'I Want to Be Challenged Every Day': Q&A with <em>Poldark's</em> Heida Reed

If you watched the BBC show Poldark this year (which aired in the U.S. on PBS), you're not alone; the 2015 remake of the 1970s hit series attracted huge numbers of viewers around the world, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the second season of the show, set to air in 2016.
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Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth in the BBC series Poldark, wearing her favorite tricorn hat. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.

If you watched the BBC show Poldark this year (which aired in the U.S. on PBS), you're not alone; the 2015 remake of the 1970s hit series attracted huge numbers of viewers around the world, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the second season of the show, set to air in 2016.

And, of course, one of the things we love most about Poldark is the abundance of strong female characters, including Elizabeth Chynoweth, who is portrayed in the new series with beauty, grace, and strength by actress Heida Reed.

I was delighted at the opportunity to interview Heida, but my interest in talking with her was even more greatly piqued when I found out she hails from Iceland, a spectacular country which I visited two years ago.

I'm so grateful Heida agreed to chat with me, especially considering she's very hard at work these days filming Poldark season two. Below are some of Heida's thoughts on Iceland, Poldark, acting, and life. Thank you, Heida!

See also my interviews with Aidan Turner ("Ross Poldark") and Robin Ellis (the "original" "Ross Poldark" from the 1970s series).

Q: I visited Iceland in 2013 to write a book about it, so I've done a lot of research on the country. There are a lot of conflicting opinions concerning the lovability (or lack of lovability) of Iceland in winter. Give me your insider's insight: Winter in Iceland is ________?

A: Winter in Iceland is harsh but beautiful. If you're cold, all the houses are geothermally heated. So is the water and it is always warm and cosy inside. It's the wind that's the worst. If it's calm, there's nothing you won't love.

Q: Would you recommend people visit in winter?

A: Absolutely. Only way to see the northen lights properly. If it's snowing, there's nothing like it.

Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing, and Kyle Soller visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida's photos via Twitter used with permission.

Q: What are some of your favorite destinations in Iceland that you would recommend?

A: I always go to the Blue Lagoon. Have lobster soup at this old bait shop "The Sea Baron" down by the harbour in Reykjavík. The Golden Circle which consists of the national park, a waterfall and the hot spring geysirs. The Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón) and the Westfjords.

Q: Iceland is now a hot travel destination, but that's a fairly recent development. You grew up there (near Reykjavík) before Iceland was really "discovered" by the outside world. (Is that a fair assessment?) What was it like growing up in Iceland? Did it feel isolated? What made you want to leave?

It has definitely changed since I grew up there in terms of tourism. The places I've mentioned before were mostly just visited by natives and there wasn't much structure around them. Now it's a little different but still great. Iceland has never felt isolated to me. Due to the second world war and British and American soldiers stationing on the island, it has since been very Americanised when it comes to popular culture and the media. I loved growing up in Iceland. Nature is very important to us and we try our hardest to preserve it. Wherever you live on the island you're always by the sea. No one really lives inland. There's a feeling of infinity that comes with being by the sea. As soon as I'm by it, I feel I can breathe properly. I left because I wanted an international career and to study in English. Our language is only spoken by 300,000 people and therefore it is a bit tricky to approach a career abroad without expanding your language skills.

Eleanor Tomlinson ("Demelza Carne Poldark") and Aidan Turner ("Ross Poldark") at Heida's for dinner, not eating fermented shark. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Hákarl (fermented shark): Yes or no?

A: I've never had it. I think it's something they seem to force on tourists. Although eating it is an old Viking tradition.

Q: Your original name is Heiða Rún Sigurðardóttir. Can you explain the Icelandic last-name system? Does having the last name of Sigurðardóttir mean you are related to other Sigurðardóttirs?

A: No! My dad's name is Sigurðar, therefore I am the daughter of Sigurðar; Sigurðardóttir. My brother is the son of Sigurðar; Sigurðsson.

[Learn more about Icelandic names.]

Q: What made you want to change your last name, and how did you choose Reed?

A: Well I think it's obvious why I changed it. I've never met a person abroad who can actually pronounce it. My middle name is Rún. As in "rune" like the secret runes in ancient Icelandic magic. At first I changed it to Heida Rune, but was advised later on to just change it to something more English. A friend suggested Reed, and I thought it sounded nice. Sometimes I wish I'd given it more thought than that, but I quite like it most days.

Heida with Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall ("Verity Poldark") and Jack Farthing ("George Warleggan"). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: How would you describe the character of Elizabeth Chynoweth, your role in Poldark? What are her best strengths, her most challenging weaknesses?

A: Elizabeth is very much a girl of her time. Ross is right when he says, she was born to be admired. It's not so much that that is what she lives for, but it's all she knows. She has been taught from birth how to behave and act in polite society and to always do what is expected of her. I always say Elizabeth is cursed with doing the right and proper thing and seems to be continually punished for her decisions. She lacks the courage of her own convictions, as she says to Ross when Verity runs off to be with Blamey. Her biggest weakness would be the deep need she has for Ross's admiration. She loves him, but even though she knows she can't have him, she still needs to know that a part of his heart belongs to her.

Q: You've said that Debbie Horsfield's portrayal of Elizabeth is somewhat different than the Elizabeth created by Winston Graham in the original books. For those who haven't read the books, tell us more about what you see as the differences?

A: In the books Elizabeth is a lot colder and more matter of fact. It seems sometimes unfathomable why someone like Ross would hold such a big torch for someone so lacking in warmth. Debbie's version of Elizabeth is just a lot more rounded. She's not the warmest person in the world, but she is written with the idea in mind that you would at least understand why Ross could have loved her so. Also if she starts off hard and cold and stays that way throughout the story, that is very monotonous for an actor to perform. Then she has nowhere to go because, later on, she does have a reason to harden somewhat. At the beginning of the story, I don't think she does.

Heida on location for Poldark, riding side saddle on her horse Dylan. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: If Elizabeth were a modern-day woman, living in 2015, what would her life be? Would she be working? Married to a prince? A CEO of a company? Who would she be?

A: To be honest I think is impossible to say how she would be if she didn't have to live up to the standards she has to in the 18th century. But if I'd had to take a guess I don't think she would be career driven. She would probably be married to a wealthy man who adores her. I think her focus would be family, children, and society.

Q: Through no fault of her own, Elizabeth has taken quite a fall in social standing by the end of the first season of Poldark. And, basically, she had no control over that, due simply to the fact of being a woman. Has your experience with Poldark given you pause to think about the state of womanhood throughout history, and how far we have--or haven't--come?

A: Absolutely. Having been raised in a modern, liberal society as an independent woman whose choices in life are limitless, it is actually incredibly hard to put yourself in the shoes and mindframe of a woman whose life is laid out for her and livelihood depends on the financial success of her husband. Of course we have come along way in the battle for gender equality but we have a lot more to achieve before we can count ourselves equal.

Heida in Iceland in autumn. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Before you saw any Poldark season two scripts, you said you were looking forward to Elizabeth having a stronger character in season two than she did in season one. Now that you've seen the scripts, are you pleased with what you're seeing?

A: Very much so. There's a much bigger journey she goes on in the second series. Mainly due to the fact that there is more to deal with. She is put in impossible situations and she has to either live or perish in those conditions.

Q: I saw in interviews somewhere that both you and Eleanor Tomlinson each think that your own character is best for Ross Poldark. (That is, you think Elizabeth is best for him, and Eleanor thinks Demelza is.) Why do you think Elizabeth would be best for him? Why not Demelza?

A: I think I said, It would have worked out, had they ended up together. Whether she's best for Ross or not, I can't say. I'm not sure about that necessarily. I think the question should be Who's best for Elizabeth? ;)

[Pam's note: Indeed!!]

Heida on location filming Poldark with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: I've heard actors say that when they take on a role, in order to convincingly play the character they have to love and believe in the character--even if, to the outside world, the character is an unlikeable villain. Do you agree? Tell me more.

A: I agree. I think you need to believe in your character the way they would themselves if they were real. I try not to objectify them as one thing. That way they can't breathe the way they deserve to. I've definitely taken it personally when I've seen comments about Elizabeth being a bitch or a wet blanket. But then so would she. Of course I'm able to separate myself from what is aimed at her and what is aimed at me, but I take it as a good thing when I take it personally. Because it means I am fighting for her. With her. I see things from her perspective no matter whether her intentions and actions are right or wrong. That is not up to me to judge. That's the audience's job.

Q: If you had to act in a different role on Poldark, which would you choose and why? Either male or female!

A: I think I'd like to be George. He has such a machiavellian mentality which is a joy to play as an actor.

Q: When you think about the huge success of Poldark, is that thrilling--as in, "finally, I've made it!"--or is it scary, as in, "what if this is the biggest role I'll ever have?" Does it feel intimidating, like there's no way anything else can match the success? Or does that knowledge offer a sort of solace, like the pressure is off?

A: No the pressure I put on myself is never off. I don't see this as the "I've made it" role, but then I don't think I ever will with any of them. If you have that mentality I think you're in danger of your work suffering once you think your "moment has arrived." I'll never think I've made it. I'll always want to feel like I'm on my way rather than at some end post. Because what do you do once you've reached it?

Heida in Scarlett. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Earlier this year, you performed in Scarlet at London's Southwark Playhouse, a play about a victim of revenge porn. You've said the play was about sexual identity, self acceptance, online bullying, and the expectations that people have of young women. That's a very different role from Elizabeth in Poldark! Is it a goal/priority to choose a wide variety of roles to showcase different aspects of your talent or grow your own skills, or do you just take on what is interesting and available in the moment?

A: I think it's a combination of all of that. I certainly hope to get to play as many varied roles as possible during my career. It's not so much about showcasing different aspects of my talent. It is more about telling different stories through different characters. Scarlet's story is extremely important in the society we live in today and I am very proud to have been a part of that work.

Q: You love board games. Favorites? Why?

A: I love Pictionary, Actionary and Trivial Pursuit and I'm obsessed with Cards Against Humanity. We play it on set all the time! Board games and cards just make me laugh. The more serious people are with the rules the better. I just think it brings out the best and worst in people and it makes me laugh so much.

Heida and others from the cast and crew of Poldark, bowling. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: You love traveling. Dream destinations? Why?

A: I want to go to Fiji and Bali and Nepal. I'm in love with the East. I love the mentality there and the landscape is so beautiful and different from Europe.

Q: You're in your late 20s, which is generally a time of a lot of soul-searching and thinking. Has that been the case for you, as well? If so, what are the Big Issues you think about? What do you think matters; what is your Truth?

A: The older I get, the more I realise that I know nothing. But that's ok. There's freedom in accepting that not everything is black and white and you can't always define things. I think my truth lies somewhere in the acceptance of uncertainty and being able to put my ego aside in order to be honest with myself and others.

Q: What are your short- and long-term hopes, goals and dreams? What do you want?

A: I want to keep working, I want to work with my idols, I want my work to take me to all kinds of different places, I want to be challenged every day and with every new role and fellow actor, I want to challenge them back and create something that affects whoever's watching. I want to share my life with amazing people who take me as I am, flawed in so many ways, but unapologetic.

Follow Heida on Twitter and Instagram.

Find Poldark on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also published on my blog at pamstucky.com.

Somewhere between funny and philosophical lies the truth in Pam Stucky's writing. Pam is the author of several books including the Wishing Rock series (Northern Exposure-esque contemporary fiction, with wit, wisdom and recipes); the Pam on the Map travelogues (wit and wanderlust); and the YA Sci-Fi The Universes Inside the Lighthouse (wonder and wisdom). Pam's driving forces are curiosity, the pursuit of happiness, the desire to thrive and the joy in seeing others do the same. Pam is currently working on writing novels and screenplays.

Find out more about Pam and check out her personal manifesto at pamstucky.com
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