Lady Macbeth: Florence Pugh on her killer first lead role

By Tim Masters
Arts and entertainment correspondent

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Image source, Protagonist Pictures
Image caption, Florence Pugh said she signed up for Lady Macbeth as soon as she had read the script

Ever since her breakthrough role in 2015's film The Falling, Florence Pugh has been hailed as one of the UK's brightest rising stars.

Lady Macbeth, which is released in the UK this week, sees the 21-year-old from Oxfordshire in her first lead role.

The film has been getting five star reviews, with The Telegraph calling it "a lusty, jaw-droppingly amoral bodice-ripper".

Pugh plays Katherine, a teenage bride in 19th-Century rural England, stifled by her marriage to a man twice her age.

The film is an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov's 1865 Russian novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

It's also the debut feature of theatre director William Oldroyd. Pugh signed up as soon as she had read the screenplay by playwright Alice Birch - despite it coming at the same time as another script.

Media caption, Florence Pugh has been hailed as one of the UK's brightest rising stars.

"As actors we don't have jobs for 90% of the year, and then suddenly you get two offers at the same time," she said. "I remember my agent calling me about Lady Macbeth and saying you just need to read the script - so I did and I knew I didn't have to read the other one!"

Pugh's role sees her transform from innocent bride to calculating killer after she begins an affair with a farmhand (Cosmo Jarvis) on her husband's estate.

"I think the wonderful thing about Katherine is that she is such a child," said Pugh. "She doesn't understand consequences and she doesn't understand much about what she's doing until it's too late."

The drama was shot "on a miniscule budget" in 24 days on location in Lambton Castle near Chester-le-Street in County Durham.

Image source, Protagonist Pictures
Image caption, Lady Macbeth is Florence Pugh's first lead role in a film

"It was made on very little and that's rare for a period film," said Pugh, who honed her on-screen accent by chatting to the locals during the two weeks of rehearsals.

"The accent was a bit of a fear of mine at the beginning," she admitted. "It's not Geordie and it's not Newcastle, it's Northumberland - we worked really hard on that beforehand."

'Great opportunity'

Pugh, who's been acting and singing since the age of seven, made her film debut opposite Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams in Carol Morley's The Falling, about a mysterious fainting epidemic at an all-girls school in 1969. It was shot in Oxford where Pugh was born and went to school.

Her role as the rebellious Abbie saw her nominated for the best newcomer award at the BFI London Film Festival.

"The Falling was a big, flashy bizarre experience," she said. "I kept on saying at the time it was a fluke because I did the audition and I didn't think anything would come of it.

"Now I've gone from working with Maisie to doing a lead role. Lady Macbeth is a great opportunity for me to prove that maybe the outcome of The Falling was not necessarily a fluke."

In 2015 Pugh made a US TV pilot, Studio City, in California and she was seen on ITV last year in the detective drama Marcella, starring Anna Friel.

Lady Macbeth had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, but Pugh was unable to attend as she was shooting Liam Neeson thriller The Commuter, about a businessman who gets caught up in a criminal conspiracy on his way home from work.

'Pretty cool'

Fellow cast members include Vera Farmiga, Elizabeth McGovern, Sam Neill and Patrick Wilson.

"It's a proper full-on action film with lots of jumping and running," Pugh explained.

"I play this hipster/punk/goth. She's got lots of tattoos and piercings and pink hair. She's pretty cool actually.

"And completely different to Lady Macbeth."

Pugh has since played the lead role in another film, Fighting with My Family, written and directed by Stephen Merchant, about a family of professional wrestlers.

An earlier version of this interview was published in September 2016.

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