The ‘shiksa goddess’ who acts kosher

By John Nathan, April 25, 2008
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Actress Lara Pulver has gone from gentile siren to nice Jewish girl in 12 months. Next stop, Hollywood, she tells John Nathan

From Shiksa Goddess to Jewish princess. For a young actress this is not the most obvious path to stardom. But for Lara Pulver, one of this country’s most promising stage performers, it is a route that last year led to her being nominated for an Olivier Award.

“That the roles are Jewish, or Jewish-related, has been a complete coincidence, to be honest,” says Pulver during a break from rehearsing her latest role.

The 27-year-old actress came to the attention of London theatre audiences two years ago when she landed the role of Cathy in the Menier Chocolate Factory production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years.

In Robert Brown’s autobiographical show, about a failed marriage between a non-Jewish girl and a Jewish boy, Pulver was the gentile half of the relationship. This is the character about whom Jewish Jamie sings his anthem to gentile girls — it is called Shiksa Goddess.

In Beau Jest, which arrives at the Hackney Empire in May, Pulver is starring in another mixed relationship. This time she plays the Jewish half.

In the hit comedy by American writer James Sherman, Pulver plays Sarah Goldman, a nice Jewish girl who has a nice (but non-Jewish) boyfriend. Sarah cannot find the courage to introduce him to her strict parents, Miriam (played by Sue Kelvin) and Abe (Jack Chissick). So she does not. Instead, she hires an actor from an escort agency to turn up at the family seder and pretend to be her invented, and very Jewish, beau.

“In rehearsals, we’ve had so much fun sitting round the seder table,” says Pulver, for whom the play, and Jason Robert Brown’s musical, chimes with her family’s experience.

“My father’s family are Jewish and my mother converted when they were married. But they separated when I was about 11, so I haven’t had my father’s Jewish family around me for a long time. I see my grandparents and stuff, but I was a child when I was going to Shabbos with them. So doing what I’m doing now is bringing back lots of memories. And when I look at the characters Miriam and Abe, I think: ‘Oh my God, they could be my grandparents.’”

The conversion by Pulver’s mother only recently came to light. “It’s really strange because my she never told me. And then when I described the plot of Beau Jest to her, she was, like: ‘Well, I converted when I was 21. That’s what I had to do.’ For some reason it had just never come up before. But good things came out of it. Me and my sister.”

Although Pulver garnered good reviews for The Last Five Years, it was her performance last year in Parade (another Jason Robert Brown musical) at London’s Donmar Warehouse that got her noticed by the critics.

The musical’s book, by Alfred Driving Miss Daisy Uhry, combines a love story with deep-south antisemitism. Pulver played Lucille Frank, the real-life Jewish wife of Leo (played by Bertie Culver), a Jewish factory-owner falsely convicted of murdering a girl in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1913. It is a powerful piece in which Pulver’s character grows from a Jewish southern belle into a woman of substance determined to save her husband from the gallows.

It was, says Pulver, her most rewarding role. “When you’re young and moderately attractive,” she says modestly, “you don’t always get meaty roles. Parade was rewarding and emotionally exhausting, but I learned a hell of a lot.”

Playing Sarah at Hackney may be another Jewish role, but the show could not be more different. Even so, is there the danger of directors typecasting her?

“You do get typecast when you’re a young Jew playing a young Jew. I think it’s just that, you get a script, and whatever is required of you, you slip into the role and run with it.”

Beau Jest is new territory for me. When I picked up the script, I was in fits. It’s very funny, very quick, very witty. It couldn’t be more different from what I played at the Donmar.”

Pulver does not know yet if there are any more Jewish roles in the offing. After appearing at Hackney, she turns her sights to the more glamorous prospect of Broadway and maybe Hollywood, where her American husband and fellow actor Joshua Dallas is forging a career. The roles she turns down are, she says, as important to her career as the ones she takes on.

“I wish Helen Mirren would sit me down and say: ‘If you do x, y, z, you will be me.’ But it doesn’t happen that way. There is no formula. Which is very exciting, because then every actor has their own path.”

Beau Jest is at the Hackney Empire, London E8, from May 7. Tel: 020 8985 2424

    Last updated: 12:35pm, April 24 2008