Poldark star Heida Reed: ‘I’d like to play Miss Julie – she’s feisty, complex… and Scandinavian’
The West End has provided Poldark fans with something of a fix since the BBC show’s fourth series concluded in July.
No sooner has Aidan Turner, the actor behind its eponymous hero, finished his run in The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward Theatre, but his co-star Heida Reed opens a few hundred yards up the road at the Ambassadors Theatre.
Reed, the Icelandic actor who played Poldark’s first love Elizabeth Warleggan, is starring in Foxfinder opposite Olivier award-winner Iwan Rheon. He will bring his own following after playing Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones.
“Hopefully between us we have a good group of fans to put bums on seats,” Reed says, adding there were a few Poldark enthusiasts in the first preview, the night before we meet. “Many will already have gone to see Aidan’s show. Maybe those that aren’t regular theatregoers will get a taste for it. He’s set the bar.”
While television has dominated her career in recent years, Reed was keen to return to the stage and when she was sent the play it seemed perfect.
“It’s been a while since I had been in the theatre and a show in the West End was always something I wanted to do,” she says. “It was amazing to get an opportunity like this.”
Foxfinder, written by Dawn King, was first staged at the Finborough Theatre in 2011, and prompted the Guardian’s reviewer Michael Billington to call it the year’s “most compelling new work”.
Reed did not see that staging – though she subsequently realised Kirsty Besterman, whom she knows, played her character Judith, a farmer struggling with tragedy.
After she was sent the play she couldn’t put it down. It offers a dystopian vision of England in crisis. Food is scarce, fields are flooded and fear of the other grips the land. As Billington pointed out, the play is “clearly a parable”, but it is potentially even more resonant seven years on.
“We’re not forcing the idea that this is relevant, but it’s quite obvious,” Reed says. “People will take what they want from it, but many will connect it to the current state of affairs. It’s post-truth. In this play, truth doesn’t matter anymore.”
It seems no coincidence that just beyond the stage door a cartoon from the New European newspaper is pinned to the wall showing Theresa May holding a cabbage. “Dig for Brexit,” it says. “Make Britain rake again.”
Reed’s only other experience in the West End was as an understudy for Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Trafalgar Studios in 2011 – “I didn’t get on, but we had our own run, which was fun” – and she can see the much revered playwright’s influence on Foxfinder writer King.
“Caryl Churchill is amazing, the way she writes, it was an incredibly technical show in terms of the lines. Your brain was firing on all cylinders.” She adds: “I think I can see an influence from Churchill on Dawn, maybe in the ideology. She had a lot to say about the state of affairs in her time and that’s been passed on.”
We meet at the Ambassadors Theatre just hours after the announcement that the production’s director Rachel O’Riordan, currently artistic director of the Sherman Theatre in Wales, is to take over the equivalent role at the Lyric Hammersmith.
“I knew she had a big job, but she couldn’t say what it was,” Reed says. “It’s great news.”
The actor has enjoyed working with O’Riordan, especially the “raw energy she brings”. She adds: “I completely trust her vision. You feel in capable hands; it’s rare to have such a force of energy to work off.”
Q&A: Heida Reed
What was your first non-theatre job?
In Iceland, teenagers would get government summer jobs like mowing lawns and planting flowers and picking up rubbish. Paid community service, sort of. It was fun.
What was your first professional theatre job?
It was a part in One Day, the adaptation of the David Nicholls’ book. I played one of Jim Sturgess’ character’s many girlfriends. I was almost cut entirely from the film, along with six other characters. You can see me snogging him for a second, but you wouldn’t know it was me.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Tina Fey. Her voice, her view. She very much influences me.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Come in with a clear choice. Even if it isn’t right for them, they will respect you for having made up your mind about where you want to take the character.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Okay, I have some crystals. This is a new thing I picked up in LA. I walked around with a few of these yesterday to bless the space with positive energy. I’ve got into meditation this year.
Reed, whose full name is Heida Run Sigurdardottir, grew up in Iceland. She trained as a ballet dancer and theatre was “always something that I loved. I was used to being on the stage, it was a comfortable feeling,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be there. The stage always felt real and important.” Iceland’s performing arts scene has long been vibrant, she says, adding: “Given how small we are, it’s thriving. The theatre is very much alive. There aren’t many of them, but it’s constantly good.”
At 15, she was spotted by a modelling agency, and three years later she took a term off from school and went with the agency to Mumbai. She ended up staying two years.
“I never really wanted to model, it was just an amazing opportunity to travel, to get paid for it,” she says, and admits she found modelling frustrating. “It was about being the centre of everybody else’s creation rather than being creative yourself.”
So, at 20, she moved to the UK to study acting at Drama Centre London, choosing it over training in New York. “It was nearer Iceland and made more sense. Also, in London, the quality of training is world-class.”
The year before graduating she and fellow drama students took Albert Camus’ play Cross Purpose to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It was the most depressing play of all time. We did it every single day for about 10 people in the audience,” she says.
“It was a great experience, you build a lot of stamina from it. We may have missed a trick. It may be a hilarious play, and we didn’t realise it. I don’t think anyone would want to see it the way we did it.” She says she would love to return to Edinburgh, but do something “a little more light-hearted. It was the first and last time I’d been. I’d like to go back.”
Her biggest stage role until now was at the Southwark Playhouse in Scarlet in 2015, written by her friend Sam Freeman, whom she met at drama school. “We workshopped the play a few years before, so it was amazing to be a part of something from start to finish.”
Then Poldark blew up and there was no time for theatre, “that’s why I’m so grateful for this now,” she adds. On the BBC drama she found a company of actors with similar aspirations to test themselves in theatre and film as well as TV.
Other colleagues of Reed’s familiar to theatre audiences are Jack Farthing, who was in Wild at Hampstead Theatre and Carmen Disruption at the Almeida, and Luke Norris, who was in Ivo van Hove’s A View from the Bridge and Blue/Orange at the Young Vic. “I feel fortunate to be surrounded by them and have been influenced in a good way about how they think,” Reed says. It has got her thinking about ideal roles, and there is one in theatre, which speaks to her background and training.
“I’d really like to play Miss Julie,” she says. “The fact it’s Scandinavian, the fact it’s Strindberg. That she’s feisty and incredibly complex. I think it’s a symbolic play. I workshopped a bit of it at drama school, I remember thinking: ‘I want to do this from start to finish.’ ”
The actor is currently between London and Los Angeles, and has recently starred as the title character in Scandi-noir television drama Stella Blomkvist, back in Iceland.
She is keen to explore different opportunities. “I don’t live in Iceland, I’m not from the UK so I always feel I should be moving around and exploring every opportunity. I just have to make sure I’ve got my fingers in everything,” she says.
“I would really like to settle down somewhere. It will probably be here in London, I’ve been here the longest. Also, LA doesn’t have a theatre and that’s what I really struggle with. If I settled there I’d have to come back here all the time. I couldn’t give up theatre.”
CV: Heida Reed
Born: 1987, Reykjavik
Training: Drama Centre London
• Scarlet, Southwark Playhouse (2015)
• Poldark (2015)
• Stella Blomkvist (2018)
Agent: The Artists Partnership
Foxfinder runs at the Ambassadors Theatre, London, until January 5, 2019