Peter Taylor-Whiffen 7 Feb 2019 12:11pm

A day in the life: Gemma Wilks

Gemma Wilks, accountant, actor, film producer and environmental campaigner, tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen how a life-changing tragedy changed her course

Caption: Photography by Jon Snedden

How I changed career

I’d always loved the idea of acting and joined an amateur dramatic group near my home in Romsey, in Hampshire, about 10 years ago. But it was never the right time to make it my day job. Having done articles with KPMG in Bristol and then Southampton, then leaving to work for my husband Phil’s online firm FourteenFish, and then having two children, going into acting seemed a bit of an indulgence. But three years ago, my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma. On her deathbed I asked her if she had any regrets. She said she was fulfilled and happy – and that her only regret was dying at 61. It made me realise how short our time is. Within a year I was accepted by the Spotlight agency and was doing my first movie, a horror – not my favourite genre to watch, but it was huge fun.

I’ve appeared in a few films since (including Star Wars movie Rogue One and other box office hits Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Nutcracker and The Four Realms) but was also keen to get into producing and wrote and acted in a short film called Daffodil, which got a distribution. Through this I got to know David Rogers, a producer who had been trying to make a movie of the classic fantasy children’s book The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon. It was due to be funded by about $30m of Chinese investment, but a change in regulations meant that the money suddenly fell through at the start of 2018. He came to me in the summer asking if I could come on board and help him raise the finance. I’m now co-producer and we are looking for around £10m.

My typical day

I don’t have one. I do a lot of organising, meetings, networking – those who’ve read the novel will know much of it is set in Salisbury, so we’ve been having lots of meetings about location filming in the city, particularly at the cathedral. Our planned release date of 2020 ties in with the 800th anniversary of the laying of the cathedral’s foundation stone. We’re doing a lot of work on other locations, and booking agents and editors, and we have a great writer, Tom Williams (who earned a BAFTA nomination for the war film Kajaki). The story is about children encountering magic and the fight between good and evil. I’m also putting out feelers for funding with executive producers and putting in funding applications with the BFI. I’m also doing other acting work, I’m a director at FourteenFish, which builds appraisal software and apps for GPs, and I’m also a keen cyclist – I ride in a cyclo-cross league at weekends. And I’m a mum to a son and daughter, so I’m there for them too. No two days are ever the same.

Industry quirks

It’s an interesting thing about acting, but so many people come to it through a life-changing experience. Whether it’s a diagnosis, a major life event, many actors have a story, something that has made them do it. Perhaps that kind of motivation is unsurprising – after all, acting is rarely well paid, auditions and rehearsals are difficult to fit around family, it’s an industry full of hopes, dreams and maybes, and I know as a trained accountant that business people struggle with that fluidity. I wish I could tell my mum what I’m doing now – but if she were still here, I’d never have had that motivation to do it.

My responsibilities

Having two children completely changed my outlook on life. We want to bring up sensible, sensitive, rounded people and that means trying to be an example to them. Becoming a mother made me take a different, more holistic view of our planet and its future. Sure, I’d previously picked up litter, but from pretty much day one we realised just how much waste disposable nappies create, so I was determined to use and wash cloth ones. We try to buy goods from local, ethical, sustainable sources and last year we began to look at plastic and realised how much more waste was created there. It irritated me so much that Phil suggested I do something, so I started a campaign called Ban The Straw New Forest, to eliminate plastic straws in all schools, pubs, restaurants and businesses across the New Forest National Park area. Many organisations are following our lead and we’re developing other campaigns around recycling school jumpers, and even inner tubes from bikes. I do feel a huge responsibility not just to my children, but to all our children, to leave them a sustainable planet. I’ve won awards for my campaigning, been named a Sustainability Champion, been interviewed on TV, which is publicity for helping people realise they can change things – but I’m actually just a mum who’s irritated by plastic straws!

The habits of an accountant

I still think very much like an accountant, which stands me in good stead for both environmental campaigning and trying to raise investment for a film. We look at the fine detail and the overall picture at the same time. That’s a really useful ability and something you don’t lose.

How the ACA helped my career

I’m tremendously grateful to the ACA for my background. When I’m trying to raise £10m it helps me to see the business as well as the creative side. Creatives have great ideas but don’t consider how many people will want to see it. Accountancy makes you look at the entire product, all the costings, all the savings, and where the revenue will come from.