Welsh actor Luke Evans has a penchant for larger-than-life characters. He’s twice played Greek gods – Apollo in “Clash of the Titans,” Zeus in “Immortals” – and he’s portrayed literary icons – Aramis in the most recent big-screen adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” and the brave human Bard the Bowman in the second and upcoming “Hobbit” movies.
For his first real leading-man turn in a Hollywood epic, he’s revisiting legends and literature in a new way, tackling his biggest character yet. In “Dracula Untold,” he plays Vlad Tepes, the fearsome Eastern European warrior known for impaling his enemies.
The character famously served as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire, but the big-budget Universal Pictures film that arrives in theaters Friday transports Dracula from Victorian England to the 15th century and sets out to present a more complex portrait of the bloodthirsty prince.
“We’re almost turning the monster on its head in a way and allowing people to see Dracula in a different light,” Evans said on the Belfast set of the film last year. “When you think of the word ‘Dracula,’ you think of this pale-faced, fanged man floating through an ancient house on top of a mountain. We are trying to slightly pull away from that and give it that punch of reality.”
Directed by first-time feature filmmaker Gary Shore and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, “Dracula Untold” opens in 1462 Transylvania: Prince Vlad is a respected ruler, a doting husband and father to a young son. But the peace is threatened when the neighboring Turks, led by the sultan Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), demand that Vlad surrender 1,000 boys to serve in their army.
After the Turks reject Vlad’s offer to fight in the place of the inexperienced children, he travels to Broken Tooth Mountain, a haunted site shrouded in red mist. What he encounters there robs him of his humanity, and he is forced to wrestle with new, dark urges while simultaneously protecting his people using surprising and unexpected powers.
“He has to keep it to himself for a majority of the film that he’s battling this awful sort of addiction, but he knows this addiction comes with a positive side – which is this power and strength that he’s able to (use to combat) the Turks’ invasion of his country,” Evans said.
Dracula, as a character, has captivated filmmakers since the dawn of cinema. Stoker’s book was first adapted by F.W. Murnau in 1922 as “Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens,” and roughly two dozen movie actors have interpreted the role in various productions, though it’s typically Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman who are most associated with the immortal caped fiend. (Evans cites a particular fondness for Oldman’s performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 telling.)
For his Dracula, Evans was pleased to deviate from the usual script and dive into historical research about Vlad Tepes – and he was excited to bring more personality to a legendary figure remembered almost exclusively for sadism on the battlefield.
“There’s lots of contrasting stories about how dark he was, how vicious he was, how bloodthirsty he was,” Evans said. “But then in the same breath, you hear about how great a leader he was and how loved by his people he was and respected by his enemies he was. Even on his tombstone in Romania, it says he was respected by his enemies.
“When you take those things into account, you think, ‘Well, as much as he’s remembered for impaling thousands of people on poles in a field, there was much more to the man.’ ”
His studious approach was born out of his work in the theater. Evans, 35, began acting professionally on the London stage and worked successfully for about a decade before landing his first studio feature, the remake of “Clash of the Titans,” which, in turn, led to other outsized parts in subsequent Hollywood productions.
Director Peter Jackson said he cast Evans in “The Hobbit” films based not only on his previous performances but also in part on his winning personality: He described Evans as the kind of guy you could grab a drink with at a pub.
“No one else would step in and play Bard the way Luke has, which is terrific when an actor really owns a role like that,” Jackson said, speaking by phone from New Zealand.
“He’s a dream actor to work with,” Shore said. “He’s the most committed person I’ve ever worked with. He’s a brilliant team player, and he’s been a great comrade to me. He’s someone who can always collaborate.”
Although he never set out to forge a career based on action-packed blockbusters, Evans said he’s comfortable with the path he’s found himself traveling (though he did recently wrap Ben Wheatley’s indie thriller “High-Rise,” due out next year). It seems fantastic cinema affords far more unusual opportunities than kitchen-sink dramas ever could.
With “Dracula Untold,” for example, Evans shot transporting scenes not only on grandiose palace sets but also in such startling natural locations as Giant’s Causeway, a series of dramatic cliffs on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland.
“When they say, ‘Action!’ I’m in 1483, and I love that idea – it’s like time travel for 10 minutes,” Evans said. “You can’t draw on anything that you have in your normal life. You can be on top of a mountain and kill 15 Turks and then jump on the back of a horse and gallop down a highway. That’s what I did a couple of weeks ago.”
“DRACULA UNTOLD,” starring Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon and Charles Dance. Directed by Gary Shore. Screenplay by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless. A Universal release. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of warfare, vampire attacks, disturbing images and some sensuality. Running time: 1:32