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Lady Macbeth
“I love it when people walk out at the end’Courtesy of Altitude Film Distribution

Florence Pugh on murder, sex and white feminism

The British actress explains why her villainous actions in Lady Macbeth serve as female empowerment – and why it doesn’t matter if they scare you

Deep in the rural heart of 1865-set Lady Macbeth lies a contemporary story. Adapted from a Russian novel, not Shakespeare, William Oldroyd’s brutal psychological thriller depicts a racist, patriarchal society stripped to its essence. Ingrained misogyny, sexual oppression and class hierarchy are among the film’s concerns; a twisty plot of adultery, murder and one woman fucking up the system is how it plays out. Downton Abbey fans, this isn’t for you.

A purchased bride and an unconsummated wedding night set the scene. The anti-heroine, Katherine (Florence Pugh), remains housebound while her older, impotent husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton), gallivants across the country. Upon waking, Katherine is squeezed into constricting corsets by Anna (Naomi Ackie), the bullied black servant, and before bed she’s instructed by Alexander to undress. The same humiliating routine repeats itself, day after day, until Katherine impulsively sleeps with a dark-skinned stable boy (Cosmo Jarvis). That’s when the body count begins.

Florence Pugh first fell on our radar as a co-lead and memorable fainter in Carol Morley’s The Falling. So it demonstrates her versatility that, in Lady Macbeth, she embodies the cold, devious role of Katherine with such chilling precision. The actor was, amazingly, only 19 during filming. She also happens to be starring alongside The Rock in Stephen Merchant’s upcoming movie about female wrestling – a different kind of costume drama, you might say.

With Lady Macbeth out later this week, we spoke to Pugh about female empowerment, getting into character via painful clothes, and whether this is a film about white feminism.

Lady Macbeth is a film that seems to speak to today. Were you considering the contemporary aspect during the shoot? Or does that, when you’re acting, distract from the character’s headspace?

Florence Pugh: Exactly. It isn’t something I spent loads of time thinking about. Will had the bigger picture in his head. For me, it was creating someone that was real – almost touching on voyeurism. Sometimes, in films, we know we’re watching actors, as opposed to watching people. I wanted us to feel like we’re watching her.

There’s a definite present-day feeling, though.

Florence Pugh: I think it’s because we’re essentially watching a modern woman in a different period of time; the way she reacts and the way she fights back makes us all go, “Yeah, that’s great!” But, essentially, 1865 is different from what we know. We watch period films and expect women to commit suicide or suffer in silence. Katherine is the difference.

With Katherine, it’s very shocking when she speaks on her husband’s behalf. Do you see it as a performance within a performance?

Florence Pugh: Definitely. She’s very good at manipulating people. It’s a very childish thing to do, pretending you’re something else. I remember, when I was younger, if I was ever in trouble or wanted to get away with something, I’d just act a little bit older or wiser. I wanted to get across that feeling of never really knowing how she’s going to play a situation.

Will said that, at Q&As, some audience members were sceptical that black people existed in 19th century England.

Florence Pugh: Or any other people that weren’t white. Of course, there were. Actually, when they did the research, there were loads of families of colour back then. It’s only because we whitewashed them through history. We eradicated them in books. But there are so many photos of these families, and they’re in the same dress as us. It’s not like they’re all in maid costumes. They’re of the same stature, which I found fascinating, because I too believed that there weren’t. But of course there were.

Because of that, they then felt they could do colour-blind casting. Why not? And obviously, (casting director) Shaheen Baig is very good as casting people on talent, rather than who they are or how many followers they have on Instagram. She just believes: if you’re right for the part, then great.

Given the fate and casting of certain characters in the story, is this a film about white feminism?

Florence Pugh: No, I don’t think it’s about white feminism, because they opened casting to whoever. They didn’t specifically want one person to be white, or anything like that. It just happened that I was right for Katherine, and Golda Rosheuvel was right for Agnes. I do think it’s a film about female force. Someone said she’s a femme fatale. Well, I think she’s better than that. She’s not a femme fatale; she does it herself, and she ropes in a lot of men in the process. I think it’s about female empowerment and her struggles to keep the reins in line. Definitely, there’s a force behind her, and that’s why people are so excited about her.

Oh, so was the script not altered after the actors were picked? Because I found it hard not to think about the film’s racial politics.

Florence Pugh: What it meant was, they didn’t factor it in the script. It’s not like Alice (Birch, the screenwriter) wrote “this maid has to be black”. These were just characters. You fill in the blanks. I think that’s a very clever way of writing a script. There weren’t racial boundaries. You fill the parts with whoever you think fits, and what a wonderful way to cast a film in the 21st century. Why aren’t we doing that already?

Scarlett Johansson, the day after completing the Ghost in the Shell press tour, complained that journalists kept asking how long it took to put on her costume – and that it’s sexist how only women get that question. I’ve noticed you’ve been asked that quite a lot.

Florence Pugh: I think the reason people are drawn to ask about the costume in this film is because it’s part of Katherine – the fact she hates it and is so much happier when she’s not in it. So I don’t mind discussing it. Also, similarly, people are very interested in the sex scenes and the nudity. In a way, I don’t mind that either, because they’re very different types of scenes than what we’ve seen before. I see them as very honest visions of how someone gets out of bed.

So were the corsets as painful as they look?

Florence Pugh: Yeah, they’re supposed to imprison a woman. When you’re in them, you realise what they’re for: they make you breathe less and eat less; they make you slower. They’re designed to make a woman quiet and be imprisoned by her own clothes. I knew if I hated it, then Katherine would hate it.

Isabelle Huppert told us the cat in Elle represents the silent male witness. What about the cat in Lady Macbeth?

Florence Pugh: Yes! The cat is important. He represents the face of (Alexander’s father) Boris. Even when the men are gone, the cat’s still watching, and the male presence is still there. Which is why she has that face-off with it during breakfast.

“I love it when people walk out at the end. That makes me fascinated with their part in the story. I think it’s really cool when a film can make you go, “No, I’m not watching anymore” – Florence Pugh

You just shot a movie, Fighting With My Family, with The Rock. What was the biggest lesson – in life, wrestling or filmmaking – you learned from him?

Florence Pugh: It was so wonderful to see he’s the same person with everyone. He’s like Superman. His celebrity status is massive, and yet he treats everybody the same. He’s as charming to you as he is to the runner, the cleaner, the producers. That, for me, is very inspiring, because often I don’t see that.

Has The Rock seen Lady Macbeth yet?

Florence Pugh: He hasn’t. I don’t know if he will. Maybe one day. I’ll send it to him in the post.

He’s always working out. Can’t you make him watch it on a treadmill?

Florence Pugh: Exactly. I’ll give him a USB stick.

Lady Macbeth is receiving really positive reviews, but are you noticing any extreme reactions on the other side?

Florence Pugh: I love it when people walk out at the end. That makes me fascinated with their part in the story. I think it’s really cool when a film can make you go, “No, I’m not watching anymore.”

It touches a nerve?

Florence Pugh: Yeah. At some Q&As, people have shouted, ‘She’s a monster!’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, OK. So…?’

And that’s a compliment!

Florence Pugh: Exactly. It’s fascinating when people like her or don’t like her. I think she’s delicious. The reason people get scared is they’ve loved her until a certain point.

Every article on Lady Macbeth has had to clarify in the first or second sentence that it’s nothing to do with Shakespeare. Can you give us an alternate title?

Florence Pugh: Boss Ass Katherine. It does the job.

Lady Macbeth is in cinemas on 28 April