Two big things have happened this year. There’s been a general election. And Aidan Turner did some topless scything in Poldark. The latter has been more talked about. Yes, the rock’n’roll vampire from Being Human at last had his big breakthrough as the lead in Poldark, the biggest thing in Sunday night quality drama since Downton Abbey. Seven million viewers an episode. Critical acclaim. And after the scything episode, a genuine cause célèbre. In modern parlance, that sh*t went viral. Millions of women fell for Mr Turner, and weren’t shy of writing about it. Millions of men moaned. His hair got its own Twitter account. Ed Miliband’s face was Photoshopped on to Turner’s body for a centrefold in the Evening Standard. Chris Evans took his top off on The One Show to recreate the scene. Things got ugly.
So how has it been for the actor at the centre of it all? Aidan Turner came over from Dublin for a ShortList shoot and told us about life at the centre of a lust hurricane. And, yes, he is charming and chatty and cool and, oh, just stop it.
Did you think Poldark would be such a hit?
When you’re galloping across the moors on your horse you don’t feel like one day there’s going to be seven million people watching. I had no idea it was going to be received quite so well. I knew we had done a great show and I was proud of it, but I didn’t know it would reach the mark that it did. So we’re delighted. It has a US release in a month, so we’re all excited.
How has the popularity manifested itself from your perspective?
I tend to not read… well, that’s my party line anyway, that I don’t read press. But it’s hard because anywhere you go, you walk into a newsagent or a supermarket and you see that scything shot, with my top off. So that’s weird. But nothing else has changed. There’s a bit of activity with work, there’s more scripts coming in and for the first time ever I feel like I’m in a real position of choice. I live in Dublin, where I don’t get hassled, which is really nice. It changes slightly in London, but in Dublin I slip under the radar.
Did you see Ed Miliband’s face on your body in the Standard?
Yes, I was here, I was sitting on the Tube. And I could see half the page, so I recognised my costume and Demelza’s red hair. I was doing that horrible thing of looking over someone’s shoulder and I thought, “F*cking hell, when she turns the page, I’m going to have to say, something, I’m going to have to say ‘Look at the state of his hair.’” And then she turned the page and I jumped back a bit. I saw this huge Ed Miliband face and I thought it was the strangest thing I’d ever seen. So I didn’t say a word. But I thought, “God it’s a new level.” Will McGregor, one of the directors on Poldark, sends me things, and he said, “You have to know this is happening – your hair has its own Twitter account.” That’s outrageous. If I was an avid social media person, it would freak me out quite a bit.
The show is actually quite serious and intense, and yet it’s generated all this pop-culture weirdness. Is that frustrating?
It’s all part of it. People are enjoying the show. The one thing I was concerned about was that it might become distracting. So, early on, when that scything scene happened, people were saying before they’d even seen the show that it’s the next bodice-ripper. My fear was they’d forget about the drama and [writer] Winston’s great show, and focus on silly things. But it is entertainment at the end of the day. We don’t take ourselves that seriously. It’s all fun.
What about the training that goes into those topless shots?
I mean, I’ve been training for years. I didn’t have a trainer for this, but I went to see a dietician before shooting so I knew what I was doing was the right thing. But it was a lot of chin-ups, a lot of crunches and just running. And then diet. I mean, I wouldn’t be having a massive lunch the day I’m due to take my top off. As I was figuring out this character mentally and emotionally, there’s also a physical side to that and I saw him in a certain way. That was as important to me as the other bits. Poldark was a six-month shoot, so I had to try to maintain that the whole time and I found that quite difficult. Towards the end I was so sick of it. I wanted to stuff my face. I think I put on a stone straight away.
Do you think TV is objectifying men as much as women now?
I don’t know, I didn’t take much notice of it before. I obviously noticed when I started popping up all over the papers with this one shot. It’s a delicate situation. I’m sure there would be the case where someone in my shoes would feel objectified, but I never felt it. I’ve only felt a sense of fun in what people are saying. I don’t take myself that seriously. That’s not to say I don’t care about what I do, but I realise I’m in a very privileged position, and it comes with the territory. It’s not bad stuff. If women want to go, “Phwoar, look at Poldark, he’s gorgeous and handsome, I’d love to take him home,” well why should I feel offended?
So you’re not being exploited? We don’t need to run a campaign?
I really don’t think so. If I am, I haven’t noticed.
For lead actors it’s always been about your acting chops but also your physicality, hasn’t it?
With Poldark especially. This is a romantic saga. If it was Wolf Hall, a very different genre, it might be baffling, but for this, once it started happening and people were interested in that side of it, I wasn’t surprised. Fair enough, it’s what the show is all about. You set yourself up for it anyway. I’m scything in a field with my top off! I saw a video the BBC did recently it edited that scything scene with the ‘Diet Coke break’ music and it fits perfectly.
Have you heard about the scything experts criticising your technique?
Oh God. I did. This is the thing: I did know that I was doing it wrong. We had a scything guy who said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because it’s totally wrong. You need to do it like this. [Aidan gets up] Stand there and just do these movements.” [Mimes gently twisting body side to side.] Can you imagine if that was the scene? I was getting f*cking stuck in and pulling it… [mimes massive slashing] And every time I was doing it I could see him shaking his head and turning away. Sometimes you have to do things for drama. But I’d like people to be aware that I do know the correct way, I just chose to not do it.
When do you start work on the second series?
It starts shooting in September. I’m off to LA first to do press for Poldark and then I go to upstate New York to shoot a movie called Look Away up there for a month, and then I’ll be back to Dublin to get myself in shape for Poldark.
Being Human is still doing great figures on BBC iPlayer. That seemed like your big breakthrough, but how does it compare to Poldark?
Being Human was a strange thing. We did a pilot and it didn’t get picked up. There was a petition online and eventually it was dragged into production. So we never thought it would do as well as it did – it was huge. That was a bigger surprise than anything else to date. It was the stupidest premise in the world: a ghost a vampire and a werewolf sharing a flat in Bristol.
What was it like working on the Hobbit films?
Incredible. We were there the entire time. The dwarves were there six to eight weeks before we started shooting. For a dwarves boot camp. We did a month on how to move like a dwarf. Then Peter Jackson came in, looked at it, said “You look stupid, scrap it, just walk normally.” Ah f*ck, all right then, let’s do that. I was doing archery classes, me and Orlando Bloom doing competitions. He’s remarkably good, actually. Sickeningly good. And then you get the best actors coming through, so you had three or four months where Billy Connolly was over, so you get to hang out with Bill at the bar and talk sh*t. Just brilliant times.
Is it true you’re a Doors fan?
I am, yeah, they were the first band I got into. I was quite obsessed with Jim as a kid, I was going to get a tattoo of Jim Morrison on my arm at one stage. Thank God I didn’t.
That would’ve looked great with the scythe.
Yeah. What a badass!
You should play Jim in a film.
I’d love to. Although how do you beat Val Kilmer? They say he was more Jim Morrison than Jim Morrison. I was obsessed for years. I think that was why I grew my hair long, stood in the mirror doing that [recreates classic Lizard King face alarmingly well].
That’s what we had in mind when we initially wanted you to get your top off in the shoot.
I’m way too hairy. I think keeping my top on these days is probably a good idea. Plus I’m in nothing like the shape I was. It’s quite hard work to get into that sort of shape, people are just, “Hey, where’s your six-pack?” I’m like, “I’m fat now, what are you talking about?”
So if you did take your top off, people would go, “Oh.”
Yeah, they’d be so disappointed. If I went to the beach right now, people wouldn’t recognise me. But I’ll be in shape again surely enough when September comes along.
And you cut the hair off as well?
Well, I did a job in January with one of my heroes, Jim Sheridan, where the hair wouldn’t work. And it might be Poldark’s hair right now, it will look a bit weird. I’ve got away with it for so long, I need to start looking remotely normal.
(Photography: David Venni)