Now meet the man who plays the other Poldark... the one who keeps his shirt on
As the highly anticipated BBC drama returns, Kyle Soller talks to Ellen E Jones about professional jealousy, growing up in the US and showing nothing sexier than a bare shin
When the BBC's flagship drama returns tomorrow night, we'll finally discover how our hero, Captain Ross Poldark, has fared since his shock bereavement and clifftop arrest. But there's another Mr P, whose character arc may yet turn out to be the more compelling one.
True, Ross' black sheep cousin Francis gambled away the family mine and took out his rage on the blameless Demelza, but every underdog has his day. As this series gets into its stride, that open-minded group we might loosely term 'Team Francis' looks set to grow and grow.
"People can see him as a brattish guy who compares as nothing to Ross," says Kyle Soller, the actor who delivers this strangely endearing performance. "What I saw was a really sad guy who just wants everyone to be happy but can never measure up to this person that he idolised growing up … I always thought he just had a massive self-worth complex, probably given to him by his father, who's just awful to him. I really empathised with him from the beginning."
In 18th-century Cornwall such touchy-feely talk would probably get you sent up before the local magistrate on charges of witchcraft, but then this is just one of the many ways in which Soller differs from his character.
While Francis Poldark is a typically buttoned-up scion of the British aristocracy, 33-year-old Soller is a conscientious creative type, raised in a big family in suburban Virginia, a childhood he describes as "a cul-de-sac and yellow school bus, kind of thing".
US TV dramas are heaving with posh Brits passing themselves off as ordinary Americans (Dominic West, Damian Lewis, Hugh Laurie) but Soller is that rarer case: an American actor who can slip by undetected in television as quintessentially British as a BBC period drama.
In fact, he's been busy assimilating for some time. He moved to the UK in 2005 to take up a place at Rada. It was there, in his third year, that he met the British woman who would later become his wife, Hollow Crown actress Phoebe Fox.
These days Soller quotes vintage Ab Fab with fluency and has recently received the approval of that well-known national taste-maker, White Van Man. "He pulled his window down and was like, 'Hey you! You're from Poldark! Me and the Mrs always watch it!' That's when I was like, wow, the appeal is a lot more far-reaching than I'd realised."
While he's thoroughly at home in London, the transition from award-winning theatre actor to TV celebrity might take more getting used to. To date, the roles in his career that have meant the most were both on stage: the title role in a 2010 production of The Talented Mr Ripley at Northampton's Royal and Derngate, and Khlestakov in The Government Inspector at the Young Vic in 2011.
"It was really, really amazing because you were never settling and constantly striving to somehow refine it and make it better, funnier, more complex," he says of the latter. "I never remember a show where I felt like I got it. It was mad but I loved every second."
Soller's work may be primarily motivated by this pure love of his craft but there are other fringe benefits. His interest in history has been indulged by both Poldark and a role in upcoming feature film The Keeping Room, in which he plays a Union soldier in the last days of the American Civil War ("It's a period I've been fascinated with my whole life").
Screen acting work has also enabled him to travel. Most recently he's spent extended periods of time in both Spain and Romania.
Yet there are aspects he's less keen on. Soller's face lights up when he describes his dream of performing at the Berliner Festspiele, in the land of his grandfather's birth, but that light shuts off again when we turn to gossipy on-set stories. What did he make of his co-star Aidan Turner the first time they met? "He was a really cool guy," he says with a shrug. Did he feel any of that famous sexual magnetism that Twitter gets so het up about? "I just thought he was a really cool guy," he repeats, more sternly.
Perhaps, witnessing at first hand his co-star's somewhat reluctant transformation into a historical heart-throb has made Soller wary of giving away too much. What does he make of all the attention Turner got for his shirtless scything? "I don't really feel any way about it. I mean, I get my shins out in the next episode." And that's about as revealing as it's going to get for now.
Not that Soller seems irked by the professional requirement of image management. He's says he's aware of his oft-remarked on resemblance to another actor, Iwan Rheon, best known as Game of Thrones' human-flaying enthusiast Ramsay Bolton, and it's not at all awkward if they end up at the same audition. "Every actor wants to be able to think that they can play something very far away from themselves but sometimes what you look like means you get put in certain groups. It's part of the deal so you just accept it, really."
Given that Soller is married to another actor, his total lack of status anxiety is all the more impressive. Back in 2011 the couple were pitted against each other when both were nominated for Outstanding Newcomer at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Still, nothing.
"I really, really, genuinely haven't been jealous," says Soller, who eventually won the award. "And that's not to say that the roles she's taken haven't been brilliant. I think they've been brilliant and amazing choices, and she's done them beautifully, but it's not a useful emotion."
Did it take years of therapy and self-reflection to reach such a place of zen acceptance? No, not really. "I come from a big family of high achievers who are all great at more than one thing, so I think I kind of got used to that. So no jealousy, especially with a family member. It's just got to be about love and support."
It's hard to imagine Francis Poldark having such a well-adjusted attitude. This series, things get worse for him before they get better, as readers of Winston Graham's original novels will already be aware. If only there was some way Soller could put a comforting arm around the shoulders of this poor, misguided soul and offer him some counsel. "Oh, tell me about it!," he laughs. "I'd be like, 'Listen, buddy, everything's going to be okay. Just say you're sorry'."
- Poldark is on BBC1 tomorrow night, 9pm