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
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.”
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”