Standing by the monster you created
Lady Macbeth star Florence Pugh on her controversial breakthrough performance
This interview contains possible spoilers to the film Lady Macbeth. You have been warned!
They say monsters are born, not made. In William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth, a young woman forced into marriage with a much older man becomes the lady of the house and starts hurting men, children, and animals. This controversial period piece, adapted loosely from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (relocated from Russia to Northern England), premiered in the Platform programme at TIFF 2016 and is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox. The film draws much of its force from a firebrand, star-making performance from its lead actor, young English newcomer Florence Pugh. Managing to project vulnerability, volatility, and a lot of boredom (she also plays drunk very well), Pugh’s teenaged kept woman Katherine is a revelation in a movie that, despite its historical setting, couldn’t feel more contemporary. (Oldroyd’s precise framing, suspenseful editing, and handheld camerawork also offers comparisons to Sofia Coppola, Alfred Hitchcock, and Michael Haneke all in one.) We spoke to the star about relating to her monstrous heroine, the film’s controversial treatment of race and class, and why the best acting preparation is none at all.
What were your first instincts about Katherine when you first read the script to Lady Macbeth? Had you read the original source material by Leskov beforehand?
I didn't read the original text by Leskov because I didn't feel like it was necessary for me to read up on a different story. I kept to the script, and from the first page I knew exactly how Katherine needed to be. I have such a strong connection to her — she was so obvious to me.
Obvious in what ways?
Everything about how I played her was how I imagined she needed to be. If they had made her a villain in the first few pages [of the script], you wouldn't want to watch her. Katherine needed to be lovable. As an audience, you want her to succeed, and to have her succeed you have to see where she's coming from. She wasn't difficult to understand, even though she does very difficult things.
People often judge female characters more harshly than they do men. Women are called “unlikeable,” whereas we praise their male equivalents as "anti-heroes." Part of the reception of the film has been a harsh criticism of Katherine's actions. Do you feel protective of her?
I think a woman's basic instinct is to be maternal. Throughout history, we’ve been taught to be caring, to be the loving one, the person you can trust. I suppose it’s difficult for women and men to watch this film and see a woman who isn't necessarily any of those things because that's in our makeup. We’ve grown up believing women should be one thing and men should be another, so when a woman breaks free, that's quite shocking. Even though we live in the 21st century, we still expect to see period films made in the same ways we've seen them before. Not only is Katherine a woman that says "no," but she's also a young woman. Better yet, we don't expect her to be so uncaring to animals and children. I think that's the shock.
I was very protective of her because I've always understood where she came from. For me, she was my hero, and she still is; I'm Team Katherine. I'm probably the worst person to talk about her because I'll always argue for her side. Whenever I do Q&As, I try to answer as diplomatically as possible, because she does do awful things in the film. But I think that's what makes her even more delicious. It was so obvious Katherine was the victim in the film.
“Victim”? She shoots a horse, sends two people to their deaths, and murders a child!
She was put into a bad situation, and she's simply reacting to that. She's basically fighting for her freedom — there's nothing wrong with that. We see men in films, as you say, doing far worse; it’s not a problem if they're fighting for their freedom. But because it's a young woman who disobeys the rules, and she's having sex, we're completely shocked.
On every single page I read, Katherine just excited me. One of the scenes — still, to this day — that makes me laugh is when she's hidden [her lover] Sebastian in the bathroom. Her husband, Alexander, says, "You shall never see that man again,” and Katherine basically puts two middle fingers up, gets him, and pulls [Sebastian's] willy out. I remember reading that scene, laughing out loud, thinking, "Oh my god! She's done it — she's basically told Alexander to bugger off!” I’d never come across a character like that. I feel like we should learn from her, in terms of what characters can be and how far they can go. You can dislike Katherine, but there's nothing wrong with her being like that. That's what's been so interesting: talking to people about how they feel about her. It's been a wild topic! [Laughs]
It's complex, because Katherine has both the most and the least agency in the film. She’s trying to exercise whatever power she can over whomever she can control. I understand thatm as an actor, you have to be on her side. But were you even a little critical of her behaviour?
How can you know where she’s coming from if you don’t believe her? I sympathized with Katherine straight away. You’re right that she’s put into a situation where she suddenly has all the power, but none of the power. The weirdest thing is that [her maid] Anna has more power, in a sense, because she's allowed to go outside, to walk around. She's allowed to have a life, and Katherine isn't. I saw her as this girl who's been given this title and is rebelling; that's the only way she can get attention, and she's got nothing else to do. I'll always stand by her, no matter how monstrous someone says she is during a Q&A. If she's monstrous, that's brilliant.
Hear director William Oldroyd explain how he shot a scene of Lady Macbeth in a video essay made by TIFF.
There’s another interesting discussion happening online, which is that Katherine is representative of white feminism. During the onstage Q&A at TIFF, director William Oldroyd said that Lady Macbeth is really not about race, but about class. The characters of Sebastian and Annathe maid were cast with colour-blind casting, but other people have different interpretations. How do you think race plays into the film?
Will [Oldroyd] did do colour-blind casting, and it wasn’t just for a couple characters, but for all the characters in the film. I agree with the director in the sense that the film is about privilege. Katherine doesn't come from money — she comes from farming. The whole story is about how she has this new title and suddenly she's invincible. To me, it's about a power play. There’s a feminist streak, but again, I don't see why she has to have a label. In North America, people have more of a hunger to discuss race than we do back home, where it’s more about class. It’s been fascinating to hear what people are drawing from the film, because it's completely different, and it's exciting. I think the best thing about Lady Macbeth is that there's so many layers [to the film] you can discuss.
Are there some readings of the film that you agree with, and others where you’re like, "No, that's not right at all”?
There's loads of good ones and loads of bad ones — that's how films are supposed to be seen. I think people probably lay into the race aspect, even though Will made this film not specifically to be controversial, but just to open up the roles to more great actors. That was the whole idea behind it; it wasn't to provoke or upset anyone. I think some people have probably been barking up the wrong tree and that it’s probably not the fairest of accusations to give the film. The casting was done especially to highlight that period films aren't necessarily cast like this, and if not, why aren't they? By now, I've heard so many different theories that are equally as brilliant as the way the film was written. Whether they’re good or bad, it doesn't matter, as long people are vocalizing and discussing it.
You're so absolutely present in the film. What was the rehearsal process like, in terms of developing your performance with the director?
We managed to get some rehearsal in. The shoot was really short, so we needed to make sure that any scenes which were particularly daunting or scary — the barn scene when all the men come in; when Sebastian comes into my room — we couldn't afford to be the ones the team was waiting on. It wasn't an epic amount of hours to work on scenes, so we just needed to have some idea of what was going on. Luckily, Will was up for filming long takes, so for some of the more difficult scenes, instead of cutting, stopping, then doing a close-up, we basically did the whole scene in one take. This allowed it to play as a real-time emotion, as opposed to, "Oh, then you're gonna walk here, then you'll have to sit here, then you do this."
I really liked that [approach] because it meant you're never not knowing where you are in the scene. You're always aware of what you're feeling because you're doing it in real time. Like, for the sex scene, it was so helpful not to have to cut at the most awkward moment, then pick it up at another weird, bizarre moment. With [the key murder scene at the end], that’s just one take, which meant that by the time we were done, we were really done. By playing all of those emotions as they were really happening, it wasn't fake. We didn't stop for 10 minutes while someone set up a camera and a new light. We were doing it for real, and that doesn’t usually get to happen.
Do you have a specific method for getting into character?
No, my preparation is pretty limited, and I'm trying to stand by it. I don't know how to make notes in scripts; I don't know how to create backstories. I'm in awe of people who can write so much in their scripts, but I just can't do it. I don't know what I should be writing!
I try to look at the character instinctively, and I don't give them too much thought because it doesn't help me. I put myself in their situation — not myself, but how I would assume something would feel. And I try to keep it fresh, so when we're filming, I don't necessarily know how I'm going to respond when someone says their line. Instead, I'm going to figure it out when they tell it to me. Every time I do a job, I panic, because I'm like, "Did it work last time? I can't remember!" I'm sure if I got more complex roles — well, that's hard to say about Lady Macbeth, but I'm sure when the time comes where I need to dig and do lots of research, it will happen. But I like to keep the characters I play human and real, whether or not they're [hurting] animals and children. [Laughs]
I'm always curious what parts are offered to actors before they get their breakthrough role. You were 19 when you got to star in Lady Macbeth. Are complex film roles for young women still pretty limited?
Yeah, I think that's where my voice in this can be helpful; I've been trying to get it heard. I was 19 when I got Lady Macbeth, and I’d definitely never read a script like this, and I’d never, ever had the actual opportunity of getting a role like this before. As an actor, you do go up for the big films, but the chances of getting them are pretty slim. You’re never, ever offered a role like Katherine in Lady Macbeth with the actual opportunity of getting it.
For me, it was a shock that a) I auditioned, b) got it, and c) that it actually turned out to be a success. Amazing characters for young women get written and are given to A-listers, so I think the big problem is young women are only going up for girlfriends and daughters. I suppose I would really love to see everybody be given the opportunity to go up for a role like Katherine, because there are so many amazing actors who are gagging for the opportunity to show what they can do. As we talked about, young women don't have to be likeable, they don't have to be nice, they don't even have to be like the people we know, but they can be people that we recognize, or want to watch. That’s what I would like to see more of.