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Lucy Punch Plays a Good Knockout

The demure British actress Lucy Punch channels a psycho stalker in "Dinner with Shmucks."

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Lucy Punch has a talent for playing the oversexed temptress. In “Dinner for Schmucks,” opening Friday, she appears as Paul Rudd’s psychotic stalker Darla, a ferocious tangle of misguided affection dressed in latex. And in Woody Allen’s upcoming “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” Punch is a call girl in six-inch heels, miniskirts and a bra stuffed with enough chicken cutlets to stock a butcher shop.

Her skills become even more apparent when the 32-year-old floats into the Gramercy Park Hotel’s rooftop terrace looking the furthest thing from a seductress. Pink-cheeked and wearing a demure, belted shirtdress, it’s hard to imagine the English actress uttering so much as a curse word, let alone throwing herself on men.

So poised is she that her softness put a damper on some male journalists in Cannes when she was there in May promoting “Tall Dark Stranger.” “I’d made a conscious effort to really not look like [my character], in a little white dress with flowers and flat shoes. And they were so disappointed,” Punch says. “They were like [slipping into a French accent and gesturing at her chest], ‘Oh, you like so small!’ You could just see they were waiting for some Amazon to come in.”

It was just this transformational ability that so captured “Schmucks” director Jay Roach.

“Lucy herself is so completely British. She is so poised — perfect posture like a ballet dancer and her accent is so proper she could be royalty. But her character was crazy and slutty and utterly American,” says Roach, who first noticed her in the film “Being Julia” opposite Annette Bening. “She’s a shape-shifter.”

She certainly goes for broke in “Schmucks.” As Darla, Punch gives a performance that is as laugh-out-loud outrageous as it is physically demanding. At various points in the film, she spanks herself endlessly, throws wine bottles across an apartment and even smashes the daylights out of a car.

“I finished that job and [I was] covered in bruises. I actually looked like I was rotting,” says Punch, who also inflicted her body on her co-stars. “I remember sitting on Steve [Carell]’s lap — he’s such a sweet, kind gentleman — and I’m all over him and licking him and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry! This is not like me.’ I felt like I was molesting him. But he was very, very nice about it…well, I don’t know. I think after I’d licked his face for the 45th time he was like, ‘You know what? Just let’s stop.’ ”

“She played her [character’s] desperation with actual muscular attack,” says Roach. “But she also shows pain and a fragile, breakable self. It’s not easy to dial in the tone, but she does it beautifully.”

As Punch tells it, she has plenty of practice imbuing unlikable characters with humanity. Growing up in London, the daughter of an advertiser father and market researcher mother, Punch was constantly doing school plays in which, “I was never Cinderella,” she says ruefully. “I always played Mrs. Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ or fascists.” (Of her adult career she notes, “I actually have played the ugly [step] sisters in three different films — ‘Ella Enchanted’ and two TV movies in England.”)

Punch performed in National Youth Theatre, got an agent and went off to university in London intending to fulfill her history of art and French degrees. But she booked a TV job midway through and decided to put off school for acting.

Since moving to Los Angeles four years ago, she’s found herself cast mainly in comedies, not least of which is “Tall Dark Stranger.” At least in her next picture, “Bad Teacher,” opposite Cameron Diaz, Punch gets to take a break from the primping.

“I’m this very sweet, slightly annoying Midwestern elementary school teacher with a long, thick, red wig. And I’m in clogs and really unattractive, unflattering clothes,” says Punch. “It was like, ‘Oh great, craft services!’ and inhaling doughnuts instead of like all the other jobs [thinking], ‘I’m not going to get into my costume if I eat another thing.’”