Earlier this year, Aidan Turner believed that he’d yet to hit the “insane stratospheric fame” of some of his contemporaries despite playing Kili in “The Hobbit” film series. And he hoped to keep it that way.
“I kind of keep out of the limelight,” he told me in January. “It just makes it harder for me, I think, if people begin to know more about me. It’s just harder to play the characters.”
Things might be changing now that the Irish actor has set hearts to swooning as the title character in “Poldark” on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” The highly successful first season wraps up Aug. 2 with a two-hour finale beginning at 8 p.m. on PBS. (It already aired on the BBC, where it was a hit as well.)
“Poldark,” adapted by Debbie Horsfield from Winston Graham’s series of novels, tells the story of Capt. Ross Poldark, a British soldier who returns to his native Cornwall, England, after fighting in the American Revolutionary War. But his home has changed: his father is dead, his house, farm and coal mine are in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to marry his first cousin.
The original “Poldark” series was one of the first hits on “Masterpiece” back in the 1970s, endearing Robin Ellis, who played Poldark, to millions of fans. A quick look on the Internet suggests that Turner, who starred as vampire Mitchell in the original “Being Human,” has had the same effect on fans.
A 10-episode second season—that’s two more episodes than the first—will start filming in September. Turner has wrapped a feature film, “The Secret Scripture,” and currently is filming a three-part TV adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic “And Then There Were None.”
During a phone interview before his appearance at the Television Critics Association winter tour in January, I talked to Turner. We chatted about his playing Poldark, his time in Middle Earth and as the vampire Mitchell in “Being Human,” whom I mistakenly said was made a vampire during the Revolutionary War. The suggestion confused Turner—and rightfully so—but he was apparently too polite to correct me. (Oops, it was the vampire Aiden in the North American version of “Being Human” who fought in the Revolutionary War.)
“That’s really knocked me for six,” he said after a moment. “I completely forgot about that until you’ve actually mentioned it. But yeah, that’s quite eerie actually. That’s quite strange.”
Below is an edited transcript of our chat.
Were you familiar with the Poldark books?
No, I wasn’t really at all. I wasn’t familiar with Winston Graham or any of his novels so the whole thing was all new to me, which was kind of great. To start off … reading the books and Debbie Horsfield’s adaptation of the script straight away and it was kind of nice to not have any sort of expectations or ideas on what it was about and just start fresh on it. So it was quite exhilarating actually.
But you knew that it was a hugely popular series in the 1970s?
Well, it’s not hard to find out these things anyways these days. All it takes is a quick Google and you’re on to Wikipedia and you see that the show was quite a hit in the mid ’70s.
Did you watch it as research?
The show was available obviously for me to watch but I kind of felt that I didn’t want to. I wanted to sort of establish the character myself and just find my way into Poldark on my own ground. I didn’t really want to be swayed in a certain direction.
Robin Ellis played the role of Ross Poldark and I heard he was, by all accounts, very, very good in it and he was very popular so I didn’t want to get intimidated before I began. I thought it was safer maybe just to see what I could come up with.
Plus, I already had a lot of resources available. I had Debbie’s adaptation—fantastic adaptation—and Winston Graham’s books. I didn’t really feel like I needed anything more that might potentially cloud my judgment on certain things, so I thought I would just go without watching it.
Knowing that Robin was such a big hit in it and that it was such a big show at the time, did that put any pressure on you or make you nervous at all?
It didn’t actually, no. And that was part of me not watching the show either because had I watched it and thought, “Holy God, this guy is amazing,” I might be intimidated and I might know too much that I can’t unknow.
So no, I didn’t really. I mean obviously there’s an audience for a show like this. It was very, very popular when it was released in the ’70s and people are expecting great things from our show, too, so I don’t want to let them down.
It’s in the back of your head you don’t want to disappoint people, but at the same time we have a job to do and I think the scripts and the stories were strong enough to carry us through so I never felt like I needed to hit the panic button and start freaking out and calling Robin for advice on how to play him or anything like that.
It was all very much under control and a very enjoyable shoot and I think we achieved what we set out to achieve and it’s something I’m very proud of.
I don’t do social media so I don’t read what people have to say and my friends kind of know enough about me now that I don’t want to hear anything if it is negative or positive or anything of the sort. So I kind of kept myself away from all of that and just tackled the job.
That’s wise. Tell me a little bit about the adaptation. Is it more of an epic romance or sort of social commentary?
I think it’s both. I think we cover a lot of stuff on this show. There’s certainly the aspect of love; this love triangle that’s established in the show is certainly something that follows right through to the end of the first series and it’s a very important part.
When Ross comes back from fighting in the Revolutionary War in America, straightaway he steps into a Cornwall that’s changed quite a lot. His father has died while he’s been away and his inheritance, the land that he’s been left, is in complete disarray and is kind of worth nothing.
But the big thing is he was engaged to this beautiful woman—his sweetheart Elizabeth. When he comes back he realizes very quickly that she’s no longer really in love with Ross, but she’s engaged to his cousin. So he’s lost the most important thing in his life and his world just kind of crumbles around him really.
And then, of course, he finds this like urchin girl one day and poses her as a maid and very quickly sort of falls in love and begins a relationship with Demelza.
But his feelings for Elizabeth never really go away because he’s idolized her, I think, while he’s been away. That’s the thing about first love: You never really kind of get it out of your system. He’s confused: Does Elizabeth really still love him or is she in love with Francis? I think he’s confused about the whole sort of love triangle that he’s now sort of walked into.
So I mean the theme of love certainly runs through the series, but it’s a social commentary also. Ross is a working class hero. I think he’s somebody who feels duty-bound to help people who are less privileged than he is; he seamlessly kind of jumps through the classes. He’s somebody who’s respected among the working class but he’s also welcomed in houses of gentrified figures.
The Poldark name is quite an ancient name and well respected and that so he’s, I don’t know, he’s a very strong character. He’s really a man of strong moral code and principles.
It seems like sort of perfect timing to bring the working class themes to TV, with all the protests against the “1 Percent” and minimum wage marches over the past couple of years.
Yeah, I think so, absolutely. There’s an ongoing feud between a character called George Warleggan, who’s an investment banker and landowner. I think Ross sort of doesn’t have a lot of time for people like that. He’s under the impression that you’ve got to get to know the people and to love the people to help them.
In order to keep the community sort of buoyant you need to invest in the people and the idea. It’s more than just getting a quick buck.
These mines are shutting down in Cornwall at the time and in fairness to George, if something isn’t making profit, he’s a businessman so he just shuts it down. But that’s not really how it should work. He might need to lose money for 10 years but then eventually the industry in Cornwall will be back on its feet again, you know, people will be working, families will be fed. That’s how society should work, but some of these investment bankers and the George Warleggans of the world just want to line their own pockets and make the quick buck and move on and just leave a trail of destruction behind them.
I don’t think Ross has a lot of time for people like that. He sees through it and that’s what I like about Ross. His moral compass is certainly pointing in the right direction I think. He’s a strong character in that sense.
Tell me a little bit about Ross and Demelza.
Ross and Demelza. I guess Ross never saw himself with somebody like Demelza. As I said before, he idealized his relationship with Elizabeth and I think he always saw himself with somebody of the same class I guess—a gentrified figure, somebody who’s part of that aristocracy or that social kind of upper circle.
But when Ross comes back from the war, I think he feels quite disillusioned and he’s attending balls and dances where girls are sort of debuting and are marched around by their mothers like cattle.
He just doesn’t get it. He’s seen some of his comrades dying on the battlefield and he’s realized, I think, how real life is and how it can be. And then to come back to this world that’s so fickle and so fake and he just doesn’t want to be a part of it.
With Demelza he says, you know, “Why don’t you work for me” as a kitchen maid. And then it just blossoms from there. I think he’s surprised by it, but that’s what I love about this story: Love doesn’t have those rules. Love breaks those social barriers all the time and it manifests itself in the most unpredictable and uncertain ways. Whether you like it or not, it just happens. I think our story really tells that tale.
Ross is amused by Demelza, but I think he sees a lot of himself in Demelza. She’s rebellious and she’s kind and she’s classless like he is. She doesn’t have any boundaries with people. Once you’re a nice, decent, honest person with genuine intentions and integrity, I think that’s all that matters to somebody like Demelza and Ross sees that.
I think he’s incredibly attracted to somebody like that. She’s real. It’s the real deal, I think.
She doesn’t seem to take any crap either.
No, she doesn’t. She doesn’t take any crap. But then she respects the social boundaries also. When she goes to these dances or these social events with Ross, I think she aspires to fit in. She doesn’t want to let him down either or be an embarrassment to Ross. … She’s proud to be a Poldark. But she doesn’t take any crap and I think every man likes a woman like that. Nobody likes a pushover.
Eleanor Tomlinson plays Demelza. How was that relationship?
She’s amazing. She’s great. She’s so cool. She’s just really laid-back, really gorgeous. Just so much fun. We had a lot of fun on set. I think we’re quite similar in our natures. We’re kind of, I don’t know, we have similar sort of attributes I guess that work really well together. It helps a lot because … if we didn’t get on I think the audience might see it, so thankfully we’re good friends.
What was your experience meeting Robin Ellis?
I did. He plays a small role in the series. He plays Reverend Halse, a judge, a small but very important role. He’s a great guy. I spent a few days with Robin and he’s such a wonderful person, really lovely guy.
There’s one scene in particular where Ross stands up in court for Jim Carter, who’s a close friend of his, a young lad whose been convicted actually of poaching.
Robin Ellis is looking down his glasses at the end of his nose at me with a judge’s cape and wig on and I remember there’s one scene where I kind of lose it with him and I kind of call him out on what he’s doing and he’s unfair and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he’s got to change his ways and blah, blah, blah and I march out of the court room. I remember walking back in after that first take and I was kind of a bit nervous because I’m screaming at Robin Ellis. When I walked back in he just lowered his glasses and winked at me and gave me a little thumbs up.
I thought, “God, I’m getting the thumbs up from the original Poldark. This is amazing.” That kind of helped me a lot.
You mentioned Cornwall, where you shot a lot of this. Compare working in Middle Earth to working in Cornwall.
[Laughs.] Well, in some ways they’re quite alike. I mean they’re both beautiful places with epic and extreme landscapes. Cornwall is beautiful. We got lovely weather while we were there. We were shooting last summer  and it’s a stunning place. I mean in places like Penzance. We shot in Bodmin Moor where Ross’s house is in Nanpara. Just stunning locations.
We had a beautiful private beach that we shot on for many days in Saint Just, in Penwith, that was absolutely stunning. This place is gorgeous—and that’s coming from an Irishman who is from a place that is considered one of the most beautiful on the planet.
It’s a tough comparison to make. They’re both beautiful places. Cornwall is stunning and an amazing place and a lovely setting for a story like this. It’s strong and it’s earthy and it’s everything the show is about, I think.
And the interiors were shot in Bristol, where I shot a show called “Being Human” a few years ago.
Was it a bit of an adjustment being back in the U.K. after all that time in New Zealand?
It was a quick adjustment to make. New Zealand is so far away and it’s just another way of life out there. You’re so far away from everything. But no, the adjustment was quite easy. It was quite nice to come home.
You didn’t even have to cut your hair for this role, did you?
No, I didn’t. My hair was that length. It’s a lot shorter now so if we do go again for a second series I don’t know what we’re going to do. I’m going to have to start growing my hair really fast. No, that was all me. That was all Aidan Turner hair. I don’t know whether I’m that proud of it but—I mean it looks a bit wiggy sometimes—but I guarantee you it is all mine.
I hear you had a odd run-in with an ox while filming “Poldark.”
Yeah, that was quite strange. It was actually quite horrible. I was up on a horse at the time and I think we were shooting in Wilshire and doing one of the market scenes with the wranglers who take care of all the livestock and cattle and the horses and whatnot. And one bull or one ox was just quite literally kicking off and I saw one of the wranglers take a hoof in the face and it knocked him out I think for a second.
It was quite horrible. But once one kicks off they all kicked off and my horse started freaking out. That’s the thing, they say don’t work with animals or children and we worked with both quite a lot on this show and I think it’s true what they say, never do it.
But you survived.
I got through. I was ready to bolt though. [Laughs.] I’m pretty decent on a horse but I wasn’t going to hang around. If the ox had come for me, I was galloping in the opposite direction. I was heading for the moor.
Were you able to keep the horse under control?
It’s something that I’ve worked on prior to “Poldark.” And when I was in New Zealand, too, I kind of got quite good at horse riding. We did a lot of time for that thankfully when we weren’t on set.
And when I came back doing prep for “Poldark” we did quite a lot of horse riding so I became quite efficient on the horse. So it’s something that I quite like doing now. And it comes up in a lot of jobs. It’s just something as an actor these days you can write stuff on a CV and not be able to do it, but that’s a lie you don’t want to tell because if you jump up on a horse and you don’t know what you’re doing you’re a danger to everybody. So it’s something I keep doing now and I really enjoy it.
You’ve done “The Hobbit” films—a huge profile part—and this also will be, I would say. Is this sort of becoming no big deal for you to have such high-profile gigs?
[Laughs.] Well, I’m still in a funny position at the moment. This is prior to a show like “Poldark” coming out, so I don’t really know what that insane stratospheric fame is like or anything like that. I’ve always been, I don’t know, I’m just left alone really.
I mean it’s fun to go to Comic Con and to go to these different events and your popular for five minutes while you’re kind of in the limelight, but then when that goes away and you’re back to normal life and you’re learning lines for the next show or you might be auditioning or whatever you’re doing just working as an actor, it doesn’t really come into my world really.
I don’t know. I know there’s probably fan sites out there on the Internet and stuff but I don’t really bother with any of that sort of stuff. … It’s just easier to keep everything sort of a mystery to people and then it just keeps your career on the right path I think. That stuff doesn’t really interest me.
I was at Comic Con when you guys were there for “Being Human” and you guys were kind of rock stars.
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was funny. I remember that actually quite well. That was the start of all that for us. We were quite surprised about that reaction and people were really behind the show and I just think we had a certain, the three of us—Lenora and myself and Russell—had a certain chemistry that really worked for people and we just ran with it. It was fun and we never expected a show like that to be a hit and it was.
Then there was an American version made and we just got kind of more attention because of that. It’s a show we’re all very proud of. But yeah, that was the start of all that kind of “Being Human” mania for a while.
It was certainly fun and it’s odd to be back … with a different set of actors and a different crew and a different bunch of people who are supporting this show—it’s quite strange.
But that’s the life of an actor, you get so close to people for these kind of little snapshots in your life and these small moments and then they just sort of disappear and you move on to the next one and all you have is the memories, thank God. But no, “Being Human” is something I’m very proud of and I’m happy to have done.