O BRAVE NEW WORLD
Eleanor Tomlinson on Poldark, the power of red hair and playing Keira Knightley’s lover
As ‘Poldark’ nears its final chapter, its heroine Eleanor Tomlinson may be bidding farewell to Demelza, the role that brought her to fame, but she is already looking ahead to her next adventure, starring opposite Keira Knightley in the forthcoming film, ‘Colette’
In Cornwall, Eleanor Tomlinson has become a household name. The tremendous success of Poldark over the past three years has bolstered the fortunes of the county as tourists flock to visit the dramatic coastline and wild landscapes seen in the television series. From greetings cards that read ‘Be the Demelza of whatever you do’ to Visit Cornwall’s ‘Experience Poldark’ app, it’s incredible to see first-hand how much a period drama about a 17th-century mining community has captured the collective imagination.
At the beating heart of the show is Tomlinson’s character, Demelza Poldark, a fiery-tempered flame-haired heroine, who debuted on our screens as a ragged urchin, dressed in boys’ clothes. Over the five seasons she gradually transforms into the programme’s most mesmerising figure, winning over Ross Poldark and indeed everyone she encounters, her impulsive nature as compelling as her beauty.
I meet Tomlinson at Godolphin House, an ancient manor several miles north of Helston, where the surrounding countryside is dotted with the ruins of soaring chimneys, relics of the many copper and tin mines that once made the area a hive of industry. Godolphin was one of the most fashionable houses in Cornwall, and served both as an inspiration to Poldark’s author Winston Graham and as the location for Trenwith in the BBC’S original 1970s adaptation.
In the estate’s crowded tea shop, the atmosphere among the day-trippers and locals seems oddly animated. The cause of the excitement turns out to be Tomlinson herself, who had been spotted by many of the visitors earlier that day, posing in the grounds for the Town & Country shoot. Abandoning all thoughts of conducting the interview in the café, I instead wait for her in the adjacent manor, where she eventually returns, chilled after a long day of traipsing about cliff-tops and galloping along beaches.
Tomlinson is tall and slender, with alabaster skin and tumbling auburn curls that make her look like a PreRaphaelite muse. She has wrapped herself in a thick dressing gown and clasps a cup of steaming green tea for warmth. With the room’s mullioned windows, oak beams and huge stone fireplace, it feels as if we’ve strayed onto a set. It’s a Sunday, the one day when she isn’t filming the final series, yet she seems remarkably sanguine at giving up her only chance to rest.
‘I see it as such a privilege to be part of Poldark,’ she says. ‘I still feel extremely lucky to be working, and it has opened up so many doors for me. Without sounding too corny, it’s taught me about the kind of actress I want to be; and playing Demelza has shown me how to be fearless and follow my heart.’
From an early age, Tomlinson knew she wanted to be an actor – both her parents are in the industry – and although much of her childhood in Yorkshire was spent riding horses and running around outdoors, she still managed to land her first job when she was 11. ‘My dad’s agent came round and I bullied her into representing me,’ she jokes. ‘I just fell in love with acting. I couldn’t believe that people could actually make a living doing something that was so fun.’ Her parents cautioned her about how tough the profession could be, but she was already hooked. At 14, she played the younger version of Jessica Biel’s character in the 2006 film The Illusionist, and two years later she had a lead role in the British coming-of-age comedy Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. Since then she has appeared in major films including Alice in Wonderland, and several period television dramas, including The White Queen and Death Comes to Pemberley.
Tomlinson first heard about Poldark when she was asked to audition for the part of the lady-like Elizabeth Chenoweth, Ross Poldark’s original love interest; but she refused, as she was determined to try for Demelza instead, knowing that she had a much more interesting storyline. Despite being told that she was wrong for the part – in the books, the character is a dark-skinned, greeneyed brunette – Tomlinson insisted, and arrived at the audition looking deliberately scruffy, with no make-up, unbrushed hair and wearing her brother’s old coat.
From the start, she threw herself into the role – it was she who insisted that her naturally blonde hair was dyed red, as the colour seemed so fitting for Demelza’s tempestuous personality. ‘I feel very passionately about her,’ she says. ‘The great thing about working with the series writer Debbie Horsfield is that she’s developed Demelza so much – in the novels, her character disappears for long periods after the second title. But she comes across as a very modern woman – that’s something that has been brought out in this version, and it’s certainly what endears her to the viewers, and to me.’
Tomlinson’s entire year is shaped by the programme – which entails six months of filming, mostly in Bristol and Cornwall, then several months of post-production, followed
‘THE BRITISH ARE AMAZING AT MAKING PERIOD DRAMA. WE DO IT BRILLIANTLY WHATEVER THE ERA. AS A GENRE IT HAS A VERY SACRED PLACE ON TELEVISION’
by promotion closer to the release date. Amazingly, she has managed to fit in an impressive number of other projects too – earlier this year she appeared in a new adaptation of the Agatha Christie murder mystery Ordeal by Innocence and also released an album of folk songs entitled Tales from Home. Although she doesn’t see herself as a singer, she was encouraged to record it after having sung on Poldark, and many of the ballads are those she heard as a child in Yorkshire.
She’s soon to appear in the three-part BBC drama The War of the Worlds, based closely on the 1897 science-fiction classic by HG Wells. Set in an Edwardian London that’s besieged by a Martian invasion, it is definitely a departure from her other work. ‘The British are amazing at making period drama – we do it brilliantly, whatever the subject or era,’ she says. ‘As a genre, I think it has a very sacred place in television. And for me it has been fascinating to work on projects across different epochs, as I get to see the way that women’s lives – and fashions – have changed over the years.’
This winter, she also appears in the much-anticipated new film Colette, where she stars as the American heiress Georgie Raoul-duval, who has an affair with the French writer, played by Keira Knightley. ‘Working with Keira was quite extraordinary,’ recalls Tomlinson. ‘I’ve been a long-term fan of hers and she’s one of the most striking, strong women I’ve ever observed. She took great care of me, and I was very grateful to her for that.’ On set, Tomlinson also met Denise Gough, who was cast as Colette’s long-term lover Mathilde de Morny. ‘Within five seconds of talking to her, I knew we were going to get on,’ she says. ‘We flew back to London together at one point, and that same day I booked flights and tickets to see her in People, Places & Things in New York because I’d missed it in London. I went to the US just to see it, in the middle of filming Poldark. But if you don’t do things like that, how are you supposed to learn your craft? She’s phenomenally talented – if I could be half the actress she is, I’d be happy.’
It’s clear to see how seriously Tomlinson takes her profession, which is why she makes a point of forcing herself to watch everything she has appeared in, even though she hates viewing herself on screen. ‘It’s tough, but I make myself look at it all once, as it’s the best way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. But after I’ve done that, then never again!’
Unlike some of her peers, she does not court fame or exposure, and she prefers not to talk about her personal life, although she sparked a flurry of interest among the show’s fans last year when she was photographed with Harry Richardson, who plays her brother Drake Carne in Poldark. ‘If you’re an actress, there’s something to be said for people not knowing everything about you,’ she says. ‘It makes you more interesting. When people can Google you and find out everything, it ruins the mystique.’
Although she now has an Instagram account, for many years she resisted joining social media or following what was written about her online. However, her die-hard supporters may know that she has been posting regular updates for several years on behalf of her beloved dog Bert. Anyone who follows Bert the Foxy Collie will see a more unguarded side to Tomlinson, whether she’s dressing her pet as a reindeer or reading him a bedtime story. ‘The only reason I joined Instagram was to promote my dog,’ she says, laughing. ‘I thought, if he gets a Pedigree Chum advert, I can just sit back and relax, and not worry about what the next job is. Exploit him, make money out of him, that’s my plan.’
Bert has come down to Cornwall for the weekend to take part in the shoot, and Tomlinson does occasionally have him to stay while she is filming, although his size and energetic disposition mean that it’s hard to restrict him to the confines of a trailer. Aidan Turner is particularly fond of him, taking him for walks and playing with him during breaks from being a smouldering hero. Otherwise, Bert stays with her mother in Yorkshire. During Tomlinson’s rare time off, she is to be found in London, although perhaps not for much longer.
‘As you travel around and see so many beautiful parts of the world, it makes you think, “Why am I in London, not seeing anyone?” I don’t even know my neighbours. I want something more homely. There was a time when if you were in acting, you had to be in the capital, but that’s definitely changing. You can live anywhere.’
As the final series of Poldark approaches, Tomlinson is already looking to the future. The past five years have seen her character develop from an awkward, immature girl into a sophisticated, passionate woman, and she has spent the first half of her twenties immersed in her alter ego’s ongoing metamorphosis. Although she will soon be saying goodbye to Demelza, she is determined to keep her glowing locks. ‘I really love being a redhead,’ she says. ‘Even though it’s not my natural colour, it makes me feel more like myself.’ Just as Tomlinson brought her own personality to Poldark, it seems as though it has also left its mark on her, a fire and spirit that seem to have leapt from the pages of a Winston Graham novel and are burning brightly within this thoroughly contemporary heroine. Series five of ‘Poldark’ and ‘The War of The Worlds’ will both air on BBC One this winter. ‘Colette’ is released on 11 January 2019.
‘THERE WAS A TIME WHEN IF YOU WERE IN ACTING, YOU HAD TO BE IN THE CAPITAL, BUT THAT’S DEFINITELY CHANGING. YOU CAN LIVE ANYWHERE’
Eleanor Tomlinson wears tulle dress, £4,887, Elie Saab. Riding jacket, £1,520; calf-skin riding boots, £990; matching chaps, £830, all Hermès