Elizabeth Warleggan, formerly Poldark and née Chynoweth, is far from the most beloved character on Poldark. Her shifting affections, wayward alliances and confusing emotional center could drive even the most devoted fan of the series to hold Elizabeth at a distance. But actor Heida Reed has always seen Elizabeth as a fundamentally good person, with the same flaws that any of us may try to hide. Reed offers her defense in a new interview.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
The divided romantic desires of Elizabeth Chynoweth have been at the core of Poldark’s drama since the beginning of the series four seasons ago. Her heart has always been split between her childhood sweetheart, Ross Poldark, and the more immediate affections of Francis Poldark and George Warleggan. And now in the season finale, Elizabeth has taken her attempts to disguise the parentage of her second child, Valentine, to a new level. In an effort to induce a premature labor for her third child, and thus secure her struggling marriage to George, Elizabeth Warleggan has died.
Elizabeth: Why is it so dark, George? I’m afraid of the dark..
George: Oh my love…do not be afraid, my love. I’m here. All will be well.
Jace: Her quiet, off-screen descent into death is truly a stunning moment, leaving George and Ross, her rival love interests, utterly bereft.
Ross: May I see her?
George Oh yes, by all means, you know where to find her.
Dwight: Ross if I might suggest…
George: You’ve always known where to find her. Go. Go! See what we’ve brought her to!
Jace: Longtime Poldark fans are likely just as devastated, with a mainstay of the series written off just as several disparate plot lines knit together. Actor Heida Reed laments her departure, too.
Heida Reed: It’s easy when you’re filming to overlook how lucky you really are. And now that you know it’s been a few months and I’m looking back and going, ‘Oh I was cold and I was tired, and I right now I wish I was cold and tired with my friends working with all these great people and this amazing, amazing story and amazing show.’
Jace: Reed joins us to discuss Ross, George, and how Elizabeth’s death might leave a lasting mark on her mourners.
Jace: And this week we are joined by Poldark star Heida Reid. Welcome.
Heida: Thank you.
Jace: When did you learn that Elizabeth would be killed off in the final episode of season four?
Heida: I signed on for four years so I knew it would happen in series four, although I kept writing to Debbie kind of every year going, ‘Are you killing her now? Are you killing her now? Because I’d rather you not kill her right away.’ And so when season four came up I remember waiting to go back to filming, and I emailed her again and said, ‘Just wondering, when is she dying, when are you killing her? Is it in the middle, or is it in the beginning?’ And she’s like, ‘No. It’s at the very end. You’re with us to the end,’ and I’m like, ’Okay, okay fine, good.’
Jace: I mean what was that conversation with the producers like where they said, ‘This is the episode.’ What sort of warning did they give you?
Heida: I think it just came up at a dinner at some point, but I just felt like I kept having to re-confirm it with Debbie, because there are so many script changes that are made throughout the process so I was never really sure. But yeah I mean, it’s all written in the books and you know I always knew how she would go. I’m pleased that I got to do the entire season four before I said goodbye.
Jace: I was very surprised that this final episode opened with a flashback sequence set in 1780 before Ross went off to America to fight in the war. Were you surprised reading that when you got to this script?
Heida: Yeah, we got to film it some, you know, Kyle Soller came back from the dead, and so did Agatha, Caroline, and it was amazing to just have like a day of kind of old school Poldark filming with this sort of original cost, and yeah it was really sweet and I was quite emotional when we when we did it, but just really fun.
Jace: I mean that’s one what the facts that you know you’ve got Ruby Bentall, Caroline Blakiston and Kyle Soller, like everybody back in this one room.
Jace: I think would’ve been pretty amazing to sort of tap into not nostalgia, but that sort of sense of memory and community.
Heida: It was definitely, you know — even though it was only four years ago we started — it was very nostalgic for us because Trenwith was and Chavenage House, where we first started filming it, was one of our first kind of filming days, you know, with me Ruby, Kyle and Caroline we were all, that was our main location. So to be able to all come back for that and also for me knowing that that was you know the end of Elizabeth, very soon. Yeah, meant a lot to me, and you just can’t beat that first year of just how we felt or coming together and getting to know each other, because we became such good friends. And then with Jack and and Aidan there too, it was just, yeah it was kind of like yeah it was. It was a great day of filming.
Jace: And were given a glimpse of a much younger much more innocent version of our main characters. Elizabeth and Ross are madly in love, with their entire lives before them. What was it like tapping into that much more hopeful version of Elizabeth?
Heida: It was fun. I mean obviously I haven’t done that in a while. Funnily enough, I always make play lists for my characters and Elizabeth playlists have drastically changed throughout the years and sometimes I go back to the first one and it’s all these like beautiful love songs and these kind of hopeful, dreamy melodies, and it was just nice to go back into that feeling for a few days and it made me realize how far she’s come. Not necessarily in a good way, but just yeah, how much she’s grown and how different she really is from that young, young in love girl.
Jace: Is there a sense that the very complicated feuds of the series, whether it be Ross versus George or Ross versus Francis, have their roots in this particular flashback?
Heida: Yeah, I mean I think at that point no one, not even George and Ross really, have that much of a feud, they were always just been kind of frenemies at that point. So yeah, I think it’s nice to see that flashback, see how it was before and kind of cement a little bit more the fact that what was going on between Ross and and Elizabeth was kind of the spark that started it all. Whereas with Francis I think, I mean, I think Francis was was quite oblivious to his feelings at that point, how he felt about Ross. And yeah, I think he just was in love with Elizabeth and kind of almost accepted he couldn’t have her.
Jace: I love that this scene also brings back Aunt Agatha’s tarot cards where she makes a prediction about Elizabeth.
Aunt Agatha: She’ll break a few hearts and bear beautiful children.
Verity: But who will be their father?
Francis: Well, not us, at any rate.
Jace: And that sort of sums up Elizabeth I think from these past two seasons. Is that is that ultimately the sum of her life, or any woman in the 18th century, that she’ll break a few hearts and bear beautiful children?
Heida: I think so. I always say that I think Elizabeth is very much a woman of her time. She’s born and bred to be a good partner for whoever she marries and to elevate them in society, as well as herself. And yeah, I think you know as Winston said and Debbie emphasized, she was born to be admired, and all she really tries to do in life is to play that role.
Jace: Elizabeth takes on a pseudonym to visit a doctor to obtain some wry ergot fungus which will bring on an early labor. Why is she so desperate to maintain this fiction that Valentine was an eight month baby?
Heida: Because of Valentine came early, she starts having this obsession that if she brings Ursula on early as well, it will cement the fact that she gives birth early, at least to the children she has with George. She lets go of that fact for a while. And then George’s suspicions rise up again, and she’s reminded of the conversation that she had with Ross in the church at the end of season three — she’s under a lot of pressure. Yeah, it’s her last resort.
Jace: I love the fact that it’s actually Geoffrey Charles who makes a very off-handed remark that brings all of this again to the fore, that Valentine looks, quote, ‘the spitting image of Uncle Ross’ and it just sort of creates this sense of anger.
Jace: In George, and this sense of real fear in Elizabeth. Does she think that he’ll believe that Ursula isn’t his as well?
Heida: I think before Geoffrey Charles’ remarks, everything was great, and I think she wasn’t worried, and I think that finally you know got over that hump. And then once Geoffrey Charles says that, it just brings it all back, and I think she feels this is the only way to really prove to him that Ursula is his. It doesn’t quite make sense. But it’s like she’s just trying to repeat a pattern and to sort of seem like, you know, her children are premature.
Jace: Up until this point as you say George and Elizabeth have been surprisingly on the same page as the season. What do you think brought the two of them finally close together?
Heida: I think you know at the end of at the end of season three, when she sort of puts him in his place there’s a sort of a power shift which then eventually sort of evens out. And I feel like finally in season four, they’re on the same level. And once George’s kind of suspicions go away, and he’s able to sort of relax into the relationship and then so is she. And I think there they find like a real mutual fondness and respect for each other. And you know, they are compatible in so many ways and they do want the same things. And you know, they’re finally getting to play off on one another without you know worrying about all the personal conflict that there has been before. And you know they’re a power couple in Corwnall society, and they’re embracing it and they’re loving it.
Jace: Now the Elizabeth we see here is very different than last year’s sort of dark Elizabeth, where she’s sort of drugging herself. You know, what changed within Elizabeth between these two seasons that she is sort of finally able to relax into this role and not be that sort of tradition of the drugged-out wife who is sort of barely holding on. She seems actually quite confident this season.
Heida: I think it was the culmination of everything at the end of season three. I think it was the reconciliation that she had had with Ross in the church. They sort of decided to, you know, put it behind them and move on with their lives and know that they have to be, you know, in each other’s lives and not have it mean anything more than that. I think she was probably just really able to put things aside once and for all and really try and embrace her marriage and see the good in it and see the good in being with George. I think she just got some power. You know, I think she just finally got a little bit of respect and power. And even though it took a while to get it, and it might have been unethical how she did, but she sort of came into her own regardless of how she got there.
Jace: I loved the scene in this episode where Elizabeth and Valentine run into Demelza. It’s a scene that begins really awkwardly, but it ends rather touchingly, as Demelza surprises Elizabeth with a real genuine kindness.
Demelza: I may not see you before, so may I wish you the very best for the season.
Elizabeth: And the new century!
Demelza: May it bring us joy.
Jace: What was it like filming this scene?
Heida: That scene was very emotional for me and Eleanor, because this is the last scene that we ever did together, this was the last time that we ever spoke to each other. We did have some filming days together after that, but Elizabeth and Demelza hardly speak to each other anymore, and in this series almost none at all. So we knew this was the last dialogue we ever had. And this was the last time Elizabeth and Demelza saw each other before Elizabeth died. It was a beautiful day at the church. It’s one of my favorite locations, Sawyle Church, it’s so beautiful. And it’s fun because almost everyone has a scene there, so you get to almost see the entire cost at some point. Yeah, and it was short and sweet, but I remember both of us tearing up and kind of giving each other hug and thinking, ‘Oh that was that was really nice,’ and we haven’t as characters been kind to each other in a long time and it was a nice change.
Jace: Well one of the things I love about it is the fact that there’s so much emotion going on beneath the surface beneath the formality between these two women.
Jace: It says a lot with very little.
Heida: It’s that sort of beautiful kind of reconciliation without knowing that it’s the last time, obviously. But it’s very nice. I think for me and for Elizabeth that she got to end things on a good note with most of the people in her life you know almost like on a on a on a small level she knew maybe she wouldn’t make it. You know how people that know they’re not going to make it, they make amends and they sort of try to set everything right in her life. I think subconsciously it felt like that was going on in her life. She wanted to make sure everything was good with everyone.
Jace: On the subject of amends. Does Elisabeth regret her role in forcing Morwenna to marry Ossie, and does she finally understand what her and George’s actions have done to her poor cousin?
Heida: Yes I think so. I mean I talk to it’s hard to say if she knows the extent of it, although I mean obviously at his funeral, she told them what had been going on. Yeah, I think that really breaks her heart. And I think it was hard for them to know. Obviously in her defense — I will always try and defend her. That’s just my, that’s just my default. You know they both didn’t like him, but they had no idea that he was you know a monster. They just thought he was a bit of a I don’t know a bit.
Heida: Sleazy. Yeah. Disgusting Which is terrible. It’s definitely their fault, for sure. You know, I will say that. She felt very bad and hence why she goes to Morwenna and tries to make amends.
Jace: What’s funny is at first I thought Elizabeth was actually plotting with Lady Whitworth to have Morwenna committed. And that was behind her entreaties to Morwenna to accompany her to Trenwith, and I was like, ‘No! Don’t go with her — don’t go with her!’ Why did she invite her there, and why does she want her to stay? Is it partially connected to taking the ergot.
Heida: I think she’s just lonely and she feels a lot of regret towards Morwenna and you know George has left the house and she’s alone and she’s just trying to connect with her cousin and trying to have just have some kind of a connection with someone.
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Jace: I love the fact too that Elizabeth and Ross seem to have finally gotten past everything, and this season they’re actually friends.
Jace: In a very nice way, particularly after Ross continually comes to the rescue of Geoffrey Charles, on Multiple occasions. How would you describe the dynamic between Ross and Elizabeth in this final season?
Heida: It’s really lovely. Those scenes were really just great to film and do because they were relaxed and they were often happy and fun. You know, they’ve been through so much decades of things together, and it’s just time now to put things away, and establish a new relationship, and they do. And it’s just nice. And the thing with Geoffrey Charles, how he sort of looks after him in London, it’s lovely because obviously there’s always tension between George and Geoffrey Charles and George doesn’t really have any fatherly duties towards Geoffrey, and so Elizabeth highly appreciates that, you know, he has his uncle to take care of him and to look after him when needed. And that in itself creates this nice sort of family bond between her and Ross and is nothing more. It’s just we’ve past that stage and we’re into friendship.
Jace: Now the final exchange in their life occurs when Ross rides to Trenwith to rescue Morwenna.
Ross: Forgive me?
Elizabeth: I do.
Jace: There’s a lot loaded into those two little words. The idea of it. What does that exchange symbolize to you?
Heida: I think in that moment, Ross realizes that his actions have actually sent Elizabeth on this trajectory. You know it does take two of course. You know they’re both at fault in a lot of ways but so is Ross. And I think that’s his way of apologizing for just being a part in Elizabeth ending up where she is right now. I mean of course it’s his fault as well as hers. That’s what he’s apologizing for and that’s what he’s trying to get forgiveness for. And Yes she says I do because she she means it, she’s forgiven him and forgiven herself and forgiven the whole situation I guess.
Jace: So she is under such pressure when it comes time to actually take the potion, as you say, what does it say about her that she’s willing to go to this length given the secret and why given that the doctor tells her, if there are complications to tell a doctor, does she not tell Dwight about it?
Heida: I just think that she doesn’t want a trace or for anyone to be a witness, because if someone else knows something then you know she’s that’s just another thing to worry about in the future. This is sort of final resolve if it works then it’s pretty certain that nothing else will have to come up and this is the one secret that she can keep. With Valentine, it was Agatha and obviously Demelza and Ross that sort of knew. And then this time, even though Dwight’s a doctor, if he knows that it’s just one more person that knows her deepest darkest secret. And I think she just needed it for this time for no one to know so that she could genuinely keep it. Yeah.
Jace: Does she think she’s out of the woods when Ursula is born safely or does she not care about the risk at that point anymore?
Heida: I think she thinks it worked. I mean I think she, you know, she gave birth and George was ecstatic amd he apologized and I think she thinks she got away with it and then her veins start closing up and she gets gangrene.
Jace: It’s horrific, what happens to her. Did you do any research into ergot poisoning, and what actually happens if you did take too much?
Heida: Yeah, I was told that your I guess I guess how it works is that you know your veins sort of tighten or sort of close up, and so you you know there’s no blood flow anymore. And that’s why it works, for some reason works with childbirth because she took too much. They just kept kind of shriveling up, I guess. And and then that way she starts rotting, which is just, yeah it’s just awful.
Jace: Now Ursula’s birth finally brings a close to George’s suspicions. Premature birth is just this sort of quirk of his wife that he’s come to accept. So mission successful. Does she finally feel a sense of relief at this point, or would the truth have always haunted her, even if she had lived?
Heida: I think there is so much that that’s happened that if she dwelled on it she wouldn’t be able to go on with her life. So I think you know how how Elizabeth operates is she buries it deep down and all puts it to the side that’s the only way for her to function. She’s worked too hard and it’s taken too much and been taken too many risks to finally get that. And had she not died, she would’ve just carried on and not thought about it. You know, it takes a while, and I think you know, going back to season three and what you were saying about the her drinking and coping that way and taking the laudanum and stuff that did also have a lot to do with you know things weighing on her, her having secrets that she couldn’t deal with. So I think she would have got to a point where she just learned how to deal with things better, make peace with them, carry on with her life. Because you know, she has three kids to take care of.
Jace: George and Elizabeth’s final scene together is when he’s holding her hand and as it grows dark around her. She says that she’s scared. Is she aware that she’s actually dying here?
Heida: I think it’s just dawning on her. Yeah, that was really painful to read. You know, that it’s dark and she’s scared, because I guess when we die we always, I mean we’re afraid because we don’t know what’s happening. And no one wants to die being afraid. But I guess you know, she didn’t know that she was going to die. So it came as a surprise. She wasn’t ready.
Jace: And she takes that secret with her literally to the grave.
Heida: She does. Which is ironic. She sort of dies in George’s mind now like a saint, which in a way I think Elizabeth’s ego really likes that, you know?
Jace: Oh yes.
Heida: I like to think of Elizabeth as someone who is deep down an honest person. But I don’t think that’s how most people see it. And I think she’s got, you know caught in her own web of lies, only because she’s trying to survive. she never wants to do wrong by anyone or never wants to deliberately inflict pain on anyone even though people might feel like that with Morwenna, she genuinely feels terrible. But there is also about side of her which wants to seem perfect. And at least he’s sort of achieved that at the end. She dies having George believe that she’s basically a saint. She is that perfect person that she worked so hard trying to be all her life. And you know at least you achieved that, she’s sort of…I mean this is an epiphany to me. Now she’s she’s kind of in a twisted way achieved her main goal in life, which was to be that you know the perfect woman in society the perfect partner.
Jace: So what was what was the last scene that you shot on Poldark?
Heida: The last scene was it was quite small. It was in the casino. When I go with George to the casino. And yeah it was a funny day, it was, I think it was my only scene that day or those two scenes. I and Jack had you know exchanged presents and sort of you know spent some time in each of those trailers just kind of like reminiscing and going over everything. He’s like the best partner anyone could ask for. He only elevates anybody that he would work with. So it was very hard to say goodbye to him. He’s a great friend, so I still see him. But you know we’ve been through so much together you know I’ve had more scenes with him than anybody you know. It was Kyle, then a lot with Aidan, but Elizabeth was married to George and then yeah they gave me some flowers and they gave me the vial that my laudanum drops came out. So I have that little. Well I actually hated, because it kept directing. So every time I had to use it. There were drops everywhere and someone had to come clean it. So I thought that was quite ironic to me gave that to me with a little bow. But it was great. I mean yeah it was quite strange and emotional. And you know we all celebrated afterwards. And later on in London we had a big dinner. And yeah, we’re a very tight knit cast and and crew. And I just felt a lot of love from everyone and it’s definitely like a hard hard thing to leave.
Jace: Now Elizabeth may be dead. Her death certainly won’t heal the widening rift between Ross and George. What effect do you think that Elizabeth dying will leave on these two men?
Heida: I have no idea. I think they’ll probably still hate each other. I think they’ll probably blame each other for like having a part in her demise in some way, or maybe the fact that she’s the main reason for their feud. Maybe they’ll kind of let it go. I highly doubt that. I mean if they do then what’s the show about?
Jace: They just become best friends. And throw parties.
Heida: This would be fun to see.
Jace: We’ve seen that the dead can return on Poldark, at least in flashbacks.
Jace: Is there any chance you might be back in season five for another flashback?
Heida: I don’t know if I can comment on that.
Jace: Watch this space.
Heida: I know nothing, I know nothing.
Jace: What will you miss most about your time on Poldark?
Heida: Just the camaraderie. It’s easy when you’re filming to overlook how lucky you really are. And now that you know it’s been a few months and I’m looking back and going oh I was cold and I was tired. And I right now I wish I was cold and tired with my friends working with all these great people and this amazing, amazing story and amazing show. I think what I miss the most. Well just yeah. I mean obviously it will be the people but just the fact that it went on for this long and you came in for work you know and everyone knew each other and it was it was such a comfortable relaxed atmosphere and that was just really nice and you don’t always have that working in film and television because, you might not get that much time with people you might not get to run for that long. So I’ll miss the people and I’ll miss Elizabeth.
Jace: Do you have a favorite scene from last four seasons of Poldark?
Heida: I really like the scene I did with Aidan this season, when we’re outside and we chat and Monk Adderly comes over and they have a little back and forth.
Elizabeth: But he’s so worldy-wise, Ross. So blasé for one so young.
Ross: He’ll grow out of it. Francis was no different when he was at that age.
Elizabeth: You think him like Francis?
Ross: In the better ways, yes. And Valentine?
Elizabeth: He’s well.
Ross: And George? His suspicions.
Elizabeth: Gone. And will only return if he has cause. Such as your coming here tonight.
Monk: Madam, is this gentleman annoying you?
Elizabeth: Uh…no, not at all.
Ross: Why would you suppose it likely?
Heida: I liked playing that relationship the fact that they were kind of easy and friendly with each other and it was just a fun kind of relaxed, sweet scene that I enjoyed.
Jace: And we talked about what you’re going to miss most about Poldark, but I’m curious what you will miss most about playing Elizabeth?
Heida: That’s a tough one. I guess I’ll just miss how eloquent and sort of poised she is. You know I’m very much the opposite. She always kind of you know knows what to say. She always says the right things she always composes herself. And it’s it was really interesting to play that I was really fun to play that and yes she’s a classy lady. I think I’ll miss just playing that class I guess so not the corsets that I won’t miss the clothes. Unfortunately I think I mean she’s been so lucky. I mean I’ve been so lucky with how beautiful they’ve made her look. But you know it’s as long now as.
Jace: You grew up outside Reykjavik. What inspired you to become an actor?
Heida: I just always acted like a fool running around and making little plays and singing songs and my dad just suggested you might be suited to being an actress. And I never forgot it. And I think I was 8 years old and it just stuck in my head and that was my. That was my goal from there on. From that moment on.
Jace: Now you’re at your stage name is Heida Reed. I am not going to try and mangle your your birth name.
Heida: Oh give us a go.
Jace: Heida Rún Sigurðardóttir
Heida: Yeah I feel like you took a shortcut.
Jace: I did I sort of just breezed over many of those consonants.
Heida: Better than a lot of people would.
Jace: How would you say it?
Heida: Heida Rún Sigurðardóttir.
Jace: That sounds beautiful.
Heida: Thank you.
Jace: That’s amazing and I definitely could not not have could not have gotten that.
Heida: It’s been butchered in every way possible.
Jace: Heida Reed, thank you so much.
Heida: Thank you for having me.
Jace: In a special bonus episode of the podcast, Poldark head writer Debbie Horsfield joins us to unpack the ups and downs of the fourth season of her series, and offers a few tantalizing hints of the fifth and final season still to come. Be sure and check your podcast feeds this Wednesday.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking Cruises and The MASTERPIECE Trust.
Heida: So elves is sort of the broad term for it. And the sort of direct translation we would use in Iceland is hidden people…They didn’t make the road because they think deep down Icelandic people are terrified of being cursed by the hidden people.
Jace: That’s amazing.
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