Rose Williams’ Charlotte Heywood Is A Bold Austen Heroine For A New Era

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As she prepared for her role as the ambitious Charlotte Heywood in MASTERPIECE’s Sanditon, actor Rose Williams went deep into Jane Austen’s literary catalogue of heroines. Her Charlotte is an entirely new creation, and one that both respects the Austen pantheon and brings new light to familiar literary tropes. Williams previews the exciting series to come, and gives special insight to this story by the sea.

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Transcript

Jace Lacob : I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

With a rush of wild coincidences, furtively caught liaisons, and bare-skinned sea bathing, it’s very clear — this Sanditon is Jane Austen like you’ve never seen her before.

CLIP

Charlotte I like to amuse myself by observing and trying to make conclusions. But in a place like Sanditon, where strangers mingle freely, it is hard to form a reliable judgment – people can be so difficult to interpret, don’t you find?

Sidney And what have you observed about me upon our small acquaintance?

Jace The sharp, independent Charlotte Heywood is our heroine, shedding her hohum rural life for the thrill of a summer by the sea in the rapidly developing new resort, Sanditon.

CLIP

Charlotte I think it must be very difficult for you here. I feel something of it myself – I’m a stranger here, too.

Miss Lambe But people don’t look at you the way they look at me.

Jace There’s a wealthy, childless widow, Lady Denham; her scheming extended family, angling for a slice of her wealth; and the ardent Parker family, feverishly working to make Sanditon the next ‘jewel’ of the British coast.

CLIP

Sidney And Sanditon’s reputation would be firmly established.

Charlotte And you care about such things?

Sidney For my brother’s sake I do, yes.

Jace Rose Williams, who brings determined young Charlotte Heywood to life, is the charming heart of this new series from longtime MASTERPIECE screenwriter Andrew Davies. While Davies transformed a mere 24,000-word fragment into a series, Williams prepared for her role as Charlotte by digging down into the rest of the women in Austen’s larger body of work.

Rose Williams: There’s an intelligence to her, but it’s a different kind of intelligence of like Elizabeth Bennet and that being, you know, that the people I liken her to the most are Elizabeth Bennet for her opinions. And Catherine from Northanger Abbey for her naivitê. Jace We spoke with Williams about the remarkable Charlotte Heywood, how Sanditon explores and subverts the typical Austen fascinations of wealth and class, and the story still to come in this new series.

Jace And this week, we are joined by Sanditon star, Rose Williams. Welcome. Well met.

Rose Thank you for having me. Yes. Well, met. Well, met indeed.

Jace The first episode of Sanditon begins with the Parkers in a carriage over rough roads.

CLIP

Mary My dear, I am sure we are on the wrong road! Oh!

Tom Nonsense, my dear, this is the way, you will see I am right – hold tight, dear that’s the way!

Jace Can Tom’s belief in his rightness be construed as a metaphor for the Sanditon enterprise itself?

Rose Absolutely. I think there’s a blind faith that Tom Parker embodies. He really does have the blinkers on when it comes to his ambition at the expense of his wife, Mary Parker, and his children. But underneath that, there’s a real care and love for his family. I think there’s no maliciousness in Tom. But there is a denial of the facts and in certain question is who he is. His instinct and his faith and his vision kind of take over in places where perhaps he could be in use of a little common sense.

Jace He’s a dreamer.

Rose He is a dreamer.

Jace He’s the Kermit the Frog of Sanditon.

Rose Yeah that’s a really good, that’s brilliant.

Jace Charlotte Heywood is given a very on Jane Austen heroine introduction. She’s peering through the scope of a rifle, her finger on the trigger as she hunts hare. This wasn’t in the original script where she was picking catkins with her siblings. What do you make of this unexpected way that we encounter Charlotte for the first time?

Rose I love it. And it’s just a really empowering image. I mean, it was empowering for me Rose to go, there’s a place called Baptiste, which is quite famous, and armory training kind of storage, higher place in the south of London. And they did all the Bond movies and Rambo and there’s like a bunch of amazing guns there, like Sylvester Stallone’s famous revolver and things like that. So for me to have that kind of experience and be taught how to use this you know, brilliant Regency long rifle was a great thing for me to learn with the string to my bow like an empowering, cool lesson. And we shot a scene just improvised where I was showing my younger brothers and sisters how to properly load the gun. And that kind of embodied and set up who Charlotte was, she’s a very capable young woman who, you know, is unafraid to kind of get in there and in whatever way that she can. She’s not she’s not scared of getting her hands dirty.

Jace No, and she literally does an upcoming episode.

Rose Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So it was really empowering. I’m so, so pleased that that script change was made.

Jace I mean, it’s a movement that, as you say, sort of establishes her in a very different way. She isn’t like Eleanor or Elizabeth or Austen’s other heroines. She is a unique creation. She’s a hunter. She’s a doer. And she’s not doing needlepoint or playing the pianoforte when we meet her. I mean, how does that difference set her apart from the Austen pantheon of heroines?

Rose I think the practicality, the fact that she’s a worker, that she’s been raised on this farm where she’s been taking care of her brothers and sisters. And that really kind of tells a story of who this girl is, she is grounded and she first and foremost kind of moves from her from her emotion, but coming from a more practical sense than we’ve seen before, so. There’s an intelligence to her, but it’s a different kind of intelligence of like Elizabeth Bennet and that being, you know, that the people I liken her to, the most are Elizabeth Bennet for her opinions. And Catherine from Northanger Abbey for her naivité . And so she’s this practical girl who is naive.

Jace She’s incredibly sympathetic, though, I think, as well. I mean, and you mentioned Catherine. I mean, she doesn’t have the sort of Gothic preoccupation.

Rose No, no.

Jace That Catherine does.

Rose She’s in the real world. And yeah, she has I think I mean, me and Olly talked about her having imaginations of London and the world outside Willingden and a wanting and a need to kind of go further afield. But she doesn’t have a romantic imagination like someone like Catherine. What I like to talk about with Charlotte is how it is Tom Parker’s vision that pulls her to the place. It is his excitement about the building of this new town.

CLIP

Tom We were in search of a physician, you know sir, for Sanditon!

Charlotte Is Sanditon a relative, sir?

Tom No, no, a place! And what a place! Sanditon is, or very soon will be, the finest seaside resort on the whole of the South coast!

Charlotte! Then I should very much like to see it, sir!

Tom And so you shall!

Rose That’s what captures her imagination. She’s really interested in the architectural plans and the map of Sanditon when he comes to Willingden. She says, oh, are you really building all this? Is that actually possible? And how can I get in there, too?

Jace And she does. She jumps at the opportunity to go to be part of this crazy venture.

Rose Yes.

Jace And leave behind Willingden. I mean, one of the things I love about her is that her immediate instinct when the carriage topples over is that she goes running to help. Yes. I mean, is that her primary characteristic then? Sort of headstrong and helpful?

Rose Yes. Headstrong and helpful. That’s absolutely. And I think we did a few a lot of quite nice work with Adrian and Sara, who play my parents, because in the book, the father and Charlotte’s father is a bit more forthright. But essentially, we came to a kind of place where we decided that they were very compassionate people that just were happy with a warm, warm fire and good hearty meal and happy kids. It was just like a very cozy, calm, centered place where there was no need for anything more. And I’d say Charlotte’s sensibility to Tim that the reason that she went run to help is because that’s how she was raised. It’s all about mucking in together and, you know, taking care of the little ones and working with the farm hands and, you know, befriending people in the village. Just a real sense of community. That’s just who she is. And through the through how she was raised on the farm.

Jace After Mary Parker volunteers to take one of the Heywood daughters to Sanditon and to repay the family, Charlotte volunteers herself. I mean, what does she hope to encounter in Sadition? And what makes her sort of jump at that opportunity?

Rose I think just pure adventure. I think. It’s something different. It’s she’s been wanting to leave, but hasn’t been quite sure about how that was going to work. And this bizarre, fortuitous carriage crash occurred. And it’s her golden ticket. Willy Wonka. It’s like Tom Parker is a bit like Willy Wonka. He’s just appeared and she doesn’t know what’s going to happen. But she knows it’s fun and interesting and she’s just kind of jumped, takes the leap. I don’t think she has any preconceptions about what it will be, and she’s never seen the sea before. She’s never been on such a long journey. She just knows and senses that there’s something exciting across the hill and she wants to get on the other side.

Jace As this series goes on, we quickly learn that Charlotte is a woman of many skills without giving anything away. She’s very good in an emergency and at bringing order to chaos. I mean, what is her most defining attribute?

Rose That’s a good question. Um. I think her sense of calm in a crisis. I think her clear head when it comes to situations where the kind of comic assumption of a woman of that period would be a, you know, ahh!, Or a fainting in a field in the rain and having to be carrying I mean, I we’ve seen that scene before. This is literally the polar opposite of a damsel in distress. She goes right into practical survival mode in situations that require that.

Jace There’s only one area where she doesn’t seem to have a clear head, and that’s Sidney Parker.

Rose Boys!

Jace What do you make of their initial relationship in these first two episodes?

CLIP

Charlotte Your brother will be very pleased with you, Mr Parker.

Sidney Yes I hope so. Babington’s a good fellow, and what’s more a friend of the Prince Regent. Now if he could be tempted into coming to Sanditon…

Charlotte The general rejoicing would be unconfined, I imagine.

Sidney Yes, and Sanditon’s reputation would be firmly established.

Charlotte And you care about such things?

Sidney For my brother’s sake I do, yes.

Rose It’s a really interesting one. I think it’s got the elements of Austen romance arcs that we know and love, the will they, won’t they? The misunderstandings and preconceptions and then the kind of flip of understanding. There’s that lovely, lovely journey for them. But they really do lock horns. Basically from one to seven. And. It’s this dance they have with each other.

CLIP

Sidney I don’t think of you at all, Miss Heywood. I am not interested in your approval or disapproval. Quite simply, I do not care what you think, or how you feel. I am sorry if that disappoints you, but there it is. Have I made myself clear?

Charlotte Only that if you really don’t care, I wonder that you take the trouble to be quite so offensive and hurtful. Good day.

Rose But equally for Charlotte, if she really thought he was so atrocious, she wouldn’t keep interacting with him. So there’s something that pulls them magnetically together, but they don’t quite understand what that is.

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors… 

Jace Lady Denham immediately pegs Charlotte as a threat when it comes to Sir Edward’s affection.

Rose Yes.

Jace And warns her, he might pay her compliments, but he needs to marry a fortune. Is she appropriately warned off by Lady Denham’s instructions? And is she truthful when she says she’s not looking for a husband?

Rose I love that scene. The cliff walk that there’s there was a line in that thing that was cut. That was in the book. And it was in the original script where. Edwards trying to flirt with me and he says, ‘Oh, have you read Walter Scots’ lines on the sea?’ And she’s like, um, ‘no, I don’t recall he ever wrote anything about the sea,’ actually, because he assumed that she wouldn’t have ever read Walter Scott. But she had and he hadn’t ever written anything about the sea. I think quite quickly she writes him off as a bit of a buffoon, because that’s another thing about Charlotte. She really sees people for who they are, not for their social status. She doesn’t see anyone is any more or any less for how much money they have, which is a true quality about her. And I think she really isn’t looking for us. I think she represents it. I think she represents Jane Austen. And Jane Austen never got married. And I firmly really with that when thinking and talking about the character. It’s like, yes, her parents would have required her to marry in order to kind of assist the family. But it was a changing time. And also the brothers Parker aren’t conventional all of the characters in Sanditon are a bit different to what we’ve seen before. And I really, truly believe that she’s interested in enterprise and vision and not a husband.

Jace She’s the smartest mind and kindest heart, I think, in any room.

Rose Oh, that’s nice.

Jace Just a lovely character. What was it like to film alongside the amazing Anne Reid?

Rose Gosh, that was just such a treat. I mean, she just embodied that character so brilliantly. She’s so witty and funny and just would say the most hilarious kind of naughty thing right before action. And that got us howling with laughter. That’s just such brilliant comic timing. I think with the way she delivers the lines and she looks fantastic in the costumes, she just brings such a presence, especially in the big group scenes like the balls or as luncheon in the second episode with a lot of characters and I mean, I learned so much watching the way that she delivered her lines. She just brought so much energy.

Jace The awful pineapple scene.

Rose Yeah.

CLIP

Charlotte I know that young ladies are not expected to have opinions, Lady Denham, but I think Miss Lambe is quite right to value her independence, just as you do yours. Don’t you agree, Mr Parker?

Sidney Miss Lambe is well aware of my position on the matter.

Lady Denham No answer from Mr Sidney! And you, Miss, are you keeping up your pretence that you’re not in Sanditon in search of a wealthy man to marry and keep you?

Charlotte Indeed I am not, ma’am. I have no thoughts of marriage at all. And if I were to choose a husband, wealth would not come into it.

Lady Denham Poppycock!

Charlotte Should not a good marriage be based on mutual love and affection? Without equality of affection, marriage can become a kind of slavery.

Jace For modern viewers, the bathing machine scene is absolutely bizarre. With its horse drawn cart to the water and the women’s very demure bathing attire. How strange as surreal was it to film the sequence with those red full body bathing costumes and caps?

Rose I mean, it was just such a bizarre look, wasn’t it? I mean, me and Lily just came out of each other’s trailers and I looked at each other. And she’s like, ‘We look like matchsticks!’ because we did do we do so utterly bizarre. I was kind of saying, oh, ‘We look like, fine.’ And then without the costume, all of the costume department and makeup was like, I think my makeup girl Fi, she’s amazing. I love her dearly. She was just like, ‘Babe, you guys look really weird.’ We did have such a laugh. We reshot, actually some of that the dialogue happens on the steps of the bathing machine. But originally we spoke in the water kind of doggy paddling and we just kept getting the hysterics nearly because it was just so odd.

Jace The vainglorious, swaggering, somewhat caddish. Sidney is, of course, played by Downton Abbey’s Theo James. What does Theo bring to those Charlotte Sidney scenes that you have?

Rose I think that overall to say about what Theo brings is that he’s so…he brings a real like, suave, slick edge to Sidney. I remember talking with Olly. Well, he said that the Caracol, which Sydney rides, which is his horsedrawn car is like the coolest, most expensive, amazing vehicle that he could possibly have. City equipped, modern day equivalent would be a dude rolling up in a Lambo. Like when I first see him, it’s  like I’m seeing a rapper in a sports car or something like this, really cool guy. And I think Theo brings that that that quality of kind of sophisticated edge. He wears the costumes so well, he just really embodies this modern, tortured soul. I think he walks the talk with Sidney. It’s brilliant. But with all scenes together, we were both on the same page of wanting to make them as real as possible, as human as possible and not play the period. So we were quite good at collaborating together to find the emotion. And if any moment felt clunky or the blocking didn’t quite feel real. And we were quite you know, it was great teamwork together to kind of. Find places to make you feel as real as possible, so that was already great process together.

Jace The ball is classic Austen. Men and women dancing and chatting while finally being able to touch at all. It’s also full of intrigue, as both Sir Edward and Clara try to clarify what happened in the moments that Charlotte saw each spinning their own version of the story.

CLIP

Clara What you saw yesterday afternoon – I was obliged to – do something I didn’t want to do, to avoid something even worse.

Charlotte I don’t understand.

Clara No, of course, I shouldn’t have…you won’t say anything to Lady Denham.

Charlotte Of course not.

Jace What does she come to believe, or is she more confused than ever by what she saw?

Rose I think she’s more confused than ever, to be honest by what she saw in the book Jane Austen says that she sees something white and womanish. I mean, that could mean a whole bunch of things. That could mean that saw someone without any clothes on. Instead, she sees something white and womanish, and someone that looks like Edward Denham. So it was there in the book. And then I guess imagination prevailed. But I think the way that I played it and I felt during those scenes was that she genuinely was confused and the confusion felt like a threat. So she kind of just wants to diffuse and step away like she senses something funky. And she’s not really interested in scheming and people who aren’t what they seem. So her instinct is just to step back and be away from it.

Jace She finds a distraught Georgina Lambe on the edge of a cliff and sort of talks her off the ledge literally and figuratively. What do you make of the relationship between Charlotte and Georgiana?

Rose I had the best time with Crystal and with these two characters. Miss Lambe, I think is my favorite character of the whole show. I think Crystal plays her with grace and poise and heart and guts. It’s just such a beautiful role. And I really enjoy the friendship between Charlotte and Miss Lambe, because Miss Lambe educates Charlotte. Charlotte is. I will actually use the word ignorant. She’s had a sheltered life. She’s grown up on a farm. Everything’s been quite comfortable. And in her understanding, the slave trade has been abolished and everything’s fine because that’s what her dad said. But actually, there’s so much more to it. So she meets this beautiful young woman who in episode four. That’s nice. There’s nice scenes and pieces where Charlotte here is the eyes and ears of the audience gets an education, which I think is really very important. And so I’ve really you know, I could talk about Miss Lambe forever, but. That process and all of that friendship across the series was something lovely and enjoyable and brilliant. I love working with Crystal.

Jace The episode ends with Charlotte collecting shells on the beach and then catching Sidney in the buff. It’s such a tense and loaded scene as she fights against looking at him. But you can’t quite leave either.

CLIP

Sidney Miss Heywood! Am I never to get away from you?

Charlotte Mr Parker, I assure you, you are the last person I wished to see!

Sidney Yes, you’re right I spoke out of turn. Forgive me.

Charlotte Of course.

Jace How challenging was it to shoot the scene with Theo?

Rose Well, he was the one there in the freezing cold waters, so It was more challenging. He was great that day and all camera operator Rob Carter is just so brilliant, the way that they’ve framed a framed him out. So it’s my face and you just get his torso in the background. So it was really clever framing that. It was a it was quite fun, but it did feel strange being that static and having the conversation with my back to him that did. It did kind of create a weird feeling doing the scene because the normal thing to do would just be to immediately run away. But as you say, she does stay. So she’s fighting against you. Instincts like instinct, you’re on. But then also she wants to keep talking to him. So it was fun scene to shoot, but the challenge was for poor old Theo and the freezing cold.

Jace Yeah. I mean, it’s an interesting scene, I think too, because especially in the context of a period drama, it is about the female gaze rather than the male gaze.

Rose Yes. Yes, exactly. And the way that it’s shot reflects that, too. Thanks for picking that up. Yeah, exactly.

Jace I thought it was, especially in the context of sort of a Jane Austen adaptation in period drama. It is a reversal of what we’ve come to expect and plays with the audience’s expectations.

Rose Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, absolutely. It’s not like, you know, this kind of scenes and I can’t think of an example, but maybe something is Grecian or whatever. But the woman emerging from the water and the man kind of sees her come out of the lake and it’s like him statically watching her emerge from the water. But this is an accidental encounter where she turns around to say, you’re right, it’s a different take on that kind of scenes flipped.

Jace The love hate between Charlotte and Sidney seems to come to a head here in this moment. What does Charlotte Heywood feel for Sidney Parker?

Rose I think utter confusion. I think her brain is firing, all kinds of different signals. There’s definitely an attraction. I think at that point, because if she wasn’t, she would have run away. But I’m not sure that she’s aware of the attraction. I think she wants to stay and talk to him, but she doesn’t know why. He’s infuriated her and offended her and hurt her. And yet she’s still doesn’t believe inherently that he’s a bad person. I think the main emotion is an emotion is just pure confusion. She doesn’t know what to make of him or how she feels.

Jace If Charlotte Heywood were a classic British dish, what would she be?

Rose Classic British dish? That’s a really good question. Classic British dish, maybe something simple, maybe including toast. Um, I think Charlotte would be a..She wouldn’t be a pie and mash, cause she’s a bit more posh than that. She’d be like a bread and butter pudding or something like that.

Jace I like that. Rose Williams, thank you so very much.

Rose Thank you. Honestly, that was really nice.

Jace The roguish Sidney Parker seems destined to woo Charlotte Heywood — if only he could stick around town long enough to notice her.

CLIP

Sidney: I invited your opinion and actually for once, I think there is some value in what you say.

Charlotte Coming from you, I shall own that as the greatest compliment imaginable.

Jace We’ll speak with Sanditon’s Theo James about where his would-be lothario’s head is at, here on the podcast on Sunday, January 19.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large of MASTERPIECE. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.

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