Christian Brassington Plays the Other Bad Guy on ‘Poldark.’ It’s Been a Good Time.
Christian Brassington has the best of both worlds: He gets all the fun of playing a really sleazy character on television yet in real life he doesn’t get stopped on the street by viewers who want to scold him about it.
The 35-year-old Brassington plays The Rev. Osborne Whitworth on Poldark, the popular British series that is currently in the midst of its fourth season at 9 p.m. ET Sundays on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.
Mild spoiler alert: The Rev. Whitworth has a particularly noteworthy scene this coming Sunday.
“He’s a bad guy who says and does some horrible things,” says Brassington. “But that makes it a great role for an actor. I’d say 95%-99% of the time he’s just a joy to play, because he’s such a big character. You don’t have to hold anything back.”
Unfiltered is a good way to describe “Ossie,” and when things get ugly, the brunt of it almost always lands on Morwenna (Ellise Chappell), the young woman who was forced by the terrible strictures of the late 18th century to marry him.
Not content to have simply scored an attractive young bride, Whitworth abuses her verbally, emotionally and sexually. When she refuses him, he has an affair with her sister and regularly visits prostitutes.
“It’s kind of an irony that he’s a clergyman,” Brassington muses. “He lives as far from a pious life as you can get.”
Poldark’s primary villain is George Warleggan (Jack Farthing), chief adversary of title character Ross Poldark (Aidan Turner). But Whitworth is a fascinating complement to George in the bad guy lineup, because in many ways he’s creepier.
“George and Ossie have some things in common,” says Brassington. “And there are contrasts. Ossie is an aristocrat, which was really important and meant something in those days. Yet Ossie never has enough money, while George has plenty. He doesn’t have the breeding, which is what he constantly craves.
“George is also much smarter than Ossie. George is capable of planning something out. Ossie often doesn’t seem to think past what’s for lunch.”
Brassington also suggests that Ossie may not think he’s doing anything wrong in his treatment of Morwenna, or his behavior outside the marriage.
“He has convinced himself that whatever he does, it’s her fault,” says Brassington. “Because she won’t do her ‘duty,’ as he puts it. So he can’t be held responsible.
“In general he has very little self-awareness. He can’t see how ridiculous he is.”
Ossie’s behavior is accentuated because like most historical dramas, Poldark adheres to the formal speech patterns of its day, with characters speaking in language that to our contemporary ears can sound stilted and artificially polite.
“At the time, that’s just how they spoke,” says Brassington. In fact, he suggests, language is an entry point to the characters, as are costumes.
“Costumes are so much a part of the character,” he says. “In my case, they made all of Ossie’s costumes just slightly small so it looks like I’m bursting out of them. It makes him look bigger, which is how he comes across as a character.”
Brassington jokes that he often felt envious of Turner and Farthing when it came to prepping for the daily filming.
“I spent a long time in the chair getting ready,” he says. “They had to curl my hair. They had to apply this Vaseline-like substance to give it a shiny look. Then I’d have to maintain it all day, through the lunch breaks and everything. [Meanwhile], these good-looking guys like Aidan just need a little touch-up on the beard stubble and they’re set to go.”
In any event, says Brassington, his goal isn’t to show viewers that The Rev. Osborne is a sleazy guy. That’s pretty obvious. Rather, he says, he wants to show that even someone who can be a cartoonish buffoon has more subtle dimensions.
“You don’t just want to play the actions,” he says. “You want to give him some depth.”
In some of that depth lie rather ugly views about the relationship between men and women. While the Poldark novels and scripts were not written as parables for modern society, it’s hard not to see the link to contemporary #metoo issues in the sense of male entitlement felt by men like Ossie
“As a human being, or as a husband, that issue concerns me very much,” says Brassington. “But it’s not a concern I consciously put into the role, because things are different now.”
The message echoes more strongly, he suggests, in the actions of Morwenna.
“The scene where Morwenna first stands up to Ossie, that’s such a great moment,” he says. “She’s so bold. Women then just didn’t do that.”
Still, no matter how much Morwenna stands up for herself, the best she can achieve is a stalemate. However unfair that she had to give up the man she actually loved to be tethered to Ossie, those were the rules of the day.
“Morwenna is much brighter than Ossie,” says Brassington. “But he had all the power.”
In any event, he says Ossie’s exchanges with Morwenna are his favorite scenes, even when some became so emotionally charged that everyone took a break when the cameras stopped.
“If the scene is just dialogue, you usually don’t take it with you,” he says. “You’ll have a joke or a cup of tea or the other things you do between takes.
“But if it’s been something like physical abuse, sometimes you want to give a little space — because remember, you’re playing two characters at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“The most important thing is that you have to trust the person you are working with in those scenes, and I trust Ellise completely.”
As all this might suggest, Brassington says he’s a happy lad to be acting for a living. It takes him into the worlds of everyone from a quarterback to an editor, an archduke or a shady 17th century clergyman. He’s done them in movies, television and theater, and says he’d love to keep doing all three.
Nor does he have to answer for Ossie’s sins. The real-life Christian Brassington hardly looks even a bit like Ossie, so he could walk into a Poldark convention and barely be recognized.
“I was talking on the phone to the mother of a friend,” he says. “She was a Poldark fan and we got to talking about the show, including my character, without her ever knowing I was in it. I finally told her — and she didn’t believe me. She wasn’t buying it.”
There is, however, one exception. Poldark is filmed in Cornwall, where the sweeping cliffs provide such a stunning backdrop all those horseback rides, and the filming lasted long enough that when Brassington went back later, a few people knew he had been The Rev. Whitworth.
“So it’s over,” he jokes. “I love Cornwall and now I have to avoid it.”