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the saturday interview

Aidan Turner on his #MeToo tennis drama, Jilly Cooper, and being a sex symbol: ‘I think people want me to feel objectified – but I don’t’

The ‘Poldark’ star talks to Jessie Thompson about objectification, bringing Rutshire to life, juggling work and family, and playing a tennis coach accused of inappropriate behaviour

Saturday 15 July 2023 06:30 BST
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Turner: ‘There’s some people that I look at that I find attractive. And isn’t that OK?’
Turner: ‘There’s some people that I look at that I find attractive. And isn’t that OK?’ (ITV/Shutterstock)

Aidan Turner, is that you? The Poldark star seems to have grown a nifty disguise, perhaps so that I don’t ask him any annoying questions about male objectification. But no, that’s not it. The thick brown brush of a moustache above his top lip is actually for a role in Jilly Cooper’s raunchy Rivals, which has been adapted for Disney+. And sometimes even he gets confused about who the guy with the ’tache is. “You walk by a Boots,” he says, mimicking catching himself in a window reflection, “and you’re like, ‘Ahh, s***. That’s me. I’m that creep!’” He won’t be keeping it, then? “No way!” he replies, with jovial outrage. “No way. I find it a touch embarrassing. People don’t know that it’s not a choice, you know what I mean? They think you’re loving this thing.” 

Obviously, disguise or otherwise, I am still going to ask Turner annoying questions about male objectification. Since taking his top off in the BBC’s historic drama Poldark in 2015, setting hearts aflutter, the Irish actor has been on the receiving end of relentless hand-wringing questions about the politics and ethics of objectifying men. I confess the debate has always frustrated me. It seems to deliberately miss the point: finding people attractive isn’t illegal! The problem is when a person is only allowed to be an object, which happens to women more than men. “It probably feels different than it would for a woman, certainly,” he muses. “Some women might feel there’s a danger that comes with it. I don’t feel like I’m in danger. If a woman is objectified and she has men leering at her, that quickly becomes a different situation to one that I might be in, even if the situation can be read as similar.”

And it does, he agrees, all get a bit silly. “There’s so little in it, for me, it’s almost difficult to talk about. It’s like: some people found that, when I took my top off for that scene, there was something titillating. So what? Who cares? The fact that people ask me or care what I think – I have so little to say,” he says, his exasperation growing increasingly palpable. “You couldn’t shut me up on all the other questions – I could talk for ever. But I honestly run out of steam, because I don’t know what to say. As you say, you find somebody attractive? F***ing great. Have a Coke and a smile and get on with it. There’s some people that I look at that I find attractive. And isn’t that OK?”

He’s aware that some men might feel objectified, and that’s OK too, but he, personally, never has. The question comes up a lot, he notes. But people keep asking. “I just don’t know how to answer it any more. Because I don’t know what people want me to say. I feel like people are disappointed in the answer. I think they want me to feel pissed off and objectified. And I don’t.”

Will this prompt a worldwide moratorium on asking Turner if he feels dehumanised by people fancying him? Probably not. But his career since Poldark has been an intriguing case of an actor who could easily have been pigeonholed as a romantic lead trying instead to follow his nose. In 2015, the same year that Poldark began, he was deliciously sinister in Sarah Phelps’s chic BBC adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. A year later he starred in The Secret Scripture, Jim Sheridan’s big-screen adaptation of Sebastian Barry’s bestselling novel, about a Sligo woman who is sectioned after the Second World War, while in 2018 he made his West End debut as a cat-loving militant in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore

Earlier this year, he returned to the stage in Sam Steiner’s Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons, a dystopian romcom that started life as an Edinburgh Fringe show. Basically, he doesn’t always do what you expect. The same is true in person. Previous interviews suggest he might be guarded – grouchy, even – but today Turner seems game for a laugh, appealingly unpretentious, approaching questions with an open-minded gusto. Dressed in a salmon-coloured overshirt, he lounges on a sofa at the Soho Hotel, a black coffee before him. He has a wry humour and a habit of emphasising certain words as though they were underlined with pencil.

His latest role, in Prime Video series Fifteen-Love, seems intriguingly unexpected once again. He plays Glenn, a top-class tennis coach who may or may not have had an inappropriate relationship with his brilliant young student Justine. It’s clever casting; Glenn is the handsome authority figure that everyone loves to project their fantasies onto, and Turner plays him with the kind of malleability that keeps you guessing as to whether he’s a dream or a nightmare. In some quarters, the show has been trailed as telly’s latest bonkfest, but that’s misguided. “It was mentioned somewhere as raunchy, or sexy, or something,” he says, bemused. “I thought, ooh, I don’t know about that. Not the words I’d use. I’ve certainly been in stuff where you can use those words, but I don’t know about this show.”

For the first three episodes, Hania Elkington’s script is a kaleidoscope of ambiguity, a reminder that #MeToo remains fraught with grey areas. Turner wanted to do the show, he says, because it’s actually something he’d want to watch – “which is something I’m sort of trying to do now with the work I choose”. He “liked the idea of just trying to figure out ‘Who’s telling the truth here?’ They both seem like credible characters who have their own version of their truth. But what is [true]?” The shifting drama “puts the audience on the spot”, and he’s more intrigued than with any of his previous roles as to what they’ll make of it.

The engine for Fifteen-Love’s drama is a curious British legal loophole, only closed last year, that allowed sports coaches to have sexual relationships with 16- and 17-year-olds in their care. Turner, who had to get into the mind of a potential predator, was shocked by this. “To be the gatekeeper for some of these younger people – that’s a scary notion,” he says. “You could abuse that power so easily. So it was a big insight into that. Immediately it felt like, wow, they do wield a lot of power and responsibility, and if it’s unchecked, it’s a very scary world.”

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Turner in tennis drama ‘Fifteen-Love’ (Prime Video)

The world of sport has not been rocked by #MeToo in as dramatic a fashion as the creative industries, perhaps because it remains so male-dominated in general. But since the Weinstein revelations in 2017, there has been a concerted effort to promote women in the arts to positions of power, and I wonder how much of a culture shift Turner has felt. “I think we all feel it changing. It’s still very, very slow, though,” he says. “You know, in my industry, it’s so male-dominated.”

On sets, Turner looks around him and still sees men everywhere, from the camera crew and runners to directors and producers. But on Rivals, there are two female directors and one male, and women are working in more than just the “traditional” roles of costume and make-up. “So I think there are efforts being made. Is there enough being done? Probably not. But if you’re asking if I’m seeing change, I suppose I am, on a smaller level.”

The other day he was chatting to his wife, the actor Caitlin Fitzgerald (who played Roman Roy’s bisexual girlfriend in Succession), about how great it was to have two female directors on Rivals. “She said, ‘It is – but isn’t it funny that we’re talking about how brilliant this is like it’s novel?’” Intimacy coordinators, he adds, are another welcome change. “I’ve done my fair share of sex scenes over the years, without an intimacy coordinator!” he says, a trace of gallows humour in his voice. “Just me and another person, and a director who’s six feet away, sweating nervously. It all used to be very awkward and weird.”

Jilly Cooper is super smart, wickedly funny, everything you think she would be. She has that devilish smile, you know... slightly wicked, mind

Aidan Turner

The industry is changing, then, bit by bit. For an entirely different reason, Turner’s perspective has begun to change, too: in 2021, he became a father for the first time. Since then, he’s reluctant to take work outside of the UK and be separated from his family for months at a time. “You’re wiser with your choices,” he explains. Now, it has to be “something where every morning, when you go, you better want to do this job – because otherwise it’d be way more fun to stay at home.”

In January, when Turner was on stage in Lemons..., Fitzgerald was half a mile down the road starring in Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine at the Donmar Warehouse. How did they manage that? “It was... nearly impossible!” he says. “It was so hard. We thought it’d be the coolest thing: Mum and Dad, in the West End! That lasted a whole matinee. We were like, let’s not do this again. When you’re doing a play, you think you have all this free time. You don’t. You’re kind of in a flight pattern waiting for this show. We gathered you can do, like, two things. You could respond to a few emails and go to the gym, and then you’re just going to the theatre.”

Parts of it were fun – they shared a cab home after shows every night. “But we didn’t get to see a lot of each other, or our child. So that wasn’t great. So we said we’d be more careful in future. And then she’s back to doing a play [The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre], and I’m in Bristol doing a TV show...”

Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman in ‘Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons’ (Johan Persson)

That TV show, as previously indicated, is Rivals, and he’s playing glamorous TV celebrity Declan O’Hara, who pitches up in Cooper’s Rutshire with his “flighty” wife Maud (Victoria Smurfit) and their children. When I ask what he makes of self-proclaimed Jilly Cooper superfan Rishi Sunak one day watching the show, Turner becomes noticeably less garrulous. “I don’t have him down as a Jilly Cooper fan, necessarily...” he offers, cautiously. Either way, Turner certainly is. The 86-year-old author, he says, is “super smart, wickedly funny, everything you think she would be. She has that devilish smile, you know... slightly wicked, mind. We’re going to see her in a couple of weeks – there’s a little bit of a soirée at her house in the Cotswolds. Day drinking champagne, I think that will be the thing.” 

Of a very different bent is The Way of the Wind, the latest film from American auteur Terrence Malick, all about the life of Jesus Christ. Turner shot his scenes four years ago now, and recalls Malick telling him about his slow method. “He said something like, ‘It’s like being a painter, shooting a movie, and I’m just gathering the paints. Then when the shoot is finished, I’m painting the picture.’” Mark Rylance stars as Satan, but he and Turner only crossed over on set on one day. “He was very eager to play backgammon with somebody, and I play chess. I love it. But I can’t play backgammon. And it was killing me, because he was looking around, and I was like, ‘Mark Rylance is looking for somebody to play backgammon with him!’ And I couldn’t step up.” You can’t blag backgammon – not with Rylance. “Not when the dude is bringing it to set and he wants to hammer somebody!”

Talk of a great acting statesman like Rylance makes me wonder whether Turner has had any particular mentors in his career. But another indicator of his lack of pretension is that, rather than delivering a show-offy list of thespian dames and knights, he instead namechecks his agent of 20 years. “He took me on from drama school, and I’ve been with him ever since. He’s like a rock for me. I can ask him anything,” he says. And Turner loves the camaraderie of actors in general: the conversations they have in secret to help each other out, sharing advice on how to tackle tricky customers. “It’s not like you’re just in an office across from them, you’re in their face. So you want to know how somebody works,” he says. “Any time we can help each other out, I think we tend to do it. Because it can be a weird business.”

Turner as Glenn Lapthorn in ‘Fifteen-Love’ (Prime Video)

I’m curious as to which of his roles Turner is most proud of. He hasn’t played Ross Poldark since 2019, and ruled out a return for the show last year, but the character still follows him. “‘Proud’ is throwing me,” he ponders. “The word is kind of like, well, what’s the ‘important’ work then. The word ‘important’ I don’t like for myself, either.” The answer he settles on is this: “I think just to be working, 20 years later. I know actors who are far more talented than me who find it more difficult than I do to get work. And I feel lucky every job I do.”

I can’t help but wonder, though: is he secretly desperately waiting for the day when he’s old and decrepit, so people stop asking him annoying questions about male objectification? “I mean, mate... I turned 40 last week, it’s already happening!” he says, his face creasing into laughter. His birthday was on a Monday – “which was unfortunate” – but he had a few games of his beloved pool with Rivals co-stars Alex Hassell (who plays Cooper’s showjumper antihero Rupert Campbell Black) and Danny Dyer (“Danny can pot a ball, I’ll tell ya”) before they threw him a big birthday dinner.

There were “heavy heads” the next day – but there are some positives to ageing. “The roles get more interesting as you get older – I’m already seeing that start to happen. You’re playing dads, or you’re just playing less of this sort of romantic protagonist character, take-your-top-off sort of stuff, sex scenes,” he says. He sounds quite chipper. “Now it’s like... ‘Ummm, I think maybe we might want you to leave your clothes on for this one.’”

‘Fifteen-Love’ launches on Prime Video UK and Ireland on 21 July

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