Sherlock's Lara Pulver: I found filming naked empowering

The British actress discusses the return of Irene Adler and why she'll never do a swinger movie

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Sherlock's Lara Pulver: I found filming naked empowering
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“I take my clothes off for a minute and a half and everyone suddenly goes, ‘Oh great, she’s an actress who will take her clothes off. We can’t get Kate Winslet. Let’s see if Lara Pulver will do a swinger movie.’”

Pulver laughs, plainly more tickled than irked. Leading ladies often look reassuringly ordinary out of professional make-up and flattering camera angles. Not Lara Pulver. Even early on a damp Monday morning, raindrops frizzing her inky locks, she looks as stunning as she does on screen, if more demurely dressed than in the role that’s precipitated the flood of swinger movie scripts: as whip-wielding dominatrix Irene Adler in Sherlock.

As well as job offers, Pulver’s performance as the Baker Street sleuth’s sultry adversary earned her a Critics’ Choice Television Award nomination for best actress (co-star Benedict Cumberbatch and Sherlock itself both won awards) and a Twitter appreciation society – “The Whip Hand” – that’s as devoted as Benedict’s “Cumberbitches”. It’s also kept her episode at the top of the iPlayer charts, making it the most watched programme this year.

That last honour probably has something to do with that 90 seconds where Pulver wears only a pair of Louboutin heels, diamond earrings and lipstick, which provoked more than 100 complaints when it was broadcast before the watershed.

When she subsequently revealed in Radio Times that she dispensed with the stick-on bra and diminutive drawers (“Imagine a sanitary towel made of tan lycra”) provided to protect her modesty, and found filming naked “empowering”, her confession caused even more of a stir.

“I feel like I’ve been slightly misquoted,” she says now, keen to clarify.

“I was in my rawest, most vulnerable physical form and to be standing there like that and still doing my job and doing it well. That’s what was empowering, realising: ‘I’m not crumbling; I’m not freaking out; I’m not shaking; I’m not not able to say my lines.’ I had no idea what was actually going to happen so it was empowering and reassuring to know that Lara in her most vulnerable physical state was OK.”

Surely she winced a little when she first read the script? “It didn’t bother me in the slightest and I’m someone who’s never done that sort of thing before on stage or screen.” Indeed, when playing a nubile fairy godmother in the raunchy vampire sage True Blood, Pulver politely declined to lower her shoulder strap because it didn’t feel “appropriate”. Adler was different: “It was just a device for her; it wasn’t nudity for nudity’s sake.”

Unsurprisingly, Pulver hasn’t opted to follow up her now infamous role with a swinger movie; Camouflage is an absorbing, discomfiting one-off drama chronicling the unlikely love affair between a make-up artist and a refugee (played by Ashley Walters, star of Top Boy and True Love). “She’s a very complex woman who is trying desperately to appear simple and normal. He manages to see the little chink in her armour and she opens up to someone for the first time.”

Camouflage forms part of Channel 4’s annual Coming Up season – returning this week – that allows emerging writers and directors to showcase their work. (One graduate, Jack Thorne, recently scooped a Bafta for The Fades, while others have gone on to direct critical hits Top Boy and The Scouting Book for Boys.) “We had just half a day to rehearse Camouflage and five days to shoot it. I think I was testing myself – testing whether I was brave enough to go on my gut instincts and relinquish complete control to a director and a writer than I didn’t know.”

She’s stripped on primetime and thrown herself into the mercy of the unknown. What’s next on her To Do list? “I’d love to do a comedy. I always told myself that I don’t have funny bones and then I was working with Dervla Kirwan in Uncle Vanya and she was like: ‘Lara, you’re really, really funny.’ And I realised I am, and that’s not even me blowing my own trumpet.” Even if she is blowing her own trumpet, Pulver’s big blue eyes are so earnest they sweep you along. “I’d also like to produce – I’ve a couple of ideas for a TV movie or a Working Title-style British movie.”

Pulver clearly isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Aged 17, after four years at National Youth Music Theatre (Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Tom Hollander are also alumni), she applied for a scholarship at a performing arts college. “I knew I could act, I knew I could sing, but I had never danced before so needed to add that to my toolkit.

“It was humiliating. I was in ballet class for an hour and a half every morning for three years with classmates who had danced since they were three or four. I cried a lot.” But by the end, she was doing triple pirouettes and was nimble-footed enough for a career in musical theatre, appearing in Honk!, 42nd Street, Chicago and A Chorus Line.

Eight years later, Pulver paused for breath: “I suddenly went, ‘Hang on, I didn’t get into this profession to dance or be in musicals.’ So I changed agents.” Within three months she’d bagged a role on BBC1 family drama Robin Hood in 2009, adding fighting, horse-riding and archery to her arsenal to play Guy of Gisbourne’s scheming sister.

As an MI5 boss in Spooks, she then learnt how to handle a Walther PPK semi-automatic and run elegantly in heels. She also snuggled up to actor Raza Jaffrey, who’s since become her off-screen boyfriend too, following her separation from her husband of four years, American actor Joshua Dallas.

Jaffrey and Pulver didn’t first meet on the set of Spooks, but in Los Angeles, her adopted home. “I have lived there now for three years” – she glances towards the slate-grey skies outside – “and am looking forward to going back. I’m a walker, whether that’s a stroll on the beach at sunset or getting up at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and doing an eight-hour hike through a canyon. It’s Zen time for me.”

But for the next six months Pulver’s home is slightly less glamorous; she’s just started filming a historical TV drama in Swansea. Da Vinci’s Demons promises to be as racy and economical with the facts as The Tudors, although Pulver is once again playing a character to be reckoned with: Lorenzo de Medici’s wife, Clarice Orsini – “She’s very much ahead of her time. I’d liken her to Hilary Clinton.”

Are her dominatrix days behind her? Not necessarily: Swansea is close to Cardiff, where Sherlock is filmed, if the detective’s whip-cracking nemesis were to make a comeback. Pulver neither rules it out, nor gives anything away. “Who knows?” she teases… 

Lara Pulver

She’s stripped on primetime and thrown herself into the mercy of the unknown. What’s next on her To Do list? “I’d love to do a comedy. I always told myself that I don’t have funny bones and then I was working with Dervla Kirwan in Uncle Vanya and she was like: ‘Lara, you’re really, really funny.’ And I realised I am, and that’s not even me blowing my own trumpet.” Even if she is blowing her own trumpet, Pulver’s big blue eyes are so earnest they sweep you along. “I’d also like to produce – I’ve a couple of ideas for a TV movie or a Working Title-style British movie.”

Pulver clearly isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Aged 17, after four years at National Youth Music Theatre (Jude Law, Sheridan Smith and Tom Hollander are also alumni), she applied for a scholarship at a performing arts college. “I knew I could act, I knew I could sing, but I had never danced before so needed to add that to my toolkit.

“It was humiliating. I was in ballet class for an hour and a half every morning for three years with classmates who had danced since they were three or four. I cried a lot.” But by the end, she was doing triple pirouettes and was nimble-footed enough for a career in musical theatre, appearing in Honk!, 42nd Street, Chicago and A Chorus Line.

Eight years later, Pulver paused for breath: “I suddenly went, ‘Hang on, I didn’t get into this profession to dance or be in musicals.’ So I changed agents.” Within three months she’d bagged a role on BBC1 family drama Robin Hood in 2009, adding fighting, horse-riding and archery to her arsenal to play Guy of Gisbourne’s scheming sister.

As an MI5 boss in Spooks, she then learnt how to handle a Walther PPK semi-automatic and run elegantly in heels. She also snuggled up to actor Raza Jaffrey, who’s since become her off-screen boyfriend too, following her separation from her husband of four years, American actor Joshua Dallas.

Jaffrey and Pulver didn’t first meet on the set of Spooks, but in Los Angeles, her adopted home. “I have lived there now for three years” – she glances towards the slate-grey skies outside – “and am looking forward to going back. I’m a walker, whether that’s a stroll on the beach at sunset or getting up at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning and doing an eight-hour hike through a canyon. It’s Zen time for me.”

But for the next six months Pulver’s home is slightly less glamorous; she’s just started filming a historical TV drama in Swansea. Da Vinci’s Demons promises to be as racy and economical with the facts as The Tudors, although Pulver is once again playing a character to be reckoned with: Lorenzo de Medici’s wife, Clarice Orsini – “She’s very much ahead of her time. I’d liken her to Hilary Clinton.”

Are her dominatrix days behind her? Not necessarily: Swansea is close to Cardiff, where Sherlock is filmed, if the detective’s whip-cracking nemesis were to make a comeback. Pulver neither rules it out, nor gives anything away. “Who knows?” she teases…