As the hit series Poldark ends its third series on BBC One tonight, Andrew Billen meets its plotting and scheming star, Elizabeth Warleggan (aka Icelandic-born actress, Heida Reed)
Enter Poldark’s Elizabeth Warleggan — in blue jeans and outsized Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and with goth-black hair. In my experience, the better an actor is in a role, the more taken aback you are by meeting them in real life. Well, the force of Heida Reed practically knocks me off my chair and to the wall of the PR’s office in London.
Whereas, in the television series, Ross Poldark’s first love is closed and closeted in a very English way, Reed, an Icelander, is open and adventurous in a very Nordic one. While Elizabeth lies to herself, Reed is candid and self-critical (her Twitter profile reads “Frequent idiot. #Poldark ’n’ stuff”). Poor Elizabeth struggles within a period corset; the liberated Reed is a supporter of the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement. Fear not, I shall be asking her all about it.
“I think,” Reed says of her character’s dresses, “there are lots of layers to it psychologically in terms of restraining women and keeping them in their place. They look pretty, but they are unable to do very much and have to rely on a man.”
Even to get them out of their dresses, I offer. “Well, it happens I can reach my arm back very far, but technically you shouldn’t be able to do that. You would be meant to sit and do needlepoint, play an instrument and read.”
Elizabeth, she says, is a trophy wife and Reed has a nasty feeling that had she been born two hundred years later she would still have ended up “married to the right type of guy”, owning the best sort of stuff and “involved with a lot of charities”.
“I will still say this,” she continues. “I think Elizabeth is the most tragic character of the story because her downfall is due to one decision, one wrong decision, to marry Francis (Ross’s uncharismatic cousin).”
Her plotline this series, she says, was particularly dark, with Elizabeth struggling to bond with her new son, born of one unhappy night with Ross rather than any number of unhappy nights with her latest husband, George Warleggan, and fearing she will lose her beloved first-born boy to his new governess.
Yet many will feel the series could not get much darker than last series’ scene in which Ross forced himself on Elizabeth and impregnated her. It is a touchy subject. Many insist we witnessed a rape. Others, including the son of the original novels’ author, say that in the end it was consensual.
“Well, first of all, I just see myself as an actor who gets a script and tells a story from what’s written,” Reed says. “I didn’t really ever feel the need to define it as something specific. The reason it has had so much discussion is because it is unclear and I think that is the point of the scene. It’s obvious that he’s forceful at first and she doesn’t want it and that she then gives in. And that’s really considered wrong. And it is. Today it is.”
Today he would be in court for it, wouldn’t he? “Of course he would be, but I don’t think it’s something that Elizabeth would even consider afterwards. When she gives in, she gives in, regardless of how it started. Then she thinks that he’s going to make it right. What hurts her more is the fact that he’s taken advantage and that he then doesn’t come back.”
Her new marriage is not going well either. Reed says Elizabeth did not initially recognise the villainy the rest of us see in George because he was careful to treat her with deference. That, apparently, changes this season and the marriage becomes a prison.
So confining is it that Reed this time did not have enough outdoor scenes to film to necessitate her moving down and renting in Cornwall (interiors are shot in studios in Bristol, where she stays in a hotel). This was unlike series one when, over a long summer, she hired a cottage with Ruby Bentall (Verity Poldark) and cast members would come over for the evening to master abstruse Icelandic card games.
“Then they bloody moved the filming. So now we start in Cornwall in September, which is still nice, and then we’re in the West Country for most of the winter. The costumes we wear are never temperature appropriate.”
It may seem cheeky for an Icelander to complain about English winters, but back home, she explains, geothermal heating keeps every house cosy. I say “home”, but after nearly ten years here she seems to regard London as exactly that. She has flown in this morning from two months in Iceland, where she has been filming her title role in an Icelandic mini-series, Stella Blomkvist, based on a cult book series about a ruthless lawyer. It made her realise how she missed London, “having a smaller part in something bigger”.
Her third home is in Los Angeles with her boyfriend of a year, Sam Ritzenberg, a Hollywood producer, with whom she was set up by a mutual friend when she was in town for “meetings”. She feels America beckoning and not just because of Ritzenberg. An HBO series would do nicely. “What I fear is that I will end up in one of those expensive American cities and my success will decline and I’ll have to move out somewhere in the country. Though that won’t be too bad either.”
Doesn’t her boyfriend mind her living so far away? “He’s the most supportive, wonderful partner anyone could ask for and he’s in the industry so he understands, but, yes, of course he minds. It would be strange if he didn’t. But he’d rather me be out and doing my thing than sitting at home . . . ” Being an Elizabeth? “Yes, exactly.”
“Elizabeth is a trophy wife; even today she’d marry the ‘right type of man'”
Reed was born in Reykjavik twenty nine years ago to a piano accompanist/teacher and his wife, a dental hygienist. Heida is pronounced “Hay-da”, and for obvious professional reasons she changed her surname from Sigurdardottir (her father being Sigurdar) to the Anglophonic Reed when she joined Equity. She has a brother who is six years older and a sister who is nine years younger. It was a liberal upbringing, the household chores divvied up on non-gender lines, and much influenced by global media culture. Seeing and hearing so much of the world beyond Iceland made her determined to venture into it.
Her easy-going parents were not, however, prepared for their daughter to take off to India when she was eighteen, even if she was under the wings of the model agency that had recruited her off the street.
“Now, suddenly I can’t understand how they survived me going. I never understood until just recently. I think it has to do with growing up and being with someone that you really care about — especially because me and [Sam] are apart so much. Suddenly I think, ‘My God, if I feel like this sometimes, if I’m so worried about someone over there, how am I going to be when I have children? How did my parents feel about me being away at eighteen in India?’ ”
Initially, Mumbai did not go well. She returned at Christmas with debt on her father’s credit card. Her parents banned her from going back, so she flounced off, moved in with a friend for two days, and announced she was returning to India in any case. Determined to pay her father back and with the model agency getting its act together, she found herself making television commercials for beauty products. She auditioned, unsuccessfully, for advertisements for skin-lightening creams. “There’s a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t do today that I would have thought nothing of ten years ago.”
She grew up, she thinks, when she moved to London and enrolled at the Drama Centre to study acting. She learnt to listen as well as mouth off, and came to appreciate English understatement. Back in Reykjavik she noticed how “brazen and direct” Icelanders are.
Did drama school prepare her for fame? “I don’t think anything does. I could do without it, to be honest. I think if there was a way to be very successful as an actor without being famous, I would take that option, but there isn’t. I actually like discovering that about myself, though, that I’m not someone to revel in that part of the profession. I think that says a lot about what you really aspire to.”
She swears that although Aidan Turner has turned many a head since he has starred in Poldark, fame has not turned his own. So, she has never had to bring him down to earth and say: “You’re not Poldark, you’re just Aidan, my mate”?
“I think we all probably have had moments where we . . . That’s what friends are for, I guess, to bring each other back down.”
What really did for Turner, I say, was that topless scything scene. She says that in context it was entirely appropriate. It was hot. Ross was angry. “People latched on to it because we hadn’t had that Mr Darcy moment in a period drama for a while. Had it been an American show, I don’t think people would have batted an eyelid.”
A British thing? “I think so.”
Still, it brings us to Reed’s support of ‘Free the Nipple’, a global feminist campaign, with a big profile in Iceland, that insists women have as much right to bare a nipple in public as a man.
Is she still involved in it? “Well, I can’t say I’m seriously involved, seeing that I haven’t posted a picture of myself on Instagram.”
Does she sunbathe topless? “I used to. I guess I’m in some kind of an identity limbo in terms of being a public figure, you know? I’m just finding my feet in all of this, but actually I’ve come farther than perhaps a year ago. I’ve realised that there are things that are important and I want to be behind them.”
The fact is, she has nude scenes in this Icelandic television series she is shooting. “It’s my first sort of reveal. And it’s been quite liberating, actually.”
Has the Icelandic press got on to it yet? “No. Because, you know what? They don’t care. In Iceland, it’s rare if there isn’t nudity. And it’s not grotesque. It’s not there for nudity’s sake. It’s just that in life we are naked a lot of the time, whether it’s to have sex or just to do something else, take a shower or whatever.”
Did she have to be persuaded? “No. I just had to remind myself that I didn’t actually have a problem being naked, that the only issue that I had was vanity about how I would look. And that doesn’t matter. I don’t want to be a perfect person, I want to play people, normal people. And all kinds of people.”
Reed fully persuades me that she is one of those people capable of not only playing exactly who she wants, but being who she wants. Elizabeth Warleggan is only the start.
Andrew Billen writes for The Times