Role reversal

Since swapping art history for drama and the US for the UK, Poldark’s Kyle Soller has barely looked back

You’re a young actor with a passion for Shakespeare. You’ve been cast in The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses, the second part of the BBC’s epic adaptation of the Bard’s history plays. And you’re working alongside the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo, Keeley Hawes and Andrew Scott.

For US-born Kyle Soller, it’s a career-defining moment. It was Shakespeare who first lured him to London – he came for a drama summer school, won a place at RADA, and decided to stay.

A decade later, Kyle is playing Young Clifford in Henry VI Part II, part of the The Hollow Crown series. What was it like to be part of such an epic production in the 400th anniversary year of the Bard’s death? “I really had to pinch myself,” he laughs. “I felt so lucky… I was watching Henry VI Part I and II last night. When the opening credits rolled, I just put my head in my hands – the cast list is amazing. Being close to the other actors who had so much experience of Shakespeare, that’s what made the job really special. Their knowledge, their ease with the language was extraordinary.”

The Wars of the Roses focuses on the bloody battle for the throne between the rival dynasties of York and Lancaster. Kyle’s character is a Lancastrian military commander whose father is killed by a Yorkist in Henry VI Part I. “As Young Clifford, I have to be full of rage. I’m a soldier on a mission of vengeance, which is pretty cool. I haven’t played a role like that before.”

We’ll be seeing Kyle in uniform again this summer in The Keeping Room, a film set in the dying days of the American Civil War. He plays Henry, a renegade Union soldier, with Sam Worthington as Moses, his partner in crime. The pair lay siege to three women in a remote farmhouse. It’s not an easy watch, admits Kyle. “The women have to defend their home and their land from these two men who have just completely lost sight of the purpose of the war and lost sight of any kind of redemption for the sins that they’ve committed.” What fascinated him about this project was the subversion of some classic Civil War film tropes: “It challenges the perceived notion that the northern states were always the good guys. And the women, who are usually sidelined as the love interest, are the film’s real protagonists.”

Kyle likes to get under the skin of his characters through meticulous research. “I do a lot of reading, a lot of note taking,” he says. For The Keeping Room he was able to draw on a lot of primary sources like letters, documents and photographs. It’s a technique that served him well when he was cast as Francis Poldark in the wildly popular remake of the classic ’70s series. “I knew nothing about 18th-century Cornwall. I did a lot research around what it was like to be a member of the landed gentry – the mining, the gambling, the whoring…” Before he landed the role, Kyle was unaware of the special place that Poldark held in the nation’s imagination. “I had no idea,” he admits, “but once we started shooting, I found out about the Poldark appreciation society, the website, the books devoted to the original cast, and I thought, ‘What am I letting myself in for?’” So, what’s in store for Francis in the next series? “His downward spiral continues, driven by the guilt that he feels at the death of Ross and Demelza’s daughter,” says Kyle. There is a turning point, but as Fabric is a spoiler-free zone fans will have to wait until series two airs in the autumn for the big reveal.

Born in Connecticut, but brought up in Alexandria, Virginia, Kyle is the middle son in a family of five boys. His father is a pharmacology lecturer, his mother a former concert pianist. He concedes that being part of a large family brought out the natural performer in him, but it was the buzz that he got from being on stage that really gave him the acting bug. “I was a very sporty, hyperactive teenager,” he says, “focusing all that energy in front of an audience was really exciting.”

While studying art history in Williamsburg, Virginia, Kyle started taking drama classes with the renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC. With one year left of his degree, he decided to get more acting experience and enrolled in a summer school at RADA. That’s when the bug really bit and Kyle auditioned for the full-time course. When he was offered a place, he was faced with a dilemma: finish his degree or move to London? London won.

On graduating from RADA, Kyle’s career took off. Starring roles in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Gogol’s Government Inspector and The Faith Machine, a new play by Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Royal Court, won him the award for ‘Outstanding Newcomer’ at The Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Since then, he’s acquired an impressive body of work across stage, screen and film.

But his early days in the Capital weren’t that easy. “I started at RADA in 2005, Bush was President, and I was still embarrassed about being American,” he says. “If you’re British and you go over to the States, you meet people and they go,‘Oh my God, you’ve got an amazing British accent, let me hear you say this word…’, but if you’re American over here you don’t get that sort of reception. I definitely felt a bit like a fish out of water.” His first house-share was in a dodgy part of Finsbury Park “because I didn’t know any better,” but he swiftly moved on to Camden, which he loved. “There was a lot of energy around the Lock, I was living pretty close to the action. Back then it still had some of its independent spirit – now it’s pretty commercialized. It’s kind of sad.”

He and his wife Phoebe Fox (they met while they were both studying at RADA) have settled in Finsbury Park. “It’s very different to how it was ten years ago,” says Kyle. “The Park Theatre has done amazing things for the community. It’s definitely gentrifying: there’s a spill over of people priced out of Crouch End, and there’s a huge new development being built, with a Waitrose and everything,” he says wryly. “But there are still parts of Stroud Green that are authentic, with independent shops like butchers and booksellers.” It’s that diversity that Kyle loves about his adopted city. “When I go back to New York, I really appreciate how different the lifestyle is here. London is so multicultural, each neighbourhood has its own distinct character. My favourite thing to do in London – in the three days of sunshine you get here every summer – is to walk along Regent’s Canal. You get to see so many different parts of the city.”

Living in Finsbury Park, getting his teeth into Shakespeare… there’s a pleasing symmetry to Kyle’s life in the Capital. He laughs, “I guess I’ve come full circle.”

The Hollow Crown airs in May and The Keeping Room is released in June. Series Two of Poldark will air in the autumn.