Her dark ma­te­rial

Florence Pugh was awarded best ac­tress at this year’s ADiff for her steel-eyed per­for­mance in the re­venge drama LadyMac­beth.And in per­son, Don­ald Clarke finds, the 20-year-old is just as for­mi­da­ble

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

Florence Pugh is just 20 years old. When I was that age, I could barely com­plete a co­her­ent sen­tence with­out swal­low­ing my own tongue. Pugh, though po­lite and mod­est, buzzes with the sort of con­fi­dence that makes old peo­ple feel older than the neb­u­lae.

She has cause. Three years ago, playin­gone of sev­eral school­girls, she stood out from a tal­ented crowd in Carol Mor­ley’s spooky, res­o­nant The Fall­ing. That fine turn couldn’t quite pre­pare us for what she achieves in Wil­liam Ol­droyd’s ex­tra­or­di­nary

Lady Mac­beth. The pic­ture, de­rived from a Rus­sian novel by Niko­lai Leskov, casts Florence as an English woman who, sold into a love­less mar­riage with a cruel landowner, ends up ex­ert­ing the most vi­o­lent re­venge. Al­though the book was the source for a fa­mous opera by Dmitri Shostakovich, it has not reg­is­tered much out­side its home coun­try.

“Why has no­body made this into a film?” Ol­droyd asked me rhetor­i­cally at this year’s Audi Dublin In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. “Is the opera too fa­mous? This is a re­ally rich seam. I thought we could make it work. It’s an 1865 Kill Bill.”

Cather­ine, the pro­tag­o­nist, who is in vir­tu­ally ev­ery scene, be­gins as a vic­tim, but ends as some­thing like a mon­strous avenger. Ol­droyd needed some­body head-spin­ning in the role. Ar­riv­ing on screen like a pocket cy­clone, Pugh sweeps all aside her in her de­ter­mi­na­tion not to be op­pressed or pa­tro­n­ised. This critic was on a panel for the Dublin Film Crit­ics Cir­cle that awarded Pugh best ac­tress at ADiff.

“Yes, I just got the award from my agent,” she en­thuses. “I was so de­lighted.”

Trou­bling char­ac­ter

Let’s get into this. In the open­ing scenes, Cather­ine is clearly a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter. But her later out­rages push the role in deeply trou­bling di­rec­tions.

“The very idea of the part ter­ri­fied me,” Pugh says. “I had to knuckle down and work at it. I am not a psy­chopath, but I could imag­ine why she did all the things she did. She­had the ca­pac­ity to al­low peo­ple to love her in even the dark­est mo­ments. She is bloody bril­liant. Any­body would be stupid not to want the role. I am just de­lighted Wil­liam thought I was up to it.”

I sup­pose we can see it as a fem­i­nist film. Can we? There is a lazy as­sump­tion that any film fea­tur­ing a strong fe­male char­ac­ter qual­i­fies for such de­scrip­tion.

“I would agree it is a fem­i­nist film,” Pugh says. “She makes some­thing so crap into some- thing rather bril­liant and we sup­port that as an au­di­ence. That’s not to say that is what all women would do. I would say the mes­sage is: don’t im­prison a woman. Right?”

That seems fair enough. The word that again springs to mind watch­ing Pugh’s per­for­mance is “con­fi­dence”. Shot largely square-on, she glares through the fourth wall with a coiled fury that lingers long in the mind. No­body taught her how to do this. She was raised in Ox­ford and Spain, the daugh­ter of a restau­ra­teur. She got to learn some­thing of the act­ing busi­ness from watch­ing her brother’s ex­pe­ri­ences on Game of Thrones. Toby Se­bas­tian – who was born Se­bas­tian Pugh an­dis also a mu­si­cian – played Trys­tane Martell in the fifth se­ries.

“He had the same ex­pe­ri­ence every­one in the in­dus­try has had,” she says. “I watched him through it. It’s not sim­ple. You have to work up from the bot­tom and fight your way. I watched

The very idea of the part ter­ri­fied me. I had to knuckle down and work at it. I am not a psy­chopath, but I could imag­ine why she did all the things she did. She had the ca­pac­ity to al­low peo­ple to love her in even the dark­est mo­ments

how bru­tal the au­di­tion process was. You have to con­vince your­self to keep go­ing be­cause you are the one that’s be­ing hurt ev­ery time they say no.”

Not that Florence has had much time to hear the word “no”. She had it in her head that she might go to drama col­lege af­ter leav­ing school. Then, one day, she en­coun­tered a flyer look­ing for young peo­ple to play school­child­ren in an up­com­ing film. Fear of fail­ure al­most stopped her from send­ing off a tape, but she gave her­self a shake, shot the au­di­tion, and ended up se­cur­ing that role in The Fall­ing. It was not a large part, but it got her no­ticed. Drama school ac­tors Does she have a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to col­leagues who at­tended drama school? She must be what they used to call “a nat­u­ral”.

“I have no idea,” she laughs. “My way must be dif­fer­ent. I don’t know where the faults are. I know that my way of tack­ling a char­ac­ter is very dif­fer­ent. It must be. I don’t do half as many notes. I haven’t heard too many bad complaints. Mind you . . . I am learn­ing on ev­ery job I do. There is some­thing new ev­ery time.”

Pugh’s name is not yet one for the house­hold. But her first per­for­mances sug­gest there may be no stop­ping fur­ther as­cent. She has swag­ger. She has crisp, blond good looks. She can also man­age vul­ner­a­bil­ity when re­quired (al­though there is not much of that in Lady Mac­beth).

“I have been enor­mously lucky,” she says. “My first role was in a great film by a woman di­rec­tor. I am aware what a risk it then was to give me a lead in

Lady Mac­beth. I am very grate­ful for the trust they put in me.”

Last year, she ap­peared in the TV se­ries Mar­cella with Anna Friel. Next year, she risks main­stream ex­po­sure when she ap­pears as the Bri­tish WWE wrestler Paige in Stephen Mer­chant’s Fight­ing with My

Fam­ily. This sounds like an ut­ter delight. Vince Vaughn, Lena Headey and Nick Frost are among the cast. Dwayne John­son turns up as the ver­sion of Dwayne John­son that was known as The Rock.

“That’s right. The Rock is The Rock,” she laughs. “We wrapped on that yes­ter­day. I have learned how to wrestle. You end up bat­tered and blue, but so happy. I have such ad­mi­ra­tion for those peo­ple. On the first week of film­ing there I was at Mon­day Night

Raw with The Rock. He was ex­plain­ing what pose to take when tak­ing a punch with the cam­era be­hind you. I ba­si­cally had this amaz­ing mo­ment when I re­alised Dwayne ‘The Rock’ John­son was teach­ing me how to wrestle.”

She needs to knock­that to­gether into an anec­dote.

“Yeah, I will never ever get over that. That is my party story for­ever.” Lady Mac­beth is out now and is re­viewed on page 10

Florence Pugh “You have to work up from the bot­tom and fight your way”

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