series won her Best Newcomer in the Radio Times Reader Awards.
Softly spoken and thoughtful, any signs of her former status as Burberry model and second-most-eligible girl in Britain (as decreed by Tatler in 2007 – Kitty Spencer, the eldest daughter of Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, came first) are few and far between.
Gabriella was ‘discovered’ when she was 14, through a chance encounter with the late style icon Isabella Blow, who she met through a friend of her mother’s. Taken with Gabriella, Blow requested they do a few shoots together. ‘I say it was low-key – but, really, how low-key was Isabella Blow?’ Gabriella laughs.
At a party soon after, she met Naomi Campbell, who insisted she be introduced immediately to her agency, Premier Model Management. ‘I was 15. She took Polaroids of me in the bathroom and sent them to her agent. The next day I was in her agent’s office and started working with them. It was totally mad and so surreal.’
It’s one of the first truly hot spring days, the sun is blazing, and Gabriella is dressed down in an all-black ensemble of flared Frame jeans, Converse trainers and a jumper that once belonged to her mother, Vanessa Hubbard, a former model herself. The 28-year-old has just travelled up from Somerset – where she lives with her husband, Alan Pownall, 30, singer for the electro band Pale, and their two sons, Sasha, three, and Shiloh, one – to London for a party tonight (a rare night out since becoming a mother).
Her modelling career lasted only until she was 18. ‘I was terrified,’ she says. ‘I didn’t speak. I was so lonely and homesick. I was a child, really. It is a confusing [situation] because everyone tells you how fabulous it is, and aren’t you lucky? But I was thinking, “I just want to go home and see my mum.”’
She soon kick-started a new career in acting, landing parts in St Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, Doctor Who opposite Matt Smith and The Three Musketeers with Orlando Bloom. Roles followed in remakes of Endless Love and horror classic Carrie, the latter with Julianne Moore and Chloë Grace Moretz – all the more remarkable given she has had no formal training.
Having captivated both critics and viewers in Poldark, the new series – which starts next Sunday – sees her role as Caroline greatly expanded. ‘I can’t say too much, but there is a big journey for her,’ Gabriella says. In the last series Caroline seduced Dr Dwight Enys (Luke Norris), but, as Gabriella admits, ‘Her relationship with him isn’t as straightforward as she imagined. There are obstacles.’ These include Dr Enys sailing off to war, the death of her wealthy uncle Ray, a clandestine marriage and a move to Cornwall… ‘There is a lot of grief for her and a lot of complex relationship [issues],’ Gabriella affirms.
Of her co-stars, she says Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Poldark’s wife Demelza, is ‘amazing and so wise beyond her years’. Aidan Turner is a ‘really good, down-to-earth actor. He is lovely.’ And what of the torso that first attracted more than eight million viewers to a drama about a Cornish tin mine? She giggles. ‘I didn’t see Poldark when it first came out because I’d just had my son, Sasha. I was probably one of the only people who it passed by. I was in a baby bubble so I had no idea about the uproar around Aidan and the scything.’
A fourth series begins filming in September, which she has gladly signed up for, despite the long hours. Set days require a 4.30am pick-up and 8pm drop-off – a routine that continues with little respite for seven months. Luckily, Alan works from home and filming takes place in studios near Bristol and in various West Country National Trust houses, all within an hour from their home.
Gabriella learnt of her second pregnancy days after winning the role of Caroline Penvenen, so the series had to be filmed to accommodate her growing bump, hidden by her character’s pet pug and strategically placed furniture. ‘I have strong feelings about how I want to raise my kids,’ she says. ‘I let the producers know if I was going to have a baby with me next time we were filming, I would be breastfeeding and they would need to make allowances for that. That is something that is quite hard to push for, but I feel strongly that it shouldn’t be.’
Consequently, the costume department fashioned a specially adapted dress so that she could breastfeed Shiloh between takes and be with him throughout filming. ‘That was amazing and definitely not the norm.’
Gabriella has a history of forging her own path. She was born Gabriella Zanna Vanessa Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, a loquacious mouthful that she changed to Wilde upon signing with an acting agent (inspired by an Oscar Wilde book in the agent’s office). She says she did this because she didn’t want to experience prejudice. ‘I didn’t want to walk into an audition and people to have a preconceived idea of who I was. I wanted to have a blank slate. And it is a long name – it is a ridiculous one.’
Her father, John Anstruther-Gough-Calthorpe, is a businessman and both her parents were previously married, which makes Gabriella one of a sprawling clan of siblings. She has one younger sister, Octavia, five half-siblings – including Isabella, an actress and model married to Richard Branson’s son, Sam – and two ‘unofficial’ stepsisters: Cressida Bonas, Prince Harry’s ex-girlfriend, and Pandora Cooper-Key, who, although not blood relations, are daughters of Lady Mary-Gaye Curzon, who was once married to Gabriella’s father.
It is, Gabriella concedes, a ‘big old entourage’, which contributed to ‘a mad, amazing, difficult, wonderful and very colourful childhood’ in Hampshire. She talks of making dens, riding horses and camping in the garden. On her arm is a tattoo (one of five) in Roman numerals denoting her position as seventh child in the family. She speaks fondly and protectively of them all. ‘We are amazingly close considering the various marriages and all sorts that have gone on. But as adults we have overcome that and remain very much a supportive unit to each other.’
Much has been made of her ancestry, which traces back to Charles II, Margaret Tudor and Joanna the Mad, elder sister of Catherine of Aragon. It’s a subject that makes her cringe. Does she feel the triple-barrelled name has been more hindrance than help?
‘In a way, yes, but I would hesitate to say, “Oh, because people think I am posh they won’t see me for work” because I think it is a bit of a cop-out. Ultimately, [it means] I was maybe able to have the opportunities that I have had, so I wouldn’t knock it and say, “Oh, poor me.” What I would say is that any preconceived idea of who you are, whatever that is, is a problem when you are walking into a casting director’s office.’
It’s a pragmatic attitude that has served her well. Her decision to launch into acting came as a surprise to the family, given she’d never been in a school play and was a shy child. At that point, aged 18, she was studying fine art at City & Guilds of London. Her former modelling agent contacted her out of the blue to say a casting agent had got in touch with a role they thought she’d be perfect for. Gabriella auditioned and didn’t get the part, but she so enjoyed the process of working on a character that she quit art to concentrate on acting.
She prepares for each audition and part with her half-sister Olivia Llewellyn, an actor who also teaches drama and tells her when she is, in her words, ‘awful’.
‘Being a mother, my work ethic now comes from a very different place. When I was younger, it came from a need to prove myself and find my identity and make my mark. I don’t have that need for outside approval as much as I did. Now it’s about working because I enjoy it – and needs must.’
Living deep in the Somerset countryside, Gabriella’s life has assumed an intentionally slower pace since she and Alan left London after Sasha was born. They wanted ‘a simpler life’. Now the boys spend all day covered in mud and Gabriella says she feels part of a new community. She hasn’t left modelling behind entirely – she is currently a face of Estée Lauder and jeweller Mappin & Webb – but now it’s on her terms as an actress. ‘I am [treated like] a person; I’m not just turning up and having my face used for two days without anyone talking to me.’
If life has dealt her a good hand, it was, she says, not through the benefit of meticulous planning. ‘Sasha was the best thing that ever happened to me, however much of a surprise, and sent my life on a totally different course. When I got pregnant, I was filming a lead in a US movie [Endless Love] and was heading in a different direction that might have been more professionally successful, but not necessarily so happy. I ended up having a baby, now I have two, and I’m 28 and live in the country. It’s nothing I ever would have expected, but it is all I know now and I love it.’
An heiress of steely resolve and determination, not to be judged by the sum of her heritage? Gabriella has perhaps more in common with Caroline Penvenen than she would give herself credit for.