Interview: Poldark’s Ellise Chappell on the return of the hit show

Ellise Chappell stars in Poldark, back now for a fourth season. Picture: Rachell Smith
Ellise Chappell stars in Poldark, back now for a fourth season. Picture: Rachell Smith
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Poldark is back, BBC1’s popular period drama set in 18th century Cornwall with its rugged coastlines and even more rugged heroes, rigid class divisions and even more rigid corsets, fortunes made and misfortunes endured. Adapted from the novels of Winston Graham, it’s been a hit since it first aired in 2015, winning audiences of five million per episode, and this summer the award-winner fronted by Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson returns to make our Sunday nights sizzle with season four.

Poldark is back, BBC1’s popular period drama set in 18th century Cornwall with its rugged coastlines and even more rugged heroes, rigid class divisions and even more rigid corsets, fortunes made and misfortunes endured. Adapted from the novels of Winston Graham, it’s been a hit since it first aired in 2015, winning audiences of five million per episode, and this summer the award-winner fronted by Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson returns to make our Sunday nights sizzle with season four.

Also back is Ellise Chappell, who attracted praise last series when she joined the cast as Morwenna Chynoweth, an ingénue governess who falls in love with the wild untamed landscape of Cornwall and hunky blacksmith Drake Carne (Harry Richardson). Forced into an arranged marriage with the odious Reverend Whitworth instead, we follow her struggle to regain control of her fate.

Down the telephone from her London base, 25-year-old Chappell is chirpy and open, excited about the airing of a new series of Poldark. She does a good line in self-mockery without detracting from her delight at her career so far.

Today she’s full of the sheer physical beauty of the Cornish landscape, having just got back from a weekend break there with her family. Was that not a bit of a busman’s holiday? Did she not feel she should be lacing up her corset and bracing herself for a run-in with the repulsive Reverend when she found herself back in the West Country.

She laughs. “Yes, it was definitely strange being there and not having a schedule. But we were so chilled out and just hung around playing games. It was the best time! My dad grew up there, so he always loves going back and it’s really beautiful, it’s a really special place. It’s strange because he used to run around as a boy in places where I now film scenes, so that’s really cool.”

Ellise Chappell as Morwenna Chynoweth and Harry Richardson as Drake Carne

Ellise Chappell as Morwenna Chynoweth and Harry Richardson as Drake Carne

Running around on the beaches and moorside is something Chappell enjoys when Poldark filming takes them outside the studio, one of the best parts of the experience for her.

“I really love open space and fresh air. I think I’m a country girl at heart but Warwickshire where I grew up is kind of quintessential English countryside, whereas Cornwall is more open and wild. So those external scenes were a favourite, and for Morwenna too, they represent escape.”

This season Morwenna is back with a bang as she tries to take back control of her destiny, says Chappell.

“She’s in a completely different place this season. Last season she started off as very innocent and gentle but she’s gone through so much that she’s ended up in a very isolated and dark place. This season she’s very much someone who’s trying to take control of her own life. She’s revealed she’s got some real courage and strength to her. She’s tested a lot. She’s completely manipulated in her life, because of her status and sense of duty. It’s a really constricted way to live and quite distressing really.

Ellise in Poldark

Ellise in Poldark

“It’s rewarding as an actor to go on such an arc with a character and it’s exciting to stretch yourself. Putting yourself in that headspace on a daily basis was quite challenging, but as an actor that challenge is special and you just have to park it at the end of the day. And everyone in the cast and crew gets on so well, that when we’re filming in Cornwall, or Bristol, we hang out and have a drink after work. It’s like a family and I was accepted into it, so coming back this season I didn’t have the nerves or that ‘I hope they all like me’ thing; I felt part of it, and was just getting back into the groove.”

There were more cast members to hang out, as well as work with, this season, with the arrival of Rebecca Front (The Thick of It, Humans, War and Peace), much to Chappell’s delight.

“She plays my mother-in law so I got to work with her and that was really cool because I’ve seen her on TV so much! She was so lovely,” she says.

Getting out of costume at the end of the day helps too, as period dramas necessitate a certain amount of discomfort for the female actors, unlike the men who get to stride around in breeches and boots, rocking their tricorn hats.

Ellise Chappell in TV drama The Last Dragonslayer

Ellise Chappell in TV drama The Last Dragonslayer

“I have a full wig, so just coming out of that, aesthetically, is really helpful, and when you get that corset off you are very grateful for the movement and freedom you have. And it makes you grateful for the general freedom that you have as a woman today too.”

Any hopes that the cast might have had of dispensing with corsets as the fashion moved from Georgian to Regency and Empire line dresses, were dispelled when the corsets required turned out to be even more constricting.

“In season three they cut off at your waist, but in season four they went all the way down to your hips and it’s worse! It must be to get the right bust shape and smooth lines below. It pulls down your shoulders and sits on your hips... but it is helpful, character-wise, in forcing you to stand in a particular way, because in the context of the era, women were restricted in so many way and having a physical reminder is helpful.”

Not that Chappell minds a bit of dressing up generally, having wowed the red carpet recently at the BAFTAs in a scarlet tux.

“Yes, I love fashion and design, love it, always have. I think clothing is such an amazing way to express yourself.” Pushed to choose a designer that she would go for if money were no object she plumps for Alexander McQueen, and Erdem.

“I love them. But the reality is I’m a big charity shop shopper. I was doing that today in fact, and I found a maxi dress, plain black, but it’s really beautiful. I’ll wear it this summer, a nice chill dress,” she says.

Born and raised in rural Warwickshire to a mother who trained as an artist and a father who runs a creative agency, she was in a theatre company as a youngster, her first role being Candlestick Number One in Beauty and the Beast.

“Great part,” she laughs, “and I even had a line! ‘I’m a candlestick’, and danced. It was a big moment for me, a big moment.”

After nailing the dancing candlestick she went on to join the National Youth Theatre where she performed in The Merchant of Venice and Wuthering Heights, and the more contemporary Consensual by Evan Placey. “I love Shakespeare, but it was so much fun doing a contemporary piece, where we got to dance and rap. And getting to do it in the West End was just amazing.”

Despite her youthful stage outings, after school she went to study English Literature in Sheffield, after flirting with pursuing courses in fashion and art.

“I started performing from a very young age but moved away from it to fashion design and art, which I love. But then I knew that wasn’t for me when I had to put some work into doing a portfolio.” She laughs. “I remember being like, ‘Oh God, I just can’t be bothered!’

“With drama and performance I never had that feeling. I always wanted to go for it 100 per cent and put in as much work as possible, so that’s when I knew it was for me. I just decided one day ‘this is exactly what I want to do. I don’t know why I’ve been trying to do other things’.”

So Chappell withdrew from her English degree and signed up to study drama at Exeter University. “I thought I should really commit to trying to do what I really love, and I’m so lucky to have parents who are supportive. They told me to do what I wanted, and when I left Sheffield it felt like the right decision. That was satisfying, because I’m so indecisive I can barely pick what kind of sandwich I want!”

Let’s test that – what’s her favourite sandwich?

“Oh my god, don’t ask me! I have trouble,” she says and laughs.

After university Chappell landed the lead role in 2016’s The Last Dragonslayer, playing Jennifer Strange, a modern girl somewhat resistant to the discovery that her destiny is to slay magical medieval dragons. She followed this up as Wendy Roberts in Anthony Horowitz’s BBC TV crime series New Blood.

Dragonslayer was my first job, my first time on set with a speaking line, and I was so nervous that just walking down a flight of stairs terrified me.”

Even harder was acting terrified when the dragon in question is actually a tennis ball on top of a stick.

“Yeah, that was tricky because you’re trying to imaging this huge mythical creature towering over you, possibly breathing fire at any moment. But the scenery helped – Snowdonia, which was just unbelievably beautiful. And I went from barely knowing anything, to learning the terms people used and how to position yourself. I’ve learnt so much from each thing I’ve done, it’s been amazing.”

With season four of Poldark wrapping back in January Chappell has been spending her time auditioning for roles, none of which she wants to jinx by talking about.

“There’s a wide variety of things: some comedy, and stuff that’s tested me, accents and things. That’s what I love about acting, you’re doing things you didn’t think you could necessarily do, and if you achieve them, it feels really good.”

But with season five of Poldark, the final one, now getting the go-ahead, Chappell will be lacing up the corsets once more to continue Morwenna’s journey.

“I love Morwenna’s story; her strength, her fortitude and general gentle nature.” she says.

Still at the start of her career, Chappell is refreshingly excited about being in the Beeb’s big Sunday night period drama and grateful for how it’s kickstarted her career. Ask her for a ‘pinch me’ moment and she says she can’t, her mind’s gone totally blank.

“I know, meeting Eamonn and Ruth on This Morning. That was like ‘I can’t believe I’m here!’ Yeah, definitely, that was a pinch me moment for sure.”

She’s still pinching herself in ‘can’t believe my luck’ mode as we wind up our chat.

“I’m so lucky to do something I’m really passionate about for my job, 
so lucky that that opportunity happened for me,” she says. “Managing to do what I love as my job is just amazing and getting to meet people that a couple of years ago would have been just a dream to meet, it’s been incredible really.”

“But I’m one of these people who doesn’t like to think about it too much. I’m just trying to go with it for now, and you know, see what happens... take one day at a time.”

Poldark will return to BBC One at 9pm on Sunday, June 10th.