Ben Barnes on Dating, Age Gaps and How His Role in Gold Digger Made Him 'Less Judgmental'
In the series, the actor plays a young man with a shrouded past who pursues an older woman with family money
After years of playing mostly American characters on this side of the pond, Ben Barnes went back to his roots for Gold Digger, the twisty relationship thriller that originally aired on BBC One last fall.
The series is now available to U.S. audiences, having debuted Monday on Acorn TV, a streaming service devoted to British and international television. In an interview with PEOPLE, Barnes, 38, says the role was an opportunity to "sink back into something that's a bit closer to me."
"I hadn't actually played a British person or acted in a British accent in 10 years," says the Chronicles of Narnia star. "I read the scripts for Gold Digger on a plane and they seemed so very quintessentially British, just in the way the characters speak to each other and relate to each other. This character sounds like me and dresses a bit like me and goes to the places that I used to go."
In the six-part contemporary drama, filmed in London and Devon, Barnes plays Benjamin Greene, a young copywriter with a shrouded past who meets Julia Day (Julia Ormond), a recently-divorced woman 25 years his senior with three grown-up children. She considers the relationship a fresh start, but her children and ex-husband are suspicious of her new lover's motives, leading to tension that threatens to unravel their already-damaged, dysfunctional family.
"It puts a woman in her 60s at the front and center of the story, exploring her new, single life as someone with romantic desires and sexual appetite," Barnes says. "So it's a very full representation of a woman of a certain age, which is definitely an underrepresented demographic in terms of being the lead in television."
"In terms of the age gap [between Benjamin and Julia], I think everyone wants to think of themselves as that non-judgmental person," he continues. "And playing this character was interesting for me because you have to play everything as if you're someone with an ulterior motive, somebody who has an agenda and is after a family's money. But you also have to play every scene as if — because the only other explanation for how he behaves is that he's actually that guy, he's actually just that little bit less judgmental than the rest of us, and he's just open-hearted and open-minded and just wants to love and be loved in return. We're almost so cynical a society that we can't believe somebody like that would exist."
"It sort of places anyone watching it in the role of judge and jury and asks questions of the person watching it," he adds. "Which characters are you judging? Why are you judging them? What is it about this relationship that makes you uncomfortable?"
The gender dynamic — an older woman with a younger man — is also important to note.
"When it came out in the U.K., there were a lot of questions that I didn't know how to answer, like why do you think people judge women differently than men in terms of these age gap difference relationships? And I think a lot of it has to do with the historical subjugation of women," Barnes says. "It's interesting to flip that dynamic on its head and make sure that the opposite is represented to balance it all out."
Personally, Barnes — who will next star in Netflix's upcoming fantasy series Shadow and Bone — says he's had both "younger and older" partners.
"I think the people that you're likely to meet and end up with for longer periods of time has so much to do with timing and where you both are in your life," he said. "And I think that's the reason that a lot of people end up with people of a similar-ish age. For me, having kids is something that I want to do with somebody. So I was thinking about that during filming, you know, 'How would you feel about somebody that's already had their children?' I think it's more a question of priority, what's the most important thing for you."
"But also, dating people that are younger or older can definitely challenge you in interesting and different ways. I wouldn't say my parameters are maybe as open as in this show, but certainly I think spending so much time on stories like this, you take a bit of it with you," he added. "Every job I do, there's a tiny piece of that character that I bring with me. And I like that idea that for this, it's just to be that little bit less judgmental and a bit more open-minded and open-hearted about everything."
The first two episodes of Gold Digger are streaming now on Acorn TV, with two new episodes dropping every Monday through May 18.