by Kerry Porter
Meet ELLISE CHAPPELL, the newcomer set to steal hearts as the sizzling Sunday night drama returns. She reveals what it is like working with TV’s hottest heart-throbs and being a ‘complete romantic’
Am I a young fogey? That’s a fair statement!’ giggles Ellise Chappell, the 24-year-old new star of Poldark, as she talks me through her typically millennial good-girl lifestyle.
‘I’m a sucker for a National Trust house, especially ones that do cream teas,’ she says, as she perches on a battered leather sofa at today’s photo shoot location house, wide-eyed and pixie-like with her blunt fringe and petite frame.
She takes a swig of absinthe – joke! It’s green tea – and explains how she practises yoga daily, jogs every other day and spends a lot of time propping up juice bars. In keeping with the new breed of young actors – clean-living, serious-minded (patron saint: Emma Watson, whom Ellise name-checks as an influence), she’s very focused and very sweet.
Although she arrived in her civvies – grey jumper and black skinny jeans – from the shoulders up she’s in glam mode today, thanks to the hair and make-up team. Is she off out on the town to make the most of it? ‘It’s tempting to not let it go to waste, but I think I’ll go home and lie down,’ she smiles sheepishly.
To be fair, it’s probably a good thing that Ellise is having a lie down now, as her feet will be unlikely to touch the ground once the third series of Poldark heaves into public view.
For someone barely out of university and with only two TV credits to her name (both of them from just last year), being pitched as a major player in a much-loved show with more than five million viewers is a very big deal indeed. Does she feel as though she’s on the cusp of something huge? ‘Yeah!’ she squeaks, pulling a ‘yikes’ face. ‘I’m excited but apprehensive. How do you prepare for that? I’m trying to take things as they come and enjoy it.’
The BBC One Sunday night stalwart, based on the novels by Winston Graham and set in 18th-century Cornwall, picks up in 1794 and sees Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner) traversing rocky terrain, both personally and professionally, as Cornish life is affected by the French Revolution and he tries to rebuild his marriage with Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) after his infidelity with Elizabeth (Heida Reed). Ellise is among a host of new characters: ‘It was great coming in when there were quite a few new faces – that made everything less daunting,’ she says.
She plays Morwenna, a cousin of Elizabeth. Morwenna is employed by Elizabeth’s caddish husband George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) as governess to his stepson Geoffrey Charles, whose father, Francis Poldark, drowned in series two. George, as you’ll remember, hates all Poldarks, so charges Morwenna with keeping the youngster – now a tween – out of his way.
This animosity is unlikely to dissipate, given that the series two cliffhanger revealed Elizabeth to be pregnant with a baby who might have been fathered by Ross, George’s arch-enemy.
But back to the new generation: two other big arrivals in series three are Demelza’s brothers who seek out their sibling after their father dies. Sam (Tom York) is an earnest preacher, while Drake (Harry Richardson, the handsome Frank Gresham in Julian Fellowes’s Doctor Thorne) is a free-spirited blacksmith.
The latter meets Morwenna on the beach, where she’s playing with Geoffrey Charles, and they fall in love; a storyline which promises to tug at the heartstrings through series three.
‘They form this kind of family unit with Geoffrey Charles,’ says Ellise. ‘She’s a gentle, innocent, dutiful girl. But underneath she has a bit of fire and an adventurous side, which she doesn’t realise is there until she arrives in Cornwall.’
The path of true love, naturally, doesn’t run smooth, thanks to their differing social statuses and the Poldark/Warleggan rivalry. ‘She’s aware that she’s not really supposed to be with him but she doesn’t realise how deep-rooted the family feud is. She gathers the courage to go against what’s expected of her and goes on a turbulent journey,’ says Ellise.
As for Harry Richardson, Ellise describes the Australian as ‘the coolest’. To help manufacture their on-screen chemistry, they met up before filming to ‘hang out in a park in London’. Like a date? ‘No!’ she giggles. ‘It didn’t feel like a date; it was just fun. We thought if we’d be doing romantic scenes, it would be nice to know each other a bit.’
As 18th-century women bound by the social mores of the day, both Elizabeth and Morwenna ponder relationships based on love versus those predicated on money and status. Ellise is clear where she stands: ‘I’m a complete romantic and I’d always go for heart over head. It’s those around you who make you happy, so you have to be with the right people.’
The person who makes Ellise happy is Yuan, her half-Chinese boyfriend, with whom she lives in North London. He’s a cameraman/editor at a fashion studio: ‘He understands my job because he’s constantly on sets himself, and he gets the fact that I have to be away a lot. He’s super-supportive.’
As for the Poldark men, is she aligned with much of the female population in fancying Aidan Turner? ‘Ha ha, I can recognise that he’s a very, very good-looking man. He’s lovely as well,’ she says. Who’s the sexiest character? ‘I don’t know if I could pick – they’re all gorgeous,’ she demurs.
Cast camaraderie is important to Ellise and Poldark came up trumps in that respect: she describes them as ‘like a family’, thanks to the bonding opportunities that come with a lengthy six-month shoot in far-flung rural locations.
Off-set, she socialised with Eleanor Tomlinson, Harry Marcus (who plays Geoffrey Charles), Harry Richardson, Tom York, Beatie Edney (Prudie) and another newcomer, Christian Brassington – previously seen as Boris Johnson in the More4 docudrama When Boris Met Dave – who takes on the role of sex-obsessed vicar Osborne Whitworth (portrayed by Christopher Biggins in the 1970s TV series).
Together, they played a lot of word game Bananagrams (reigning champions: Beatie and Eleanor) and took it in turns to cook for each other in their hotel room kitchenettes. Ellise’s go wasn’t a roaring success.
‘I’m an awful cook. I burn everything. I made a Thai green curry and as it was cooking, I was dancing around the kitchen, thinking, “Yeah! This is going great!” But I managed to fall into the pan handle and knock the entire thing on the floor. I had to quickly text everyone and say, “Um, can we meet in the bar instead?”’
Her on-screen cousin was on hand for corset-based tips, such as the need to eat breakfast before you put it on to minimise indigestion. Heida also helped calm the ingénue’s nerves: ‘She said once a scene is done, just put it out of your mind and don’t dwell on it. There’s no point in freaking out afterwards because you can’t change it.’
The Icelandic actress emails me to say: ‘Ellise was a real joy! She’s made for this cast – she doesn’t take herself too seriously and is goofy like the rest of us. She made me laugh so many times. We compiled a collection of jokes to keep us entertained between scenes.’
Filming wrapped in the spring and Ellise is missing her new gang. ‘The post-filming blues set in,’ she sighs. ‘You see these people every day and form lots of friendships and then they’re not there. You still message now and then but you feel suddenly cut off.’
As for what’s next for her, she’s not entirely sure – though a fourth series of Poldark has recently been announced – but she’s relaxed about the ebb and flow of an actor’s life. She’s keeping her fingers crossed for a sequel to The Last Dragonslayer, the Sky TV movie that was shown on Christmas Day. Ellise played the lead, Jennifer Strange, in the adaptation of the first of Jasper Fforde’s fantasy novel series.
Growing up in rural Warwickshire, Ellise was a ‘country girl’ who spent her childhood making dens in cornfields with her brother Matt, visiting arboretums and going on canal-boat holidays. She’s very close to her father, who runs a small publishing company, her graphic designer mother and Matt, who is now a writer.
How did her family react when she landed Poldark? ‘My mum and dad pretty much wet themselves,’ she laughs. ‘When I rang my mum to tell her she couldn’t stop laughing and I was crying. Then I started laughing and she started crying.’ She heard the news shortly after she’d finished filming The Last Dragonslayer and was twiddling her thumbs. ‘I got the Poldark call as I was walking to the café in North London where I used to be a barista to ask for my old job back. I stopped in my tracks, turned around and skipped home.’
She comes from a comfortable background, but is no dilettante and doesn’t ask her parents for financial help: ‘This career is unpredictable but I know there’s always a way to make money in the end. You can come up with ideas. If there’s a dry patch, I can go back to the café, or I’d love to write a children’s book one day.’
Ellise can pinpoint the day when she set her heart on acting. She had a minor part in her private girls’ school’s production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. The girl playing Oberon, king of the fairies, fell ill one day and Ellise was asked to stand in, only for the girl to recover in time for that evening’s show. ‘I had to step down and I was so gutted – I really, really wanted to do it. It was at that moment I thought, “This is for me.”’
Ellise was ‘a bit of a loner’ as a teenager, sitting in her room, reading and drawing. Today she posts her impressively accomplished charcoal sketches on Twitter: ‘Friends commission them as gifts. I find it therapeutic but it’s strictly a hobby.’
After school, she had a wobble, dropping out of her English literature/language degree at the University of Sheffield in her first year, a period she cites as the toughest time in her life.
‘It was hard and I wasn’t happy. My friends were pursuing more academic careers and I thought I should, too. I’m quite impressionable like that.’ She settled instead at Exeter, studying drama.
With people now paying for their university education, did she feel she got good value for money? ‘Yes, I think it’s good for building yourself as a person, for learning to pay bills, to cook for yourself, to be an adult. I valued it for that,’ she says.
Following two short courses at The Actors Class in London, she cut her stage teeth with the National Youth Theatre in 2015. Last year, she had a small part in two episodes of New Blood, BBC One’s young, zingy crime drama.
Four Weddings and a Funeral actress Anna Chancellor, who starred in that show and alsoThe Last Dragonslayer, left an impression on Ellise: ‘I think she’s absolutely fabulous and what I learned from her is that it’s cool to ask questions, to really make sure you know what you’re doing.’
In these post-Trump, post-Brexit times, it’s hard to get most actors to shut up about politics, but Ellise politely refuses to go there, saying: ‘I don’t feel like I’m knowledgeable enough yet to make a good comment about it.’
Like a lot of millennials, though, she does want to talk about environmentalism. ‘It’s something I feel passionately about. I really admire Emma Watson for raising awareness of sustainable fashion, and Emma Thompson’s work protesting fracking in the UK. At the moment, I’m just taking small steps. I donate to Greenpeace and I’m trying to be less wasteful, like buying unpackaged fruit and veg.’
She also has an interesting take on sexism in her industry. ‘I watched a TED talk by [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg, who made the point that women are more likely to underestimate their own abilities and attribute their successes to external factors rather than themselves, which I thought was interesting and something that I’ve certainly done myself,’ she says.
‘There’s definitely still a long way to go in terms of the pay gap and the balance between men and women in the industry, but my own experiences have been pretty positive so far. There are lots of fantastic female roles in Poldark, plus the writer and some of the executive producers on the show are women. And my character in The Last Dragonslayer was brave, kind and full of integrity. It was an amazing opportunity for me.’
From student to the new star of TV’s hottest drama in the blink of an eye: that’s quite a trajectory. ‘I feel like a big sponge, soaking up experiences. The past year has been a whirlwind,’ she says, draining her tea and neatening her fringe.
‘One of the reasons it’s been so wonderful is that I’ve never really set any markers on where I should be at a certain point. It’s a fairly organic industry and there’s lots of rejection, but other opportunities arise all the time. So I feel happy with where I am.’ Young fogey, perhaps, but that sensible head will serve her well.
Poldark will return to BBC One on Sundays at 9pm next month
Styling Jodie Nellist. Hair Shukeel Murtaza at Frank Agency using Fudge Professional. Make-up Afton Radojicic at Stella Creative Artists using Sisley Skincare