Aidan Turner has spent a fair amount of time working outside of the normal human realm. Not literally, of course, but the Irish actor played a vampire in the first three seasons of the original BBC BEING HUMAN, a werewolf in the film MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES and a dwarf in love with an elf in Peter Jackson’s cinematic THE HOBBIT trilogy.
In POLDARK, in its first season in the U.S. on PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre Sunday nights and renewed for a second, Turner is still playing someone who is brooding and romantic, but he’s at least human. His character Ross Poldark is a British soldier just returned from fighting on the losing side in the American Revolution to his family’s holdings in Cornwall. Ross tries to better the lot of the tenants who live on the land, while at the same time trying to make money off the mines again. Ross’ erstwhile fiancée Elizabeth (Heida Reed), believing him to have died in the war, is now engaged to his cousin Francis (Kyle Soller), while Ross rescues the peasant Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson). The show is based on Winston Graham’s series of novels, which were previously dramatized by the BBC in 1975 through 1977.
Turner sits down during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Association press tour to discuss playing an eighteenth-century man.
AX: You’ve done a couple of contemporary roles, but a lot of your work seems to be in the fantasy/period realm …
AIDAN TURNER: Yeah, I guess so. I’d done one thing before, DESPERATE ROMANTICS [as Dante Gabriel Rossetti], that was period for the BBC, but it’s been playing a dwarf or a werewolf or a vampire or something over the last few years. So it’s nice to finally play a real person, a human being [laughs]. It’s exhilarating.
AX: Before you became involved with this, were you familiar with the POLDARK books or the older TV version?
TURNER: No, not at all. When the offer came in to play Ross, I wasn’t aware of who Winston Graham was. I got a package one day, it had the first maybe four or six scripts that Debbie Horsfield adapted from Winston’s books, and the first two books that we cover in the first series. I think I read them all in a couple of weeks and had a fair idea of what was going on and who Winston was, but no, I wasn’t aware of the show. I asked my mum and my dad and close relatives had they seen it, and they were very familiar with the show. It was really popular. Robin Ellis who played Ross [in the older version and appears as Reverend Halse in the new version] was something of a heartthrob in the day. All that was news to me.
AX: Ross Poldark is a human being, but you have been playing a lot of characters who are very serious-minded and full of romantic longing. Do you seek out these types of roles?
TURNER: No, it’s all about the writing. You follow the good work, and that’s what I’m doing. I don’t pick a certain genre or have a plan, really. It’s just if something comes along that really affects me and I feel like I want to do it and I’m in a position to do it, I’ll do it. Equally, if a rom-com came along, or a comedy, or a piece of theatre, if I connected with it, I would do it. There are no rules and regulations or a code that I have really.
Ross has got integrity and I think his moral compass is certainly pointing in the right direction, it’s not just, “Take your top off and swim across the lake, D’Arcy it up” or anything like that. I mean, I think there’s a lot more to Ross than just that. He is a real man’s man, he’s a hero, a heroic character, but I think there’s more to him than that. He’s the type of guy who he feels duty-bound to help people who are less privileged than he is. He’s an interesting character to play.
AX: Do you get to use your own speaking voice, or are you doing a Cornish accent?
TURNER: No, I’m not doing Cornish. I’m doing, I guess, it’s called “received pronunciation,” an RP accent, which is posh British, but Ross sort of despises that class, that gentrified aristocracy, and he was never comfortable in that social sphere, so I tried to just tone it down a little bit. And a lot of his friends are Cornish in the show, so I thought, if he’s hanging out with them a lot, and he lives in Cornwall, that maybe bits might seep through, so I tried to just lightly pepper it with some of that, just toning down the RP, as opposed to introducing Cornish to the accent.
AX: Did you research anything for the role?
TURNER: There was a lot of that. They’re the really fun parts, when you’re reading the scripts, you’re trying to find out subject matter that I wouldn’t have a clue about, like mining. Dead interesting, and that’s the great thing, with the Internet these days, you can get on a Wikipedia search, where suddenly you go from like the Hanoverian [English King] George III, and then six clicks later, you have a picture of a Cornish miner with coal all over his face. You’re like, “How the hell did I get here?” But it’s great. The research is the fun part, and there was a lot of that involved, a lot of Internet research, a lot of looking at paintings. I found paintings really evocative. I was looking at John Trumbull and Lady Butler and Denis Dighton and a lot of military paintings. They impacted me quite strongly, because it’s just that snapshot that you see of what it’s like. Sometimes it can be more evocative than watching a film or anything like that.
AX: Did that give you an idea of Ross’ posture and the way he should move?
TURNER: Yeah, it was all those things, the Alexander technique and different things that would have been introduced at the time. You see the paintings and how people stood and how they held themselves and you can be influenced by all those things. The dances, even – we learned the gavotte and the allemande, and it’s so different. The weight is just held in a different way. Everything I knew about dance is out the window. The weight isn’t in the legs and it’s not strong. You don’t lead, because you’re on your toes and you’re wearing pumps and tights and there’s a very certain way of holding yourself in the day.
AX: What is Poldark’s attitude to the war that he just fought? Does he think this was a righteous cause, or does he think, “Well, that was stupid, thank God I’m done with it”?
TURNER: I think he’s, “Thank God I’m done with it.” I think he was quite disillusioned by the whole thing. Through his smuggling and his poaching and his writing and whatever else he was into, he was headed for the noose or the jail. Jail at that time was pretty much a death sentence anyway, so when he went to war, he was enlisted, and he paid to be enlisted, and when he went, I don’t think he was expecting to come back. But having seen what he saw, I think it changed him heavily. He’s returning to a Cornwall where he’s socializing and going to dances and balls, where you’re seeing mothers parading their debutante girls around like chattel, and I think he sees through the fickleness and phoniness of this world and how unimportant things like that are. So it’s certainly straightened him up, going to war. He’s become a different person, because he’s through with a lot of the bulls**t that exists at the time.
AX: Do you have something specific you use for playing that kind of world-weariness?
TURNER: Well, I think we all have moments like that. That’s part of being an actor – you have to think, “How would I react?” or “When did I have moments in that happen in my life?” or to relate them closely [to something that happened]. It’s not always easy to get a close relationship, but you can try, or just imagine what it’s like. You don’t always have to have something happen to you. It’s not hard to imagine what it would be like – I’ve never been to war, but I can imagine what it’s like. I can imagine what it’s like to see your comrades and your brethren lying in pools of blood and screaming for help and all those kinds of things. I don’t need to live it to imagine what that’s like and feel the impact of something like that. We all have a bit of the power to do that.
AX: Was there anything in the part that gave you pause, either emotionally or physically?
TURNER: There is a scene when Ross and Francis really go head to head and there’s a fight about to happen. Actually, there was something that impacted me quite heavily on the day. Francis gets into a huge debacle with a character called Andrew Blamey [played by Richard Harrington] over his love affair with Verity [Francis’ sister, played by Ruby Bentall] and they have a duel and Francis gets shot and he’s nearly killed, and I think that’s a real moment for Ross, when he realizes that he nearly lost a very close friend of his, and maybe he should let all this madness go, of Elizabeth and Ross and Francis and Demelza, the kind of crazy love triangle thing that’s going on. I think he realizes then that he doesn’t want to lose somebody like Francis, and maybe they’re better working together. But Francis has been quite disillusioned by his friendship with George and it’s a complicated issue for Ross. But that moment on set, I remember thinking, “God, it’s a frightening thing to have two lads walk away with loaded pistols, turn around and then pop at each other, and have individual goes.”
In regards to the duel, it’s crazy – there’s a crazy amount of etiquette involved in loading your pistol and shaking somebody’s hand and walking away back to back, taking the same number of steps, and turning around and either you’re the first to shoot or the other person is the first to shoot, and allowing that to happen. That sort of etiquette was incredibly important. Pride was a huge thing back then and nobody ever wanted to lose face. That was everything. How you were portrayed in society was so important. I mean, it is to a degree today, but we’ve relaxed quite heavily on those things [laughs].
AX: You worked on the first season of POLDARK for six months, but did that seem short after spending three years working on THE HOBBIT movies?
TURNER: It did, actually. I remember, when [POLDARK] ended, I was like, “Is this it? Do we not have more to do? We’re not coming back for reshoots?” So, yeah, it was quite strange. But it was lovely to be back this side of the world. New Zealand is an incredible country, and everybody was so welcoming and so lovely over there, but it’s a long time to spend away from friends and family, and even trying to find that window for talking to people [because of the time difference] is difficult. I think I used to have an hour, an hour-and-a-half in the morning or in the evening when I could talk to people, and if you miss that window, if you go to bed, that’s it, they’re gone. So being back over this side has been helpful in that manner.
AX: Did playing any of the supernatural characters inform playing Ross in any way?
TURNER: [laughs] God, no, I don’t think so. Maybe having long hair as [BEING HUMAN vampire] Mitchell might have given me insight into how to wash my hair properly as Ross, but that’s about it.
AX: Were you happy with the way BEING HUMAN wrapped up for you?
TURNER: I was, actually, really happy. I got the offer to go to New Zealand to spend a couple of years of my life in Middle Earth towards the end of the third series, so I wasn’t aware of exactly how [BEING HUMAN creator] Toby Whithouse was going to write Mitchell out. I mean, I think he may have gone on another series maybe before the inevitable happened, but I was happy. Sometimes it’s time to let things go and it’s nice to get out on top and I’m incredibly proud of that series, and what we achieved with it, and I didn’t want to stick around for it to not be as popular or to not feel the way I feel about it. I have such fond memories – it’s one of the greatest jobs that I’ll probably ever do and I met some people on that show that I’ll always be friends with and I’ll always have a close bond with. So yeah, I’m really happy with the way it ended. I know a lot of fans weren’t, but in many ways, that’s a good thing sometimes. If you love something, give it away.
AX: Do you have any other projects going on that we should know about?
TURNER: I’m shooting a film with Jim Sheridan in Ireland. It’s great to be back in Ireland to do something. It’s an adaptation of one of Sebastian Barry’s books. He’s an Irish novelist. It’s called THE SECRET SCRIPTURE and it has Rooney Mara and Vanessa Redgrave and Eric Bana. And Jack Reynor in it. So that’s exciting. Nice to be back home.
AX: What would you most like to say about POLDARK right now?
TURNER: It’s a show that we’re really proud of and I just hope it resounds with people. I think it covers issues and topics that carry to the present day and I just hope they enjoy it. I think Ross is somebody that I hope people have an affection for and for what he’s doing and his agenda and the type of person that he wants to be and his aspirations. He has a lot of integrity and hopefully he’s a very likable character that people want to watch. He’s a real hero and I think we need a show with a real hero.
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Article: POLDARK star Aidan Turner talks playing a hero – exclusive interview