Poldark’s Jack Farthing on playing George Warleggan, stripping off on camera and his crush on Timothée Chalamet
The star discusses why he wouldn't mind ditching clothes for a role, his Poldark crisis of confidence – and how he accidentally broke his cat's leg
There’s a funny thing that Jack Farthing does. Unaccustomed to giving interviews, the 33-year-old actor – who plays George Warleggan and is as far a cry from Poldark’s bully banker as it is possible to be – does not have an arsenal of polished anecdotes.
There is something charmingly unfinished and raw about him. But there are a few actorly giveaways, and one is his unconscious habit of slipping into the lingo or accent of the characters he is discussing.
Talking about the Essex rent boy he played in Carmen Disruption – Simon Stephens’s 2015 reimagining of the opera as a modern piece, with the central character a male prostitute – he starts slurring the odd phrase: “sort of” becomes an estuaryish “sorrov”, quite unlike his usual, clipped diction.
Later, talking about aristocratic nincompoop the Hon Freddie Threepwood in the BBC adaptation of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings, he says the whole experience was “just bananas!”, a Boris-ism that could have come straight out of the mouth of the hapless second son of Lord Emsworth.
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Farthing is incredibly slim and slight, with a modest and understated manner. When the camera is on him, his eyes are rather sleepy and dreamy; off it, they become sharp and focused.
He is the very opposite of a diva. When his car fails to turn up at the end of our interview, he shrugs his shoulders and walks to the Tube – anonymous and unassuming in his baseball cap, denim jacket and trainers.
He was born in north London and has stayed there all his life: “Can’t get enough of it.” His brother, Tom, three years older, is an artist, as is his uncle, Stephen Farthing, a Royal Academician.
His mother is a radiologist, his father a gastroenterologist. His childhood was “lovely”, marred only by the traumatic event of jumping on one of the family’s two cats (sisters who never graduated from being called Puss and Puss) and breaking one feline leg.
“I was very small but big enough to hurt it. It was awful. I can still hear the sound it made. The poor thing had to wear a cast.”
He was in plays and musicals at Westminster school (Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Kurt Weill’s Street Scene) and also at Oxford, where he read history of art (he played Prospero in The Tempest, among “other abominations”).
Thence to Lamda (the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts), which he found confronting. “Being at drama school is a very exposing, taking-off-your-skin, have-a-look-at-me kind of process and you do silly, emotional, ridiculous things in front of each other all day, every day,” he says.
“It’s not so much embarrassing as cutting through your armour – which is good, I guess, because it’s what you want to do as an actor.”
After leaving drama school, he had a few small parts in big plays and then got even smaller parts on television, with his first significant break being Freddie in Blandings. The same company made Poldark and when he went for the part of George – they had approached him for it – he had a brief crisis of confidence.
“I thought, ‘This is crazy, I’m not right for this,’” he says, “I think because of the way he is described in the books as very tall, big and broad-shouldered. But I went in a few times and it worked.”
As an actor, he says, you are always bringing a part of yourself to your role. Playing George Warleggan for six months of every year for the past four years has become second nature. In what ways is George hard to shake off?
“Well, I don’t condemn people to death in my spare time, but you definitely take stuff with you. There’s an energy you feel in your muscles – a way that George stands and moves, which is not like the way I do, for instance.”
Do you think that, like George, you are possibly a bit of a repressed Englishman? “I’ve definitely got it in me,” he says.
“I think there aren’t many of us who are as honest as we could or should be. Certainly, in my mind from the start was the idea that George has got to be fuelled by insecurities and a sense of inadequacy and that his true feelings are somewhere hidden beneath. So that we believe in him as a person and don’t just think of him as a force for bad, because he’s not that.”
He clearly feels some affection for the man he plays – however badly George behaves. “He does some hateful things, but there is a love-to-hate aspect about him – there’s a lot to him, which makes him interesting to play.”
It is George’s love for his wife Elizabeth (Heida Reed) that offers him the potential for redemption, and the marriage, against the odds, appears to be working. “He is full of love for her. They have a successful partnership, even if it’s not a deeply love-filled, passionate marriage.
“This series, we felt it when we were shooting and found we were doing scenes – more than ever before – where we were happy together, where there was such a lot of consternation and anguish last year. It was really nice – odd and refreshing.”
With Poldark taking such a political turn this year, I wonder about Farthing’s politics. “I definitely have views,” he says. The last march he went on was the big women’s march in 2017.
Which brings us to Ross’s Sexy Scything Moment – possibly superseded by the Emerging From The Waves Sensation at the start of the latest series. Did he feel sorry for Aidan Turner, or did he have a tiny George-like sliver of envy?
This elicits a roar of laughter. “I can give you the answer that most actors would give – I would take my clothes off if it felt like it belonged in the script. Why should it be any different for men than women? My focus is certainly on acting rather than taking my clothes off but if they come together,” another laugh, “then that’s fine.”
How does he feel about the prevalence of British actors with public-school backgrounds? Is it fair enough that it keeps being pointed out? “It’s totally fair enough,” he says firmly. “The balance is totally off. It’s too one-dimensional. The whole point about this profession is that it’s supposed to mirror the world, but if it’s only mirroring five per cent of the world it’s not doing its job. It’s hard to come up with a solution, but it must start at the beginning with people being given the opportunity to train without having to pay a fortune.”
He is excited about an upcoming film he’s in, where he plays a very different role. With an amazing roll call of talent, including Ralph Fiennes, Matthew Goode, Matt Smith, Rhys Ifans and Tamsin Greig, Official Secrets is about Katharine Gun, the British Intelligence whistleblower who, in the immediate lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, leaked a top-secret memo exposing a joint US-UK illegal spying operation against members of the UN Security Council.
“It was a huge story in The Observer. She was trying to stop them getting approval for a UN resolution for war, which was unfortunately rendered irrelevant because we went to war anyway.”
Gun is played by Keira Knightley and Farthing plays her friend and desk-neighbour at GCHQ, the focus of the first half of the film.
It’s not his first foray into whistleblowing. Two years ago, in Mike Bartlett’s play Wild, he was the lead in a fictionalised version of the Edward Snowden story, set post-leak in a Moscow hotel room.
Who is his favourite celebrity crush? He has moved on from Marion Cotillard to Timothée Chalamet. “He’s a dream as a gender-free subject of adoration by me and the rest of the world because of the film Call Me By Your Name. It’s the most natural and engaging performance.”
Does he have any surprising talents? “I can make bird noises,” he says, demonstrating something so sweetly authentic it sounds like a nightingale warbling in your garden at dusk.
The killer question for an Englishman – does he dance? “Yes, but the circumstances have to be right, and the levels of ‘merriment’, too. I like dancing but I don’t think I’m good at it. Mind you, you can learn.
“There was this moment in Carmen Disruption and I had to do this... very sexy little number. We had this unbelievable choreographer who made me do things that I didn’t know I could do!”
Why not repeat the moves at your next party? “I could, but I’d risk being thrown out!”
And finally, can he cook? “Yes, but again, it’s another thing I’m enthusiastic about but don’t have much expertise in. I need time to plan my menu. So when are you free?”
This article was originally published in the 21-27 July 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine