British supermodel-turned-blockbuster-heroine ROSIE HUNTINGTON-WHITELEY talks with VINCENZO LA TORRE about life in front of a lens and sunny days in Los Angeles
“The sky’s the limit,” Rosie Huntington- Whiteley says when I ask her about her ambitions as a model and actress, and given that we’re overlooking the whole of Victoria Harbour from Ozone, on the 118th floor of The Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, her remark is quite fitting. As she gets ready to work her magic for a Prestige Hong Kong cover shoot before catching a flight back to Los Angeles, it’s clear that this 25-year-old, who has been working with Burberry since 2008 and is in town for the opening of the brand’s Asian flagship boutique at Pacific Place, truly means business.
Expertly guiding the hairstylist and make- up artist and giving her input about each take while on set, Rosie is not just a pretty hanger for beautiful clothes – she knows what makes a great image and is not afraid to voice her opinion. Her style sense, too, is right on the money, and as she goes through a rack of Burberry pieces with the crew, she doesn’t shy away from mixing and matching tops and skirts and trying them on like any young girl in her dream closet.
Huntington-Whiteley, who grew up on a farm in Devon and is now based in Los Angeles, where she lives with fellow Brit and actor Jason Statham, has been modelling from the tender age of 16 and is one of the rare mannequins who can easily switch from edgy editorials for glossy publications to campaigns for luxury brands such as Burberry, and to more commercial endeavours including her work as a Victoria’s Secret angel and for high- street giant Marks & Spencer. Most of us, however, remember her for her breakout role in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where she held her own alongside a gang of boys such as Shia LaBeouf and Josh Duhamel, and became every man’s dream with a hard-to-forget opening scene in which little was left to the imagination.
Of her first time in Hong Kong (a 24-hour jaunt that only leaves her enough free time for a quick walk along Kowloon Public Pier to take in the city’s skyline), she says that “the city seems really cool and everyone is very friendly,” although, ever the professional, she adds that the Burberry party “was work, not the place to let your hair down”. As she tucks into a hearty breakfast that not many would associate with the daily diet of a model (“nothing beats crispy bacon and eggs,” she says while removing a piece of stray bacon from her mouth – a seemingly innocent gesture that with Huntington-Whiteley turns into a slightly titillating act) she realises that she has yet to try the local food. “I can’t leave without having a Chinese meal,” she says, asking her team to book a table at The Ritz- Carlton’s Tin Lung Heen for a last-minute bite before her flight.
As soon as the shoot begins, it doesn’t take much for this jovial and good-natured girl to transform herself into a femme fatale out of a ’40s noir flick: a silver trench coat with just a sliver of skin showing underneath does the trick. As she poses for the photographer inside a dark elevator or leans seductively at the sleek counter of the bar, she wows everyone with her come-hither looks and her miles-long legs that peek from a white goddess gown with a slit up to the waist. The same girl who, during a cigarette break, reveals her fondness for boy band Take That (“I was obsessed with them while growing up”) a moment later glams it up for the camera clad in a sexy cocktail dress on the sofa where only a few minutes earlier she looked like an innocent child taking a much- needed nap in between takes.
If Huntington-Whiteley knows how to play the sexy vamp and work a camera, she doesn’t show it during our interview. Guarded at first, she easily loosens up – that yummy breakfast and an energy boost provided by a cup of coffee clearly help, especially at 7am after a whirlwind sprint through Hong Kong – to talk about her modelling career, her work as an actress and her life as an English Rose turned California girl.
You started modelling when you were quite young. Was that something you always wanted to do while growing up?
I really wanted to work in fashion so that’s how it came around, and then I got the opportunity to do a photo shoot and thought it might be the only opportunity I got to see the fashion industry, so I decided to take it and there was no looking back.
Who was your role model back then, someone whose path you wanted to follow?
I just remember that when I first started modelling there were many British models and Gisele was in her heyday, so she was really iconic to me.
Would you like to become a one-woman brand like she did?
Absolutely. I think the sky’s the limit and the way things are with technology and the way the industry is growing, I think there’s just so much opportunity to branch out rather than being one thing. I think women are multi-dimensional so I don’t believe in putting myself in a box and restricting myself to one interest, one career or one job.
Of all the many photographers who’ve shot you, is there anyone you always enjoy working with?
I would say Mario Testino. I’ve been working with him since 2008 now; he’s just such an iconic photographer who will stand the test of time and a really fun, great guy. I love being on his set.
He shot the campaign for Burberry Body, which is quite provocative. Is it easy for you to use your body that way?
I’m generally just connecting with the photographer and that’s what great photographers do: they set the mood and the tone and they give you directions that they need for the photo, and the better the photographer, the better the picture and the better the model or the subject field.
When you first started modelling at such a young age, did you miss going to school and doing what most teenagers do?
Not really. I was 16 and running around London and the rest of the world having a great time so I didn’t really miss any of the school discos. I was enjoying my life for sure.
So you never struggled, even when you first began?
Sometimes, it did feel lonely, even now. For many years I would turn up in the middle of nowhere and wouldn’t even know who I was going to work with, so it’s nice when you know who you’re going to work with and you can catch up. If I get to be lucky enough and choose my team, I like to keep the same people around me. I trust them, they are my friends and you have a good time.
What do you make of the fact that many are now saying that the era of the supermodels such as Naomi, Cindy and Kate is over?
Well, everything changes. I think that was a particular time in the ’90s when models ruled, and then actresses began to rule and the pop stars and musicians of the world really took over. It’s just changing, especially with technology, but certainly the ’90s was a great time for models. They ruled the world.
For a British girl like you, how does it feel to work for Burberry?
Burberry is the most iconic luxury brand in England and it has a long-standing heritage. It was the campaign that every British model would want to get and that was the ultimate achievement as a model in England, and so to have been working with the brand since 2008 has been an honour, exciting every time. Burberry is like my family and it’s amazing to work with a brand that’s so loyal and so trusted.
How is it working with Christopher Bailey?
Christopher is wonderful. I always call him the sweetest man in fashion.
You also worked with Victoria’s Secret and Marks & Spencer. How is it to collaborate with such a variety of brands, from luxury to high street?
I feel so lucky to have worked with such a wide range of clients with every kind of audience, and I think that is the ultimate for a model: to be able to have that crossover into each area.
Your mother is a fitness instructor, so what do you make of the controversy about models’ body size and pressure to stay thin?
I look after myself and I don’t really pay too much attention to pressures from the industry. I’m really healthy and I grew up on a farm eating well so I just have a good sense of exercise; that’s where I get my confidence and where I build my strength. I’m on the go around the world all year round. I don’t have the opportunity to be weak and not eat properly. Your body is your machine so what you put into it is crucial.
Since so many young girls look up to you, do you take that into account when it comes to your image?
I see it as a responsibility but it’s something I do already. It’s part of who I am, not something I do consciously for other people.
You’re also an actress now. How did you feel when you got the lead female role in Transformers: Dark of the Moon? Did you ask your boyfriend for advice?
Of course I asked him for advice, but I had so many question marks over my head for that one. All I knew in the end was that the opportunity had come my way for a reason and I couldn’t turn it down. Life is all about living and learning, and I’m a strong believer in taking every opportunity you get.
You worked with director Michael Bay for a Victoria’s Secret commercial before Transformers. How did he approach you? Did you know you would get the lead role?
I thought he wanted me to do a cameo for the film but then he kept asking me to audition over and over again. I kept saying no because I thought he was asking me to do a cameo in my underwear and I didn’t want to do it. Eventually I agreed and he called me a few days later and told me it was for the lead role. Then it took him another few phone calls to convince me that he wasn’t making fun of me.
How was the atmosphere on the set? What was it like shooting with all those boys?
I was very friendly with all the cast, all the boys. Tyrese [Gibson] is a really good friend of mine. I saw Josh the other night at a party. It was me and all the guys so it would get a little difficult some days because boys like to do boys’ things, but they were very sweet and I could hold my own for sure.
Was it a complete departure from what you’d been doing before, modelling on fashion shoots?
Making a photo still and making a movie are enormously different. The only thing in common is that you’re creating a mood or a feeling and you’re on a creative setting. But they are very different and the shooting schedule on a movie is very intense. It was mostly 12-hour days for six months and you’re shooting an action movie, which is very full on.
Did you enjoy the stunts?
I loved it. I’m very physical. It was fun to go over the stunts with the coordinators and spend time before the shoot learning how to fight for specific action scenes.
You just filmed the new Mad Max, so acting is something you definitely want to pursue.
I have a hard time turning work down, so whatever project comes my way, if it seems interesting or fun or it looks like I might get the opportunity to try something new or learn something, I take it. I’m open and I take it day by day and project by project. There are no guidelines any more in terms of a woman’s career in the entertainment industry. All the actresses now are models, while models and pop stars also make films, so it’s really exciting for everyone.
What are you doing to further your acting career? Are you taking classes?
I work with somebody in LA for specific roles or auditions. She’s one of the greatest women in the world. I have a lot of love for her.
You mentioned technology earlier. Are you active on social networks?
I recently joined social networking, and I signed up my Twitter account about six months ago so it’s very new to me, but I was resistant to doing it for a long time and suddenly it became apparent that the youth and the world are now on the Internet and they want to know what’s going on. Sometimes it gets crazy when everyone is taking a photo of you on the phone and asks you to pose with them, but if it makes someone’s day, you just do it.
What about all the paparazzi in LA? Do you miss being anonymous?
In LA it’s the paparazzi whereas in London it’s mainly the fans, so there’s always something, but I have my own tactics of disguise and my publicist is very helpful with that.
What do you do to stay grounded and to escape from the world of fashion and the entertainment industry?
I don’t know whether it’s a conscious thing I try to do, but I always manage to leave my work at the door. It hasn’t been my choice but I’m very aware of what is work and what is my personal life. I don’t get that too mixed up. Most of my friends have nothing to do with the industry and neither does my family, so that’s where I go when I’m not working.
So are you more of a homebody or do you like partying and going out?
LA doesn’t tend to have too much of a nightlife but if you ask any of my friends they will tell you I am the life and soul of a party. I just try to do it privately.
You said that growing up, you always wanted to be in fashion. Have you ever thought about designing?
Yes, I did some designing and I really enjoyed the process.
Did your modelling experience come in handy?
Yes. If you don’t understand clothes after working in fashion for 10 years, there’s something wrong.
Do you also like to wear beautiful clothes yourself ?
I don’t really follow trends because I’ve never been into disposable fashion. I love clothes, I love fashion, but I’m always on the go, so I’m in jeans and T-shirts a lot.
You seem to enjoy life in LA, but would you consider going back to the UK?
I’m in the UK all the time and it’s home. I certainly see myself there in the future, but right now LA is where it’s at and where I’m having a good time. So I’m enjoying it while I’m young, I suppose. The weather is great. That’s the big draw of living in LA. I think if you enjoy the outdoors, which I do, there’s a lot to do. Lots of hikes and surfing and being on the beach, horse riding and those things, which is what I grew up doing.
What do you miss most about life in the countryside?
I just miss my family and the house I grew up in. I like to get down there to connect to the ground. I chill out, cook, eat and I like being with the animals. I try to get home to see my parents as often as I can. These days it’s a couple times a year and for Christmas.
Of all the photos of you, is there one that you always treasure?
There are a lot of pictures I treasure but they’re usually the ones that don’t get published; they’re the ones taken when I’m in the dressing room or with somebody from the crew or when the photographer catches that moment when it’s not just me selling a product or becoming a character. There are a few special pictures like that.
So you do feel that you become a character, even when you’re shooting something like a Burberry campaign, which is not like acting in a movie?
Absolutely. You’re selling an aspirational image and you’re creating a tone and a mood. That’s what both models and actresses do. It’s not like I go around naked underneath a trench coat all day [laughs].
PHOTOGRAPHY / WING SHYA
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING / GORDON LAM
MAKE-UP / MARY WILES FOR BURBERRY BEAUTY
HAIR / TRISTAN WAIKONG
PRODUCER / DANIEL TAN
STYLING ASSISTANT / ISABELLA LOK
LOCATION / OZONE, THE RITZ-CARLTON HONG KONG