The first thought that crossed Florence Pugh’s mind when her agent called to ask her to audition for a film called Lady Macbeth was: “Oh crap, it’s Shakespeare.” Pugh took the call while on a boat to the Isle of Wight. She promptly took another boat back to the mainland to attend the audition. Two weeks later, she was sent the script. “It was then that I realised,” recalls the 21-year-old actor, “this wasn’t Shakespeare – this was a very different story.”
Indeed it was – this Lady Macbeth is an adaptation by Alice Birch of a 19th-century Russian novella, relocated to north-east England in 1865. Shot on a tiny budget in only 24 days and directed by William Oldroyd, the film tells the story of Katherine, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage who embarks on a passionate but dangerous relationship with a farmhand.
The summary makes it sound like a cosy period drama when, in fact, it’s darker, more interesting and a lot more violent than that. Katherine begins the film as a victim but slowly becomes more of a villain. “As an actor, it’s very interesting to make the audience love you while you are doing horrendous things,” explains Pugh. “That is pretty exciting.”
Right now things could hardly be more exciting for her. She is extraordinary in Lady Macbeth, by turns vulnerable, flirty and utterly compelling. The performance has led to Pugh being named as a star of tomorrow by Screen International, and winning a Bafta breakthrough Brit award and the Evening Standard breakthrough award. “It’s always surprising to see yourself on the underground,” Pugh admits when I tell her I have seen her face plastered on three posters on the way to meet her – and what makes it even more surprising is that only four years ago Pugh was still in school.
She grew up in Oxford and had always known she wanted to perform. “I played Mary at the age of seven in my first nativity play and I loved it – there is something so fascinating about embodying someone else.” The opportunity to act came through drama classes at St Edward’s, an expensive boarding school that includes Sir Laurence Olivier, Emilia Clarke and Jon Snow among its alumni.
“It is so easy for schools to say we did that to her, but no school has made me, no school has prepared me,” she says. Did she feel her career has benefited from the opportunities at her school? “Everybody’s story of getting into the industry is just as difficult as the next person,” she declares, “whether you come from money or no money, it’s not easy… you have to offer yourself, you can’t expect someone to get you.”
Pugh was in her final year of A-levels when she saw a leaflet at her school from the producers of The Falling, Carol Morley’s 2014 drama about a mysterious fainting epidemic at an all-girls school in the late 1960s. She auditioned and eventually won a part alongside Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams. “It was bizarre to get the part because I had learnt from my brother [Toby Sebastian, who happens to play Trystane Martell in Game of Thrones] that you will get told ‘no’ about 70 per cent of the year. So the fact it was my first audition was pretty fluky – right place and right time.”
In Lady Macbeth (in cinemas now), Pugh plays a young woman living during a time when wives were considered their husband’s property, with lives as restrictive as their corsets. “The film is as relevant about today as it is about 1865 because there are still places in the world where women are considered property,” she says, adding, “I don’t think we do have equality today especially in the industry I am in. You hear horror stories of women being paid less than half of what the man is being paid – I mean, that is baffling to me.”
Another example of on-screen inequality is that we tend to see more naked women than men, and in Lady Macbeth Pugh is frequently nude. “With any naked scene I do, or any sex scene,” says Pugh, “as long as it makes sense to the story and it feels real then I don’t mind, I don’t find it terrifying to show natural bodies.”
There will be few natural bodies in Pugh’s next major feature, Fighting with My Family, for which she will swap a corset for a wrestling costume. The film – based on a true story – will see Pugh playing a woman from Norwich who becomes a WWE wrestling star. A dark castle in Northumberland may seem a long way from a wrestling ring in LA alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it is another strong female role that is both intimidating and fascinating. “When I look for roles, I am looking for incredibly powerful women,” she says. ‘I am pretty picky with scripts now and the bar has been raised thanks to Lady Macbeth.”