This talented young actress is rounding off an exceptional year with a starring role in John le Carré’s gripping spy thriller The Little Drummer Girl. By Frances Hedges
Florence Pugh is laughing. This is no genteel chuckle – it’s a fully-fledged, throaty, sidesplitting contralto roar, and we are to hear it time and again throughout today’s shoot, starting with the outfit runthrough. Popping out from behind the curtain of her makeshift dressing-room in an array of glamorous gowns, she evinces the genuine enthusiasm of a young star not yet tired of the rigmarole of having her picture taken. (‘Ooh, it does feel nice, doesn’t it?’ she says, stroking the fabric of a particularly opulent velvet Gucci design.) Yet for all her girlish energy, Pugh is a consummate professional, already practised in the art of posing for the camera despite her relatively short time in the industry.
She has, after all, had to grow up more quickly than the average 22-year-old, having been catapulted into the public eye through a career she says began with a stroke of good fortune. ‘Everything about it was down to luck: I was 17 and I got this amazing part,’ recalls Pugh, who played the precocious schoolgirl Abbie in Carol Morley’s The Falling after attending an open audition. Two years later, impressed by her maturity, the director William Oldroyd cast her as the eponymous lead in Lady Macbeth, his chilling interpretation of a Russian short story about a woman whose frustration with her loveless marriage drives her to infidelity, murder and infanticide. How, I wonder, did she prepare herself psychologically for such a challenging role? ‘I honestly don’t know how you tackle shooting a horse or smothering a child, but I think how little time we had helped with the desperate feel of the film,’ she says of the three-week shoot. The critical acclaim for her sensitive, mostly dialogue-free performance was instant and unanimous, culminating in a Bafta nomination that Pugh is justly proud to celebrate. ‘There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win an award – you put so much love and hard work into a project like this,’ she says.
Pugh’s determination to reap the rewards of her success is, perhaps, all the greater because it has not come without struggle. During the interlude between making her first two films, she spent a disillusioning period in Hollywood, where she worked on a doomed pilot, received a series of uninspiring scripts and was told to lose weight for a role. ‘It would be virtually impossible to find someone who hasn’t been asked to do that,’ she says, resignedly. ‘Part of what’s so scary is that in this industry you are expected to play dress-up, and so many lines can get crossed if you’re in the wrong hands.’ She is, however, upbeat about the impact this had on her own artistic development. ‘I came away knowing exactly what work I did and didn’t want to do, and that was a big, grown-up realisation.’
Having the support of some of the most powerful women in British cinema has been a constant source of reassurance. ‘During the Me Too breakthrough, I was hanging out with Emma Thompson and Emily Watson – two people I’ve looked up to my entire life,’ she says, referring to her time on the King Lear set, where she played Cordelia to Watson’s Regan and Thompson’s Goneril. ‘Talking to those women was so empowering.’ Pugh herself is vocal in her intolerance of poorly written, insubstantial female roles: ‘I can’t stand characters who don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re there – if they’re just on their husband’s arm, it kills me.’ She is only prepared to take on a part if the individual is ‘saying something – they have to believe in what they’re selling’.
That is certainly true of Pugh’s latest projects. In Outlaw King, Netflix’s new action drama about Robert the Bruce, she invests his wife Elizabeth de Burgh with a steely fighting spirit, ensuring that she does not become a mere cipher in a man’s story. ‘What was so important was that we didn’t just make another historical film where the woman gets forgotten,’ she explains. Meanwhile, as Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl, a BBC adaptation of John le Carré’s 1983 spy novel (recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics), she courageously navigates the complexity of the high-stakes intrigue in which she becomes entangled. ‘I love that Charlie is someone just like us, who gets caught up in this whirlwind,’ says Pugh. ‘I always try to find something of my family or friends in a character, because that’s how I get to know her.’
In many ways, Pugh is still getting to know herself. ‘I’ve been working since I was 17, and I’ve enjoyed every second, but I’m also aware that there’s a chunk I haven’t done,’ she says. ‘Ultimately, it’s my job to know how to feel in certain situations and it’s no good if I haven’t experienced them.’ With that in mind, she hopes to do some of what she calls ‘normal stuff, like travelling and seeing the world’. First, however, she is set to fulfil another lifelong dream: playing Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s forthcoming film version of Little Women, alongside an all-star cast including Meryl Streep (‘I screamed so loud when I heard that’). Filming is expected to continue until December and, if the past year is anything to go by, her schedule is unlikely to look empty any time soon. Before Florence Pugh can see more of the world, the world wants to see more of Florence Pugh.