“People think I care a lot about my body. It’s not an obsession, but for Poldark it had to be this way.”
Interview by Ellie Austin The Sunday Times Magazine
A few days before I meet Aidan Turner, a newspaper website announces that the Poldark hunk has proposed to a “graduate lawyer from Gloucester” who is 10 years his junior. This is big news. Since his first outing as the eponymous, brooding star of the BBC’s biggest Sunday-night drama, Turner has become Middle England’s heart-throb of choice, a role previously occupied by Colin Firth. Within minutes of the story breaking, devastated fans are tweeting about their shattered hearts.
Only it’s a false alarm. Turner isn’t engaged and he only learnt that he was supposed to be when he received an email from his Poldark co-star Heida Reed (aka Elizabeth Warleggan) with the subject line “Congratulations?” “I don’t think I even know anyone from Gloucestershire,” he guffaws. “There’s absolutely zero truth in it.”
A staunch Twitter and Instagram refusenik, he was powerless to set the record straight. “That’s the one time when you think it might be useful to have some sort of social-media thing to say, ‘This is bullshit.’ But then I thought, ‘Why do I have to engage and stoop to their level?’ This time it wasn’t that offensive and there’s a bit of fun in it because it’s so hilarious, but it could have been something more salacious.”
From The Tudors to Poldark: Aidan Turner’s rise to fame
Turner, 34, has had to adjust to becoming public property over the past few years. His career was pottering along unremarkably when he got the call in 2013 to say that he’d been cast as Captain Ross Poldark, a principled yet romantically incontinent mine owner, in the BBC’s remake of its 1970s classic, based on the Winston Graham novels. A warming Sunday-night dose of romance, rugged Cornish coastlines and small-town class politics, it was an instant hit, not least because the show’s writers seemed rather keen on having a bronzed Turner stride around in various states of undress (the most notable example being that topless scything scene, now for ever part of British TV mythology). More than 7m people watched each of the three series and tonight sees the show’s return for series four.
Professionally, the show transformed Turner’s fortunes; personally, it turned his life upside down. For the seven months that it takes to film each series, Turner, a constant fidget, is signed up to a “no-fun” clause, whereby he must refrain from all potentially injury-inducing activities. By the end of the shoot he’s “normally pretty zapped”, and likes to take a few weeks off to catch up with friends. During this time, he will inevitably be splashed across the tabloids chatting to (read dating) a string of beautiful “mystery brunettes”. Then there’s the annual Poldark press tour where he’s bombarded with questions about male objectification, which he has said he is “sick” of discussing.
Does he resent how much Poldark has taken over his life? “I think it’s somewhere in the middle,” he says with a careful, knowing laugh. “I certainly don’t resent it. It’s a show I really enjoy doing and that I’m very proud of, but it doesn’t always leave a lot of time. To have that time to take a breath — it’s important and has become more so in recent years.”
It goes without saying that Turner is rip-roaringly handsome, with a broad, twinkling smile capable of toppling women of all ages — and probably a fair few men to boot. I’d expected him to be tricky, cagey. In previous interviews he has dodged questions about politics or his life away from work, saying that it’s important people don’t know too much about him because he’s “trying to play characters”. There’s none of that luvviness today. Maybe it’s because this is his first day of work after some time off, or perhaps it’s that, with three series behind him and an upcoming stint in the West End, he has shaken the need to prove he’s a proper actor rather than a guy who got lucky thanks to his Abercrombie & Fitch looks. Whatever the reason, he is funny, thoughtful and disarmingly open.
“In the early days you gotta work, work, work,” he says in his soft Irish accent. “When you get a bit older, you don’t quite have the same vinegar for it. It’s great taking these few months out. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York, seeing shows, painting, reading books.”
He’s recently finished Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, but had to abandon Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s controversial account of Trump’s White House, because he wasn’t sure how much of it to believe. “The first half of the book is outrageous. We’ve just talked about how you can’t believe the things you read in the media, but there’s a lot of me that desperately wants to believe it, which is hypocritical in its own way.”
The fourth series of Poldark is based on the final third of Graham’s sixth novel, The Four Swans, and all of the seventh, The Angry Tide. It’s 1796 and England is in the grip of a food shortage. After years of social agitation and championing of Truro’s poor, Ross is elected as an MP. “He’s reluctant,” says Turner, hunched over a mug of builder’s tea. “He sees Westminster as the home of corruption and the place where nothing gets done. It’s a place of disappointment.
“It’s hard not to see parallels with today,” he sighs. “Why can’t we work out this democracy thing?”
We meet a few weeks before Ireland’s abortion referendum, and when I arrive Turner is on the phone to his mum checking he’s still registered to vote now that he lives in London. “If I have to fly back for the day to re-register, I will,” he tells her, pacing around the photo studio sporting tweed trousers, a grey rollneck and a thick, hipster beard.
He’s visibly anxious about the prospect of a hard border being reintroduced due to Brexit. “I remember driving up to Northern Ireland [as a child] and there would be security and towers and men with guns. You’d have your passports checked. The hostility you’d feel crossing that border.” He rocks back and forth on the sofa. “ We haven’t had it for years, and the thought of having those hard borders again … it’s taking a step back.”
This summer, he’ll star in the black comedy The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noël Coward Theatre, playing a terrorist deemed too violent for the IRA during the outset of the peace process. It’s got Turner thinking about extremist behaviour in young men, and the other night he found himself watching an online video of Isis fighters preparing to throw prisoners off a building for being gay.
“If you’re fighting for the cause you believe to be right, it can be easy to do horrendous things. That’s such an interesting thing,” he says. “You could tell the fighters didn’t want to do it. We have to presume they think they’re doing the right thing. That they’re saving the souls of these men.”
He has been reading about the spike in gang-related knife crime in London and worries for the youths caught up in a culture of violence. “They leave school at 3pm and they’ve got hours on their own, hanging out on street corners. Once you’re caught with that knife in your pocket, that’s your life over. Even if you don’t spend all your life in prison, that’s on record. You feel sometimes that these young lads don’t know how severe that is. It limits you so much.”
The youngest son of an accountant mum and electrician dad, Turner had a happy, no-frills childhood in Ireland. While peers such as Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston were being funnelled from Eton to Oxbridge, Turner was scampering around “an area of southwest Dublin that wasn’t affluent”, just about managing to stay out of trouble. “I could have easily got mixed up with the wrong crowd,” he says. “I was very lucky, I got involved in other things.”
One of those things was dancing. He took up ballroom and Latin aged six and went on to represent Ireland for 10 years. Another was the church. Catholic school and obligatory, weekly confession didn’t leave much time for troublemaking. He never questioned his feelings about religion at the time but, with age, he has become more ambivalent.
“I’ve just binge-watched Wild Wild Country [a Netflix documentary series about a controversial cult in 1980s Oregon]. The locals and the press saw it as this crazy cult. There was a lot of fear, and you think, ‘Hang on a second, I was in a small wooden box with priests when I was eight years old. Was that not crazy?’ ”
On weeks when he’d been well behaved, he remembers inventing things. “I’d tell him I’d robbed sweets or cursed at my mum and would be thinking, ‘I don’t believe I’ve done that and why does this person care?’ The irony is you’d be lying to the priest about sins you hadn’t committed. When I look back, it could have messed me up more than it did, but I had good teachers and nice priests and I never took it too seriously.”
After drama school in Dublin, Turner hit the period drama circuit. First came some uncredited lines in The Tudors in 2007, then a turn as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the BBC’s Desperate Romantics. He was playing a tormented vampire in Being Human when he caught the eye of Peter Jackson, who snapped him up to play Kili the dwarf in his Hobbit trilogy. It was a small part in a huge franchise; he’s said in the past that “weeks, possibly months would go by where you wouldn’t deliver a single line of dialogue”. The experience made him desperate for a role that he could make his own. As shooting on the final film drew to a close, Poldark came knocking.
Turner is an interesting mix of intense focus and no-nonsense, blokeish charm. He doesn’t go in for relaxation (“I have a fear of being lazy”), but he does enjoying throwing paint around his new east London flat, which he’s having renovated. At the TV magazine where I used to work, he was often the last one standing at the annual party, happily chatting to anyone and everyone, buying cocktails for people he’d only just met. He still enjoys a good night out with “the Irish pals in London”, many of whom are actors. They have a WhatsApp group called “Bad Career Moves” where they poke fun at each other’s professional flops. What are his? “I’ll tell you another time,” he laughs. “There are a few though.”
He was a self-conscious teenager, but now claims not to give two hoots about his looks. “I guess people think that I care about my body a lot. I try to keep healthy, but it’s not an obsession,” he says firmly. “I don’t only choose roles that require me to be in a certain kind of shape. For Poldark, it had to be this way and it is what it is.”
Despite this, his fitness regime borders on the masochistic. He hits the gym every day, sometimes twice, and got hooked on intermittent fasting while filming the latest series of Poldark, forgoing all food until 7pm each night when he’d eat as much as he wanted. “My energy levels soared,” he says.
Wasn’t he crippled by hunger pangs? “I quite like them,” he shrugs. “It’s good for the job. It keeps you in it, you know?”
I’m not sure I do, but I also don’t think that the intense focus on his physique is born out of vanity. Instead, it seems like a reach for control amid the bizarreness of life as a reluctant sex symbol. Last year, I watched a Poldark panel discussion descend into chaos when audience members (predominantly middle-aged women) were invited to ask Turner a question. One, who had travelled from America, took the opportunity to present him with a handmade snowglobe with his face inside. Another leapt on stage to give him a tearful, lingering hug. Then there was the woman who had written her dissertation about him and begged him to read it.
A few hours after our interview, I attend a similar event. Turner is on stage with Debbie Horsfield, the show’s writer, in front of a roomful of journalists and ardent Poldark fans who have been treated to a sneak preview of the first episode of the new series. It opens with Ross emerging from the sea after an early morning swim, hair tousled, chest glistening. The room erupts into a frenzy of whoops and wolf-whistles.
In the Q&A afterwards, every other question is about Turner’s toplessness. How much will there be in the new series? By agreeing to strip off, is he complicit in his own objectification? Horsfield attempts to calm things down by stating that Ross could hardly go swimming in his frock coat, but the fans are having none of it. Turner’s demeanour, meanwhile, has changed from our earlier chat. His body language is more closed and although always polite, his answers have a curt steeliness to them. Someone asks whether it’s true that he’ll play Bond when Daniel Craig stands down. He stiffens, refusing to comment other than to say that he’ll “have a look” at the role when it becomes available. Then there’s a final question, giggled from the back: “Do you mind that we all drool over you?”
Imagine for a second that this situation was flipped on its head and a 34-year-old woman was bombarded with questions from older men about how much she gets her kit off in her latest project. As the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup stated recently, there would be an outcry. It would, quite rightly, become a #MeToo moment, dissected at length on Twitter and beyond. But there’s none of that for Turner, who is expected to smile sweetly and say nothing while he’s salivated over. He claims not to feel objectified and has said in the past that “it’s just a couple of people admiring your body”, but I don’t buy it. He may not feel exploited by the show’s creators, but he is clearly uncomfortable and exhausted by the constant gawking.
Happily, not all his fans are so full-on. He is both thrilled and baffled by the vast number of letters he receives. “When you get a chance to read some of the fan mail that comes in, it takes your breath away,” he says. “It isn’t this sycophantic nonsense. A lot of it says, ‘This [difficult] thing happened to me and I bought the Poldark box set and watched it with a friend and it was great, so cheers.’ It isn’t people demanding that I sign this or send them that.”
We return to the subject of his recent trip to New York and a Cheshire cat grin creeps across his face.
Were you visiting friends, I ask.
“Yeah, yeah,” he replies unconvincingly.
A girlfriend, perhaps?
“I do have a girlfriend, yeah,” he says, eyes fixed on the floor.
Does she live in New York? “Maybe, maybe,” he trills, crumpling into laughter.
It’s all I’m getting. Turner may not be engaged, but he is clearly smitten and past experience has taught him to be protective of whomever he’s dating.
“There have been moments when you’re in the very early days of a relationship and a photographer comes out of nowhere. You’re walking in the park or you’re having a moment that’s quite private. I never want to be that person with sunglasses down, looking around before they leave the building. I’ve felt pretty bad in the past when photos have been printed. I can deal with it, but it’s not fair on the other person. It’s about responsibility.”
Considerate and political as well as charming. What a very modern heart-throb.