As fun, flirty Emma in Poldark, Ciara Charteris is bringing a sizzling new storyline to our favourite Sunday-night series. She talks to Kerry Potter about love rivals fighting for her affections and ‘winning the telly lottery’.
‘It felt like I’d won some kind of telly lottery when I got the role in Poldark,’ says 22-year-old Ciara Charteris, blue eyes wide and grin gigantic, as she recalls the day she landed the part of good-time girl Emma Tregirls, the object of conflicted affection for Methodist minister (and brother of Demelza) Sam Carne. ‘Amazingly I was on holiday in Cornwall [where the show is set] with my family, running along the cliffs with my mum on our morning jog, when I received the call to say I’d got the part. So it was a magical moment.’
We first met minxy working-class hero Emma last year in series three of the BBC One 18th-century drama juggernaut. The daughter of roguish Tholly, Emma accessorises her raggedy dresses with a head-to-toe splattering of mud. However, Ciara, standing just 5ft 2in in her black skinnies and trainers, is 100 per cent megawatt glamour. Most newly minted actors slink into the room, quiet as a church mouse, ahead of their first major press interview. Not Ciara. She’s unmissable as she glides in, radiating self-assurance and turning heads. ‘I’ve always been in-your-face. And I like to chat,’ she says.
The preternatural confidence? Genetic lottery. Born in Johannesburg, Ciara moved to London in 1998, aged three, as her South African parents’ careers took flight. Her father Roger is an artists’ agent, with Idris Elba and Anna Friel on his books, while her mother Robyn is a children’s TV and stage writer, whose credits include the Bafta-winning CBBC drama Jeopardy and Thomas’s Friends. ‘I’m fourth generation on my dad’s side to go into the industry,’ she breezes. ‘My great-grandmother was an actress, and my grandmother was an actress then an agent. My grandad was an agent too. So it’s my whole world. That said, I’ve been shown all the reasons not to go into this job. It’s hard, it’s unpredictable, but I’m passionate about it and I’ve powered through.’ Is her dad her agent? ‘No. I need to pave my own way. My success is my success,’ she says firmly. It’s tempting to roll your eyes when someone who just happens to have parents with clout and connections lands a plum role. And yet in person Ciara wins you over in a jot. She’s smart, gregarious and fun, with an all-important sideline in self-deprecation.
Poldark returns in early summer for series four. The reboot of the mid-1970s series, based on Winston Graham’s 12 novels, inspires such loyalty in fans and is so ingrained in our Sunday-night rituals that the BBC will now happily risk scheduling it during the warmer months which are traditionally a TV dead zone because viewers are out/on holiday. ‘Poldark portrays a simpler world – there are horses rather than cars, there’s no internet and everyone just plods from day to day,’ says Ciara. ‘But it shows the dynamics of relationships that are no different from today’s. That’s why it connects with the audience. We can all tap into it. Love, loss, grief – it’s all there.’
This time round expect the acceleration of Ross’s political ambitions as he heads to Westminster (sadly, sexy scything is unlikely), while on the personal front we’ll see if his marriage can survive Demelza’s infidelity. Elsewhere baddie George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) continues being a prize prat, while Demelza’s lovelorn brother Drake (Harry Richardson) still hankers after his soul mate Morwenna (Ellise Chappell) despite her marriage to the vile vicar, Osborne (brilliantly played by Christian Brassington). And Emma and Sam’s unlikely love story, nascent in series three, blossoms into a major storyline.
‘Emma has a big fancy for all the guys but takes a particular one to Sam, who’s played by the lovely Tom York. She likes male attention and thinks, “This will be fun,” but he falls for her, tries to introduce her to his faith and take her on a deeper journey to marriage. And that freaks her out,’ explains Ciara. Her own approach to religion is more nuanced than Emma’s. ‘I have a lot of faith but I wouldn’t pin myself down to a certain religion at this point,’ she says. ‘We have lots of religions in my extended family – my uncle is a Catholic priest, my mum’s sister married a Greek Orthodox man and we celebrate Hanukkah with the Jewish part of the family. I’ve thrown myself into them all but I’m still learning and discovering.’
George’s hefty henchman Tom Harry (Turlough Convery) also takes a shine to Emma, with the rivalry culminating in the two men having a wrestling match. ‘It was one of my easiest acting moments because I was genuinely worried one of them was going to get hurt. It was so lifelike that my reactions are genuine – “Oh gosh, watch his head! Mind his back!”’ she winces. Love scenes with Tom, however, were a breeze: ‘I find them more funny than awkward because they’re so contrived. When you have an amazing person to work with they’re going to make you feel comfortable and that’s the case with Tom. And when you’re in the moment, it’s Sam and Emma getting it on, not us.’ She has a boyfriend, anyway, whom she declines to name. He’s an actor (not a Poldark one) and they were introduced by a mutual friend: ‘He’s just gone into the industry and is doing incredibly well – it’s safe to say you will know about him in the future!’ she beams.
Tom, however, has become a close friend, one of her core Poldark gang – the cast are famously tight-knit, a result of spending long, cold winters shooting the show in remote corners of Cornwall. Just a few days ago, she hosted a Mexican-themed dinner (‘well, I cooked a chilli’) at her flat in Clapham, South London, to bid Tom farewell as he heads off for a few months’ backpacking during the six-month break between filming series. Ellise Chappell was there (‘We’ve become close friends though we’ve never shared a scene’), as was Beatie Edney, aka Demelza’s scene-stealing servant Prudie. ‘She takes us all under her wing on set. She’s so vibrant and positive.’ There are a lot of handsome men in the cast, from Ross (obviously) to hot Dr Enys to the Carne brothers and so on – is there a lot of off-camera flirting? (Eleanor Tomlinson was rumoured last year to be dating her on-screen brother Harry Richardson.) ‘No, everyone gets along so well but they’re just doing their jobs,’ she says, demurring like an old pro. ‘But we can all appreciate the beauty of everyone on the set. Try doing a scene with Eleanor – she’s absolutely stonking!’
Playing such a free spirit as Emma has made an impact on Ciara. ‘She has this wonderful zest for life. Tapping into that has been amazing because I’m quite controlled,’ she says. ‘People say I’m like Monica Geller [Courteney Cox’s uptight character in Friends]. So with Emma it was like meeting this amazing new best friend, where you think, “Wow you’re so much fun!” She’s taught me to be more like that. Also she’s so secure in herself, which has made me feel, “This is who I am and I’ll have confidence in that.”’
As a child, Ciara danced ballet, tap, jazz and ballroom and attended the National Youth Musical Theatre (NYMT) in the holidays. She shows a rare flicker of uncertainty when talking about her formative years: ‘I was insecure. I wasn’t doing typical teenage things. I was dancing six days a week and doing musical theatre. I wasn’t the cool girl at music festivals! But when I went to NYMT and drama school, I found the other kids like me.’ That drama school was the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, where she started a BA in acting, before dropping out in the second year after landing her first TV role. She played the niece and ward of Alfred Molina in Close to the Enemy, BBC2’s 2016 post-Second World War thriller.
‘It was the right thing to do; my parents were totally supportive and I’ve had the most incredible time since,’ she says. It is ‘overwhelming’, however, she admits, when your first professional job, as a 19-year-old college dropout, is a major drama directed by Stephen Poliakoff. ‘On my first day, I came in for rehearsals and had all the scripts colour-coded in folders with tags for my scenes. Molina said, “Gosh, I want you to organise my scripts,”’ she recalls. ‘Five minutes later I was given a whole new pack of scripts. That was an educational moment. Now I know that the first script certainly won’t be the last.’ She then popped up in an episode of ITV’s 1950s detective drama Grantchester last year, playing a girl whose boyfriend is murdered.
The show’s star James Norton (‘the most down-to-earth, genuine guy’) is a client of her father’s and she’d met him while she was at school. Next up is the movie Mary Shelley, a biopic of the 19th-century Frankenstein writer. Hollywood star Elle Fanning plays the titular lead, with Douglas Booth as her lover, the poet Percy Shelley, and Ciara as Shelley’s first wife Harriet, who took her own life. ‘When I was doing my research before auditioning, I found out Harriet grew up in Clapham,’ she says. ‘It was quite emotional knowing that this woman had walked the same streets as me.’
To date Ciara has ‘spent a lot of time living in the past in period dramas’, so would like to try comedy or stage work next. She’s auditioning for parts but, all being well, will be back on Poldark duty come autumn for series five. (The BBC never confirms the next series until the current one has aired but it’s a pretty safe bet.) She has plans that extend far beyond 18th-century Cornwall, though. ‘I want to get to a point where I can make more decisions for myself, start to produce my own work,’ she says with determination.
When she’s not working, you can find Ciara wild swimming – in the sea, rivers and lakes. ‘There’s a great rush to it. You just throw yourself in,’ she shrugs. It’s an approach to life that’s clearly working.
6 Unmissable Poldark Moments
We like a man who takes pride in his work – especially when it involves him toiling while topless, tanned, toned and tousled of locks. Even when the BBC released a photo of the make-up artist contouring the biceps of Aidan Turner (aka Ross) to make them look bigger, we didn’t care.
That first kiss
The chemistry between our hero and his wide-eyed housemaid Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) had been simmering for a couple of weeks before they finally got it together. What started as a ticking-off – he upbraids her for snooping – turned into a smooch before Ross kindly helped her slip out of her blue dress and corset.
Don’t do it! Don’t do… Oh, she did it. Ross’s first love Elizabeth (Heida Reed) emerged from grieving her husband Francis’s death to marry Poldark’s pantomime villain – and Ross’s nemesis – George Warleggan. What could have possibly attracted this beautiful young woman to powerful millionaire George? It’s a decision she (and her son Geoffrey Charles) soon live to regret.
Ross’s cousin Francis (Kyle Soller) was a bit wimpy but he was one of the good guys. We gasped in horror when he fell into the mine’s murky water while desperately digging for copper to save the struggling business. Ross arrived too late to rescue him. Sob
Au revoir, Aunt Agatha
A fond farewell to the brilliantly grumpy Poldark family matriarch who took endless delight in winding up George. Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) managed to land one final blow on her enemy, using her last breath to tell him that his beloved baby son and heir might have been fathered by his arch-enemy Ross.
Ross may be easy on the eye but imagine living with him: the stubbornness, the moodiness, the accidental sleeping with his ex. So we let out a cheer when his long-suffering wife Demelza finally succumbed to temptation to enjoy a romp in a sand dune with brooding aristocratic war hero Hugh Armitage (Josh Whitehouse).