Not many actors have made a name for themselves with quite the same force as Lara Pulver. In January last year more than eight million people tuned in to BBC1 and watched her star as Irene Adler in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, the opening episode in the second series of Sherlock.
I’m not saying that Pulver’s appearance in one of the early scenes wearing nothing more than a pair of high heels (albeit with some clever camera angles preserving her modesty) was the only reason for the vast amount of attention the episode received. It’s surely no coincidence, however, that her name was almost immediately trending on Twitter and that this particular Sherlock adventure quickly became one of iPlayer’s most watched programmes.
When we meet on a Monday morning in a Soho restaurant, Pulver, 32, laughs in horror at the idea of ‘that scene’ now being an undeletable viral hit. She’s also giggling as she recounts her experience of meeting devoted Sherlock fans at the recent Comic-Con convention in America.
Irene Adler’s persona in the Beeb’s updated take on Holmes is that of a whip-cracking dominatrix, and this seems to have struck a chord with some of those on — to put it kindly — the more cultish fringes of the Sherlock fan base. About 20 Irene impersonators turned up to Comic-Con, all with clothes on, thankfully, and asked Pulver to autograph an array of paddles and whips. Despite being rather shocked, she obliged.
‘My fear was that people were so in love with Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Martin [Freeman]’s relationship as Holmes and Watson, with Sherlock possibly being gay or asexual, that I was asking to be chastised as a female love interest. Yet I can’t get over how supportive people have been to me,’ she says.
If Pulver is tired of talking about Sherlock and ‘that scene’ then she doesn’t show it. She gently makes the point that Cumberbatch revealed far more of himself in the same episode without causing nearly as much fuss as her own disrobing did. This double standard is nothing more than a minor niggle for her, though.
Pulver is warm, friendly company and her enthusiasm for Sherlock seems almost limitless. She describes the production team and cast as being like a happy family and she would love the opportunity to return to the programme at some point in the future. Her affection for the show is understandable as she believes appearing in it has been a ‘game changer’ for her career.
Before Sherlock, Pulver built up a solid CV with an Olivier nomination for her stage work and roles in Robin Hood and Spooks. Yet it wasn’t until she cracked the whip on Baker Street that television and film industry executives started taking notice of her. In LA, where she currently lives with her boyfriend and fellow British actor Raza Jaffrey, she found that there were plenty of well-connected people who were ‘desperate to meet Irene Adler’.
One of the immediate consequences of this attention is Pulver’s casting in Da Vinci’s Demons, the latest big-budget American TV series vying for our attention. No preview DVDs were available ahead of its British airing but from the snippets I’ve seen, and from Pulver’s own description, it appears to be more over the top than a first world war battalion.
‘The show is about Da Vinci’s lost years and in the same way we had a style for Sherlock with the text on screen, we have got Da Vinci’s visions, which are an extraordinary visual feast. It reminds me of the bit in Mary Poppins when they jump into the picture,’ explains Pulver, who plays Clarice Orsini, wife of Lorenzo Medici, the ruler of Florence during the Renaissance period.
‘We find out what we don’t really know about Da Vinci. We all know him as the artist, but I didn’t know about Da Vinci the inventor, the war hero and that free-thinking man who was ahead of his time.’
I also didn’t know about Da Vinci the young hunk, who ran around Florence with his shirt open, but I’m presuming this bit falls into the 20 per cent of dramatic licence that Pulver says the show’s creator David Goyer, one of the writers behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, has employed.
As a youngster, as well as attending the National Youth Music Theatre, Pulver put herself through ballet training to transform herself into ‘a triple threat’, as she calls it, capable of acting, singing and dancing. Only a short time into her career as a stage actor she changed agents to one who could help her break into television and achieve her ambition of ‘becoming the next Dame Judi frigging Dench’.
Pulver may still have a way to go before reaching those lofty heights, but she’s making stellar progress. A second season of Da Vinci’s Demons has already been confirmed and later in the year Sky will screen Fleming, a short series about the life of Ian Fleming, in which Pulver plays the James Bond creator’s wife Anne. She is also hopeful that 2013 will be the year that she breaks into film.
For all her warmth, there is clearly a steeliness to Pulver that I assume must be a job requirement in such a cut-throat industry. She’s had to withstand some unwanted tabloid interest, with spurious reports about her and Cumberbatch dating last year, and is fully aware of the pressures she’ll face to keep her career on an upward trajectory as she gets older.
‘There’s talk of the lack of roles for older women. It’s so tough and it’s soul-destroying what some female actors do to their faces to try and keep producers happy,’ she says. ‘I’m always looking at longevity for my career but you can only really live in the present. I’m fortunate in that at the moment I’m young, a decent-looking girl and I’m riding a wave.’
Da Vinci’s Demons starts on 19 April on Fox.