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

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - Sarah Waters - Pho­to­graphs by JOSH SHINNER Styled by CHAR­LIE HAR­RING­TON

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.

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