Lara Pulver on her dream role on the West End stage

Actress Lara Pulver. Picture: Contributed
Actress Lara Pulver. Picture: Contributed
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FROM femme fatale nemesis of Sherlock Holmes to sparring with Imelda Staunton on a West End stage in Gypsy, when it comes to the job she loves, Lara Pulver isn’t pulling her punches

Look at Gypsy,” Lara Pulver says, daintily pouring a cup of herbal tea. “Written in the late 1950s by a man.” Pulver is chewing over the difference between the way that parts for men and women are often written. The men get a hinterland, “layers, lots of layers”. The women get something else: “30s, sexy, attractive”. Her eyebrows rise. Her question is simple: how come Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim managed to do something so much more interesting with their legendary musical five decades ago? “Six lead parts for women, all strong, all fly in their own way,” says Pulver. “And the one male lead is written as the slightly weak, back-footed character.” She shrugs. It seems to mean I rest my case. And well she might.

Lara Pulver is a ball of energy. Titchy tiny, there is literally not a pick on her, she is full of chat, loved up – she got married recently – and ready to hold forth on any which topic with nary a whisper of self-doubt, self-deprecation or false modesty. As a companion with whom to spend an hour in the American Bar of The Savoy, she’s a pleasure. The bar is the location for our meeting because soon, Pulver will, alongside Imelda Staunton as the infamous Mama Rose, be performing in eight shows a week of Gypsy in the theatre next door. Pulver plays Louise, the character based on Gypsy Rose Lee, the striptease artist whose memoir about her mother inspired the original book and production. Revived numerous times in the West End and on Broadway since its original staging in 1959, the show is legendary, full of high drama with a stunning score and belting songs including Let Me Entertain You and Everything’s Coming Up Roses.

“I didn’t know it before I did it,” says Pulver of the show, which she’s already performed in for 10 weeks in Chichester. “I knew some of the songs and I’d seen the Natalie Wood movie years ago.” So how come she landed the part? “I was doing a four-part mini series for Sky with Anna Chancellor [Fleming, the biopic of Bond creator Ian Fleming]. Anna had just done a play with the director Jonathan Kent. She said to me over breakfast one morning – we were staying in this beautiful hotel in Budapest – that she was transferring to the West End with Toby Stephens [in Noel Coward’s Private Lives], directed by Jonathan Kent, and then he was doing Gypsy in Chichester the following year. Then she said, ‘well, you should play Gypsy Rose Lee. I’m going to get on that.’” The next time Pulver saw Chancellor was in the bar at the Olivier Awards. “She said, ‘This is Jonathan Kent, the director I was telling you about…’” And then he said, “So, Gypsy?” And that was pretty much that. Pulver smiles. “I owe Anna Chancellor 10 per cent commission, don’t I?”

The script was enough to give her goosebumps but when she heard that she would play Louise to Imelda Staunton as Mama Rose, the role became irresistible. “I remember rewinding and rewatching scenes of Vera Drake,” she says. “I just thought oh my gosh, how does one be that present, that vulnerable and strong? I was mesmerised by that performance.

“Jonathan said that it was important to cast the right person as Louise, or Gypsy, because Imelda ‘can throw balls’ so you need someone who can hit them back. I was practically salivating at the prospect.”

And happily, Pulver’s anticipation paid off. The 10-week run in Chichester was a success and so the transfer to the West End beckoned and is now just weeks away. If Pulver is nervous about eight shows a week, she doesn’t show it. Maybe she really hasn’t, as she tells me, thought about it. Maybe she’s just unflappable. “Usually in a musical you get your 15 minutes to go this is what I can do, this is what I can do,” she doesn’t do the jazz hands, but practically. “In Gypsy, I literally get an entire show. It means I can just resist, resist, to do less and less and then you get in that final quarter of the show to explode. It’s like a ticking bomb.

“With Imelda’s Mama Rose, she’s not scared of it being visceral. It’s almost like mental abuse but what’s so tough – I’m not sure whether this is Lara or me playing the character – we’ve maybe merged a little, it’s the empathy you have even for Mama Rose. What she’s doing comes from such a place of pain and sadness, I absorb it, I absorb those punches. Then it gets to a point where it’s just like, no more. There’s a brilliant dressing room scene when Louise just says, get out. The only time in the show that someone stands up to Mama Rose and it has an effect.”

Born in Essex, Pulver was a member of the National Youth Theatre before she went to drama school. When she emerged with her degree she worked in musicals for a couple of years. But since Parade at the Donmar Warehouse back in 2007 and that fortuitous meeting with Jonathan Kent, she has become better known for her roles on TV and in film. There have been notable roles in Spooks and Da Vinci’s Demons, Fleming and, of course, Sherlock. Pulver played Irene Adler, a femme fatale who absolutely got the upper hand over the indomitable Mr Holmes. The part was brilliantly written and Pulver played Adler with swaggering charm. But it was the scene in which Adler appeared naked (apart from Louboutins) before Holmes which catapulted Pulver on to the front pages. One might have expected that the aftermath of Irene Adler could be complex – script after script built around brief, but charged, nudity. But Pulver insists that it’s all been good. “Whoever played Irene Adler, it was going to garner attention,” she says. “It’s been brilliant. Yeah, the Daily Mail will talk about the nudity but anyone in the entertainment industry or anyone who loves good writing know it wasn’t about that 90 seconds.” Holmes met his match? She nods emphatically. “Some people will say, ‘oh she could only get to him by taking her clothes off’ and it’s like nope, you’re wrong about that too. But if that’s how you want to interpret it? Fine.”

The number of people who wanted to meet Pulver after her appearance as Adler was, she says, “incredible”. “I’m talking execs at 20th Century Fox, influential people who couldn’t have been more complimentary. Benedict Cumberbatch was coming on to people’s radars, it was so well written.”

So did she know what was going to happen when she read the part?

“It felt like a gift. When I was in it it was so much fun to play. Martin [Freeman] and Ben [Cumberbatch] are such different actors to work with. It was a treat. And then it had that brilliant slot on New Year’s Day when everyone was in some kind of alcohol or food coma. She shrugs as though it all just makes sense. Sherlock co-creator, Mark Gatiss, told her they knew the part was a “star-making vehicle” for whoever played it. “I was just glad he hadn’t told me that six months before,” she says. Although, I’m not sure it would have dented her confidence much.

Erin Watts, Pulver’s section chief character in Spooks, might have made less of a splash than Irene Adler, but her drive and ambition makes me think that there might have been more than a little overlap between Pulver and her character. Spooks ran for 10 series from 2002 to 2011. It has been shown in more than 60 countries, including the US where it’s called MI-5. And now there’s a movie, Spooks: The Greater Good, starring some of the cast who appeared in the TV show as well as some newbies, including Kit Harrington. Pity then that Pulver wasn’t sure she had a role.

“They sent me the script to read, which I did,” she says, “but my character from the TV show wasn’t in it. So I was like, thanks, it’s great, good luck. Thanks for not writing me into it.”

They’d sent her the wrong draft, when the next one arrived, there she was. “It was lovely to be back on set. Bharat [Nalluri], the director, bookended the TV show – he did the pilot and the final episode of series 10. For him to be directing the movie was just so neat.”

There’s a personal connection too. Pulver’s new husband, Raza Jaffrey was also in Spooks. “He knew everyone I was working with so it was lovely coming home and talking to him about the gang. Three weeks in their company was such a treat. Peter Firth (who plays Harry Pearce) can have you in stitches and then is the best at keeping a straight face when the cameras are rolling.”

Pulver and Jaffrey live in Los Angeles. Most recently Jaffrey has been appearing in Homeland as Lieutenant Colonel Aasar Khan and before that he had roles in Smash and Mistresses. “MI-5 aired a lot later in the States, so when Raz and I first started dating, I remember stopping at a petrol station and a guy was like ‘MI-5, man. I love your work.’ It was brilliant.”

Although Pulver and Jaffrey are based in LA, their work means they both travel a lot. He might be shooting Homeland in Cape Town, she might be shooting Fleming in Budapest. Still, though, there is absolutely no doubt that Pulver is – I still can’t think of a better phrase – loved up. The couple’s marriage was just a few months ago and she still beams as she speaks about it. So how does it work, two actors in a marriage – is it all shop talk?

“We both love what we do so it’s a shared passion in that sense,” she says. “But I think I’ve also met someone who… I don’t want this to come across…” she pauses and swirls her tea. “There’s a difference between needing to work and wanting to work. We both want to work in this industry and the second we don’t, it’s OK. We both just like what we do. There’s a healthy drive and it’s hard work but we both enjoy it.”

Both Pulver and Jaffrey have been married before. Both to actors. She smiles, “We both swore that we’d never date actors ever again.” She raises her eyebrows. Why? What’s the reason to steer clear? “I think we both just got a bit burnt so mistakenly we both made a sweeping generalisation – people don’t understand the word cut. That’s not real life people. But 
then you question morals and integrity.”

Happily, things are working out much, much better this time around. “I’m a better actress because I have a life. Sometimes it is hugely demanding – you’re 5,000 miles away from home, you’re in a hotel room for weeks on end, all that stuff, it heightens everything. But to me that’s why it’s so important to have that home and to do the mundane – let’s cook dinner, have you paid the gas bill? There’s joy and a huge amount of enjoyment in doing the red carpet and the parties – that stuff – but the richness and the nourishment comes from let’s cook dinner together and pay the gas bill.

“We’re both good about jumping on planes. We just make it work.” She beams. In fact, she looks positively glowing with happiness. “I caught a good ’un. Life’s good.”

Pulver’s openness about her happiness is striking in its frankness. And she’s not unaware of the pitfalls. “As soon as you put something out there about your personal life, it’s open for people to have a go. We point in opposite directions – shall we go in that shop or that shop? – and the headline is ‘trouble in paradise’.” She shrugs, but doesn’t seem at all put off. “I said to a friend the other day, how do you keep it this good? There’s a part of you that wants to hold it but it’s the worst thing you can do because you’re almost confining or strangling it.” She puts down her teacup. “I guess you just keep doing what you’re doing.”

And eight shows a week.

Gypsy opens at the Savoy Theatre tonight, tickets from £19.50-£75, www.atgtickets.com; Spooks: The Greater Good (PG) will be in cinemas from 8 May.

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