When Eleanor Tomlinson signed up to star in a brooding drama set in 18th-century Cornwall, she had no idea of the impact it would have on her life.
Rewind to 2015 and the then-21-year-old unknown would play heroine Demelza in the TV adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels, Poldark, the servant-turned-wife of Aidan Turner’s Captain Ross Poldark.
The former Beverley High School student who grew up in East Riding after being born in London to singer Judith Hibbert and actor and horse racing commentator Malcolm Tomlinson, she had appeared in several television programmes and films before – including Tim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and Doctor Who spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures.
But Poldark was a career-igniting role – and duet – that wooed the nation for five seasons, winning Baftas and culminating with a series finale this August that drew in an average of 4.1 million-plus viewers. Quite the achievement.
Now aged 27, and having stepped out of her alter-ego’s shadow (other than still sporting the dyed red hair she adopted for the part), Tomlinson is keen to forge her own path – one she hopes is free from typecasting.
“I’m trying my best to force it to change,” Tomlinson explains when we meet.
“I’m trying to get as many different roles as I can under my belt, different characters, different periods – I don’t want to be pigeonholed!”
“But I’m so flattered to be known as Demelza,” she’s quick to add.
“I love the fact I have that behind me, and I can walk into a room and people may have seen it.”
“It’s opened so many doors in terms of what’s available now, things I’ll be seen for that I wouldn’t have been seen for before,” she insists.
Her latest outing is in the BBC’s highly anticipated The War Of The Worlds adaptation, a three-part TV reworking written by Doctor Who’s Peter Harness and directed by the notable Craig Viveiros.
Tomlinson – who embraced the high-action part – joins Rafe Spall, Robert Carlyle and Rupert Graves in recreating HG Wells’s iconic sci-fi story about the battle to save Earth from a martian invasion.
Remarkably it’s the first revision (there’s seven in total – from Jeff Wayne’s musical version through to Stephen Spielberg’s Hollywood blockbuster) that’s true to its intended Edwardian era.
“It does seem crazy that it’s never been set in its time!” quips Tomlinson, speaking from the green room ahead of the show’s UK premiere.
“Ours feels particularly current, in terms of taking the writing and adapting it to a modern audience.”
“You now have a female leading it, whereas she’s not particularly present in the book,” she explains.
“There’s so much they can do now, in terms of CGI, that it’s almost crazy not to set it in the time in which it was written; it’s that perfect mix of old meets futuristic.”
Tomlinson plays Amy, a fierce twenty-something who faces the prejudices of society as she attempts to start a life with George (Spall), all the while swerving the ongoing chaos outside.
The “refreshing” decision to put Amy front and centre of the narrative was a huge appeal.
“She’s a really strong female character that’s breaking the mould of her time,” reasons the star, whose credits also include the troubled Mary Durrant in Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence.
“She’s strong, she’s independent, she’s got her own thoughts and feelings and she strives for that.
“She has this scientific brain and she wants to study, but she’s a single woman living with a married man, at a time in history when women weren’t allowed to study...” she tails off.
“To think that women, at one point, weren’t allowed to read books is horrifying.
“Thank God we are where we are now, but we are because of these women that fought against the system.”
But it’s still relative today, she adds: “In different countries we’re still seeing this control over women.
“But in terms of this industry, we’re seeing much more strong female roles coming out and that’s incredibly important!
“It’s much more interesting for us, as actresses, when we get a script and go, ‘Oh great, I’ve got something to do, I don’t have to wait for someone to rescue me!’”
“Nowadays, even in jobs that I’ve done, you’d struggle to make the women so helpless. Unless they’re historical – that’s different,” she says.
“You need women to be able to have a personality other than to just be the damsel in distress, it’s important.”
Other than the period in which they preside, is it fair to say that Demelza and Amy – both progressive and powerful – are not too dissimilar?
“If you play a character for five years, you’re bound to leave with bits of her,” Tomlinson responds. “When I read scripts I think, ‘Well, where does this go? What kind of character is it? Who is she? Is she independent of a male? Is she strong in her own right?’”
“In a lot of historical pieces, it’s in the adaptation, it’s how you portray the women,” she figures. “You can be a beaten down, you can be a woman that’s under the thumb of a man, but it doesn’t make you the side piece.”
Next, Tomlinson will tackle two further sci-fi series.
“One is Intergalactic, in which I’m playing a drug mule and addict in space – so it’s really different!” she teases.
“It’s amazing because doing something like Poldark and it being successful gives you the confidence to try something else,” she adds. “I don’t know if I’m doing all right but I’m trying; it’s fun and it’s really nice to push myself and break down those barriers – even within myself.
“This is something I couldn’t have done five years ago, because I just wouldn’t have had the bravery,” she says.
The other one is an HBO series of Joss Whedon’s called The Nevers, “which is amazing fun. And then I’ve got a film called Love. Wedding. Repeat, which is a comedy!
“I was really nervous about doing that, actually, because we have Joel Fry, Aisling Bea – oh my God I love her so much – and Tim Key, so these incredibly funny people, and then me!”
Notoriously private, does she worry about fame as a by-product of her success?
“No, I live such a boring, quiet life,” she says with a smile. “I am very normal and that kind of thing, if you court it, you’ll find it. I want to be known for my acting, I don’t want to be known for my personal life. I don’t want people to follow me around, I just want to be known for the jobs that I do and hopefully for doing them well.”
Sacrifices made for success
Eleanor Tomlinson dropped out of sixth-form in Beverley to concentrate on her burgeoning acting career.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post in 2010 after her appearance in Alice in Wonderland alongside the likes of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, the then 17-year-old said: “I was just getting so behind because I was missing so much school and I hated it. You soon realise who your real friends are when you go into this business. There were some people who just couldn’t deal with it, but I have some really good friends.
“I know that I have been incredibly lucky. All I want for the future is to be able to do some really classic work which I really enjoy doing and have a lot of fun. You never know what’s round the next corner.”
The War Of The Worlds premieres on BBC One on Sunday, November 17.