'I auditioned for Demelza with no make-up, scruffy hair and wearing my brother's coat'
Poldark star Eleanor Tomlinson tells Gerard Gilbert how she landed the leading role of Demelza ... and what fans can expect from the new season of the drama set in 18th-century Cornwall
Poldark's back, albeit sooner than anticipated. The BBC's latest adaptation of Winston Graham's novels about 18th-century Cornish mining folk traditionally heralds the start of autumn, but last September the show unexpectedly came off second best when it locked horns with ITV's royal period drama Victoria.
Eager to avoid a rematch, BBC One schedulers have brought forward the new series to June - and the question on every fan's lips is: whose baby is Elizabeth, played by Icelandic actress Heida Reed, carrying? Is it the progeny of Elizabeth's new husband, antagonistic landowner George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), or Warleggan's sworn enemy and the show's dashing underdog hero, Ross Poldark, played by Aidan Turner?
One person who knows the answer to that question is helping herself to a pot of skinny fries - Eleanor Tomlinson, who plays Ross's wife Demelza.
"Will it be born with black curly hair?", she teases. "That's what everyone's waiting to see." It's a secret that Tomlinson (25) is keeping under her hat - a natty green felt trilby which she removes to reveal Demelza's copper-coloured tresses. Tomlinson herself, ethereally pale (she comes from Irish stock on her mother's side) and as fine-boned as screen beauties tend to be, is fair-haired.
"I dye it for Poldark but I think I'm going to keep it because I like it", she says.
"In the books she's described as olive skinned and very dark, so, yes, that's not really me", says Tomlinson, who fought hard to make Demelza, the upwardly-mobile former housemaid, a redhead.
"I just thought the character would be really suited to having red hair, it takes on that fiery streak that she has and I thought it would be a nice visual for the audience. Eventually I persuaded the producers."
Demelza is the plum role in Poldark, the naturally red-haired Welsh actress Angharad Rees having been taken to the nation's collective bosom for her performance in the original 1970s adaptations of Graham's books.
The impulsive and courageous Cornish miner's daughter fights a constant battle with her niggling sense of unworthiness, a chip on the shoulder of her loose fitting dresses (no corsets for Demelza) aggravated by her husband's continuing infatuation with his tightly-laced upper-class ex-fiancee, Elizabeth. Again Tomlinson fought hard to get her way - this time with casting directors who believed she'd be better suited to play Elizabeth. "It's amazing how uncreative some people can be in this industry," she complains. "They look at you and go 'she's not right for the role'... but you've got to give someone a chance to show they're an actress. It's very frustrating.
"I read the scripts and thought this is a great project but really there's one female role in it and that's Demelza - she's the heart of it. I had been doing so much period drama. I'd just done Death Comes to Pemberley, playing Georgiana Darcy, but I really needed to spread my wings within period drama
"So I called up the casting director and said 'please, can I audition for this role?' She didn't think I was right for it at all but she agreed to let me try, and I went in with no make-up on, scruffy hair and wearing my brother's coat and here we are now."
And where we are now is in one of the restaurants at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, the painstakingly restored Gothic Revival masterpiece designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott that abuts the Eurostar terminal. The location is deliberate because her reason for giving the interview is not actually to promote Poldark, but because Tomlinson is the face of an online campaign for Trainline - one which hopes to show how convenient rail travel can be in the age of phone apps compared to taking an aeroplane.
"I'm always going up to Yorkshire. I travel a lot with work, to and from Cornwall and Bristol, so I find myself on lots of trains," she duly informs me. And as it happens, she's jumping on to a train immediately after our meeting, travelling up to Derby to visit her mother, Judith.
Both her parents are performers - Judith a singer, while her father Malcolm is an actor who's done the rounds of EastEnders, Emmerdale and Doctors (he's currently featuring in Channel 5's drama documentary starring Lily Cole as Elizabeth I).
"They actually didn't want me to go into the business," she says. "They'd say 'Do something else and know when the next pay cheque is coming in', which I understand. But growing up watching my mum on stage and watching my dad on set was just so inspiring and I always wanted to do it."
She remembers bunking off school to watch her father filming episodes of The Bill. "I would pretend to be poorly," she says. "He took me to the set and I remember talking to one of the Nolan sisters and she asked 'do you want to be an actress?'. I thought it would be really fun to do this every day."
In which case be careful what you wish for, because every day for six months of each year Tomlinson has to rise at 4.30am, often not finishing work until after 10pm. Luckily she's still enthused by the role that's made her name. "What's so great with (series writer) Debbie Horsfield is that she's really adapted Demelza because in the book she becomes a very stay-at-home wifey who's happy to bake bread, whereas in our series she's much more of a go-getter."
Her character will be joined in the upcoming series by her two brothers, one deeply religious, the other one who complicates matters by falling in love with Elizabeth's cousin, while Demelza herself will have a new admirer - a Byronic aristocrat played by Josh Whitehouse.
"This is hilarious because he's just played my brother in a film called Alleycats, and he's a great friend," says Tomlinson. "There's a nice storyline there for Demelza - I'll be interested to see how the public respond to it, that's all I'm going to say."
And Tomlinson is aware that the public do respond strongly to Poldark - that there is something about sheer unapologetic romanticism of the period drama that inspires a reciprocal passion in viewers.
"Yes, but what people love about Demelza and Ross is that their marriage is very real," she says. "They have a lot of obstacles we all face. There's always another woman who drives the wife mad."
It was a scene involving this "other woman", Elizabeth, that caused some controversy when Ross appeared to force himself on his seemingly unconsenting ex. That he raped her, in short. "Oh, yeah, that scene," Tomlinson responds warily. "It's a very difficult scene to get across. Obviously our intention wasn't to glamorise that kind of thing in any way. Debbie Horsfield worked very closely with Aidan and Heide so the scene they created was something strong and amazing but not an actual rape in the end."
Tomlinson doesn't do social media ("No one can send me a vile message that's going to upset me") and she admits that the trilby is partly a disguise. "I bought the hat the other day because I liked it," she says.
"But I normally wear some sort of headgear just because the red hair is quite a statement. I'm a quiet, private person, and while it's lovely when someone comes up to you and says they appreciate your work, nowadays the selfie is so much the rage. I just find it quite invasive if someone comes up to you and throws a phone in your face.
"So I just try and keep my head down. I want to be known for the work I do, not my personal life or what I'm wearing. Sometimes it's nice as an actress just to keep something back about yourself so there's a little bit of mystery."
Little point then in me asking about her love life. For the record, the last time Tomlinson was photographed out and about with a young man, it was last year - her swain at the time being Ben Atkinson, who works as stunt double for Aidan Turner's horse riding scenes. As for Turner himself, Tomlinson says they have an easy relationship - "like an old married couple".
"I didn't have a clue who he was when I auditioned for the role," she admits. "But he was lovely. He was so sweet. I guess he'd done The Hobbit but I'm very behind with all sorts of technology and film. It takes me ages to catch up with things."
The two actors will be reunited in September, when the fourth series - which covers books seven and eight of Graham's 12-books series - goes into production.
"We've got lots of new cast this series," she says. "We're becoming the golden oldies now. It's a bit strange. We're always saying to Debbie we are going to be in it, aren't we? You're not to put a grey wig on me, are you? We don't want to age."
- Poldark begins on BBC One later this month.