Lara Pulver on giving up netball to chase acting goal

For Lara Pulver acting is all about making sacrifices – from giving up sports at school to getting naked for a role, she’s committed to pushing herself to the limit

Netball’s loss is acting’s gain. When Lara Pulver was a teenager and her parents’ marriage was ending, she took drama classes as a distraction from the upheavals at home. But it didn’t stop there. “I was [also] in tennis club and I was in netball club. I became very passionate and goal orientated; I became a very high achiever, which is not unheard of when people are going through stressful times. You hear stories of Olympic athletes – it’s very telling how insanely intense they become towards a goal, and I think it has to do with what’s going on around them.

“It came to a place where it probably would have been sport or acting for me. My wonderful dance teacher, Liz Burville, wanted to give me the lead in this little school show. I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got netball championship’, and she said, ‘You need to choose.’ She was such an inspiration, because she was so passionate about the arts, arts in the community, and offering children of all abilities a chance to express themselves. Then I went on to the National Youth Music Theatre, and [was] surrounded by kids who became Sheridan Smith and Eddie Redmayne. We’d all come from completely different walks of life, and yet we shared this common passion for being collaborative, for finding out about ourselves.”

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Despite the circumstances nudging her on stage, she says, “What I always felt quite strongly about is using your life experience in your work, but never using it as therapy. For me that would be really self-indulgent. I think also what was so wonderful is that we all just accepted ourselves. Maybe actors are all a bunch of oddballs, I don’t know. There’s something about an actor that’s willing to take off the veil and expose their vulnerabilities.”

We’re having this conversation via Skype, because Pulver is snowbound in Budapest on the set of 
Fleming. Whereas I resemble my reflection in the back of a spoon when I video-call, Pulver looks bloody fantastic.

Fleming is a four-part mini series about Ian Fleming (played by Dominic Cooper) with Pulver as his wife, Anne. For those needing a quick refresher, Anne Charteris was the daughter of Captain Hon. Guy 
Lawrence Charteris, and Frances Lucy Tennant, and granddaughter of the 11th Earl of Wemyss. Married to Baron O’Neill, she had an affair with Esmond Harmsworth, heir to newspaper magnate Lord Rothermere, whom she married after the Second World War (by which time he was Lord Rothermere), and, concurrently, a tempestuous affair with Ian Fleming, marrying him in 1952. The mini-series covers the period from their fateful meeting, ending on their honeymoon.

Pulver says: “Anne was this cut-glass, high-society, aristocratic woman who lost her mother at 18, and so quickly married her first love. Then he was sent away to war, and she had this very public affair with Esmond Harmsworth, the editor of the Daily Mail, and became this social butterfly mixing with the likes of Lucian Freud and Winston Churchill. She was in her element around people. Then she stumbled upon Ian Fleming who is this godlike, charming, dysfunctional man. It becomes extremely animalistic with him. I’m not even sure, if the war hadn’t started when they met, whether that affair would have ever begun. That intensity of questioning your morality and having feelings meant that they acted as if they might die that very day. Plus the actual passion between the two of them started this whirlwind.”

It really was a different time, she discovered. “I read this blog about women [of that era], where it suggested you go to bed and please your man in whichever way he sees fit. Instead of sleeping, you can get up and curl your hair, as necessary. It mentions that you wake up before him so you can look perfect by the time he wakes.” Can you imagine that for a nanosecond? “Oh my god! And to think that’s only about 60 years ago, how far we’ve come. It kind of blows my mind.”

Pulver also read Anne’s diaries. “She was extremely spirited. Her family motto was ‘It’s No Longer Fashionable to Be Dull’. She really lived life, but what she failed to address – having lost her mother at a very early age, and being passed around to different aristocratic family members, and an abusive nanny – there was this wound in her. She lacked self-worth and self-love. All of her relationships came from trying to fill this void. She appears to be the sexiest, most in-control, alluring woman, and then when Dominic and I have quite intimate scenes, there are moments of her being 
extremely, extremely vulnerable.”

Hmm, it sounds like another role requiring a lot of nudity... Despite appearances in True Blood, Spooks and Robin Hood, and an Olivier nomination for 
Parade, Pulver is best known for portraying Irene Adler to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. And for being stark naked while doing so.

“Yes, but it’s not about the nudity, it’s more about the fact that Anne and Ian associate being loved with the physical. The second someone holds them or is mildly abusive to them, that’s when they feel most wanted, most attractive. It ignites something in them both that I think they misconstrue to be love. It’s dark.” Was the relationship sado-masochistic? “Yeah very much. Sadistic, I would say. It’s lovely to be able to explore those extremes in a woman.”

How does Anne compare with Clarice Orsini, wife of Lorenzo de’Medici (aka “The Magnificent”), another larger than life historical figure, whom Pulver plays in the hotly anticipated mini-series DaVinci’s Demons, starring Tom Riley as a dishy Leonardo. Advance word says this historical fantasy will “explore the untold story of DaVinci inventing the future at the age of 25”.

“Anne couldn’t be more different. Clarice is a woman who knows exactly who she is and as a result, doesn’t seek affirmation from anyone. One of her first scenes is discovering that her husband’s being very intimate with his mistress, played by Laura Haddock. It’s amazing how she deals with it. She can somehow compartmentalise this, realise the use of him having this outlet, and therefore not necessarily approve of it, but allow it to continue. That blows my mind. It was such a challenge to play her, because on days when you’re not 100 per cent, you have to have the guts to know she would be 100 per cent okay in that situation.”

Of course, marriage was more businesslike then, 
especially among the nobility. “Absolutely. She was married at 19, and it was a totally arranged match. Initially what was so wonderful was that she accepted: I will love this man and honour and obey. That’s literally my job. It’s not until Florence is threatened, and her family are threatened, that you realise what a great politician she is and what a shrewd businesswoman. She’s a kind of Hillary Clinton figure, but she’s never been required to use those skills. It’s something she’s never boasted about.”

Did they really shoot in Swansea? Grinning, she says, “I think Swansea has more castles per square foot than anywhere else they could shoot. The production designer was originally from Swansea, and what’s been brilliant for him has been to go back and use the people of his community. It’s been wonderful seeing the whole of the council and the community get behind this project. They’ve integrated work experience placements, and internships from Swansea University and Gower College Swansea. It’s inspiring how we’re sowing so many seeds within that community, going into a disused Ford car plant to make the biggest sound stages in Europe. BBC Worldwide and Starz will lease them for seven years, should the show run that long.” (Rumour has it a second series is commissioned.)

When not on location, Pulver lives in Los Angeles. On the back of bringing the play Parade to LA, she was offered the role of Claudine Crane in supernatural drama True Blood. “And before I knew it, I was calling Los Angeles home. At the time, my partner [ex-husband Josh Dallas] was American, and he was really grateful to be back on home soil. We went about discovering a life in Los Angeles. What’s unusual is that I’m living there and yet every project has shot in Europe. So I have the benefit of the climate and the lifestyle, and get to work back in Europe, with my fellow Brits. It’s been brilliant.”

California is the place for an actress who wants to get ahead. I read that some years ago Pulver decided to ratchet up her career. Given that ambition is often frowned upon in the UK, and not in the USA, I 
wonder about her relationship to the word? “My friend Richard Armitage once said, ‘There is no deodorant for desperation.’ It always remains with me. Yes, at 24, I was watching some of my [older] colleagues struggling to get theatre work, because they weren’t names. I thought, ‘That’s not the struggle I want to have in ten years’ time.’ And you’re right, my ambition was hard for people to swallow. I realised there was such a fine line between being driven and being desperate: one is repulsive, and the other one is something to admire and respect. You can go at things in fifth gear, but what I find personally more beneficial is to live life in third gear. As I achieve more, I enjoy myself more, rather than it being so intense, and I always know that in my toolbox I’ve got the fifth gear, so if I suddenly need to fight for something, I can.”

Gosh, she sounds well balanced. “I am very happy and content. Of course there’s always more that I want to achieve, but – someone needed to tell me that turning 30 was the best thing that could have happened.” The 32-year-old is laughing heartily now. “Every woman should know that turning 30 is the best thing, because in your twenties, for me personally, I was driven and striving. I hit 30 and lots of things changed in my life, personally, professionally, and I don’t know what it is, but all of a sudden you realise that you’re enough and that you have choices in every moment. For me that has balanced everything out.”

One of those changes must have been her divorce, the other, the almighty row – and raft of job offers – sparked off by complaints the BBC received about the sight of her naked form. No one seemed upset about seeing those Cumberbuns, I notice. “No! Thank you! When I read that script, I didn’t even flinch. It was just a moment in the storytelling. For it to have become such a focus of that episode kind of shocks me. It is naïve to think it wouldn’t be mentioned, and yet it still shocks me.”

Where does she draw the line? “With DaVinci’s 
Demons, it’s the Renaissance, a time where people were naked a lot. I remember discussing the nudity clause within an inch of its life, because I didn’t want to be that girl who takes her clothes off. It was interesting how uncomfortable at times I felt doing scenes like that. I had to always back myself up with: in this time, they didn’t have a problem offering their bodies to their husbands. As long as it’s part of the storytelling – actually I only have one naked, nude scene in all of DaVinci’s Demons. But a part of my character’s journey is trying to produce this male heir, so it’s not the most sensual of sex scenes.

Yet on Fleming, though director Mat Whitecross said he didn’t need the full reveal, Pulver actually argued that they’d be doing the story a disservice if, she says, “it wasn’t uncomfortable to watch at times, because their relationship was very sadistic. I wanted to make sure to get across that Anne was being abused. It’s not about oh, there’s a boob, there’s a butt cheek, it’s about why the two of them got into this situation. It’s about the way Dom’s hand grasps my back, and making sure that very animalistic charge is captured on camera. That’s the bit where I think it’s more shocking than any bottom.”

Her career is definitely in fifth gear, even if she’s not. She had to turn down a role in the upcoming Colin Farrell film, Winter’s Tale, because of conflicts with the DaVinci shoot. Asked about dream roles in the future, she mentions Desdemona, Othello’s ill-fated wife. And she’d like to use her vocal training, but wouldn’t record an album. “I don’t ever classify myself as a singer. I make noise. I don’t open my mouth to sing 
unless it’s a character decision. There’s something about musicians I find fascinating. I put them on a pedestal. Weirdly, the first time I think I’ve ever been starstruck is when I met Gary [Lightbody of Snow Patrol], and didn’t know it was him. He knew about Sherlock, and was very complimentary, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a singer songwriter.’ My partner was trying to very subtly say, ‘You probably know some of his work.’ I was like, ‘Are you in a band?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m in this band called Snow Patrol.’ I wished the ground could swallow me up.”

The partner she refers to is British actor Raza 
Jaffrey, currently on telly in US Broadway drama Smash. They’ve been together for 18 months, but despite both appearing in Spooks they weren’t in it at the same time and only met later, in Los Angeles. “I never knew him when I lived in the UK. I think something happened via osmosis, because I found out after we started dating that I was in the same dressing room as him.”

My hunch is that if Lara Pulver continues to tackle such complicated and fascinating women as Anne Fleming and Clarice Orsini, it won’t be long before getting her kit off falls way down the list of reasons to join her fan club.

• DaVinci’s Demons begins on Friday 19 April at 10pm on FOX UK. Fleming is due to air later this year.