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Aidan Turner Interview – The Times

posted: June 29th, 2023 in Interviews

Aidan Turner: ‘You can’t keep taking your shirt off for ever’
His star turn in Poldark made him one of the most lusted-after actors on television. Now Aidan Turner is playing a tennis coach and gearing up for an adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s raunchy novel Rivals

Polly Vernon

The Times Interview

Aidan Turner wears a gaudy short-sleeved Hawaiian-looking shirt and a big ol’ brush of a moustache, which he’s grown for a role (“The tache,” he’ll say, “would not be my choice. Nor would the shirt. But they seem to work in unison”), and reminisces about his time as an elite teenage ballroom dancer.

“Was I all fake-tanned and sparkled? I was definitely a better ballroom dancer than I was a Latin American dancer, which would be more of the sort of fake tan and sparkles thing. I would have been: tails, a tux, high collars. A lot of Elnett hairspray. I can smell that still. Wooooooo! I still get nervous when I smell that. A cold sweat.”

See Cover and Photoshoot Images here: TIMES MAGAZINE in AidanTurnerNews Gallery

Turner assumed, as a young teenager growing up in a suburb of Dublin, that he’d become a professional dancer. “We were good, you know? I went to an All-Ireland Championship. We represented Ireland. We travelled around.” He most certainly did not think that, having given up dance “at 17, 18”, completed a brief apprenticeship with his electrician father, Pat, then applied to drama school — Dublin’s Gaiety School of Acting — in 2002, almost on a whim, that by 2015 he’d find himself at the centre of a red hot storm of lechery having been cast as Ross Poldark, the lead in the BBC’s reboot of its period classic Poldark. The role required Turner to brood and triumph heroically and take his top off a fair bit (in the first series at least), sometimes while wielding a scythe, an aesthetic that broke if not the internet, then certainly iPlayer. The kerfuffle was frenzied, the Twitter carnality intense. The morality of it — this pre-#MeToo pile-on of lust, this mass, half-crazed objectification of one young man by a gazillion not so young Sunday night telly-viewing women — doesn’t really stand up to ethical scrutiny eight years on.

I’m sorry, I tell Turner (for I was responsible for somewhere between five to ten articles that revelled in, probably even stoked, that lechery).

“Meh,” he says, lightly flicking a hand.

No, I feel bad. If we’re asking men to reconsider past actions and attitudes, we’ve got to expect the same of women. Anyway, it must have been so irritating.

“Just a bit… silly. I didn’t necessarily feel objectified, I suppose. Just embarrassed.”

Happily, this whole unfortunate episode is relevant to our interview, so I needn’t self-flagellate too hard. Turner and I have met to discuss his new project, Fifteen-Love, a six-part Prime Video drama about a rising young tennis star — Justine Pearce, played by Ella Lily Hyland — and her coach, Aidan Turner’s Glenn Lapthorn. This time, Turner inhabits the role of putative lecher. Lapthorn is accused of historical sexual misconduct — of something approaching rape, even — by Pearce, his former protégée. The abuse, she claims, happened when she was 16, 17 and Lapthorn in his mid-thirties (by the time the show begins, they’re both four years older). Fifteen-Love languishes in the greyest areas of sexual attraction and predatoriness; it’s about where and how and if a relationship tips into an abuse that isn’t technically illegal. It’s about who gets protected, who gets believed.

“Oh, it’s very blurry,” Turner says.

Which is great (in an awful kind of way) because in reality, this stuff is. Harvey Weinstein, the case that inspired #MeToo, was open and shut — power, pressure, tit-for-tat deals on sex for roles and Oscar campaigns, perpetrated by a man with all the power and none of the looks. More usually, however, we’re dealing with unreliable memories, conflicting perceptions, things that might start as young crushes on older men — men who don’t necessarily initiate anything — then escalate… Behaviours that were kind of acceptable at the time but aren’t just a few years on, and how do we legislate for an abrupt change in mood? How do we even understand it?

“Yes! It was just… it was fine. It was accepted that, ‘You’re of age.’ And maybe there was an older man, but it’s fine. And with Glenn… It felt important not to play him as that villain, you know? He is charismatic, approachable, supportive and talented. Married. A father.”

Also good-looking, I say, which makes it blurrier yet. Glenn Lapthorn doesn’t look like a monster. He looks… well, he looks a bit like Poldark.

“I think that’s important. I think he probably finds it easier in that sense with younger players, because he looks a certain way and he’s a certain age and he surrounds himself with younger players… I think it all makes sense in the greater scheme of things. He doesn’t seem like a danger.”

Turner worked with tennis pros, people who knew the circuit, to learn enough tennis to be able to pass as a coach and to make sure he understood the culture of the game. “With individual sports, [abuse] is obviously so much easier than when you have team sports. Not that it doesn’t exist there at all but, given the parameters that exist in tennis, particularly I think with younger women, you are just so much of the time around one person. We went to some of these academies to shoot, and one of the first things you realise is that it’s just this massive, vacuous place. Even the size of the tennis courts, you know? You feel really isolated.”

Had he played tennis before? “I played a lot of badminton before, and table tennis, which I thought was parallel. But it’s not. It’s totally a different thing. The service is almost impossible. One of the pros said, ‘I’ve just been doing this so long…’ It’s in his body.”

Like with you and dancing?

“It’s the same as dancing. It’s there. You just have it in you.”

Does he still?

“I think so.”

Does he pull out old moves at weddings?

“I have a real aversion to — what’s it called? — circle dancing. Dancing on your own [in the middle of a circle]. I hate that. I always want to dance with somebody. Salsa… mess around. But, oh yeah. I’m still pretty all right at it.”

AIDAN TURNER IS 40 YEARS OLD and, if his professional reputation still seems somewhat dominated by Poldark, his career has in fact been varied and extensive. He started in theatre and he’s done a lot since (“It’s like an itch — every once in a while, this real desire to get back on stage”), most recently Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons opposite Jenna Coleman at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. His first big telly part was in 2009, when he played Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Desperate Romantics (BBC). I first became aware of him in the shiny BBC3 supernatural drama Being Human, in which he played John Mitchell, a vampire with a conscience, between 2009 and 2011.

Glenn Lapthorn isn’t his first flirtation with the dark side: in 2022, he played deeply questionable clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin in the ITV thriller The Suspect. He says his game plan has only ever been “mix it up, not repeat the same beats”, but that isn’t always easy. “The business doesn’t always give you that opportunity, I suppose. I do remember that for at least a couple of years after [Being Human], I was being offered roles to play a vampire.”

And after Poldark, I guess they just wanted you to keep taking your shirt off?

“Yeah. That’s still happening to me, to a certain extent. Just in a different era. Now it’s the Eighties.” Turner is currently filming the TV adaptation of Jilly Cooper’s Rivals, a tale of sex and haute Eighties excess in the Cotswolds. It’s this that accounts for the moustache.

He says he’s still unsure why he jacked in dancing and went for acting instead. “I never figured out how to fully answer this question.”

Fame and money?

“Definitely not!”

Well, you got them anyway. How does that feel?

“I’m not famous though.”

You are.

“I’m not.”

I’ll prove it. When was the last time you auditioned for a role?

“Um… Ah… I… Oh. A lot of actors are going to see me struggling [to remember] and think, ‘What an arsehole.’ I don’t know. I probably did a [self] tape for something. It’s been a while.”

Precisely. Now: when was the last time you got public transport?

“Yesterday! I was jumping on a train.”

Really?

“It’s just never been something I have ever questioned. I would hate to be at a stage where I couldn’t get the Tube.”

You don’t get hassled?

“Nope. I mean, maybe some people see me across the room and go, ‘I don’t know if he looks that approachable.’ Maybe I don’t look very friendly. Somebody said to me before that I have quite prominent eyebrows and look angry. But I’ve definitely seen it happen [with other actors]. I won’t give any names; that wouldn’t be fair. But… People who are more famous than me, and they definitely are aware that they are quite famous. Just a thing where you hold yourself differently and you operate your life differently, and that influences what comes at you… [They think] ‘F*** yeah! People are starting to take notice now.’ And they’re cordoned off. They’ve put this invisible boundary around themselves and it’s going to be appealing to some people. ‘This person’s shiny. Let’s talk to them.’ ”

But you don’t do that?

“I don’t want to sound too humble or whatever.”

Don’t worry, I’ll make a note: “Not too humble.”

“No! Anything but that.”

I promise.

Turner looks at me intently for the first time.

“Do you write the headlines?”

Rarely. Writers don’t. Why?

“Because I always hate how they sound. I’ve never had one that I like. What’s the key? What’s the trick? What do I need to know about, like, cultivating a reader?”

Excellent question. You need a quote: a strong, surprising, pithy one-liner that works with the picture the magazine runs alongside the interview. So, if you were to say to me now, “I don’t even think I’m that good-looking,” then there’s a picture of you looking really, really handsome — that’s your headline.

“Ah ha ha!”

Sorry, did I not mention before? Aidan Turner is spectacularly good-looking in real life — quite as good-looking as he is on screen. I didn’t bring it up because these days, following my regrettable past, I think of myself as a reformed lecher. A sober lecher. A recovering lecher. Now, I don’t care to mention the extraordinary, compelling depth of a chap’s eyes or the way his cheekbones catch the light, or how his Irish accent could get you drunk if you weren’t careful. Instead I focus on his innate worth, humanity and so forth. Why, you might even call me “fit-blind”.

Oh, come on: obviously I’m lying. Turner’s so absurdly handsome it requires a physical effort to drag your eyes away, and that’s an effort I’m not really making, TBH.

I ask what it feels like to have been so publicly fancied, as he was during Poldark.

“It was a really strange thing to go through.”

He’s said in the past that he didn’t feel objectified because he thinks, as a man, it’s just not possible. You’re not under any threat. You’re not vulnerable in the way you might be had you been a woman receiving that level and quality of attention. Ergo: no objectification.

He still thinks that?

“Yeah.”

And I agree to a point, but I also think — without knowing how anyone could have stopped it — what happened to him probably wasn’t OK.

“Ah, it’s such a tricky thing. There was a certain part of me at the time, I suppose — it’s probably going back nearly ten years now — but at the time I was thinking, ‘I need to handle it differently, not be offended by it. Rally round and do it.’ But it did just feel a bit silly.”

Can he see that he looked good?

“Yeah. I’m in shape. I didn’t have any issues with my body.” (In 2019, Turner told The Sunday Times that while filming, he fasted until 7pm and trained twice a day to become what one could officially label “Poldark fit”.) “And it is great, and it feels right for that character. A superphysical guy, the diet he would have been on… Some shows you see, where there’s this dad and he’s puffed and you go, ‘That’s an actor who’s working his ass off to look that way,’ and it seems a bit weird. [Poldark’s body] didn’t seem odd to me. I might need to review it in years to come…”

What was difficult, he said, was accepting that this attention that was making him feel a bit embarrassed was at the same time raising the profile of the show itself, giving it extra traction, making it the talked-about drama of the moment. Plus, how do you express it? What words do you use? Everyone fancies me and it feels a bit icky?

“Is there a publicist you call and go, ‘I can’t’?” he says. “I thought my hands were tied. There might have been a different approach if I really did feel objectified, which I suppose I… Oh, I don’t know whether I did or I didn’t. I just kind of got on with it.”

Happily, he doesn’t think he’ll have to go through it, or anything like it, ever again.

“I’m getting a bit older now, so I think I’m probably growing out of it, which is great.”

Is it?

“Yes. The roles now are getting more interesting. The scripts on the table are just… They’re more intricate, more complicated. I’m nearly 40. There’s only so long you can ride that wave of taking your shirt off and riding a horse. And I’m a dad now.”

In 2020, Turner quietly married the American actor Caitlin FitzGerald — of Masters of Sex, Succession and Station Eleven — in Italy in front of just six other people. “It was tiny and beautiful,” he told Chris Evans in 2022. In January 2022, FitzGerald gave birth to their child, whose name remains a secret. As was the gender, but Turner makes some casual comment or I just get a feeling and…

He’s a he, I ask tentatively.

“He’s a he,” Turner allows.

Any chance he won’t be an actor?

“We haven’t sat down to talk about what we’re going to do. We have so many friends with kids now who are getting to that age where they have agents and stuff, and they’re like, ‘We never wanted them to do this!’ But what can you do?”

Nothing. It’s all your fault. You’ve got what looks like the most fun job in the world.

“Exactly. And it really can be.”

But if he wants to be an accountant, you’d be delighted?

“I’ll be OK with that too. Education is the most important thing. That fallback thing. No actor ever wants to have [a fallback], but…”

What was yours?

“I was gonna teach people tango.”

Maybe your son can do that too.

We talk about his filming Rivals, one of my all-time favourite books — I was wildly excited about the TV show even before I knew Turner had been cast as Declan O’Hara, a sought-after TV interviewer with a tempestuous marriage and three beautiful children.

Is it fun to make? Turner lights up like a firework.

“I’ve never had more fun on any job in my entire life.”

Tell me everything.

“I guess it’s the content of the show…” Which is back-to-back debauched Eighties glamour for those unfamiliar with Jilly Cooper’s oeuvre, though I would also ask: why are you unfamiliar? What’s wrong with you? You might as well not have read Dickens, and I’m not exaggerating (even Rishi Sunak — somewhat spuriously — claims he’s a fan). “It’s essentially so much fun. We’re in the Cotswolds. Every day we’re in a different huge manor house somewhere, having garden parties. And it is that thing as well, which happens sometimes in shows — and I see it happening [here], though none of us have kind of admitted to it, but it’s definitely there — where there’s a slight methody thing happening. We’re all up for the party. We went out the other night to the Ivy. We had a late night, lots of cocktails.”

It’s a sexy show.

“We have so much sex on our show, we have to have two intimacy coaches. Two!”

Brilliant.

“Never wanted a season two of anything more in my life.”

Turner says there are still times when he thinks his career is over.

“One hundred per cent. After every job there’s a month or six weeks where it’s amazing because you’re exhausted. ‘Let’s go on holiday. I’m great. I’m excited about this job. Let’s take a holiday. Let’s do a thing. We have some money. Woo-hoo! Let’s buy something we don’t need and then regret it!’ Then that six weeks is over and you start hearing from your pals getting these interesting jobs. You start going, ‘Why has nobody called me?’ It’s like tumbleweed and you’re like, ‘Oh shit, shit, shit. It’s over again. I need to take up a hobby,’ and then you go and do that.”

Which hobbies?

“I like to paint.”

Any good?

“No, but what I do is, I buy really big canvases so I’m impressed. I have a studio now, which is great, and I buy really big canvases. I just want to walk in and be really impressed because it’s so big. My wife says I’m ‘the size queen’. I don’t quite know what that means. And I play a lot of pool. I’m obsessed.”

Are you good?

“Yeah.”

Do you hustle?

“I got hustled. There’s a great actor [in Rivals] playing Rupert [Campbell-Black], Alex Hassell. And he can’t really play pool. I’ve been talking a lot about how I can play pool. I have a carbon-fibre cue; it costs thousands. I have a glove that I wear. Special chalk. It’s ridiculous, right? So I bring him to this pool hall. He strolls in. He was late; he doesn’t give a shit. I tell him about the rules. He picks up a crappy warped cue and we start playing. Long story short, he beats me seven-six. And the last thing he says is, ‘It’s a pretty Rupert thing to do.’ ”

It’s such a Rupert thing to do, I say. (Again, if you don’t know what this means, just read Rivals. Actually, start with Riders.)

“I was mortified. Then he says, ‘I won’t tell anyone on set.’ And he told everybody the next day.”

I ask what he and his wife can stand to watch on TV. Or is watching TV just a long case of feeling competitive and pissed off you didn’t get parts other people did?

“It can be [like that]. But it’s important to watch the good shows, see what other people are doing, without any, ‘Why wasn’t I seen for this?’ We’ve just finished Dragons’ Den. We watched about 20 episodes.”

What’s his Dragons’ Den business pitch?

“Oh. Good question. Maybe, I don’t know, counselling through dance? Which already sounds like it won’t make any money.”

Or be any fun.

“Shit. Yeah. Maybe a pool thing?”

Then I ask if, given his brief apprenticeship with his electrician father, he is handy.

“I’m handy-ish. Not superhandy. My dad is brilliant. He can fix vintage cars. He can tile a bathroom. He can lay floorboards. I’m not that person. With my dad it’s like, he has the confidence to do it. He’ll walk in, call a friend of his and they’ll figure out how to do it. I get the fear of doing it. I’ll buy the stuff and go, ‘No, I can’t.’ And then just pay for somebody to come over. And then it is clean and it is done.”

Turner’s PR rep knocks on the door to tell us our time is up. He seems surprised and a little sorry to hear it.

“This has been fun,” he says. He walks me to the door. “Can we do it again for Rivals?” Which, on a number of levels, is the best offer I’ve had in a while.

That’s a date, I say. Then: you may want to wait to see what you think of the headline on this first, of course.

Fifteen-Love is on Prime Video from July 21

Styling: Hannah Rogers. Grooming: Jessica Doyle using MAC and Bumble & Bumble. Turner wears suit, Louis Vuitton. T-shirt, Sunspel. Trainers, Adidas

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