When the idea of joining Underworld, the famed franchise of eternal vampire and werewolf conflict, was first introduced to Lara Pulver, she was about as far away from blood-soaked fangs as a crucifix. Enjoying a different kind of nightly haunt, Pulver was at the midpoint of her West End run in Gypsy, a revival of the Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne musical where she played Louise—the girl who would one day become Gypsy Rose Lee. The English thespian told me during our Skype interview last month that the experience was “a wonderful gift,” the kind that extended into 2016 when she won the Laurence Olivier Award for her performance. Of course, by then she had also just wrapped her turn as a crimson-shadowed reflection of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene in Underowrld: Blood Wars, but that’s the nature of a genuinely transmutative industry.
It was in 2015 that the chance of joining the next horror-actioner came to Pulver’s attention. Onstage, the actress spent eight shows a week departing from how television viewers likely know her best: as the enigmatic seductress Irene Adler on Sherlock or the politically cunning Florentine power player Clarice Orsini in Da Vinci’s Demons. By contrast, the theater’s Louise is a shy and often wistful adolescent girl before growing into an iconic burlesque entertainer during Gypsy’s final act. Perhaps that kind of transformational power was also an appeal of Semira, a patrician vampire in Underworld: Blood Wars who helps expand the action series’ ever-growing gothic mythology by being a demon for all seasons.
“To me, the big draw was the director Anna Foerster,” Pulver says while reflecting on that first meeting with the film’s director, a woman who like Pulver has had an impact on recent television darlings. “I’d just seen some of her work in Outlander, and I met her in London because I was doing Gypsy at the time onstage. And when I was in the room with her, she was so playful. I think, having come from a theater world originally, to have someone that was just so open for you to try a gazillion different [things] was my world.” She then adds after a pause, “And then I read the script and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a lot of fun with this.”
Indeed, the opportunities inherent with Semira, a vampire charmer and member of the newly introduced Eastern Coven’s Elite Council, have allowed Pulver the chance to infuse a different kind of antagonistic bloodline into the franchise.
“She’s such a wonderful mess,” Pulver muses about her character. “She’s kind of serpent-like in her ability to shed her skin or shine a light on particular parts of her personality.” Considering Semira to be more of a politician than a straightforward villain, Pulver promises fans will find her ruthless nosferatu leader almost inviting in the way she goes after what she wants. “It’s blatant,” Pulver remarks of her modus operandi.
The actress also divulged some of the political and emotional machinations that will ensnare Beckinsale’s Selene into the Eastern Coven’s orbit, and why Semira may be painting a target on Selene’s apparently irresistible blood. As it turns out, Semira is a kind of dark sister to the franchise’s protagonist, because they were both turned into vampires by Bill Nighy’s Viktor—the overarching antagonist of the earliest Underworld movies. And Semira was here first.
“She feels slightly pushed to one side,” Pulver says on her character’s behalf. The performer even suggests Semira was robbed by Viktor’s fleeting affections. “When Victor’s attention was turned to Selene, she is lacking an identity, almost. And she’s begrudgingly allowed to be on the council of the Eastern Coven, but is not given much respect. So she’s out to prove her worth.”
In a sense, the budding familial squabble that will turn into bloodletting in Underworld: Blood Wars continues the operatic impulses of the long-running series. During our digital conversation, I even point out that there is a touch of the Bard’s Lear to the impending rivalry between the vampiric daughters, which is par for the course for an action movie franchise that has curiously distinguished itself with a rather esteemed cast.
“I saw the very first [movie] when it came out, and I knew the type of British talent that had been associated with the franchise,” Pulver remembers while looking back at all the respected actors who’ve participated in the series. And after naming off Bill Nighy, Michael Sheen, and Derek Jacobi, she laughs, “The list goes on!”
By the same token, it is the franchise’s continued interest in seeking out these kind of actors that can lead to contrasts as amusing (and jarring) as the type Pulver likely experienced upon getting this role. Prior to meeting director Foerster, the actor was there when her Gypsy co-star Imelda Staunton led the show’s first preview audience in a birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim, who was in the room for his 85th. “Twelve hundred people sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to Stephen Sondheim,” Pulver recalls with genuine fondness. “It was almost like being at one of those big crazy football stadium events where everyone is singing and united, and it was surreal; it was extraordinary.”
Yet at roughly the same time, she’d also be training with Spanish long-blades hailing from the 17th century.
“They wanted [Semira] to be a real master of weaponry,” Pulver says. “So my training involved probably six to eight hours a week [during Gypsy]. Two days a week, we’d do everything from the Spanish Rapier to hand-to-hand combat, to wielding an axe. You name it, they wanted me to be able to be a master of it all.”
That kind of juxtaposition—complete with flights on her days off to Prague for costume fittings—could almost seem to sum up the performer’s experience in Underworld. Grandiose characters, be they icy and pale or hairy and feral, contrasted with some of the most absurd Hollywood action movie situations.
“Costume-wise, I’m just under five-foot four, and Charles Dance and Kate are just tall, wonderfully lean human beings,” Pulver smiles. “So I always know when I turn up to set playing opposite people like that that I’m going to be given those six-inch heels that I’m then going to be expected to fight in.”
But fight she does in a wardrobe she describes as fantastic. “You just feel like a doll that’s just being crafted and dressed, and your silhouette just in every scene has been crafted… it felt like Semira’s silhouette was playdough being manipulated. That was so helpful for me, creating the character and plotting her story arc.”
What undead form that silhouette takes will become clear when Underworld: Blood Wars opens on Friday, Jan. 6.