Interview: Poldark actress Heida Reed
- Credit: BBC Pictures
Poldark actress Heida Reed talks corsets, Cotswolds and Cirencester (where she’s supporting the brand new Barn Theatre)… and why she really (honestly, truly) doesn’t mind the English weather
Oh my gosh. There are SO many reasons why Heida Reed – actress from Land of Fire and Ice – shouldn’t like living in England IMHO.
(Mind you, just googling ‘What is Iceland famous for?’ is an experience in itself. Alongside glaciers and volcanoes, you get public nudity, raw puffin hearts (a delicacy), and a strong belief in elves. Who knew?)
So back to: Things Maybe Not To Be So Keen On About The UK:
“Oh, no - it’s definitely better here in Britain! The summers are much nicer; it’s less windy. And it’s much more snowy in Iceland. It’s British weather with extremes.”
(Goodness. A nation that can actually praise our climate.)
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Ok, then. The stiff upper lip?
“I actually like the politeness – and the queuing!”
“It wasn’t always like that. I used to be told off in Pret, when I had been here for a year. People would say, ‘Excuse me! There’s a queue.’ And I would reluctantly get behind someone. I’ve come out the other end now and I get very frustrated if people don’t queue.”
So does Heida Reed ever manage to get served in Iceland nowadays?
“Well, that’s the thing,” she laughs. “You have to adapt and throw the order out of the window and try and make your way to the counter like everybody else. That’s what’s really frustrating.
“But I also like the fact that people are a lot more direct here in Britain. In Iceland, they’re more ‘last-minute’ mentality. From my perspective, I find that [Icelandic] people’s slogans would be: ‘It will be fine!’ It is charming but sometimes it can create a bit of chaos. Someone who’s adapted to a way of life in Britain would tear their hair out when someone tells them that.”
Her accent – away from Poldark – is more transatlantic than Upper RP, but her English is amazing: idiomatic and colloquial, with just the elusive hint that she’s not a native. She’s lived here for a decade now, ever since she changed her surname (from the somewhat less-pronounceable Sigurdardottir) and came to drama school in London aged 19. Heida (and that’s pronounced ‘Hayda’, by the way) also puts her fluency down to an Icelandic culture of undubbed English-speaking films and American bands… As well as the annoying kindness of friends.
“Umm, yes. The accent was tricky but I made it a goal to have everyone correct me whenever I needed. Which was very irritating but it paid off!”
It certainly did. Alongside a bundle of talent, it helped her secure the role of the very English Elizabeth Chynoweth (cue: rainbow silks, ostrich feathers and mini cocked hats) in the BBC’s current adaptation of Poldark. Heida’s just finished filming season four – “I’m now taking some much-needed bed-time, and binge-watching The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, and Feud – all about the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; really gripping!” – which takes us to the end of Winston Graham’s seventh book, The Angry Tide. (Five more original Poldark novels to go, though rumours suggest there’ll be just one more series after this.)
(Just one?!? Umm. Five million viewers won’t be happy.)
So what can we expect with this summer’s showing? Well, Ross Poldark – Elizabeth’s erstwhile love – will be in Westminster, propelled there by a disastrous turn of events back home. Cornwall is still a major location, but it’s enlivened by scenes from 18th century London, as well as some real-life characters such as William Pitt and the anti-slavery politician William Wilberforce.
And, of course, one of the series’ lead actors will be back: Chavenage House in Tetbury, which dons an aura of sea salt while pretending to be Trenwith, the Poldark family seat. Just as Heida was strapped into hold-your-breath corsets and luscious brown velvet riding suits, Elizabethan Chavenage was having its own make-over: gravel on the drive removed, light switches and cables banished, radiators disguised, and lead lattice installed on the windows.
“Filming at Chavenage was the first time I’d seen the Cotswolds, and I loved it! I was so excited,” Heida says. “The rolling hills and that landscape remind me of Jane Austen TV dramas. In Cornwall, with all the cliffs, there is some similarity with Iceland, but the Cotswolds are not like home at all – and that’s what I love: being somewhere so different.”
She was also taken with the highly un-Icelandic owners, the Lowsley-Williams family. (NB: Previous estate-holders included the dastardly Colonel Stephens, who signed Charles’s I’s death-warrant, and who entertained Cromwell in one of the tapestry-lined rooms.)
“The family are always there when we film – they’re used to us and we’re used to them - meaning it’s a very laid-back atmosphere, which is nice. They definitely seem like they’re a depiction of the classic English country-folk, which is very charming and fun to be around!”
So there we have the natural inhabitants. What about the supernatural – including Charles I who (understandably taking umbrage at the death-warrant-thing) gleefully makes an appearance whenever he hears of impending doom...
“I do sneak off whenever I can and try to find any of the spirits. And, yeah, I definitely believe spirits linger. There’s a strange vibe in some of the rooms…”
(Good luck with that one. My own experience of a séance at Chavenage involved a psychic group arriving hours late after their spirit guide misdirected them to Birmingham.)
Heida herself has haunted places such as Shoreditch’s Geffrye Museum of the Home (currently closed for a two-year £18m development project) as part of some serious research into times gone by. So is there anything that appeals about the life of an English 18th century lady?
“Yes, of course. They put a lot of emphasis on beautiful fabrics and fashion; and they were very skilled in languages and musical instruments and needlepoint - all these kinds of things that now we don’t really pick up unless we have a real passion for it.
“I took harp lessons before I started the first series because Elizabeth plays, which was really fun. I wish I had time to do more. So I like that they cultivated their skills in the arts - but it was all so confined in a social restraint. I don’t think any woman would like to go back to that.”
Of course. And yet. And yet...
Some of today’s pressures might be as ephemeral as ghosts – but they’re just as terrifying: cyberbullying (Heida co-starred in Sam H Freeman’s play, Scarlet, about sexual politics and social media, as well as experiencing her own Twitter abuse from anti-Elizabeth, pro-Ross fans); unequal pay (though she’s proud that, in January, Iceland put equal pay onto the statute books); sexual harassment – and not just in Hollywood.
“I think it exists in every single workplace in the world. But the entertainment industry lives in the media so it’s the obvious place for people to come out and educate the rest about how we need to change. It’s a complicated climate because rules are re-establishing themselves, and that’s going to take some time.”
But will things ever truly change? We think we’ve come so far from 18th century Elizabeth, trussed up in her shapely corsets; yet here we are, in 2018, having to be proud that only one country of the world’s 195 has so far legislated for financial equality.
“You’re right,” she says. “And I don’t have the answer. I’m just glad that, if you want to wear a corset today, you can – but you absolutely don’t have to.”
So Heida herself is back fully-corseted on our screens this summer (exact Poldark transmission dates yet to be released); and there’s also a chance we’ll get to see her take her first solo lead in a New Icelandic crime drama - Stella Blómkvist – if and when it’s exported to the UK.
We might see her closer to home, too, because she’s just become an ambassador to the new state-of-the-art Barn Theatre, recently opened in Cirencester. It’s a similar size – at 200 seats – to the Southwark Playhouse, where she performed in Scarlet. The sort of size many-an-actor loves.
“A large theatre is great when you’re doing a big musical or for the awesome power of ballet, for example. But I myself have been at the end of the second balcony, watching a play I didn’t connect with because I was simply too far away. For most natural stories, people want to be as close as possible so they can feel the electricity.”
Isn’t it – sorry to be such a philistine – but scary being so close to an audience?
“It’s quite scary to see people’s faces. But, at the same time, no one can lean back and take a kip or look at their phones! They’re sort of a part of the show and there’s a lot more of a focused environment.”
She’s excited about the Barn – “I can’t wait to see how they do”; has already done a reading for them at a pre-event in the parish church last Christmas. “And it would be a dream to appear there at some point. They have my full support.”
Well, if we can catch her. She might be watching Mrs Maisel under a grey British sky currently. But we know things are going to change. Last July, her boyfriend of a year - the American producer Sam Ritzenberg - became her fiancé; Los Angeles beckons as a new base for this talented, multi-national actress.
So, OK. LA might not have the Elizabethan houses or idiosyncratic country families. But the weather’s definitely better.