Aidan Turner Talks Poldark and Capturing 18th Century Life

TV Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Lovers of sweeping, romantic sagas will delight at the latest Masterpiece presentation, which takes viewers back to the late 1700s following the American Revolutionary War. Ross Poldark, an officer in the British army, returns home to his family estates in Cornwall to discover that, not only was he presumed dead, but his father has died, the woman he loves is marrying his cousin, and he has a mountain of debts and no obvious way to raise the funds.

Based on the series of 12 novels by Winston Graham, Poldark stars Aidan Turner in the title role. As the heroic Poldark, he vows to sets things to right even as the odds seem insurmountable. And he doesn’t want to succeed out of some sense of upper-class pride, but for the people of Cornwall who have fallen on hard times.

“Coming off the back of The Hobbit in New Zealand, it seemed perfect for me,” Turner tells Paste. “He’s a character that I really related to immediately. His moral compass is so in the right place. He’s fair. He’s honest. He has a real sense of integrity, but he also slips between the classes. He’s well-respected and he’s the hero of the working-class generation in Cornwall, but he’s also respected among the gentry and the aristocracy, so he’s quite an enigma.”

One way Poldark demonstrates his renegade spirit is in a scene where he rescues an abused street urchin, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson, The White Queen), and takes her on as his kitchen maid. This, despite the protests from her family, his relatives and the disapproval of the gentry, who assume she is really in his home for lewd purposes.

“Eleanor is a brilliant actor,” says Turner, who’d already landed the title role when he tested with her. “Everyone was fantastic, but she just had something. We just kind of clicked. It didn’t feel like she was acting. It felt like she was reacting, and that we had something going on.”

To capture a snapshot of life in the 18th Century, Turner studied paintings from that time period, including the military works of American painter John Trumbull and British painter Lady Butler, as well as scenes from everyday life.

“They were quite evocative for me and a big part of my research,” he says. “I kept going back to them all the time just staring at them, finding new bits to look at, and just finding new inspirations from them.”

But Ross Poldark was a man of many layers, so Turner didn’t limit himself to just studying soldiers. He researched everything from the Hanoverian Monarchy and King George III, to the difficult lives led by miners, as his character hopes to revive his copper mine as a way of paying off his debts and giving employment to the villagers.

And, then, of course there are all the social niceties like dining and dancing that made up a big part of life for the gentry.

“We learned the Gavotte and Allemande,” Turner says. “All these dances really depict how you hold yourself. Everything I knew about dancing is for the man to be strong, the weight is in the legs, and he leads. But this is completely opposite. All the weight is in the toes, and it’s kind of like a poker-in-your-back thing, wearing pumps and tights. It just didn’t seem very masculine to me. But then again, that’s what they did and that’s when men were men.”

Poldark also features a cameo appearance by Robin Ellis (who starred as Ross Poldark in Masterpiece’s original 1975 adaptation) as Reverend Halse, the village’s sin-obsessed parson. The series also features Bleak House’s Warren Clarke as Poldark’s duplicitous Uncle Charles and Ruby Bentall (The Paradise) as Charles’ daughter, Verity, who is very fond of her cousin Ross. Kyle Soller, Heida Reed and Elizabeth Chenoweth also star in the show.

Poldark airs on PBS Sundays at 9 PM ET/PT.