If nothing else, Luke Evans has one distinct physical attribute that makes him the perfect choice to play Dracula.
“I have my own fangs,” jokes the actor on the set of forthcoming origin actioner “Dracula Untold.” And he does – look at any photo where the “Fast & Furious 6” baddie is showing his teeth and you”ll notice his prominent canines immediately.
Fortuitous? Certainly. But of course, his pearlies aren”t what bagged him the part. Being Luke Evans did.
The Welsh actor has been such a ubiquitous big-screen presence over the last several years that it”s easy to forget that his first major Hollywood film, 2010″s “Clash of the Titans,” is only four years old. Since then he”s racked up quite an impressive resume, from Paul W.S. Anderson”s “Three Musketeers” to sword-n-sandals actioner “Immortals” to “F&F 6” to his role as the Bard in the last two entries of Peter Jackson”s “Hobbit” trilogy – the last of which is set premiere this December.
Except that “Untold” (formerly titled “Dracula Year Zero”) is something a bit different: Evans” very first leading-man role in a Hollywood film. So is he feeling the pressure?
“[It”s] no more intimidating than anything else I've ever done,” says Evans, wearing a gray hoodie over his medieval costume (leather vest and pants, chainmail skirt, et al.) Then again: “It is responsibility. It's a legendary character, first portrayed in  by Universal, and they're bringing it back to the screen, and my name's on the back of everybody's chair. It's like, 'woah!' It's an exciting thing.”
Indeed, there”s a sense that Evans knows the stakes here – a big-budget, effects-heavy studio film with his name in pole position isn”t something to take for granted, and he certainly hasn”t. In addition to the physical preparation and maintenance required for the part – Evans” trainer, who has traveled with the actor over the course of two films now, has held him to a punishing workout and diet regimen – Evans has worked intensively with director Gary Shore and the screenwriters on developing the script for “eight to nine months,” by his own estimation.
“[That] is quite a long time before starting a movie,” he points out. “Working with Gary on the script, and talking to him on a weekly basis from wherever we were in the world. And so there's been a lot of dialogue, and a lot of conversations about his journey, and loads of change in that time. It's been great for that reason. I feel very invested in it, even though I've been doing other projects, and finishing ‘The Hobbit,' and I did another movie…even though I was doing all of that, in my mind I was still setting pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in my head so when I arrived here it wasn't too daunting.”
But it is, inevitably, daunting. A sense of the movie”s scale was immediately apparent during my tour of the elaborate sets constructed on a Belfast soundstage, on which they were currently filming a scene that sees Evans – playing a variation on the revered Wallachian prince Vlad III (more popularly known as Vlad the Impaler) – delivering a charged speech to his people in the midst of a fierce siege by the Turks.
“They wanted my son. A good prince would”ve given him up!” he proclaims as the frightened crowd eagerly gathers around him in the palace”s Great Hall. “A good prince would”ve paid that price for peace! But I promise you, we will not be defeated!”
The dialogue here is referring to a request by the Turks for a number of Wallachian boy soldiers, including Vlad”s (entirely fictional) son Ingeras, as tribute (Wallachia was at that point claimed as part of the Ottoman Empire). Vlad”s confidence in turning down the request lies in the fact that by this point in the film, he has already gained the otherworldly powers commonly associated with the Dracula legend: flight, telepathy, shapeshifting and (it needs hardly be mentioned) immortality. That said, his transformation into the cackling, isolated monster of Bram Stoker”s original novel is far off at this point; this Dracula is still driven by very human considerations.
“The important thing we wanted to impress in the character of Vlad and Dracula…is you see the human in the vampire. We don't want to disassociate the two people. We want to keep them the same, the same person,” says Evans. “In Vlad's situation, he does what he does from a very selfless position and point of view. He does it because he wants to save his family, his son, and his wife, and his people. …Vlad always keeps his reasons for [transforming] very clear. As much as he has this urge to drink the blood of a human, he really resists as much as he can.”
Vlad”s very conscious choice to become a vampire is made during a trip to “Caligula”s temple” on Broken Tooth Mountain (yes, that Caligula), where he drinks infected blood from a chalice to become the mythological bloodsucker of our collective nightmares – though with his rugged, square-jawed good looks and muscular physique, Evans looks nothing at all like the pale-faced Dracula we”ve come to know and fear.
“Even though we're used to thinking of Dracula as this man who lures women into bed and then kills them for their lifeforce…yeah, he does become that, but we're beginning at the origin,” says Evans. “This is the origin story of Dracula…at this point, he's still hoping that's not who he's gonna become. He doesn't want to become what he sees in that cave up in Broken Tooth Mountain. It's not a nice thought.”
The scene in the Great Hall is chaotic. As strobe lights flash through the windows to signify cannon fire, piles of fiery rubble litter the floor and flying “debris” – actually produced by dried reeds held next to giant rotating fans by a pair of crewmembers – drift recklessly through the high-ceilinged space. The human toll is apparent, too. As the scene unfolds, I spot an unmoving “body” as it”s carried through the panicky throngs of Wallachians on a stretcher.
All the violence and destruction on display is thanks to a bitter rivalry between Vlad and Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (Dominic Cooper), who – and this is a major divergence from the historical record – were raised as brothers before suffering a bitter split due in part to Mehmed”s jealousy over Vlad”s superior fighting abilities.
Despite the film”s obvious anachronisms and historical inaccuracies, one thing Evans stressed during our time with him was that he and [first-time feature] director Shore made a point of being as true to the real Vlad as possible, up to and including references to his notoriously sadistic reputation. This being a PG-13 film, however, his heinous acts of torture – he wasn”t referred to as Vlad “The Impaler” for nothing – will be kept largely off-screen.
“He was a very bloodthirsty leader and warrior, and he did do some incredibly shocking things,” concedes Evans. “And we do talk about them. There are scenes when that is brought up, and you can see that he's uncomfortable with the fact that these are being brought up, because his people…we've moved on and he's now become a leader that isn't all about the fact that he impales people in fields and kills thousands of people…[but] that was something I was very…it was very important for me to have that element of him in the film.”
I said largely off-screen.
“There are a couple of moments where we honor the impaling technique,” teases Evans, to a chorus of snickers from the room. “In very clever ways.”
“Honor” is perhaps in itself a rather barbarous word choice on Evans” part, but then of course it”s the grislier elements of the vampire subgenre that will likely lure the majority of filmgoers on opening weekend. And while the amount of on-screen violence allowed in PG-13 studio films nowadays tends to push the boundaries of good taste, you probably shouldn”t go into “Dracula Untold” expecting a lot of gore for your money.
“The vampiric part of him is only seen in very subtle moments. When he actually does go to bite, you see this incredible transformation which is unique to this film, it's unique to Dracula, it's never been done before,” says Evans. “He doesn't have the fangs all the time…and I think sometimes the unseen is often more exciting and more intriguing to an audience than what you see. If you spoonfeed every visual element of some character like Dracula, which we're so used to seeing in so many different representations we've seen over the years, this one we've chosen to be very clever in when we show these moments…it's quite beautiful what happens to him when he does go for the kill.”
When it comes down to it, this Vlad isn”t much different from a modern-day superhero – dark, complex and blessed (cursed?) with a set of extraordinary powers. In a sense, Dracula is to Vlad what Batman is to Bruce Wayne – an alter-ego operating under cover of dark by necessity.
“He knows that most people are gonna not like what he's done, including his wife being at the top of the pile,” says Evans. “She's mortified at the fact that he's decided to choose this dark, almost inhuman, anti-Christian life, you know? So he has to make these decisions a lot on his own and try and convince his people and his army and his men that everything looks terrible and we're all gonna die, but you have to trust me…and he doesn't wanna give it away, cause he knows they're all gonna freak out if they know exactly what he is. “
As with the character he portrays, “Dracula Untold” is something of an origin tale for Evans himself – the start of a leading-man journey that, if all goes well, could lead him into some pretty lucrative territory.
“This movie finishes, this story finishes in a very…it's like an open book,” says Evans when asked about a potential sequel. “It could go anywhere. There's a lot of discussions about that, so it's very exciting, and I'm very much involved with the whole thing, so…It's nice to be part of something that could grow into something else and be there at the beginning of it.”
“Dracula Untold” hits theaters on October 17.