“I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m obliged to play the girlfriend,” says actress Florence Pugh, who talked to us this week ahead of the release of her latest film, Lady Macbeth.
Florence’s tendency towards complex female characters is represented in the trio of roles she has played in her budding career so far: mysterious Abbie in The Falling, determined Paige in Fighting With My Family, and dark Katherine in Lady Macbeth (in cinemas today) all demonstrate Pugh’s intent to buck the “girlfriend” typecast young actresses often face.
Lady Macbeth is loosely based on a nineteenth century novella of the same name, and paints a tragic portrait of a young woman who, trapped in a cold marriage to a man twice her age, embarks on a merciless journey to seize her own independence. The film acts as a nod towards women’s rights in a pre-feminism era, but it isn’t entirely about gender. Class and race are also tackled realistically with a number of characters of colour – a refreshing subversion of British period drama casting norms.
Ahead of the release, we spoke to the switched-on rising star about it all, and the importance of her first lead role.
Charles McQuaid: What was it about the story and character that drew you to the film?
Florence Pugh: The thing that really popped out for me was the central character, Katherine. She goes through loops and bounds and the audience loves, respects and cares for her for that. I have never really seen a character do this before. When we watch a psychopath we know that they’re a psycho-path and we don’t really like them, but with Katherine, we root for her. I always found that very interesting.
Charles: The origins of the film stem from the Russian Novella, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, did you ever read it?
Florence: Lots of people ask me if I read the original story, but I didn’t. The script that Alice gave was so perfected. The film doesn’t precisely follow the original story, we have changed it a bit. So I felt it necessary to mainly invest my time in the story that we were telling. Also, the Katherine in the script that was given to us was everything I needed, anything else that I needed I brought to the character myself. I was tempted to read it, but they’re two different stories and we have a different ending as well.
Charles: Katherine’s arc is quite important to the story. Can you talk about the characters transformation and how you tackled it?
Florence: That was one of the main things that really interested me. How do I grip the audience? How do I make them love me? How do I make them care for me? How do I make them root for me? That all came at the beginning of the arc. We are introduced to Katherine when she is a teenager, when she is a girl really, and we watch her attempt to have this idyllic life and it all goes wrong. She gets rejected in the first scene and we as an audience watch that and instantly care for her. I knew that if I tackled that and if I could achieve empathy from the audience then they would have me for the rest of the storyline, and they do. We support her and we love her until she goes too far. I think that’s the scare, the fact that not only are we scared of what she’s done but that we have supported her all the way through.
“That’s the scare, the fact that not only are we scared of what she’s done but that we have supported her all the way through.”
Charles: The Falling, like Lady Macbeth, concentrates on a female lead. Do you think cinema is trending towards that perspective?
Florence: Yeah, and I don’t see why not. There are equally as many brilliant stories that could be written about empowering women, feisty women, weak women, any sort of women. And I think it’s really brilliant that more roles are being opened up to younger actresses as well. I would have never dreamt of a role like this in my inbox. That doesn’t really happen, you have to prove yourself time and time again in order to get a lead usually, and I happen to get an incredible lead that I had the opportunity of playing when I was nineteen years old. That is, slowly, cinema evolving and changing.
Charles: It was refreshing to see so many characters of colour in a British period drama. Was that something that was appealing to you?
Florence: Well, when I read the script I didn’t know much about the production or casting. I went in for one role and I hoped that I got it. But Will and Shaheen’s approach was, pretty much, very colour blind casting. They would choose the right person for the right role and I think that is something that is very beautiful about Shaheen’s work. She doesn’t care whether you’re famous, whether you have 10,000 followers or whether you’re budding out of drama school. If you’re the right character, if you’re the right person for that character, she will cast you and she won’t stop until she finds you. And I thought, what a beautiful thing for a period film to not care about colour, it was great. That was something that they really fought for.
Charles: Has playing a female lead effected how you pick your projects?
Florence: Yeah! Playing Katherine has definitely set the bar pretty high. Reading female roles, they’re pretty hard to impress me now [Laughs]. Which I think is actually a good thing, I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m obliged to play the girlfriend. I think it’s important for us to be inspired by the characters that we’re playing and Katherine has definitely set the bar, and I’m completely allowing it.
Lady Macbeth is in cinemas today, Friday 28th April.