“I think I was quite obnoxious,” says Rose Williams when I ask her about her early days of getting into the world of acting. It’s hard to imagine the person I encountered on the set of our exclusive cover shoot as anything close to obnoxious. On what was possibly the hottest day of the year, she was utterly charming, even while wearing latex opera gloves that required four staff members and at least 20 minutes of strategic pulling to get on. She was incredibly polite to everyone on set and visibly thrilled to be there. She was confident in front of the camera yet entirely prepared to take direction—the sign of a true professional. Then there’s the face! Oh, her face. She was wide-eyed and cherubic. If ever a person could be obnoxious and get away with it thanks to a “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth” exterior, it’d be her. But the truth is the 28-year-old actress is calm, centered and wise beyond her years. Despite what she dubs a “gobby” start to her career, it became clear to me that Williams works hard consistently to grow, improve, connect and be grateful. One can instantly tell she is an old soul trapped in a young body, and there’s something innately spiritual about her. If you cut through the cheeky London accent and the fancy costumes we’re accustomed to seeing her in thanks to her starring role in the ITV period drama Sanditon, there’s a hippy close to the surface who should probably be in Sri Lanka, not South London. I could see her shrouded in something similar to the metallic crochet Ganni dress with peekaboo underwear that she’s wearing today, only with strings of beaded necklaces and perhaps a few more tattoos—but more on those later.
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Gucci coat, tights and shoes
What Williams refers to when she references her “obnoxious” behaviour is her naïve and somewhat snap decision to simply just “be an actress.” Aged 17, Williams—who grew up in an incredibly creative household—was originally set on attending art school and potentially entering the fashion world. She dropped out of her A levels and secured a job that any fashion-conscious teenager would still dream of today: working on the shop floor of the legendary London boutique Dover Street Market. For the uninitiated, this is the epicentre of cool and the blueprint for modern luxury shopping. The inimitable staff are instantly recognisable in their black swathes of Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, leaving a signature trail of Escentric Molecules fragrance behind them. “I think being at Dover Street shaped me massively. The old-school cats there are so special, are all very artistic, and they all are quite like magical unicorns. And being around that energy and people that did their own thing on the side of working at Dover Street was so inspiring,” she says. So perhaps it was no surprise that the in-house polymath mentality spilled over into Williams’s psyche quickly. When she took days off here and there to help her costume-designing mother on set and watch the action of show business unfold in front of her, she suddenly knew where she wanted to be.
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Yuhan Wang dress; Completedworks earrings
“I have such a strong memory of a certain position that I was [in] by the monitor, watching on set. It was a scene with Joe Gilgun and Karla Crome [in Misfits]. And I just felt like I wanna have a go at that. But I’ve never seen that. I’ve never thought about that. I want to have a go at that. I think that I can do it,” recalls Williams. “I had no idea how the industry worked. I just got headshots [and] joined all the casting websites online. [I] met a young director by chance, and I said, ‘I wanna be an actress!’ And he said, ‘Oh, well, I’m casting for a short film. Do you want to come along to see what an audition is like? You’re the right look and the right age,’ and I got the part.” A four-day shoot later, the indie film Sunroof was born. It got into South by Southwest—major, right? “I was like, ‘What the fuck is South by Southwest?’ So I was completely clueless and very bold,” Williams adds.
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Millia London dress; Elissa Poppy gloves; Completedworks earring
Perhaps it was that “clueless and very bold” attitude that actually facilitated Williams’s speedy trajectory. She had no pre-existing notions of how tough the industry is to break into, and the barriers of etiquette weren’t in place to stop her from firing off a ballsy email to that big-shot director. She wasn’t afraid to walk out of the one acting class she succumbed to after the intense Meisner exercises got too weird—a class that the tutors apparently claim no one has ever walked out of before. And it wasn’t long after she announced to her parents that she was going to be an actress (“I remember my dad being like, ‘You can’t just be an actress. It doesn’t work like that. You have to go to drama school—you’re deluded.’”) that Williams secured her first recurring role on the Netflix show Reign. “I think there was an inherent need to explore at all costs or … just dive into life in the biggest way that I could,” says Williams of her late teenage years. The role of Princess Claude lifted her out of London and into Toronto to live a completely different life for three seasons.
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Preen by Thornton Bregazzi dress; Under Pastel Skies earring
“I look back and laugh out loud at my performance on that show. I really didn’t know what I was doing,” says Williams. “I had the sensibility for the character, but acting-wise, as we’ve already established, I hadn’t trained. And I hadn’t really had the opportunity to really explore and try it. So I just learned everything on that show.” From understanding how to hit her mark (that’s where you need to physically be in a scene’s frame) to the dynamics of the different departments to memorising lines quickly, her role on Reign—and the episodes she watched back to look at where she was going wrong and what she could improve upon next—was Williams’s own self-made version of “drama school.” It was training that clearly worked just fine: In 2019, Williams was named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow.
The time in Canada was a boost for Williams’s acting chops, but it did quash her fashion spirit for a minute. This break in her personal style came because of a presumption that she needed to dress “more like an actress,” she says. But what exactly does an actress dress like? Well, out went Williams’s incredible collection of eclectic vintage pieces, and in came beige tops and black trousers—a serious, thesp-y wardrobe, if you will. The phase didn’t last long, and Williams soon reverted to thrifting and more unique looks once she settled in Toronto and subsequently Los Angeles before returning to London. Fashion, for her, is emotional. It’s a visual representation of how good she may or may not feel at the time. “I look back on pictures from when I’ve gone to events, and I can track how I felt within myself,” she explains of the few occasions when she’s been in the public eye wearing something that she knew deep down wasn’t “really [her].”
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Cecilie Bahnsen dress; Mach & Mach shoes; Completedworks earrings
Williams has a keen interest in and understanding of fashion (she did, after all, spend one of her first acting pay cheques on a classic Alaïa fit-and-flare dress after falling in love with the iconic brand during her Dover Street Market tenure), so it’s no surprise that wardrobe plays a significant role in how she gets into character. In the forthcoming feel-good film Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (based on Paul Gallico’s novel about a cleaning lady in 1950s London who falls in love with an haute couture dress by Christian Dior), Williams is starring opposite of Lesley Manville as Pamela Penrose, a character whose personality became a reality when she started the fitting process alongside legendary costume designer Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road, Cruella). “The costume fitting always nails in the character, always more than the read-through. It’s like, ‘Oh, I know how this person feels physically now,’” she says. So with Beavan’s vision of Pamela being mismatched and chaotic in her dress sense, Williams could start to piece together the physicality of Pamela throwing on that jaunty scarf or click-clacking in those shoes. Williams’s Regency-era empire-line gowns and opera gloves in Sanditon are nothing short of darling, and in That Dirty Black Bag (a Western-inspired TV series, which is out now on AMC+ and features Douglas Booth and Dominic Cooper), Williams once again has great looks—think Victorian saloon girl. Something about her attracts fantastic clothes.
Photo:Tom O'Neill; Styling: Emilia Wickstead top and skirt; Jimmy Choo sandals; Under Pastel Skies earring
Williams’s track record and the way she presents today certainly speaks to her confidence, but when I ask about self-assuredness, she’s quick to qualify that, like many of us, there are often two mental streams at play. “There are my thoughts which are not confident and are very insecure and are very like ‘you’re shit’ or the classic ego mind of ‘you’re not good enough,’” she says. On the other hand, she feels herself pulling the steering wheel consciously in the opposite direction. She references an old proverb about two wolves and choosing which one you feed and says she practices daily to be conscious of which wolf is getting all the attention.
A butterfly tattoo on her wrist was a lockdown investment and is a constant reminder of how the last few years have prompted deep transformation. It is how she ensures that specific time will not be forgotten. On one of her fingers is a depiction of the eye of Horus—an ancient Egyptian symbol that represents healing and well-being. Another small inking on her wrist says “gratitude,” yet another reminder to be present and consider how to connect, enjoy and help others to thrive in the moment. “I’m so grateful to be here,” Williams says of the Who What Wear UK shoot. “I get to work with beautiful, creative people, and their talent comes through in a specific way. There’s an alchemy to this, and I am privileged to be in this position.” To Williams, spirituality is everything, but not in a “I practice yoga and carry a crystal” kind of way. It is woven into the very essence of everything she does—it’s a mindset rather than a transient layer on top of a busy life. “I am by no means perfect. I am a constant student in everything. But I’ve been very blessed to meet people on the way that have taught me kind techniques or just [about] bringing it back to purpose, I suppose,” she says. No supposing about it—this actress is on the right path.
Sanditon series 2 launches in August on ITV. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris will be released in cinemas nationwide in September.
Photographer: Tom O'Neill
Photography Assistant: Alessandro de Besi
Stylist: Gemma Hayward
Styling Assistant: Charlotte Malley
Creative Director: Alexa Wiley
Editor in Chief: Hannah Almassi
Producer: Samantha Obalim
Videographer: Remi Afolabi