It doesn’t take much for me to feel like a disorganised, poor excuse for an adult human being – just ask me to confidently stand my ground in a serious meeting or even think about getting a mortgage and I’m in over my head. Things start feeling out of control and I begin to wonder why I’m even here. So meeting the actress Florence Pugh on a rainy afternoon in a Soho hotel was always going to make me want to reevaluate my life choices.
Mature, precocious and with a discerning team of advisers behind her, 21-year-old Pugh is well on her way to A-list status – and her self-assuredness is enough to make anyone doubt themselves. The British actress plays the lead in the new film Lady Macbeth (no, not that one), based on the 19th-century Russian novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov. Adapted by playwright Alice Birch, and directed by stage director William Oldroyd, the story has been relocated to rural Northumberland and repopulated with British characters.
Pugh plays Katherine, the young bride and anti-hero who finds herself in a loveless marriage with a bitter man twice her age who demands she stay indoors. It’s not until she begins a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, Sebastian (played by Cosmo Jarvis), that something switches inside her. Expect sex, violence, love, rage, nudity, betrayal – the works.
While it may contain all the hallmarks of a traditional period drama – pretty costumes, a charming setting, class conflicts – the film is a thoroughly modern thriller that has shocked and impressed audiences since it premiered in Toronto last September. “It’s shocking because we’re seeing a very modern woman in a period film," Pugh tells Refinery29. "We’re so used to seeing period films where the women suffer, but Katherine is the difference – and the audience is shocked by this just as much as the other characters.”
Aside from the obvious attraction of playing the lead, it was the parallels between Katherine and Pugh's own personality that drew her to the part. “I loved that I agreed with her and supported her. I’m probably the worst person to ask questions about her because I am majorly Team Katherine. We're both feisty and neither of us likes being told 'no'. I think it's important for you to have some ties to the character.”
It's Katherine's ruthlessness and determination to escape her circumstances that have led many to dub Lady Macbeth a feminist film. Unfortunately, however, projects and parts like it are few and far between, says Pugh. “I don’t usually come across characters like Katherine or scripts like that. It shouldn't be shocking to come across an incredible character because there should be more of them. But it's definitely risen the bar to the scripts I read now.”
It wasn’t just the script that spurred Pugh to imbue her character with a feminist stance, however. The uncomfortable costumes – full-length crinoline gowns and constricting corsets – helped, too. When asked what life lessons she’d want female viewers to take away from the film, she's resolute. “Don’t wear uncomfortable clothes if you don’t have to. I think that's the most important thing. When I got in those corsets it was so obvious that I couldn't move or talk the same way I did, and when I got out of them I was happy, so I made sure that whenever Katherine got out of them she was loving it. The women of that time wouldn't have liked wearing those clothes. They’re not fun.”
But as a young woman only recently out of her teens, surely she’s as guilty of wearing unsuitable clothes as the rest of us? “I'm a sucker for that too – I love wearing beautiful uncomfortable things," Pugh admits, but she's clearly been thinking about the wider consequences. "We go out and buy high heels and tight clothes but they’re not comfy, even though they’re pretty and we like wearing them, what are they doing for us?”
When Katherine isn’t following orders and wearing her prescribed dresses and corsets, she’s either in a nightie or she’s naked. What’s it like filming nude scenes as someone so young? “I don’t mind it, and not in a weird way. If I read a script and it’s obvious that they’re just trying to get your kit off, then I don’t find that interesting and I don’t read the rest," Pugh says. "If I’m reading a sex scene where it feels completely organic and real, then I’ll think 'wow, that’s really cool,' and if we can film it like that, even better." That’s the experience she had with Lady Macbeth. "All of those love scenes, whether she’s naked or not, they were so natural and felt so right.”
Indeed, the film contains a fair amount of sex, but these scenes weren't as embarrassing for Pugh as they might have been for another young actor. She also had sex scenes in the 2014 psychological drama The Falling, but nevertheless doesn't exactly relish the experience. “They’re always going to be awkward. It’s never going to be natural for you to pretend to have sex in front of a 40-person crew. That’s why when people say ‘did you enjoy it?’ It’s like, ‘really? No!’" Still, she admits sex scenes can be a great bonding experience if the other person's "cool".
Luckily, Pugh’s parents, a restaurateur and former dancer, are supportive of her career and have a solid understanding of the types of films she likes making. Of her three siblings, two also act professionally – her brother, Toby Sebastian, has a part in Game of Thrones – and have supported her along the way. Family, friends (most of whom are still at university, which Pugh admits has been tough), and spending time in the countryside and in Spain, where she grew up, all help her stay grounded when the going gets tough.
“You get told ‘no’ about 70% of the year [in this industry] and if you don’t have people who are going to tell you ‘it’s ok’ and to keep on trying, then you’re essentially quite alone a lot of the time.”
Pugh's next big role is as the Norwich-raised international wrestler Paige in Stephen Merchant’s new film Fighting With My Family, which as well as being worlds away from Lady Macbeth, also helped her discover a new hobby – CrossFit. She was put through a “pretty intense” training regimen for the part, which involved a lot of “people chucking themselves on you and you being able to carry them”. She laughs, “It’s not like I now go around saying ‘yeah, I lift’, but I like to feel strong. If my body is strong then it’s awesome.”
When asked whether she’ll continue doing smaller films or gravitate towards more mainstream, Hollywood projects, Pugh is on the fence. “I love indie films because there’s a lot of love and passion and care behind them, but I also love big films because there’s lots of space and possibilities. I don’t know what I want to do next." She's more drawn to particular characters than the idea of starring in a specific type of film. "It will always be a feisty woman, I think. It will always be something where the character has something to say. Otherwise I can’t really find justification for it.”
Pugh is currently based in London, but is being pulled in different directions by various potential projects. Surely moving to LA and trying to crack Hollywood is an attractive option? “It is, but the social scene and the way that world is created over there isn’t," she admits with slight hesitation. "Hollywood is a very big prospect and I think you need to be aware of what you’re getting into before you get into it. If you’re not completely sure of who you are and what you represent before you go over there it will be decided for you," she cautions. Somehow, we don't think she'll have a problem.