Cast Interview: Jack Farthing
Poldark’s ultimate villain has broken our hearts and stolen our sympathies! How did he do it? Find out in MASTERPIECE’s exclusive interview with actor Jack Farthing, who talks George Warleggan’s journey, madness…and Marvel! Make sure to see the Series Finale before reading Part II—George and Jack Farthing saved the very best for last!
MASTERPIECE: What was it like for you this season since Poldark went off-book, to discover that George had such a great story line?
FARTHING: Obviously, very exciting. I think we were all very excited about Debbie [Hosefield, Poldark‘s writer] having the chance to inject some more of her own personal stuff. We’ve all got to know and love Debbie over five years, and she’s just done a masterful job of getting inside Winston Graham’s head and bringing those books to the screen. But she’s an incredibly talented writer of original material herself, so I think it felt right and exciting to all of us that for the last series, that she would take more of a lead in actually designing the stories and pushing these characters in different directions.
That in itself was very exciting. But obviously, I was thrilled and daunted and intimidated by what Debbie had in mind for George this year. I love the challenges that this character has brought, and by far the most exciting stuff for me has been the surprising stuff, the unpredictable things, the wrong-footing, and I think Debbie likes that too. And this was this kind of grand, epic-scale one of those. So, I relished the challenge, and just hope that it paid off.
It was a kind of terrifying stage direction, as an actor. Because you read it and you think, “Oh, my God. How…that’s ridiculous. How am I going to do that?”–Jack Farthing
MASTERPIECE: What George endures is just harrowing and heartbreaking. What was your process for portraying his descent into mental illness?
FARTHING: Well, it was long. It’s an intimidating prospect to read that stuff on the page, and you realize that you have a responsibility to try and get it right and make it feel real and do justice to it. That’s a very real thing, complicated grief, and in a way, he’s post-traumatic, and he is definitely put through it all. My process, I guess, started with trying to learn about that stuff a lot more. I have experienced grief, but I’ve never experienced grief like he has, in such kind of proximity and with such power and scale, so I spoke to a couple of psychologists who deal specifically with people who are going through things like that. I tried to get a sense of the range of responses and reactions that these medical professionals had experienced, and tried to find bits that felt like they chimed with George. And it’s a process, I guess, of trying to make it feel as real, for me, as I can, and turning it from a piece of fiction in a book or on a page to something very real that I can feel and be present with when I’m there doing it.
So I spoke to those people, I read a lot of books, a lot of fiction about grief, a lot of accounts about people going through it, watched a lot of stuff. And yeah, and me and Debbie sat down a lot before we started filming and kind of tinkered and made little additions, little subtractions, based on conversations I’d been having with these people who obviously know a huge amount more than I do about it. And that was it, really, a long and slow burn kind of process of me trying to learn about what it might feel like to go through that stuff and us trying to present it as authentically as we can. Luckily, I had a bit of time to do it.
MASTERPIECE: It’s funny—the show has so much that’s pleasurable in it, but it seems to me like a production that, when it goes to dark places, there’s a lot of respect and room to get it right, for people who suffer now, like when Ellise Chappell [Morwenna] was preparing for some of her hardest scenes. I’m hearing a similar thing from you, and I think maybe that speaks to the production.
FARTHING: I think it does too, absolutely. They take that stuff very seriously. No one wants to be glib or generalized or thoughtless about it—people who are watching the show are people now, and these are universal things, people go through this stuff all the time. And it’s only right that it should be given the room, as you say, and respect that I hope we give it. I definitely think, without trying to sound grand or anything, there is a responsibility when you put these things on TV. Because you are dealing with people who will sit and watch them in their living room. And they might have gone through, as I say, something very similar. And you want them to connect with it. You don’t want them to feel cheapened or pushed away or short-changed. You want them to connect with it and think, “Wow, I can relate to this, because it’s such is speaking to me in a very personal way.” And I guess that if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can reach people like that, connect with them, then I think that is the ultimate prize, as a creative person.
MASTERPIECE: Can you describe making that harrowing scene where George is at the edge of the cliff, about to take his life, until Dwight rescues him? What was that like?
FARTHING: [George is] at his absolute lowest there, but we had this beautiful dusk on Gwennap head, those rocky cliffs. And it was just Luke [Norris] and I, and it was a very small crew, and the sun was setting, and it was just unbearably beautiful.
MASTERPIECE: I would’ve thought that, that would’ve been just terrifying. I suppose you weren’t dangled out really over the ledge. But it looked like you were.
FARTHING: Yeah, I know! Spoiler, I was attached to a rope.
MASTERPIECE: I should hope so!
FARTHING: Yeah, I know! Insurance wouldn’t allow it otherwise. What we wanted, which is what we ended up with, is for me to really fall and be pulled back. Obviously, you can’t do that without being attached to something. And I mean it, I’m not that wonderful with heights, so it was scary—but it was good. It was one of those things where you’re given this stuff as an actor on a scene, you’re given so much stuff for free, and you just let it in, and use it, and let it become a part of the scene, rather than having to manufacture that feeling, of kind of, “Oh my God. I’m jumping over the edge.” We didn’t have to do it in front of a green screen. It was all there. It was incredible.
MASTERPIECE: George’s recovery is almost as heartbreaking as his rock-bottom. And your answer to my question might be just, “acting”… but what I really want to know is, by what dark magic did you achieve this total coup where our sympathies come to lie with George, entirely?! You slay us. Do you think it’s because he loves Elizabeth so much, and as an audience, we sympathize with that? Or do you think it’s because these scenes are with Dwight and they’re sharing something indelibly horrific? Or do you think it’s just because we now know he’s human? What did you get to that made this work?
FARTHING: I think everything that you say is totally spot on…I think the fact that we’ve now realized that he has real feelings for Elizabeth is true. I think, obviously, Dwight is a real force for good. He’s been through some terrible things himself, so I think his presence enhances it all. But I would totally credit just the fact that Debbie has created a complex character who is capable of two things simultaneously, like we all are. We don’t behave in one way. We are constantly behaving out of character or surprisingly, depending on who we’re with and what we’re going through and how we’re feeling that day. So I guess I would suggest that everyone is capable of appearing devilish and nasty one day and finding your sympathy the next. That’s just quite a human thing.
But I definitely think Elizabeth is key. Over the last two, three years, it’s become apparent to people that those feelings are real and that it’s not just about a trophy on the shelf; he’s deeply in love with her and has been forever, really. And so, it’s a crack into him—you see his vulnerability, and you realize that without her, he is just reduced to nothing. So I think I would credit George and his complexity more than I would credit me, definitely.
MASTERPIECE: That’s a very un-George answer, I love it! So to look at a scene that’s the reverse of what you were saying, where you can be devilish and then sympathetic, can you talk about George’s recovery? After this cathartic cry, Dwight and George are sitting side-by-side. And then, there’s this moment where George has pulled himself together. And such an interesting thing happens right before your eyes: he just returns to this callous and transactional world view. It reminded me almost of how in a Marvel movie, a villain is dead, and then it sort of regenerates! We think, “Ugh, there he is, back to himself again. But maybe he is changed?” What would you say is going on with George right there?
FARTHING: Well, I remember very clearly—that scene stuck out in the script, and it was in the schedule; it was sort of terrifying and approaching slowly. And I remember that moment very particularly. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it was something along the lines of what you just described, that he’s crying, he’s crying, he’s crying, and then suddenly he stops, and it’s like he’s started the process of recovery. He’s started coming back…. I wish I could remember the exact wording, because obviously, Debbie has worded it much more succinctly.
But it was a kind of terrifying stage direction as an actor. Because you read it and you think, “Oh, my God. How… that’s ridiculous. How am I going to do that?” I think it was supposed to feel like a very cathartic moment, the thing that George had been denying this whole time: physically confronting that moment, being back in the room, looking back at that bed, and accepting that it had happened, and he had been there, and she was gone. And it was… it’s kind of CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy], I guess, that thing where you’re forced to confront what you’ve been denying. And and it does lead to this moment, which is a kind of pivotal change for him, for sure.
It’s interesting, because you would never expect George to allow to himself to be that vulnerable in front of someone, especially not someone like Dwight. But everything is thrown out the window. It’s like all bets are off. He just is totally kind of dissolved in that moment. But then, as you say, he kind of begins his regeneration. I wish I’d had kind of Marvel in my head, would be really useful! It is like he starts this thing—he takes a breath, he accepts what’s just happened, and immediately, he starts putting brick on brick and building up his wall again. And that’s how he does it. He’s building that shell around him again.
MASTERPIECE: And what do you think you’ll miss the most about playing George?
FARTHING: I’ll miss hanging out in those unbelievable houses. He has a great taste in interior design, maybe a bit flashier than mine, but he definitely knows how to pick a desk or an armchair. It was so nice—you step onto those sets or those houses and you think, “Oh, God, the story’s already told. I just need to sit here, and it’s all there.” So that was lovely.
And I guess…the fun. I really like playing people who are very smart. He’s very smart and very good at what he does. And he’s very decisive. And I think that’s quite fun, because you’re capable of, kind of, quick and interesting choices. So I’ll miss that, for sure, I’ll miss that. But I won’t miss is how kind of held and how tight he is and how much he’s kind of constantly acting. He’s constantly playing a part, and pretending. So that’s quite stressful. It’s strangely tiring, being that kind of uptight.
MASTERPIECE: Over the seasons, George has gone on this journey from the grandson of a blacksmith with a chip on his shoulder—who, by the way, was bullied by Ross when he was young, which I don’t like! I like to remind people of that—
FARTHING: Absolutely, quite right!
MASTERPIECE: He’s gone through these major life events of becoming a husband and a father and an MP and experiencing grief. What has been the most satisfying thing to you about his journey?
FARTHING: I guess the most satisfying thing is how far he’s come. It’s rare that you have the chance to play a character who travels that far, who changes that much, even just over five years. A lot more time passed during the series than five years, but it really allowed all of the characters to really go somewhere. Demelza is another perfect example, you think how far she came from where we first met her.
But with George, I was given the opportunity to really travel somewhere with him. And I really embraced, as I was saying before, the stuff that felt almost out of character. Because it wasn’t out of character. It’s just him and the very different sides of himself. So I guess that’s the most satisfying thing, being given the opportunity to really go somewhere and give in a way, what feels like a whole lifetime, with how far he goes.
PART II: Contains Finale Spoilers
MASTERPIECE: And now, let’s talk about the finale! George hasn’t had much luck with his pistols in Season Five—in his hallucination, Imaginary Ross taunts him by saying, “You always had terrible aim!” But when it really counts, his aim is right on! What led him to shoot Toussaint and Hanson, and above all, to save Ross?
FARTHING: Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it? I think that since he lost Elizabeth, the volume of her voice as a kind of moral compass has gone up and up and up in his ear. She has been physically with him as a hallucination, since she’s gone. But I think her views, her thoughts, her sympathies, her love, has been with him even more. And those were the reasons that I found.
In that build up to the finale, he’s got this opportunity to have some petty revenge on Ross. A younger George would have leapt at that, and I think he does—just through a kind of muscle memory, he finds himself leaping at that going, “Great, how can we get one over on him and Geoffrey Charles?” And then gradually, he realizes that he’s in deeper than he thinks, and both he and his uncle are surprised by the extent of the Hanson and Merceron duo’s power and danger. He realizes that actually, he doesn’t agree with what they’re doing, that it’s not right, and were Elizabeth here, she would be telling him the opposite. So he courageously goes against what he might normally do, and goes against himself in a way, and tries to make the higher choice.
MASTERPIECE: Do you think that he got a chance to enjoy actually being the hero? He went through so much, I wanted him to have that moment.
FARTHING: I think he was terrified. I think he did this thing, almost instinctively, and then couldn’t believe that he’d done it and couldn’t believe that someone had died and was immediately terrified about the consequences of his actions. So I’m not sure he really had a moment, not that we saw anyway, to appreciate what he’d done. Maybe when he got back home and he sat down, he thought, “Hang on, maybe this is good. Maybe this is good. Elizabeth would have thanked me for this.”
MASTERPIECE: I hope so!
FARTHING: Yeah, I hope so too.
MASTERPIECE: Then he goes to Nampara, and asks that Valentine be refused there in the future, saying, “After all, he is no relation.” That’s a tricky moment.
FARTHING: It was.
MASTERPIECE: Do you think that George believes this? I kind of want that preserved for him too. I can’t believe that I’m siding with him like this!
FARTHING: No, it’s good, I’m glad you are. I think it was a very tricky moment. It was another one that I read on the page and thought, “Wow, this is difficult. What is the tone here? How do we sell this and keep their history?” And I guess my final thoughts for it, when we were doing it, were that by saying that, “He is after all, no relation,” he is putting the possibility of that not being true very much in the room. He is accepting, in front of Ross and Demelza, that this is a possibility, but it’s not something that he can entertain. And he’s asking them not to entertain it either for the benefit of everyone, really. And it’s a very difficult thing.
I think, as I said before, the one thing George isn’t, is an idiot, so I don’t think he’s in the dark, obviously. He knows that, whatever the likelihood is, it’s probably more likely than not that this might be Ross’s child, but this is not something that they can entertain. And so, it’s simultaneously a gesture of humility, at the same time totally saving face, asking them to be as hard about it as he is.
MASTERPIECE: He’s sort of creating and presenting the narrative.
FARTHING: Yeah, exactly, exactly. He’s writing the last page of that story.
MASTERPIECE: Now that the series is over, what do you think you might wish for George’s future (regardless of what is ahead in Winston Graham’s books)?
FARTHING: I don’t know, I guess I want him to…I don’t know if he should remarry and start again. Probably he should—that was the thing to do at the time, that would be the norm, I guess. People died much younger than Elizabeth all the time, and they would remarry and carry on and start again. But I guess I wish that he learns a bit more kind of self-knowledge, and learns know himself and accept who he is, more than fight against it. Because I think that’s the key to everything. I think he never quite accepted who he is, and he’s always pushed and pretended to be someone else. And so I hope that maybe this experience of the loss and him taking charge of his life has grounded him a bit. Yeah, so I guess that’s what I’d hope. It’s funny—I obviously have deep affection for him, because I’ve gotten to know him very well, so it’s a strange thing. I have sort of strange feelings towards him.
MASTERPIECE: Well, I think maybe because you’ve inhabited him, it’s more complicated. I’m like, “I think I’d like George to find love again.” But you’ve lived with him, and so it makes sense that it would be a little more complex than that.
FARTHING: I guess the story I’ve been telling myself the whole of Series Five was that there was no one else. So in my version, I’m not sure that he would find love again.
MASTERPIECE: I think if he just allowed Demelza to play matchmaker someday…
FARTHING: Yeah, she’d sort it out.
MASTERPIECE: It’s fundamentally heartbreaking when George leaves Trenwith at the end. I know that you film out of sequence, but did you feel at all like George as that carriage pulled away? Did you feel, either in that moment or another moment, any weight of all this work you’ve done, and this life experience you’ve had, ending?
FARTHING: Well, yes, as you say, we film out of sequence, so that certainly wasn’t the last thing I filmed. But I remember very clearly knowing that this is my last scene, this is George’s last scene in the show. Chavenage house, which was Trenwith, has been the most Poldark house for me, the first place I ever filmed on the show, and it’s synonymous with the whole experience for me. So it was very sad, and I absolutely remember shooting that. We were probably only halfway through the shoot when we shot that; there was so much left to do, we couldn’t linger, we had to move on and start filming the next scene. But I have had the opportunity—as we came to an end in the filming, it starts to dawn on you how much of the last five years you’ve given to this show and how grateful we are. It’s too big, really, to compute at the time, but the process of watching it and hearing how nicely people have received it is just nice. I think the feeling is celebratory as opposed to grief-stricken. I’ve done that. I’m moving onto something better.
MASTERPIECE: You sat down with Doctor Dwight and worked through it.
FARTHING: Yeah, exactly, Luke [Norris] has helped me through.
MASTERPIECE: Now for our Lightning Round. You’ll be answering as yourself, not George…So, who would you rather spend time with, Tom Harry or Harry Harry?
FARTHING: Neither. Do I have to answer that? They’re horrific. They’re just such awful people. Maybe I’d say Tom Harry, I guess I know that character better and maybe I could find ways around him. But they’re both horrid.
MASTERPIECE: Would you rather play cards with Aunt Agatha or have dinner with Ossie?
FARTHING: Definitely play cards with Aunt Agatha. Agatha is the greatest—although George struggles to admit it, I definitely know that she is the greatest, so I would play cards with her in a heartbeat.
MASTERPIECE: Which season’s Geoffrey Charles was the best at getting under George’s skin?
FARTHING: They’ve had sort of different ways in, but what’s been nice this year is that Geoffrey Charles has really grown up, and he’s got his father’s number more and knows how to really get under the skin. For example, I think none of the Geoffrey Charles’s have thwarted George in the way that Freddie Wise’s Geoffrey Charles, this year, was able to, at the church with Cecily at George and Cecily’s wedding. So I say probably this year’s Geoffrey Charles. As the oldest, he’s the most equipped to damage, or thwart, George.
MASTERPIECE: Which would you rather own: a borough, like George bought, or a burro, like a donkey?
FARTHING: I’d like a full borough, and then I could fill it with burros.