Florence Pugh On Her Role In 'Lady Macbeth'

Jul 16, 2017
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A young bride is sold into a loveless marriage with a cold and controlling husband. Her days are spent in the airless confines of a lonely country manor in Victorian England - until her husband is called away. She then embarks on a passionate affair with a stable hand, Sebastian, who makes her feel, for the first time ever, desired and free.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY MACBETH")

FLORENCE PUGH: (As Katherine) You know, I shan't be parted from you alive, Sebastian. Through hell and high water, I will follow you. To the cross...

FLORENCE PUGH AND COSMO JARVIS: (As Katherine and Sebastian) To the prison, to the grave, to the sky.

PUGH: (As Katherine) I'd rather stop you breathing than let you doubt how I feel.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Florence Pugh plays Katherine, the young wife whose illicit relationship takes her on a dark and bloody road that explores class, power and obsession. The film is based on a Russian novella from 1865 and not Shakespeare's Scottish play and its diabolical female character, although the two women do have something in common. Florence Pugh joins us now from our bureau in New York. Thanks for being with us.

PUGH: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about Katharine.

PUGH: What can I say? One of the most amazing characters I think I've ever had the privileges of playing. And well, I mean, it was my second role. But I think...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PUGH: I think I can say, for life, I'm never going to find a character like her again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You were 19 when you played this character...

PUGH: Yes, yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...We should say. And that's why it was your second character.

PUGH: Yeah. It was my second role ever. Well, my second lead - no, not even lead. Oh, my God, my second role - you're correct.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PUGH: And I just got given this character that was obviously terrifying to kind of receive because every single page I read she was just bigger and better than the last. And even until the last scene, she shocks me yet again. And I was just so amazed by her. I'd never read a character that we didn't completely have to like. You know? And the brilliant thing about Katherine is she fights a lot for her freedom, and she fights for what she lost.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is she fighting for? What is she longing for?

PUGH: I think she's longing to be her own self again. She wants to be outside. You know, on her on her wedding night, one of the first earlier scenes that we see of her, her husband tells her that she's not allowed to go outside. So from then on, I think (laughter) we pretty much witness her hating that life (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

PUGH: And then she does everything she can to get some freedom, some power back. And it was just incredible to play a character that manipulates not only the characters in the film but the audience.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain how you approached doing something like that because when we see her at the beginning, we like her. She's - we see the repression that she's living under, and you root for her to sort of break free of the chains.

PUGH: Well, when I read Katherine, I didn't want her to be a villain. And any - the only way that we would support her until the end was if we recognized something in her, was if we, you know, wanted to look after her, we wanted to care for her as the audience. And so I approached that by simply making her very simple, very human, quite literally just being as instinctive as she is. And I think that's probably one of the beauties about her is she's so naughty and delicious.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

PUGH: And we just see this child who's just fighting. And that's - it's quite a fun thing for a portion of the film (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. I mean, when you say she's a child, it is. It's like she's a child greedy for love, greedy for experience...

PUGH: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...And greedy for the stable hand, Sebastian.

PUGH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Their attraction is very complicated.

PUGH: Yeah. I mean, the way that I've always kind of justified Katherine's attraction is because - and if I can just be frank here...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Please.

PUGH: ...You know, when she first marries Alexander, her husband, we all had the kind of same idea that even though she has been sold with this piece of land, maybe she's excited to have this marriage. Maybe she wants it to go well. And you know what? Maybe she's excited to lose her virginity. She's probably 17, 18 years old. And we kind of played with the idea of her being eager.

And quite literally on the first evening, she's not touched. She's not looked at. She's basically tossed aside. So the way that I kind of justified her fiery eyes set on Sebastian was because by the time that she meets him, she needs someone who's going to take every emotion from her and, you know, put it in some sort of tornado of love/sexual desire, slash, you know. I don't know. They argue. They fight. They...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's violent.

PUGH: ...splint at each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

PUGH: It's violent, but it's also very sexy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's very sexy - very sexy.

PUGH: It's pretty sexy.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Whoo.

PUGH: And I think that's been one of the most amazing things about making that film, was that we were all under the impression that we wanted to create something real. We wanted it to feel like we were watching these two people that were just destined to have sex with each other because sometimes it's like that.

(LAUGHTER)

PUGH: Sometimes in the real world, there is fire between people. And we didn't necessarily want to do outtakes of hands gripping or, you know, the sounds of them having sex. We wanted to see it all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But then the film does turn very dark.

PUGH: Yes, hence Lady Macbeth (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Exactly. That's the nod to Lady Macbeth.

PUGH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She commits these very dark acts, Katherine.

PUGH: Yeah, yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is that journey that she takes?

PUGH: I see her as a kid acting out. And I justified absolutely everything she had to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should say she commits a series of murders.

PUGH: Yeah, she does. And the first...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You don't see her as a villain, though.

PUGH: No, I don't because none of these violent acts were ones that she would have done if she had been left alone. She does them because these men have forced her into this life. And so for me, I never see her acts as anything other than her reacting to the situation she's been put in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the film ends with this brutal, shocking final act.

PUGH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we're left with this image of Katherine. Someone said to me, who'd also seen the film, she has privilege but not power. Do you see her as someone who has power at the end of the film?

PUGH: I actually don't think she has either of those things. I don't think she ever had privilege. One of the biggest things about why she is so cruel to Anna, who is her maid, is because Anna has more of a life than Katherine does. So the funny play at the end, when she's left all on her own, is the fact that actually she has everything; she has nothing. She's still stuck in the same situation that she was before, and she has no one.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Florence Pugh - she plays Katherine in the new film out called "Lady Macbeth." Thank you so much for being with us.

PUGH: Thank you. Cheers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ZOE KEATING'S "WALKING MAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.