Eleanor Tomlinson in POLDARK | ©2015 PBS

Eleanor Tomlinson in POLDARK | ©2015 PBS

There seems to be something about Eleanor Tomlinson that makes people think of the past. The English actress has played some contemporary characters, but she’s often cast in period pieces, including her film debut THE ILLUSIONIST, followed by the features ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Victorian England) and JACK THE GIANT SLAYER (unspecified medieval England) and the miniseries DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY (Jane Austen’s England) and THE WHITE QUEEN (the War of the Roses).

Now Tomlinson is starring in the remake of POLDARK, originally dramatized by the BBC 1975-1977 from Winston Graham’s novels; the new version is adapted by Debbie Horsfield. The first season (it’s already renewed for a second), encompassing the first two books, is currently airing on PBS, Sundays at 9 PM. Tomlinson plays Demelza, a Cornish peasant who is rescued from dire straits by the title hero Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner). Demelza goes to work for Poldark and, even though he still pines for her former fiancée Elizabeth (Heida Reed), sparks fly between the young serving woman and her employer

Tomlinson sits down during PBS’ portion of the Television Critics Association press tour at the Langham-Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, California, to talk about working in late eighteenth-century Cornwall.

ASSIGNMENT X: Your father, Malcolm Tomlinson, is an actor, and your mother, Judith Hibbert, is a singer and actress. When you started acting, did you feel like you were going into the family business?

ELEANOR TOMLINSON: I started when I was very young, but growing up around actors, my mum and dad’s friends always coming round, seeing my mum on stage, my dad, I’d go to set with him and watch him on set, and me and my brother [actor Ross Tomlinson], we just loved it. We fell in love with the world and the creativity, so we just decided to give it a shot. They advised us not to, they said, “Don’t do it, it’s so hard, the probability is, you won’t work.” But I got lucky. I did a TV drama called FALLING, and then very quickly after that, I got my first film role in THE ILLUSIONIST.

AX: Were you familiar with the older version of POLDARK, either the series or the books?

TOMLINSON: When I found out they were making a new series of it, I spoke with my parents about it, and they raved about it, and they said, “Oh, it’s such a huge success.” So I started to look into it and I read the books and then when I was offered the part, I watched a tiny bit of the old series, but I was conscious that I didn’t want to watch too much of it, because I didn’t want to be too influenced by Angharad Rees’ performance [as Demelza in the 1970s version]. No one wants to see the same performance, just done by a different actor – you have to find a way of bringing it to life in your own way. And certainly that’s what I tried to do with Demelza – hence not watching the original series, because I didn’t want to be too influenced. I think that’s your task as an actor, is to surprise, to bring it to life and keep people interested and on their toes, so that they don’t know what’s going to happen. I wanted to do my own thing with it, but yes, I was very much aware of what a success it was.

AX: Has this version of Demelza been changed much from how she is in the books?

TOMLINSON: This version sticks very closely to the books, which is great. I believe the other version tended to vary a little bit, but this one – yeah, it’s been adapted for a modern audience, but as I said, my performance of the character is very much my own. I didn’t want to stick closely to what’s been done before, I wanted to make her sparkier and fierier. She’s a little street rat and she comes from nothing and at the same time, as she grows and as she learns etiquette and Ross takes her under his wing, she never really loses sight of what she’s come from. I think that’s really important about her; I think that’s why people find her so endearing, because they can relate to her, that she never forgets her past, she holds true to the fact that she’s lucky to be where she is.

AX: In the books, we meet Demelza at age thirteen. Does someone else play her at that age or …?

TOMLINSON: No, it’s me all the way through. With costume and with makeup, we managed to age the characters, but we decided to not stick too closely to the ages given in the book. There is obviously a distinct age gap between Ross and Demelza, but we didn’t want it to become something that people think about, because nowadays, if you’ve got a character who’s thirteen at the beginning and then she has to become the love interest, you don’t want to jar people with that. It has to flow smoothly, and you have to believe that transition from a thirteen-year-old to an eighteen-year-old.

AX: How is it playing an eighteenth-century adolescent?

TOMLINSON: I loved it. Especially with Demelza, because she’s so unkempt and she’s so untrained. She’s not sophisticated in the slightest, so you have license to do what you will with the part. It was really interesting creating that character. It’s the way she holds herself, her posture, her look – it’s all part of it. It’s all one big journey, but you have to work out mathematically how it’s going to grow throughout.

AX: How long were you shooting?

TOMLINSON: Six months.

AX: Does it feel like six months on the same job? That is, because your character changes so much, you’re doing different things each day …

TOMLINSON: You’re so busy, and we didn’t shoot it in any particular order, so we’d be jumping from different episodes. You’ve really got to know your stuff and know exactly which episode you’re in, exactly where your character is, what you’re wearing, what you’re doing physically, because that was part of it for me, is that Demelza changes so much, I had to really be on the ball with exactly where we were in the story at all times. So there’s a lot of pressure with that.

AX: Did you chart for yourself, “I’m here and then I’m there and then I’m there …” just so you knew where you were physically and emotionally and chronologically?

TOMLINSON: Yeah, absolutely. My scripts are full of notes, here, there and everywhere. I think the key is just knowing the episodes really well, so that someone could name a scene and you know exactly where it is and exactly what you’re doing. The accent changes as it goes through, because as she becomes more of a lady, her accent starts to change and slightly refine itself, so that’s another thing that you’ve got to keep an eye on – you’ve got to know exactly what accent you’re doing.

AX: Are you doing a Cornish accent?

TOMLINSON: It is a strong Cornish accent, but we have to adapt it so that a variety of audiences can understand it. It’s a very strong, very distinct accent, so if you’re from London, you can tell a Cornish person from a mile off. I myself am from the North, I’m from a place called Hull, which also has a very distinctive accent.

AX: Where was POLDARK filmed?

TOMLINSON: All the exteriors are in Cornwall, and then the interiors in Bristol [England]. There’s a lot of beautiful riding along the cliff shots, with the sea as a backdrop, and we were immensely lucky with the locations and the weather. It looks stunning, it’s beautiful. So there’s a lot of horse riding. It’s beautifully shot, it really is. There are great mines on the cliffs. They obviously feature very heavily, the plot being about mining.

AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything for the role?

TOMLINSON: Yeah, absolutely. We did lots of training with our horse team, which was great, they were amazing. I could already ride pretty well, but I’d never done double-riding, where Aidan and I would be on the same horse, so there was a lot of very scary training half the time. You have to put your faith in the other actor. But our team – they’re called Atkinson Action Horses – they were just fantastic. What I really loved about that team specifically is that they really took on board our characters. They [asked], “What kind of horse would you like to ride?” And I said, “I want something small, fast, and scatty, because that’s what Demelza is. I don’t want something beautiful that you’d see in a period drama; I want to play against that.” So it was really funny, creating that look for Demelza. It takes so many people to create the look of a character, and ultimately, to create the character. It’s not just the actor.

AX: Why do you think Demelza is so loyal to Ross Poldark?

TOMLINSON: I think Demelza loves Ross because he saves her life. She’s a street urchin – she probably would have died had he not taken her under his wing. She’s a fighter. But he nurtures her and she grows up and she falls in love with him as a person. She admires him and his love of people and how he’s part of this upper class, this gentry, and yet he’s the only real one in that group, he’s the only one who cares about the other classes. And she loves him for it. But also they have this very tempestuous relationship. They don’t get on all the time, they fight famously, and I think that as well makes you love the characters, because it’s so real. I think so often you see these performances – well, I think certainly, what becomes apparent is that Ross realizes that his relationship with Elizabeth never would have worked, because Demelza and Ross are cut from the same stone. They’re of the same salt, and they’re salt of the earth people. They see that in each other; I think that’s what they fall in love with.

AX: And what does Demelza think of Ross’ former fiancée Elizabeth? Are those scenes fun to play?

TOMLINSON: Yeah, really fun. Heida Reed is a fantastic actress and we’re really good friends, which really helps when you have that tension on the set between the two characters. She’s brilliant in it, because you really feel for her. I was terrified that the audience aren’t going to want [Demelza] to come in and take [Elizabeth’s] man because they belong together and you root for them, but it’s kind of the whole point.

AX: Do you have a favorite scene as Demelza?

TOMLINSON: Well, I love the whole thing, to be honest. She has such a journey, I don’t think you could really pick out a favorite, but I really liked her rugged stage, where she’s not quite a lady, but she’s really trying hard, she’s trying to learn the ropes.

AX: To ask briefly about another project with a popular following, you were in the DOCTOR WHO spinoff THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, which starred the late Elisabeth Sladen. Did you have any sense of being part of a cult phenomenon?

TOMLINSON: It’s always nice to be part of a big franchise, something that people will love. In fact, my mum did the stage tour of DOCTOR WHO back in the day, so that was fantastic to kind of follow in her footsteps, almost. It was great – it was a really fun job, it was very different – all those prosthetics.

AX: You’re very often cast in projects that take place in the past. Do you have any idea of what it is in you that makes people think, oh, you look like someone not quite of this time, or do you actively seek out period characters?

TOMLINSON: I don’t know what it is. I guess people think I have a period look, or a look that could easily be adapted to fit well into that setting, but I look for variety in my work, I look for a project that’s going to challenge me as an actress. But yeah, period roles seem to come along a lot, and I love doing period drama. The English have a great knack for it. I’d love to do something contemporary, but it’s great doing period.

AX: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about acting in your work so far?

TOMLINSON: Confidence. Just try different things and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. You’ll often be on set and there’s a million and one things happening around you and you only get one take, but if you’re not happy with it, you’ve got to fight for your ground. Makeup teams, camera teams, they get hours to set up their shots and then it’s not fair if you come in and you get one take of it. So you’ve really got to fight your corner.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about POLDARK?

TOMLINSON: Just that there’s something in it for everyone. It’s the most beautiful love story at the bottom of it, and it’s all about the people and I think you’ll really relate to that if you watch it.

RelatedPOLDARK star Aidan Turner talks playing a hero – exclusive interview

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ArticlePOLDARK star Eleanor Tomlinson  – exclusive interview




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