On a dreary winter’s afternoon, the Ham Yard Hotel drawing room is a riot of vibrant colour, tribal pattern and quirky folk art. It’s a world away from the dark, brooding aesthetic of Lara Pulver’s latest film, Underworld: Blood Wars. And my interviewee, perched on the edge of an overstuffed armchair, is as warm and engaging as her character, vampire queen Semira, is cold and imperious.
Ruler of the Eastern Coven, Semira is the new vampire on the block. She’s ruthlessly ambitious and obsessed with wresting power from Selene, played by Kate Beckinsale. “Semira’s a total chameleon, she’s able to transform herself and manipulate any situation to her advantage,” explains Lara. But she has a sneaking sympathy for her character. “She’s a villainess, but she’s a wounded soul who’s desperate for validation,” she says. It’s always more interesting to play someone who’s misunderstood or misinterpreted, she believes, and credits director Anna Foerster with giving the actors scope to develop their roles. “It was wonderful that Anna’s priority was to make the characters as three-dimensional as possible within that type of genre movie.”
Costume played a big part in fleshing out the role of Semira’s, says Lara. “I loved building a silhouette: it informs your character’s posture, the way they move and the choices they make.” Leather, fur and lace feature prominently in Semira’s wardrobe – the fabulous dress she wears to the Vampire Ball rocks a full-on Alexander McQueen vibe. And nine separate wigs “some demure, some outrageous” helped Lara channel Semira’s constantly shifting persona.
The role was a physically demanding one, with aerial fight sequences involving wires and harnesses (a first for Lara). Plus she had put in three to six hours weapons training a week, getting handy with Spanish rapiers and broadswords. “I was the fittest I think I’ve ever been,” she laughs.
Underworld: Blood Wars is not Lara’s first feature film; she shared the screen with Tom Cruise in The Edge of Tomorrow. Sadly, her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. The film had already been shot, but the studio wanted to give Tom’s character more of a backstory, so Lara was cast as his ex-girlfriend. “It was wonderful, playing opposite one of the greatest stars of my generation and witnessing his amazing childlike passion for movies,” she says. Lara is remarkably pragmatic about her scenes being cut: “It doesn’t take away from the memories, it just means that no one else gets to see it.”
Lara’s career has seen her play more femmes fatales than girlfriends. And no femme was more fatale than whip-wielding, Loucoutin-wearing dominatrix Irene Adler in the second series of Sherlock. I ask her if she’s tired of talking about that infamous nude scene. On the contrary, she’s immensely proud of it. “It was wonderful to see Benedict’s character being challenged by a woman in that way, and experience heart flutters,” she says. “And it was difficult coming to role at a point in the series where Benedict and Martin were very comfortable. “It’s hard to step in and bring your A game, and maybe even trump theirs.” Did she have a sense that it would be a gamechanger for her? “I remember Mark Gatiss (Sherlock’s writer) telling me on the penultimate day of filming that it was a star making role. I’m so glad he didn’t tell me before. I would have been petrified.”
Why does she think she is cast as brittle women like Irene and Semira? “When you play an iconic character like Irene Adler, directors tend to cast you in similar roles. I also think it’s something to do with my look – my colouring and my bone structure.” That said, one of Lara’s most lauded roles was in Gypsy as the eponymous stripper. Playing against type for most of the show, she got to be “a goofball – a girl who was very uncomfortable in her own skin. Anyone who knew me from my previous work didn’t recognise me in that role for the first two hours,” she laughs.
Musical theatre was Lara’s first love. She bagged the part of Annie in a local am-dram production, sparking her interest in drama. Summers with the National Youth Music Theatre followed, where her fellow students included Eddie Redmayne and Sheridan Smith. By the age of sixteen she had toured with productions to the Far East and Broadway, so drama school was a natural next step. On graduating, she took the lead in 42nd Street. But watching other West End productions, she was struck by the number of TV stars in major roles and decided she needed to move away from musicals to television. “I suddenly thought, wow, I can’t name anyone who’s got those parts without being having some sort of television profile. My goal was never to just do stage work, so I thought why not open those doors now and give myself as much choice as possible.”
Ironically Lara got her first big TV break after the production of the musical Parade transferred to Los Angeles (her performance was nominated for an Olivier award). She landed the part of Erin Watts in Spooks, a bittersweet experience because it was the last series, though she didn’t know it was at the time. Although she had settled in LA with her now husband (and former Spook) Raza Jaffrey, she found herself back in London filming. Being back in the Capital was a real thrill. She recalls shooting one early one Sunday morning in the East End, with the road closed off. “Peter Firth was being held hostage, cars was being blown up, it was brilliant.” There were a couple of seminal Capital moments filming Sherlock too: “We were doing a scene in front of St Pauls, and we held the shot just so that we could get an iconic red bus in the background.”
Despite being based in LA, Lara has rented a few London flats in her time, staying close to the centre with stints in Islington, Marylebone and latterly Covent Garden. “We rented a very fancy apartment in Long Acre above a bicycle shop. I’m sure the owner paid a lot of money for a modest amount of space.”
On the rare occasions when she has some time to herself in the Capital, how does she like to spend her time? “I love the South Bank. So I’d probably start with brunch there and then head to the V&A. Later on I’d go play or show followed by dinner at the revamped Ivy in one of their little booths. But saying that, I’d be just as happy as walking along the South Bank with a Pret sandwich in my hand.”
Underworld: Blood Wars is released on 13 January.