“I don’t think I’m going to be an international sex symbol,” Florence Pugh tells Radio Times. “I mean, I know I’m not going to be an international sex symbol. But there is a big potential that when this series comes out, life will be very different… And I am aware of that. The sex symbol will have to wait a bit.”
The Oxford-born actress, 22, is sipping tea in a Bloomsbury courtyard, contemplating what her starring role in BBC1’s star-studded John le Carré adaptation, The Little Drummer Girl, will do for her profile. You may remember what 2016’s The Night Manager did for Tom Hiddleston’s? A daring rescue here, a flash of buttock there and suddenly he was everywhere.
But who is rising star Florence Pugh — and where might you have seen her before? Here’s everything you need to know…
Who is Florence Pugh, and where have I seen her before?
Described as the “next Kate Winslet”, Pugh made her screen debut in creepy boarding school drama The Falling in 2014.
Since then, she’s starred in Lady Macbeth — based on Nikolai Leskov’s 19th-century melodrama Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, only with the action transferred from provincial Russia to the moody Northumbrian moors. Pugh plays a taciturn saucepot named Katherine, who is married off to a weird landowner and put under the watch of his sadistic father. It unfolds a little like Wuthering Heights meets Park’s own 2003 cult revenge drama, Oldboy, with a delicious performance from Pugh as a watchful, lustful, ruthless woman who refuses to submit to her fate.
“It’s a cheeky film, isn’t it?” she says. “It gives in to all your secret hopes about what you want stories to turn into. You’re like: ‘OK! Cool! Kill EVERYONE!’ Love it.”
We’ve recently seen a less murderous side of Pugh as Cordelia (the good daughter) in Richard Eyre’s BBC adaptation of King Lear, alongside Anthony Hopkins, Emily Watson , Jim Broadbent and her childhood idol, Emma Thompson.
Who are her family?
Pugh comes from a large, boisterous family where you had to be loud to be heard; her father Clinton runs a number of restaurants in Oxford; her mother Deborah was a dancer. “We’re all drawn to the stage like a magnet,” she says. Her older brother, Sebastian (stage name Toby Sebastian), is a musician who has lately appeared in Game of Thrones; her two sisters, Arabella and Rafaela, both have acting ambitions.
Florence herself was still at school, St Edward’s in Oxford, when she was cast by director Carol Morley in The Falling and it’s not hard to imagine her as a grande dame in years to come. (“I’m getting old! I’m in my 20s!” she bemoans at one point). It’s partly because she has such a rich panna cotta of a voice: close your eyes and you could imagine her doing Hedda Gabler or Dervla Kirwan’s M&S advert. But it’s offset by a filthy laugh and an infectious sense of mischief.
Florence Pugh’s breakout role was in The Falling with Maisie Williams. You can watch the trailer below.
Unlike a lot of her friends, she was forbidden from using social media until she was 14, and says she learnt more about the world through face-to-face conversations – and it shows. I sense a lot of her self-possession comes from her close-knit family. She has a place in London, but returns home to Oxford regularly.
“My little sister is still there. I get desperate calls when I’m back: ‘Come back home! The parents are killing me!’ So I do my best to keep her from going insane. But I’ve been really lucky to have been filming and travelling a lot.” She is circumspect on her romantic life. “I don’t really like discussing that. Just because… you never know what’s going to happen next.”
How did she get the part of Charlie Ross?
“I remember the news going around that they were going to do this series,” Pugh says. “It was like forbidden fruit. Everyone knew that they weren’t going to get it, but everyone knew it was going to be amazing. Even when I was filming The Little Drummer Girl in Greece, I found it hard to believe. This doesn’t happen usually.”
She didn’t think she stood much of a chance of winning the part of Charlie Ross – a rare le Carré heroine – until her agent passed on a felicitous piece of news. The cult South Korean film-maker, Park Chan-Wook, had been announced as the director of the BBC/AMC co-production; and it so happened that Park had been an admirer of Pugh ever since their respective movies, The Handmaiden and Lady Macbeth, were shown at the London Film Festival in 2016.
The Little Drummer Girl cast (BBC)
Director Park (as Pugh diligently refers to him) had called her in for a breakfast meeting back then, with his right-hand man and translator, Cheong Won-Jo. “It was very surreal,” she recalls. “There he was, this master of cinema, eating eggs with soldiers. And he told me, ‘I want to direct you in something and I don’t know what it is, but when I do I will find you.’” She assumed it wouldn’t come to anything, but then a year later he told her he wanted her to be his Charlie Ross. She didn’t even have to audition.
Park has described The Little Drummer Girl as his favourite le Carré – “At the core of this story is an extremely painful, but thrilling, romance” – and Pugh as the ideal actor to bring it to life. “To adapt such a great work without losing its integrity, it needs the time and depth of a television series, and I am excited at the prospect of seeing how the drumbeats of Florence Pugh, the most energetic young female actor I have seen recently, will resonate with the audience.”
What’s her character Charlie like?
Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl (BBC)
What particularly appealed to Pugh about her character Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl is that she’s an ordinary woman, as opposed to some seasoned spy. Or at least, she’s an actor, with a virtuoso’s ability to lie. “We meet her on stage,” she says. “She’s being watched from afar by this mysterious golden man” – she means Skarsgard’s character, Israeli intelligence officer Gadi Becker – “and so she gets caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as you do. It’s a little bit heartbreaking. But six episodes later, you end up in more or less the same place, with lots of people hurt.”
Park has retained the novel’s late- 1970s setting, so there are lots of “wonderful clothes and dodgy haircuts” and Pugh seems determinedly downbeat about her glamour in the role. “I tried to look as mousey as possible and blend into the background,” she says. “It would be ridiculous to wear a red dress and red lipstick as a spy.”
It’s a hands-on role, and Pugh’s character does receive some training during the show. “She learns how to shoot a gun, and wrestle, and blow up things, which I love.” Director Park noted that she had played a WWE wrestler in Stephen Merchant’s forthcoming comedy feature film, Fighting with My Family, and inserted a wrestling scene especially for her
What did Pugh think of her co-star Alexander Skarsgard?
Pugh doesn’t hold back when it comes to her “gorgeous” co-star Skarsgard. “He’s so tall and he’s so golden,” she says. “Like, he’s golden everywhere,” she adds meaningfully, before emitting one of those hiccuppy giggles. “His character is so cool with everything and Alexander is like that anyway. Everything he had to do in a scene would simply be effortless. Meanwhile, I’m clanking around, stubbing my toe, pushing over a chair. Even when I was supposed to be all effortless and sexy in a scene, I’d cock it up.”
Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgaard in The Little Drummer Girl (BBC)
Will there be Night Manager-style nudity?
The Little Drummer Girl has no equivalent to the famous Hiddleston barebottom scene – which Pugh assures Radio Times has nothing to do with director Park (“who is notorious for his naked bodies”) or her, and more to do with the fact that bums don’t go down well in the US.
America is scared of nudity... such strange people
“America is quite scared of bums,” she says. “And nipples. We had to make sure there were no bums and nipples out. I don’t know why. Such strange people.”
It made filming sex scenes challenging. “There was one scene we did where Alex and I were under the duvet and supposedly naked. I was wriggling down one end and Alex is wriggling down the other. Halfway through, I hear: ‘CUT! CUT!’ Director Park says: ‘Florence, you’ve got to hide your nipples more!’ I’m like: ‘OK!’ So we do it again, and again I hear: ‘CUT! CUT! Florence! It looks like you’re hiding your nipples.’ I’m like: ‘Arrrgh! Just let me get my breasts out, I don’t care!’ But America does care.”
She has complained before that Hollywood imposes ridiculous expectations on what a female body is supposed to look like – she is happy to put her own curves on the line to challenge those expectations.
“My parents were very cool and made sure we watched lots of European films when we grew up, so nudity has never been a problem for me, as long as it’s done beautifully,” she says. “When I came into the industry, I never had a problem with it. There’s a reason why there’s a problem with bodies and it’s because you never actually get to see any normal versions of them.”
What are Pugh’s thoughts on #MeToo?
Pugh is excited to be entering the film business post #MeToo when, finally, gender expectations are changing. “It’s funny, it’s not like any of that was news to me when all of that happened last year,” she says, referring to the Harvey Weinstein revelations.
“Even at the age of 20 I knew there was something up and it had needed fixing for a long time and I was very lucky not to be affected by it. But what an amazing time – this is the beginning of my career, so many things have changed and I get to say I was there from that point.”
What does she think of the Kate Winslet comparisons?
At the very least, Pugh hopes The Little Drummer Girl will put paid to those Kate Winslet comparisons. “It’s actually embarrassing now,” she sighs. “I really hope she hasn’t ever read any of them. But she is one of the reasons I wanted to act. I re-enacted Titanic over and over again. I love her because she has a normal, beautiful face with creases on her forehead and proper cheeks and everything. I love that her face is how it is in that moment, there’s nothing funny in it. She’s not hiding. She’s just raw.
“I love watching faces as they grow up. It’s the difference between so many strong British actresses compared to what America does to women. I like a face that hasn’t been tampered with.”
What are Pugh’s next ambitions?
Pugh would like to appear on stage at some point. And she’d love another role like Lady Macbeth. “Give me some more confused, dazed women who are locked up in mental homes on an island somewhere,” she says. “I’d love a Hannibal Lecter. The Silence of the Lambs is my favourite book, favourite film. He’s a great guy.”
Hannah Lecter? “Yes!” she shrieks. “I could be his daughter. Who is also completely insane and happens to enjoy eating flesh off people’s faces. ‘Daddy!’” she calls in a terrifying cutesy voice. “Gross. Let’s make it happen!”
The Little Drummer Girl airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC1
This article was originally published in the 27 October-2 November 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine