Unthinkable though it may seem, there’s an alternate reality in which Eleanor Tomlinson never played Demelza Poldark – the fierce, proud lioness of Britain’s favourite Cornish costume saga – but instead found herself squeezed into the stiff corsets of her love rival, drippy caged bird Elizabeth.
That was the role Poldark’s producers initially invited her to audition for. But Tomlinson had other ideas.
‘I read the script and just found Demelza totally captivating. To me, she was the heartbeat of the entire thing,’ the 26-year-old tells Weekend. ‘I didn’t expect for a minute that I would get it – they were really funny about the auditions, because I obviously wasn’t what they were thinking of for the character. But I eventually managed to persuade them to let me at least try.’
When Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) first encountered Demelza, she was a grubby, wildcat street urchin – a world away from the demure, repressed Elizabeth. ‘I went in with no make-up on, having not brushed my hair, and wearing my brother’s clothes – just to try and make myself look as unfeminine as possible,’ Tomlinson recalls.
Debuting in 2015, Debbie Horsfield’s sexy, windswept adaptation of Winston Graham’s historical romance was an instant phenomenon that turned Tomlinson – already something of an industry veteran at 22 – into a star.
‘It’s been lovely because it’s opened so many doors,’ she says, while admitting ‘it also comes with this other, slightly bizarre side’, especially in the age of the selfie. ‘I would much rather have a chat with someone than have a selfie. But nothing exists without a selfie now.’
As Demelza made her journey from ragamuffin to kitchen maid to Mistress of Nampara, we discovered that she is brave, loyal, resourceful – and possessed of a strikingly beautiful singing voice.
Amazingly, the producers had no idea Tomlinson could sing when they cast her, despite Demelza’s lilting rendition of I’d Pluck a Fair Rose being one of the first scenes filmed. Lucikly, she has good genes – her mother, Judith Hibbert, and brother Ross are both professional singers.
At first, the actress wasn’t entirely convinced she could sing, either (‘I still don’t consider myself a singer – it makes me absolutely terrified thinking about it)’ but the response from viewers was so positive, she’s just released her first album.
Produced by Anne Dudley, Oscar-winning composer of the Poldark score, Tales From Home is a collection of bewitching, folk-influenced covers of songs by artists as diverse as Simon and Garfunkel (Homeward Bound), Blood, Sweat and Tears (The Spinning Wheel, a duet with her brother) and Dick Van Dyke (Hushabye Mountain, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Despite the eclectic source material, the album has an impressively cohesive mood: there is, for want of a better word, a ‘Demelza-ness’ to it.
‘There is,’ agrees Tomlinson, who admits her first thought was, ‘Why would anyone want a CD of me singing? But because of the fans’ support and their love of Poldark, they sort of inspired me to do it. I’m all for pushing myself, trying new things.’
Tomlinson was born into the business, despite growing up in the distinctly un-showbiz market town of Beverley, East Yorkshire. In addition to her mother’s singing career, her father Malcolm is an actor who has combined roles in the likes of Emmerdale, EastEnders and Cold Feet with a successful sideline as a racing commentator, and it was during a set visit to The Bill that young Eleanor realised she’d found her own calling.
‘I was sitting on [the late] Bernie Nolan’s knee and she said, “Do you want to be an actress?” I was only about eight or something and I said, “Yes, this is great!”’
She scored an early break when, aged 13, she was cast as a younger version of Jessica Biel’s character in Hollywood blockbuster The Illusionist. Was she daunted, this Yorkshire schoolgirl, stepping onto a movie backlot?
‘It was really daunting,’ she says. ‘But it was also just incredibly exciting. Jessica Biel was so lovely with me, so sweet. I just thought it was the most fun I’d ever had. I’m still wide-eyed with it all, actually,’ she adds.
Some of her classmates back home, though, took a dimmer view. ‘It was difficult managing school while filming, and then coming back to a very normal life,’ admits Tomlinson. ‘As a young child, that’s quite a lot to take on board.And I wasn’t bullied but… Obviously children are normally in an institution until they’re 18, and I seemed to be able to get out of doing that, I think, in the eyes of some people.’
Other roles followed, including the female lead in Bryan Singer’s fantasy adventure Jack the Giant Slayer, and Georgina Darcy in the BBC’s adaptation of PD James’ Death Comes to Pemberley. Then came the call from Poldark.
Though the early focus was all on the smoldering Turner (particularly that topless scything scene he doesn’t like to talk about any more), it was his tough, tenacious bride who gradually emerged as the series’ true star – not least after Ross betrayed her with the sappy Elizabeth. The whole country is basically #TeamDemelza now, isn’t it?
‘Well, I’m very flattered but… I hope so, yes.’
Could she have been as forgiving as Demelza was?
‘Absolutely not, no way,’ she insists. ‘But that’s why she’s so amazing, and that’s why people love her. Because she won’t be defeated.’
Plus, you did lamp him in the jaw quite spectacularly...
‘You bet I did! Demelza is very fiery, and it’s nice to see her show that side, because that’s not really in the books. That’s something that Debbie Horsfield has written for her. I love that she’s done that.’
Last year, Demelza got her revenge, after a fashion, by having a roll in the dunes with the dashing Captain Armitage, whose fading eyesight prompted him to seduce her with the immortal proposition: ‘Shall we grant ourselves to each other so I can go in the darkness knowing one’s tasted heaven?’
‘It’s an interesting pick-up line, isn’t it?’ laughs Tomlinson. ‘But I think if you look like Josh Whitehouse you can get away with anything.
‘I thought I was going to be lynched,’ she admits. ‘I thought, “they’re going to hate Demelza”. But I think people were pleased she was able to go and have a bit of fun herself.’
Aidan Turner is intimidatingly brooding and handsome, suggests Weekend. He’s too perfect. ‘He’s not perfect,’ Tomlinson assures us. ‘We all have our flaws. But he’s really good fun. We always have a laugh.’
The fourth series, which is about to start on BBC One, will see Demelza keeping the home fires burning while Ross takes up his seat in Parliament. After that, though… Graham wrote 12 books in total – so are she and Turner in it for the long haul?
‘I think series four is… To be honest, I’m not sure, actually,’ she hesitates. ‘But the books move on quite rapidly, and start to become about the younger generation.’
So one day she might be watching an older Demelza in her place – like Olivia Colman taking over from Claire Foy in The Crown?
However long she stays, one lasting legacy of Poldark is that Tomlinson, a natural blonde, now firmly identifies as a redhead. ‘I feel like I’ve established myself as an actress now as a redhead,’ she explains. ‘I also feel more empowered, more confident as a redhead. I feel people don’t take me as seriously as a blonde. It’s terrible that it’s like that, but I’ve certainly got that vibe from people before.’
She’s tested the water with a few Hollywood ‘meetings’ – enough, she says, to convince her it isn’t really for her.
‘Bill Nighy once said to me, “Visit LA by all means but never, ever live there”. And he couldn’t be more right. I mean, it’s a lovely place when you’ve spent long enough there and you can cut through all of the fake glamour. But it’s a place that totally revolves around the industry that I’m in. If you can deal with that, then that’s great, if you can’t then it’s not the place for you. And I personally don’t think I do so well in that environment. I like a bit of normality.
‘I’ve had that thing where people say, “I don’t want to shake hands, I get enough germs from my children,”’ she adds. ‘Which I thought was hilarious. It’s all to kind of put you on the back foot – it’s all just game tactics.’
Away from the Cornish clifftops, from which Demelza can often be found staring moodily out to sea, Tomlinson recently starred in the BBC’s headline-making Ordeal by Innocence, and is currently filming a period adaptation of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Before that, she’ll be seen on the big screen in yet another costume drama, Collette, playing a wayward American debutante who enjoys a somewhat racy lesbian affair with the celebrated French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played by Keira Knightley.
Tomlinson says the film pushed her out of her comfort zone, but working with Knightley was ‘fabulous’. ‘It’s a brilliant story. It’s about female independence and female sexuality, and being able to show who you truly are, so it couldn’t be more current.’
As a young woman in an industry under intense scrutiny for its culture of sexism and predatory behaviour, Tomlinson’s own experiences have been largely positive. ‘I’m very lucky in that I have an incredibly supportive family and a brilliant team around me, and I’m also very strong myself,’ she says. ‘If I ever felt uncomfortable, I wouldn't struggle to speak up about it.
‘But it’s a very competitive industry and, as a woman, you have to be made of pretty strong stuff to get through it and still have some belief in yourself.’
Weekend suggests there’s more than a glint of that Demelza steel in Tomlinson herself. ‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘I think so.’
Remind us not to get on the wrong side of her, in that case. She probably packs quite a punch.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 7, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend