As the famously ripped and glowering Cornish copper miner, Aidan Turner has put the sex back into Sunday nights. Over a large vodka, he talks about getting naked, those pecs and playing Poldark
Just before I am due to interview Aidan Turner, his PR sends me an email to let me know that he has grown a beard – presumably in case I fail to recognise the actor fully clothed or not wearing a tricorn hat.
Poor old Turner is so defined by that scything scene that he likes to grow his beard when not committed to playing Ross Poldark – which doesn’t happen very often, given the BBC has just commissioned a fourth series and Turner says they are all tied in for five.
‘I’m not a big fan of shaving,’ he explains to me when I finally find him – fully clothed in a bomber jacket, T-shirt and jeans, minus tricorn, hiding in the corner of a dimly lit hotel bar in Mayfair. ‘It sucks. What’s the point? What is the point?’ I mention something about it being uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of a man with a beard.
which is kind of cool. It’s nice for me.’ He doesn’t seem to have noticed the two well-to-do women at the other end of the bar, trying hard not to gawp into their martinis. Perhaps he has simply grown used to it.
I have interviewed Turner before, about a year and a half ago, and that day we met in a similarly murky venue, an underground restaurant in Bristol, him arriving with a beanie hat pulled down low over his forehead. The sense I got then was of a man acutely embarrassed by attention, a regular guy from Dublin who happened to have acted standing in a field with his top off because, as he puts it, that’s just how chaps used to scythe back in the day.
‘It [the “nudity”] has always made sense. The bathtub thing,’ he says, referring to the scene in series two where Demelza kisses her naked husband in a tin bath, ‘I mean, I can’t be wearing a T-shirt in it, can I?’
By the time he got round to shooting the 2015 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which he stood with a towel draped perilously low on his hip bone, he had begun to have fun with the whole objectification thing. ‘That was my fault. The towel was initially up quite high and then I said, “That’s not going to work. Why don’t we put it down a little bit because it just doesn’t feel comfortable.” And then when they weren’t looking I pulled it down and it looked ridiculous but…’ He starts to laugh.
Is there a similar standout scene in the third series of Poldark? ‘I think there might be one scene, but by then I had probably put on a bit of weight. I don’t think I was ripped for it. It was towards the end of the shoot and I didn’t bother. For the last month I didn’t hit the gym at all, I was just too busy. And then we had some scenes in the bedroom. There’s one where I’m lying down talking to Demelza and the towel is up here,’ he motions to just above his waist, ‘so I pull it down a little bit.
‘I thought it was funny and on that day Eleanor [Tomlinson, who plays Demelza] was laughing. I went “a little bit more, a little bit more”. I was joking around and thought it would look OK. And then recently they showed us the clip and it’s very much not OK. I am not in shape at all.’ I am pretty sure that the ladies across the bar would agree with me when I say that this is in no way true.
The 33-year-old seems genuinely perplexed by the fuss caused by his body. ‘I’ve never got it. You watch Game of Thrones and other shows, it’s constant sex. It’s not like we’re doing crunches and then trying to find a reason to get topless. Maybe because it’s a newer version of a show that happened in the 1970s? Maybe it seems racier? I have trouble joining the dots in my head.’
Why does Turner think that the travails of an 18th-century Cornish copper miner are so enduring? ‘Well, that’s a tough one. If you could sort of bottle what it is that makes a show work… I don’t know.
It’s always surprised me, Poldark. When we were shooting The Hobbit, we knew a lot of people were going to watch it. But with a show like this we weren’t aware of it. It was sort of a shock for everyone. And it’s continually surprising. We did a thing at the BFI last week, and it was mad, the amount of fans who showed up. It was a bit of a frenzy. And it’s not the demographic that I thought it would be. It was young people.’
What demographic was he expecting? ‘You know, anything from 40 up.’ Forty isn’t that old, I say. ‘No, no, not at all. You said old. I said demographic. There were a load of young girls and lads and it just kind of surprised me.’ He thinks part of the show’s success is that ‘aesthetically, it doesn’t look like a lot of other British shows. It’s quite calming because of the Cornish setting. And the stories still stand up. Those things that Winston Graham wrote, they still seem to ring true for people.’
The book that the team are working from for series four features a significantly older Poldark. ‘I’m not going to age up for it. Grey hairs and that,’ he shakes his head. ‘No way! I’ll go grey in my own time. It’s happening anyway.’ Again, we agree to disagree.
In interviews, Turner often comes across as cagey on account of his reluctance to discuss certain topics, such as his love life or whether he will be the next James Bond. In reality I think he is just a bit shy and politely insecure, and keen not to rock the boat too much (he tells me he once said something in an interview about what his brother did for a living, which upset his sibling).
On the subject of Bond, he simply thinks it’s rude to discuss a role that someone is already signed up for. ‘Imagine if somebody was talking about a show that I was doing and the possibilities of replacing me.’ He looks aghast. ‘I just don’t think it’s cool to do that. It seems slightly unkind and a little disrespectful and a bit weird, so that’s why I’ve never wanted to speak about it.’
What do we know about Turner? Born in Dublin to a shop worker and an electrician, he was a ballroom dancer as a child and worked briefly with his dad before deciding, aged 17, to enrol at the Gaiety School of Acting. He graduated in 2004 and immediately started working in theatre, before landing in television via the Irish soap The Clinic.
There was an uncredited role in The Tudors, and then cult success as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the BBC’s Desperate Romantics, and as a vampire in BBC Three’s hit Being Human.
This led to a short period of typecasting, though not altogether unwelcome typecasting, given that it involved roles in a couple of Hollywood blockbusters: as the dwarf Kili in the Hobbit films, and then as a shadowhunter-turned-werewolf in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.
Turner loves collecting art, does a bit of painting himself, and has just bought a house in east London (‘I’ve got a big back garden!’ he beams, before his face turns to concern. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with that’). For all his handsome ruggedness, I find him quite boyish, sweet even. He shows me pictures of himself at the christening of his first godchild, the baby of his best friend.
‘You can put this in the interview. He’d love that. I’m a very proud godfather. His name is Luca. I have no business in churches at all – I thought I was going to melt when I walked through the door – but it was amazing.’
Turner spends so much time dashing around the place for work that he sometimes forgets what day it is, so being able to go home for the christening felt like a real boon. ‘It’s Friday, isn’t it?’ he says, about halfway through our interview. ‘We could have a drink.’
We order large vodka sodas and head outside to smoke his cigarettes, where he tells me about how much he loves watching boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA). Does he box himself? ‘I’ve done a little bit on the bag when I’m training and stuff. But I can’t spar. Can’t hurt the face,’ he says, a hint of cheekiness in his voice. ‘The face is the business, isn’t it?’
I think his reluctance to give too much away means that sometimes people confuse him with Poldark. Ross is… quite moody, I say. ‘Yeah. You can just say it. He’s a bit of a grump. He’s a bit of an arse. I hope that doesn’t run too deep. I like to think I don’t bring him home from set every day.’
Turner broke up with his last long-term girlfriend, the actress Sarah Greene, two years ago, and has since been photographed snogging a couple of beautiful brunettes, but claims he isn’t dating anyone at the moment. ‘Nobody, actually, as it stands. It’s not like I’m crazy private about things, or that I’m being difficult. I just find it makes the job a bit difficult, because I want to be able to fool people that I’m somebody else.’
He sits and ponders this for a bit. ‘If I was, and this might be a bad example, but if I was a musician or a singer-songwriter it might make more sense to know the person better, because you’re investing in them musically and lyrically. But as an actor I have to change masks so many times and allowing people in isn’t very beneficial. I don’t want people to figure me out – certainly not people I haven’t met and I don’t know.’
In an age of social media-savvy celebrities, he is an anomaly. He is not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. ‘I’m all for open talk when it’s a room full of friends or people you trust. But I don’t like the idea of having a platform where I would have to read comments from people I don’t know. Do you know what I mean?’ I do.
‘I see no advantages from something like that. It would only aggravate me, and I might respond and I might say things that are unkind. So apart from the fact that it gets me out of a lot of trouble, I don’t feel the desire or the necessity for it. I’m barely coping with this.’
He holds up his iPhone. ‘Emails and text messages… I’m terrible at that kind of thing. It’s phone calls that I’m better at. I don’t screen calls. I pick up, and then we have a chat. People tend to drift out of my head when they’re not around.’ That’s such a male way to be, I say. He laughs, sips some more of his vodka and soda.
I don’t think that Aidan Turner is difficult. I think he’s just a bloke from Dublin who has found himself in an unusual set of circumstances that happen to include the need occasionally to take his shirt off for work.
‘I just have this weird feeling knowing that people who don’t know me are reading private things about me. There’s something quite unnatural about that, to walk down the street and somebody knows who my favourite musician is.’
Who is his favourite musician? He laughs. ‘Nick Cave. I’m liking the Gorillaz at the moment.’ He says that his life is ‘quite dull’. I raise my eyebrows at him.
‘It is! It really is. Obviously having a good time is important, being able to relax, but the work is kind of intense and if I’m not working I’m having to go to the gym because you have to look a certain way and I can’t afford to get, like…’ Fat? ‘Yes, bald and fat.’
Is he looking forward to that, I wonder. To the day when he can be interviewed and not asked about his torso? He drains his drink, grins hard. ‘Oh, I can’t wait.’