Respectively and humanly portraying an iconic leader who’s regularly associated with darkness and evil, and infusing that portrait with a powerful relatability, can be an ambitious challenge for any actor and helmer. But first-time feature film director, Gary Shore, enthrallingly allowed actor Luke Evans to compassionately show the humanizing nature of his title character in their new action fantasy drama, ‘Dracula Untold.’ Evans naturally infused the role with an instinctive human element, as Vlad the Impaler battled his internal demons as he morphed into the blood-thirsty Dracula.
Set in the year 1462, ‘Dracula Untold’ tells the origin story of the alluring title immortal character, as he leads a prolonged period of peace. Dracula, who is fairly ruling Transylvania under his given name, Vlad III, is enjoying his life with his wife, Mirena (Sarah Mirena), and their teenage son, Ingeras (Art Parkinson). The Prince of Wallachia and his family are determined to maintain the peace for their country. They’re mainly trying to ensure that their people are well-protected, particularly from the powerful Ottoman Empire, which has its sights on global domination.
But Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper) demands that Vlad hand over 1,000 of Wallachia’s boys, including Ingeras, to become child soldiers in his army. Vlad must decide to either do the same as his father and give up his son to the sultan, or defeat the Turks, in order to save the children.
In an effort to protect his son, Vlad journeys to Broken Tooth Mountain, where he encounters a foul demon, called the Master Vampire (Charles Dance). The two enter into a Faustian bargain, which gives the prince the strength of 100 men and enough power to defeat his enemies. However, he will be inflicted with an insatiable thirst to drink human blood. While he’s determined to save his people, he begins dwelling on the darkness that resides inside him, and how it can destroy all that he wants to protect.
Evans generously took the time recently to participate in a press conference at New York City’s Mandarin Oriental hotel to talk about filming ‘Dracula Untold.’ Among other things, the actor discussed how his incarnation of Vlad showed that he was willing to sacrifice some of his people to save and protect his entire kingdom, which mixed elements of the title character’s admirable traits with his darker nature; how his previous work on such medieval fantasy films as ‘The Hobbit series, ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ helped prepare him for the fighting, choreography and physicality of his portrayal of Dracula; and how his theater training aided him in ‘Dracula Untold,’ as his experience in live performances helped him gather the respect and fear of those he was performing with in his scenes.
Question (Q): What was your first experience with Dracula growing up? Was it a film?
Luke Evans (LE): It was ‘Sesame Street,’ and then Count Duckula, who was a vampire duck. Then it was a Saturday matinee on TV with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing films. Then in my teenage years it would have been ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ by Francis Ford Coppola. Then I stopped with Dracula.
Q: Do you agree that your Dracula resembles, more so than other incarnations, superhero characters?
LE: I think the superhero aspect is very interesting, because he’s able to fly and do all these very superhuman things. But what you have to remember is that all these powers that he has in this movie are not something that we’ve created because we’re doing a Hollywood blockbuster.
His powers come from Eastern European folklore. Vampires were always able to transform into creatures of the night. The dark creatures like bats, and using the darkness to their own advantage, have always been associated with vampires. So we just embellished those powers and we just brought them into the 21st century. We were able to use this amazing CGI technology that we have now, and bring them into this storyline. But really we owe that to Eastern European folklore, which goes back centuries, before any of the superheroes we now know of even existed.
Q: Can you be a monster and a superhero at the same time?
LE: It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I think what we’ve done with this story is make you question that. He has a very interesting line in the film when he’s speaking to the Master Vampire (played by Charles Dance). He says: “Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero. Sometimes it needs a monster.”
He’s trying to get onto the right side of this sinister creature, and I get why he says it. But I don’t know whether you can be a monster and a hero in the real world. But during the time we placed this film-somewhere in the 1460s-the world is a very different place. Vlad’s take on how to rule a country was that by putting one village to the stake, he saved 10 more.
That’s not how we live our lives now. Well, actually, there are places in the world where this sort of stuff is going on, but that doesn’t relate to this film. I think heroes are the people that go into houses when they’re on fire and save people in hospitals. That’s a hero, not the monsters.
Q: You have a lot of experience with mythic periods, between ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ and ‘Robin Hood.’ What is it about you that makes people say, “That’s the man to go to for mythic periods?’ What have you learned from that experience that you were able to apply to the next experience?
LE: I don’t know. Maybe I’m an old soul, and I’ve lived before. Maybe directors see a face that seems to have been lived in. I guess I have a certain look about me. I think once I’m in a costume or I’ve got a certain period look, I seem to fit it quite well. I don’t know why that is. I’m quite happy that’s the case, because it’s actually quite fun to jump into a world that doesn’t exist anymore, or didn’t exist ever. But it’s exciting because it’s an incredibly immersive job, as an actor, to disappear into a world that doesn’t exist or tell a story about a character that lived a long time ago.
Q: Were there things that you learned from doing ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Robin Hood’ or ‘The Three Musketeers’ that you were able to apply to this role?
LE: When it comes to the fighting and all that physicality of the roles, everything has definitely informed the next job. It has helped me progress quicker through choreography.
Costume is a massive thing. I think costume makes you stand differently. For this film, in the billboards, you see this incredible, elaborate armor that has this chest breastplate with the dragon on it. It makes you stand differently, and it turns heads. It turned the cleaners’ heads, it turned the caterers’ heads, it turned makeup’s heads.
I remember walking out of my trailer during my first day on set when I put that armor on for the first time, and only my assistant, my dresser and I had seen the costume. Then we went to a quarry, and it was cold. Mother Nature had allowed us this great atmosphere so there were no fog machines-it was all natural. I walked out through this mist, and everybody was just like: “Holy sh*t! He’s here. Bad Vlad’s arrived.” It was a really good moment. But it makes you you carry yourself differently, and fight differently, so it’s a fun tool.
Q: Being always cast in this universe of kingdoms, swords and fantastic sci-fi movies, is it something that concerns you when it comes to your career? Also, how does it feel to star as Dracula in your first lead role in a big-budget movie?
LE: It’s a very interesting question, because as an actor you have to be very careful you don’t get typecast into a certain category. It’s very easy to do. Somebody told me a couple years ago, “So, you’re like the period action go-to guy?” I was like, “I don’t know, am I? Okay, that’s a title I haven’t got before.” I get it; that’s fine.
But that’s why I’ve chosen to jump out of that and do things like ‘Fast & Furious 6,’ where I played a very contemporary, dark, villain, who has a shaved head. I mixed that up. I’ve just finished a movie based in the ‘70s with a new director from the UK (Ben Wheatley). It’s called ‘High-Rise,’ and it’s going to be a very extraordinary film.
So I’m mixing it up; it’s just that with this film, you haven’t seen yet. So when it comes out, you’ll see I’m still challenging the path I’m walking. I’m taking a side step every now and again, and sometimes a back step, and I jump a couple of times. It’s all about choosing those roles and challenging yourself and the audience. It’s about making sure they don’t get bored of what they see.
Dracula and Bard the Bowman (in ‘The Hobbit’) are two very different people on very different journeys. But it’s all about finding the role that challenges you and doesn’t make people get bored of you.
Q: What was your approach to being romantic in the scenes (with Sarah Gad, who plays Vlad’s wife, Mirena)?
LE: What I like about this story is you start with the human, who’s a very relatable character. You have to understand, he’s Vlad the Impaler and he had a very dark past. But we meet him in a very peaceful period of his reign; he’s a loving father and a husband. Sarah Gadon and I, as well the film’s director, Gary Shore, really wanted to make sure that that relationship felt absolutely pure, and that there was a real love there, because it triggers a lot of the things that he does after that.
He also fights for his only son, and it’s quite a beautiful thing. I quite like that, because it draws other emotions you wouldn’t necessarily think would come into a man-turning-into-the-biggest-vampire-on-the-planet storyline. But it works; it makes you question whether you like him and want to follow him, and that you’re behind him when he does what he does.
Q: How did your background in theater enhance your experience doing this film?
LE: I’ve always said that theater was where I began, so everything I do now has a bit of my theater background in it. It was my training. This film is slightly theatrical; the whole thing is a huge spectacle of a journey for one man. It was fun.
I had to shout to a huge crowd of warriors on quite a few days enough to command that audience, and there were moments when I did feel like I was on a stage. Commanding an audience when you’re onstage is quite a feat. If you can do it and you have them in the palm of your hand-which doesn’t happen all the time-you feel like you’re king of the world. There were certain scenes in the film where I had to gain the respect or the fear of who I was performing to in the scene, and I my theater training helped there.
Q: How did you shake off this role after you finished filming the movie?
LE: There was a bit more than shaking it off. It was exhausting, as I was training for two months before we started shooting the principal photography. I was in New Zealand doing the pickups for the final ‘Hobbit.’ I had my trainer there, and we were training in the evenings and on the weekends for ‘Dracula.’
I put on 11 kilos (about 25 pounds) of weight so that when I got to Belfast, my trainer changed. Then we started to shred and change my diet so that we would get this physique that honored the warrior prince that Vlad ?epe? was.
Vlad was ruthless man. The scars on his back which you see in the movie came from some very vicious moments in his life. So I wanted to honor that physically and make sure that he looked the right shape.
It was also about the stamina. The training wasn’t just about me looking good when I took my clothes off; it was also about me having the strength and the core strength to do those fight sequences because they took days to shoot. It was hard to do take after take after take when you’ve got swords. They may not have been sharp, but they were heavy and metal and could cause damage. So it’s about accuracy, and that’s about strength. There was a lot that went into it. It was very rewarding, but so exhausting.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the Samurai sword?
LE: The sword that I have in this film is the most beautiful weapon I’ve ever used in a movie. The handle is a bronze dragon that’s standing on his hind feet. His tail wraps around the hilt of the sword, and his eyes are rubies. It’s beautiful, but it’s perfectly weighted, so it’s quite heavy and difficult to work with. My wrists actually increased from using the sword. I had to change my watch from my wrists getting bigger from fighting, because (of) the amount of pressure on the wrists.
But I have the sword, and it was given to me on my final day. It was inscribed by the Universal family. It was a beautiful thing and I feel very lucky to have it, but god help any burglar that tries to enter my house, that’s for sure. I’ve got three, so there. They’re all on my wall.
Q: In the initial sequences when Vlad is facing the Master Vampire, where did you take your references from to express the complex feelings that Vlad was experiencing during that moment of violence?
LE: Well, if you stand that close to Charles Dance covered in prosthetics and teeth, and he’s dribbling all over you and he’s got these sharp nails poking in your cheek, it’s enough to make you feel scared. He’s quite a statuesque human being. He’s very tall and carries himself in a very grand way. He was barefoot in that scene, and I had shoes with a heel, and he was still taller than me.
He has an amazing presence, and I think that’s why he’s still the top of his game and delivers such brilliant performances in whatever he does. But in this film, it was just great. I very rarely act against actors who are that much taller than me, so for me to feel intimidated by another actor was a really good thing. It needed to happen because he’s a real threat that will last through the ages. He’s not somebody that I can just kill off, and that’s what’s exciting about his character. If we’re lucky enough to make another one, he’s going to to be a real threat.
**SPOILER ALERT** Q: Following up about the sequel, is anything in the works to make another film?
LE: No, but we’ve allowed this film to have a perfect gateway so that Dracula can go anywhere. He’s immortal, and at the point where the movie finishes, we’re already touching on 500 years. So we’re dealing with a man who’s spent a long time walking, searching in a very lonely existence throughout time. Who knows what’s been through and who knows what he’s going to go to. The options are endless, and I think that’s where we want it to be.
Written by: Karen Benardello