Aidan Turner tells Charlotte Runcie about his starring role in the BBC’s swashbuckling new series of Poldark, and the highs and lows of his past life in Middle Earth
By Charlotte Runcie
The day we meet, Aidan Turner has just got off a flight from America. “When I woke up before we landed,” he says, “guess who had just been sleeping next to me the whole time? Jeremy Irons!”
This isn’t just luvvie name-dropping. Telling the story, he visibly inflates with glee. Wide-eyed, tall, impossibly good-looking and with a mop of dark, curly hair scraped back from his face, the Irish actor fizzes with life. Despite recently starring in the Hobbit films and being poised to play the romantic lead in the BBC’s swashbuckling new rendition of the Seventies TV series Poldark, Turner is easily starstruck.
As well as playing the dwarf Kili in the three-part Hobbit juggernaut, Turner is already known to British TV viewers as Mitchell the vampire in BBC Three series Being Human, and as the libertine poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti in 2009’s Desperate Romantics. His roles have inspired a cultish following, and though he says he doesn’t do social media himself, he’s aware that there are swathes of the internet where “Aidan Turner Forever” is a sacred mantra for fans.
There is a “Sexy Aidan” creative writing group devoted to him on the microblogging site Tumblr, and stories across the web gushing about how nice he is. He is bemusedly grateful for his community of supporters, whom he calls “a real posse”, though he says one persistent rumour of his altruism, a story about him saving a fan from a mugger in Odessa, is “completely fabricated”. With the BBC’s trailers for Poldark promising multiple scenes starring Turner in varying states of undress, often indulging in a brooding gaze or two, his devoted fan communities aren’t likely to be going anywhere.
Turner, 31, is the son of an electrician and an accountant and grew up near Dublin, born in the same house he subsequently lived in for 21 years. At 19, having never seen a play before, he decided to apply to the nearby Gaiety Acting School and, to his surprise, was given a place. The training was, he says, “electrifying”.
The Hobbit was his Hollywood big break, and working in New Zealand with Jackson’s epic-scale CGI was a culture shock after years of TV. “At first, you’re aware that you’re standing in front of a green screen talking to a tennis ball, but then you relax and it becomes very easy to act as if everything is really there. The problem then comes [in other, more conventional scenes] when the tennis ball is replaced with Sir Ian McKellen and you have to look into his eyes, and you’re like, f—! It’s Sir Ian McKellen!
“But I drank all this amazing New Zealand wine, and I didn’t have to worry about getting fat. I’d just be at the back of the shot in my muscle suit, so it didn’t matter if I put on a few pounds. It was brilliant.”
He had 12 weeks of training before donning his dwarf costume, which means he’s “alright riding a horse now, and I’m pretty decent with a sword. All actors put those things on their CV, but now I can actually do them.”
Turner is charming, self-deprecating and gossipy. Mid-interview, he leaps into an affectionate impression of Peter Jackson directing hordes of on-location actors from inside a tent, before jumping across the room to tell the story of an embarrassing incident from the filiming of Poldark, which involved him pretending to ride a fake horse in front of a green screen, watched by his swish American agent.
“I was just humping this box in front of a load of people” – he demonstrates an inelegant horse-riding pose – “with this serious, romantic look on my face.” He puts his face in his hands. “And I had to be all professional about it.”
The BBC has been at pains to point out that their 2015 version of Poldark is a new adaptation of the novels by Winston Graham, not a direct remake of the Seventies saga, which had an audience of 15 million viewers four decades ago. Starring opposite Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Heida Reed as Elizabeth, Turner plays Ross Poldark, a volatile but principled 18th-century British Army officer and mining heir who returns to his disloyal sweetheart (Reed) and stricken Cornwall estate after fighting in the American Revolutionary War.
Turner says he hadn’t seen any of the original series before filming and still hasn’t, choosing instead to try to create the character afresh. Although, he concedes, he might watch it once the new version has safely aired.
After spending years playing a dwarf and a vampire, was it tricky to adjust to playing the owner of a tin mine? “Do you mean was it a challenge playing a normal human being?” He laughs. “Yeah I suppose so, but it was exactly what I was looking for. Ross is this dark, serious character who comes back from fighting to find that his father is dead, his inherited lands are barren and his tenants are dying and leaving, and his fiancée – whose ring he wore every day while he was away – has married his cousin. And his uncle offers him a lot of money to go away to London.
“You know, if it were me, I probably would’ve taken the money. But Ross is more like the kind of man I’d like to be. He stays and makes something of what’s there, partly to stick two fingers up to the people who try to put him down.”
Playing the dashing romantic hero had its hardships. As Ross Poldark, “I had to get my top off a lot, so I had to look good, which meant long days filming and then hitting the gym in the evening. I hated it. I was hungry all the time. I kept wanting to skip the gym, but my trainer would be there… it was awful.”
But the particular appeal of Poldark came in the opportunity to get stuck into the real-life story of Cornwall, indulging his inner nerdy historian. “I love the research. I love finding out all about tin mines and fishing regulations from the history of the period, and thinking about how to fit that around the character… you can end up on Wikipedia for hours just clicking around, finding out about the Georgians.”
His interest in history isn’t limited to the Georgians, however. “I was just listing to Irish radio in the car and heard that your mayor, Boris Johnson, has written a book about Churchill. And I looked it up – and there are hundreds of books about Churchill! But I bought it and I’m reading it.”
Taking the lead role in a reboot of one of the most popular period dramas the BBC has ever made is an intimidating prospect, especially as Robin Ellis, who originally played Ross Poldark, has a cameo in the 2015 series. It was another opportunity for Turner to be starstruck. “We had this scene together when we’d just started filming – a scene where Robin is a judge at a trial. After we’d filmed the scene, Robin turned to me and gave me a wink and a thumbs up.
“I knew it was the old Poldark judging the new. It made me feel a lot better.”