LONDON — Long before the Irish actor Aidan Turner swung himself into Ross Poldark’s saddle and galloped — inevitably — toward trouble along the cliffs of Cornwall, the “Poldark” series of historical novels by Winston Graham were a hit with the Brits.
Many recall reading about the adventures of the maverick British army officer and copper mine owner when the books first came out in the Forties and Fifties, while an entire generation remembers the first BBC TV adaptation, in 1975, starring the English actor Robin Ellis.
The 34-year-old Turner, star of the latest BBC One series that debuted in 2015, has taken Ross into new — and more smoldering — territory. Nearly 10 million people watched the first series, which starts in 1783 when Ross returns to England after the American Revolution. Booksellers regularly refer to the franchise as “Poldark and handsome,” pointing to Turner’s don’t-mess-with-me stare and bloodied, scarred face on the paperback covers.
The Cornwall tourist board is still dealing with crowds looking to visit the English county’s rugged coastline or take their dogs on “Poldark”-inspired walks.
The series has also transformed Turner, whose best-known role until 2015 had been Kili, a belligerent dwarf in “The Hobbit” films, into the sort of TV heartthrob unseen since the days of Colin Firth as Mark Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice.”
It’s also brought him a string of indie film projects, an upcoming play in London’s West End and Turner’s first brand campaign, with Dunhill. Shot by Alasdair McLellan at the Old Royal Naval College in London’s Greenwich, the campaign breaks on Aug. 1 in British GQ.
Here, Turner talks to WWD about those projects, his complicated relationship with Ross, and his new 18th-century house in east London where — strangely — he felt right at home.
WWD: The third season of “Poldark” has just wrapped in the U.K., and is set to air on PBS Masterpiece in October. How do you feel about the role? Are you ready to move on?
Aidan Turner: It’s a seven-month shoot so it’s full-on, and it’s busy, so you don’t get a lot of time to get bored or restless. I suppose when you’re anchoring a show as well, to a degree, there’s some sort of pressure and responsibility to take the lead and not let boredom settle in. It happens in every job, it happened when I was on stage for years. After the opening night, or a few weeks after, you begin to think it’s old hat, that there’s nothing new to discover. But it’s just about re-engaging with the role, the experience and the project. I’m still having a lot of fun.
WWD: How many more seasons do you have in you?
A.T.: I think we run out of things to do after series 5, I think that would be our last one. Four was green-lit, five hasn’t been yet, and it wouldn’t be fair of me to green light it, but it’s probably looking like it may happen.
WWD: Is playing Ross Poldark exhausting? He’s so intense and complicated, and thinks he can save the world. There’s never any down time with him.
A.T.: He’s certainly interesting to play, and he constantly surprises me. I get the odd e-mail from Debbie [Horsfield, the “Poldark” screenwriter] saying “I’ve written the last scene for this, can you believe this is what he does?” But that’s what I love about it. He’s real, he’s not just a benevolent saint or a do-gooder, he tries to help as much as he can, he’s a good person by nature, but he’s also severely flawed. He’s got an ego — although he doesn’t think that he does. He’s not great at delegating work; he wants to take on all responsibilities, which is a noble thing to do. He wants to be the man of the house, the guardian of the community, but at the same time, he lets a lot slide and gets a lot of people into trouble. He’s a tricky guy; I don’t think he knows where he’s at sometimes, which is interesting to play. He’s a gambler by nature, and there’s a lawlessness to him that’s not always attractive, it’s irresponsible and dangerous. Getting into his psychology is fascinating, and I still can’t figure this guy out three years in. He’s the gift that keeps on giving.
WWD: Do you have anything in common with Ross?
A.T.: We both wear a hat really well, a good tricorn hat. We rock a pair of high boots like nobody’s business. Our gallop from the beach is on point. There’s a lot of me in Ross. I suppose it’s the same with every actor. At the end of the day, everything has to come from me, you can’t pluck it from the ether. I suppose there’s a lot of him in me, although I think I’m a bit more measured. I’d like to think I am, anyway.
WWD: It’s well-known that you taught yourself how to ride a horse in a matter of months. How difficult was that, and are you still riding Seamus?
A.T.: Seamus is my steady Irish horse. I’d done a little bit of riding in New Zealand (for “The Hobbit”) but not a great deal, and producers get very worried when they see actors on a horse. You can use stuntmen or doubles — and I have a double — but he’s only really used when it’s likely I’m going to kill myself, falling off the edge of a cliff. There’s no feeling like that kind of pressure: I knew I had to be pretty decent pretty quick, and you know that at nine o’clock in six months time you want to look good, so it’s kind of “fake it until you make it.” You learn quickly as well: You realize where your weight should be, why your heels have to be down. It’s like everything. It’s a confidence game. If you absolutely throw yourself at it you’ll nail it. Fear and anxiety don’t help that much. It’s all about working on the craft and doing your homework and being safe — but sometimes you just have to throw yourself on the saddle.
WWD: Can you talk about some of your other upcoming projects?
A.T.: Next year, I’m going to be doing a play on the West End. I miss the stage. I was trained in theater; I went to drama school and then exclusively did theater for about six years. It’s my background; it’s where I come from. I’ve been away from it a long time, so it’s about time.
At eight o’clock the curtain goes up and that’s it, you’re out there with yourself, the audience, the other players. There’s no “take two” business. You’re on. The great thing is the rehearsals, too. When you’re bouncing around on film sets and TV sets you don’t really get the opportunity to — generally speaking — rehearse much. With theater you’re kind of four-to-five weeks locked down in the room with the guys figuring stuff out. It’s back to play school.
That’s what I miss the most — almost. There’s nothing like an opening night or like the curtain going up and having a full house, but also having weeks and weeks to work with your director and cast members and try to crack the play. It’s great. “Titus Andronicus” was a play I really adored. It was in Dublin in 2005 at a place called the Project Arts Centre. Selina Cartmell won best director for it, and it won best play that year. I had a lot of close friends in it, too. Ruth Negga was in it, I played Demetrius and she played Lavinia.
WWD: What films are you working on?
A.T.: “Look Away” is getting released pretty soon. It’s a small indie project, and a funny one. I shot it 18 months ago in New York with Ben Walker, Chloë Sevigny and Matthew Broderick. It has a really interesting script and a very odd story, a high-concept sort of story. It’s one of those projects you do, and you don’t hear anything for a very long time and then suddenly it all comes together. You just have to buy the ticket and get on with the ride.
“The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot,” is a small indie film directed by Robert Kryzkowski and produced by John Sayles, who’s a superproducer. I read the script a few months ago and, once in a while, you get hit by something — and that was it. I thought, “It’s kooky and it’s strange, and it’s a great character piece.” I get to play a character called Calvin Barr, and the older version of my character is played by Sam Elliott, who has been one of my heroes for years, since “The Big Lebowski,” and before. I get to go to Massachusetts and hang out with a really good team of people. It’s going to be fun, and it fits well into my schedule. It’s a very different character to anything I’m playing right now.
I also did “Loving Vincent.” Douglas Booth plays the lead role of a man who tracks the last days of Vincent van Gogh and tries to figure out what actually happened, because it still remains some kind of a mystery. It’s shot in a very cool way. They employed over 500 artists in different countries across Europe to paint in the van Gogh style, so there’s thousands of paintings that we used in bringing the movie together. It’s a different way of shooting a film, it’s a green screen, but we didn’t really know how it was going to look. It was one of those projects that came around quite late and, just another little indie vibe.
WWD: What’s your dream, and how do you see your career taking shape after the success of “Poldark?”
A.T.: Just continuing to do solid work and keeping myself engaged and interested, working with people who are talented and doing good work. It’s kind of a no-brainer, really, you need something that you’re affected by, and you see the team around it, if they want you involved, it all comes together. I don’t know if I have a bigger picture necessarily. In some ways it’s as easy as that. Once you keep following good work these things tend to figure themselves out. It’s just about keeping everything exciting and interesting in between.
WWD: You’re being talked about as a possible James Bond — although it looks like Daniel Craig may have one last Bond film in him. Would you like that role?
A.T.: There’s somebody else doing that job, so I don’t comment on it. I just feel it’s not my place. Somebody is that character right now.
WWD: What are you doing when you’re not working?
A.T.: I like working, I’m not into relaxing. Work motivates me, and even when I do take a holiday, I meet friends, talk about projects and set up meetings, set meetings between other people, or get involved. I’ve been to Odessa four times now. Culturally and politically I think it’s a very interesting place. This film festival is really taking off — it’s into its eighth year and I’ve seen it grow from the very start — so I have this connection with the place and the festival. They brought me on as a jury member last week. It’s a city I love and I have friends there now.
WWD: You’re from Dublin, but you’ve just made the move to London, into an 18th-century house. I guess you got used to life against a Georgian backdrop.
A.T.: I bought a house in east London and moved into it just two days ago, and my head is kind of in the clouds right now. It was easier for work and my friends and some of my family. I’ve been back and forth for 15 years, so it’s not a huge jump for me, but it was quite strange walking into the house. I thought there was almost something profound about it, turning the key, and after 15 minutes it just felt like home. I was walking around it for an hour thinking it was nice — but almost too familiar. Strange experience. There’s a lot I want to do to it, and I have little patience — so I’ll probably start straight away.
WWD: What else have you been spending your money on?
A.T.: I buy art. Right now, I love Harland Miller. He’s brilliant. I have a couple pieces of his. I never approach people, or do the fan thing, but last year at Frieze, I saw him and he was on his own, and I went up and approached him, shook his hand, and then his son came over and I got really nervous, so I walked away. I tried to keep it cool, it is Harland Miller, after all! I love Tracey Emin. She’s always doing exciting things. Ivan Seal is a really great guy. I bought a piece of his recently. He works in Berlin these days but he’s a Manchester fella. Eddie Peake can be fun, too.
WWD: Dunhill is your first ad campaign. Why align yourself with them, and what other brands do you wear?
A.T.: Dunhill has taken a really cool line, clothes that I would wear with simple good lines. The bespoke stuff is gorgeous, too. For suits, premieres and different events, Richard James is always very good. Burberry I would wear now and again but it’s mostly Dunhill now.