Aidan Turner: ‘That photograph. Yeah. It took away from the work’

Aidan Turner as Leonardo Da Vinci: One gets the sense he does not savour the celebrity that came with his star-making performance in Poldark.

Hello, Aidan Turner.

We are, of course, still in the nether-world of Zoom, but I get a sense the Clondalkin man – currently in Toronto – really is happy to hear an accent from home.

“Donald Clarke!”

We haven’t actually met.

“No, no. But I was just talking to . . .”

And we go on discuss a mutual acquaintance who hasn’t signed up to be part of this interview. Turner positively sparkles with pulchritudinous energy. Why would he not? A few days after we chat, the tabloids reveal that, on the quiet, he recently married the American actor and filmmaker Caitlin FitzGerald. This month he appears as Leonardo da Vinci in a classy new series for Amazon Prime. No wonder he gleams like a freshly washed Irish setter.

Has he managed to get home recently? More than a few actors have suffered Covid in seemingly endless exile.

“Yeah, after the first lockdown I went back,” he says “I finished shooting at the beginning of March. We cut the shooting in half. I went back from March to June. I was in Dublin for that, which was great. I was in a bubble with my parents. And that was brilliant. And then after that, we went back and finished the series for the summer in Rome. So it was a very different thing.”

The precautions required to shoot in lockdown sound exhausting. Other actors have told me that it’s as if the studios have constructed their own hospitals on set

“That is what it was like,” he says of the Leonardo shoot. “Everyone was wearing masks and hazmat suits. You’re sectioned off. Everyone has their own green room. Yeah. You’re not talking to actors before takes. It’s a very different thing. The crew get called in at different times to set up. There are all these things you miss when they’re gone – just for creativity. Talking to the actors and the director and the producers about how things are going has all gone. The social element is out the window.”

Ballroom dancing was just something my mom always wanted to do. I think she just took me to a class and I don’t know if I was actually that keen at the beginning.

Digging through earlier interviews with Turner, one gets the sense he does not savour the celebrity that came with his star-making performance in the BBC’s second crack at Winston Graham’s Poldark saga. But he could not be a more agreeable interviewee. He cackles at gags. He displays no sensitivities about his early struggles.

Now 37, he was born in Clondalkin before moving with the family to Walkinstown. He claims to have been an indifferent student, but in one unlikely area he excelled. If you know anything about the early life of Turner you will know he was once a topflight ballroom dancer. “He was a good dancer and eventually came third in the Irish National Championships in the adult section,” Tommy Shaughnessy, his former teacher, told the Irish Mirror a few years back.

How did that happen? Notwithstanding the rise of Strictly, ballroom dancing was not an obvious diversion for a young man in the 21st century.

“Yeah, that is just something that happened,” he says. “It’s strange. It was just something my mom always wanted to do. I think she just took me to a class and I don’t know if I was actually that keen at the beginning. But competition was a huge part of dancing. I liked that element of it. You start to win. And men are in demand there. They have more girls. Then you start travelling. I represented Ireland and travelled to the UK. We were quite good. When we started winning things I got into it a bit more. Ha ha!”

He does not seem to have been any sort of theatre kid. He wasn’t hanging around the stage door of The Gate or memorising speeches from Henry V. “I was never an attention-seeker,” he once told an interviewer. But somehow or other he found himself at the Gaiety School of Acting. It is not too much of a stretch to fix Aidan within a golden generation for Irish actors — Irish movie stars in particular. Cillian Murphy, Michael Fassbender and Colin Farrell are at the older end of that cohort. Ruth Negga, Saoirse Ronan and Jessie Buckley also fit within the age bracket. That is a lot of talent to be born within a 20-year stretch.

How did this happen?

“What happened – and you can feel it with Colin in particular – was we were getting those offers coming in to not just play the Irish role. You’ve got your American agent and you’re being sent in for American films and TV shows. I don’t think that happened so frequently before us. Colin and Cillian were maybe responsible for that. Suddenly we are all in it together. It felt that the doors opened just before my generation arrived. I am grateful for that.”

Aidan Turner as Leonardo Da Vinci: “All signs suggest he was more than likely a homosexual.”
Aidan Turner as Leonardo da Vinci: “All signs suggest he was more than likely a homosexual.”

Turner was doing well on the Dublin stage before he took proper advantage of those doors being kicked open. Following graduation, he went from production to production at the Abbey. I wonder if he had any inkling of where he was going to end up. Did he reckon stardom was a realistic prospect?

“I suppose you always start with that notion,” he says, half-laughing at the notion. “But the Gaiety is very honed on producing theatre actors. There is no film course. There are no cameras at the school. What we talk about is theatre. So that’s what I thought I’d be doing. But you get out there and you do some plays and then you realise you just need some money. It just doesn’t pay well enough. You have two months off. Then you’re on a TV show. Thankfully, I did get to go back a few years ago. I did a Martin McDonagh play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and that was brilliant. I miss it. I always miss it.”

The “big break” in cinema came with the role of Kíli in Peter Jackson’s sprawling Hobbit trilogy. Looking back, Turner still reels from the scale of the thing. Nothing in drama school or in mainstream theatre can prepare you for that. He had done the BBC TV series Being Human, but there was no “cast of thousands” there.

“Yeah, that was a quaint small production and then you land in Wellington and show up at Stone Street Studios,” he remembers.

Proper fame had to wait for the phenomenon that was Poldark. There was no great pre-release buzz around the adaptation of Graham’s novels concerning maritime shenanigans in 18th-century Cornwall. The BBC’s hit version from the 1970s – featuring Robin Ellis and shaky sets – was as vague in the collective memory as recollections of the Winter of Discontent. Yet, from the moment Turner strode onto camera in 2015, the show was a sensation. It quickly took a place beside classic Sunday-evening telly such as Upstairs Downstairs, The Onedin Line and All Creatures Great and Small.

“I think it happened almost straight away,” he agrees. “I remember the producers calling about the ratings. It’s now not such a big thing. It was almost the tail-end of those numbers mattering for the BBC. It was in the papers. We maybe got 12 million viewers. So we knew we had something. We weren’t really aware of what we were doing. It didn’t feel like that kind of show. Yeah. We were all pretty surprised. It came out on Sunday night and hit a certain demographic.”

Turner almost immediately became the era’s signature male sex symbol. A famous still of him shirtlessly clutching a scythe appeared on the front of every eager tabloid, while, with wearying predictability, speculation bubbled about him becoming the next J*mes B*nd (if you think I’m asking him about that you can think again). He has never pretended that he enjoyed the damp-lipped body worship. How is a fellow supposed to react?

“It was hard,” he says. “You have a nice conversation with a journalist about it. It would just be thrown in and you think: oh, that’s fine; it’s nothing. We go on to talk about the show and different work I’ve done. Then that headline will come out on the piece. And it would just be weird. Then they would show that photograph. Yeah. It took away from the work. It didn’t seem to represent me. It didn’t seem very fair. I’ll have the conversation, but to lead on that in a newspaper or magazine always felt unfair.”

“We work with historians and all signs suggest [Leonardo da Vinci] was more than likely a homosexual... So to not show some of that would have seemed strange

He doesn’t sound like he’s complaining. He speaks in a reasonable, even light-hearted tone. Nobody should get the impression he doesn’t appreciate the happy spot on which he has landed.

“There was a slight feeling of guilt about all that,” he says. “I just wish it wasn’t focused on that. But, you know, people will follow what they follow. I am not in control of that.”

Turner recently shot a role as St Andrew in Terrence Malick’s upcoming The Way of the Wind. Géza Röhrig is Jesus Christ. Mark Rylance is Satan. “He is a lovely guy, a really serious person,” Turner says of the famously reclusive director. Given how long Malick spends in post-production – sometimes years – we shouldn’t hold our breath for that film. But we can see him as a notably priapic Leonardo in Amazon’s imminent series. Unlike the traditional Hollywood epics of the golden era, the show is frank about the artist’s apparent gayness.

“We work with historians and all signs suggest he was more than likely a homosexual,” he says. “Yeah. So to not show some of that would have seemed strange. I’m glad we didn’t skirt away from that.”

Now he goes back to the strange half-world of Covid-era production. We are still dealing in face masks and hazmat suits. Nobody is rubbing up against anybody they don’t absolutely need to rub against. I wonder what he most looks forward to when all this finally comes to an end.

“Oh my God, it’s so obvious, but just having a pint,” he says. “That’s probably the number-one thing. I want a pint of Guinness in a pub.”

 Leonardo is available to stream on Amazon Prime from April 16th