LAST APRIL THE BRITISH actor Florence Pugh was visiting New York with her sisters when she walked into a tattoo parlor. She didn’t know what she wanted. And then she did.
“What kind of bee?” asked the tattoo artist.
“I want bird’s-eye-view. Quite mathematical. Not lifelike,” she replied.
The tattoo artist smiled. “For someone who didn’t know what she wanted,” he said, “you knew—exactly.”
“Yeah,” said Pugh, more surprised than anyone. “That’s weird.”
She tells me this story one afternoon in London, looking down at the tiny line drawing on her inner wrist and frowning a little in confusion at her own impulse. The tale of her first and only tattoo seems to say a great deal about the way Pugh operates. Ari Aster, who directed her in last summer’s terrifying Midsommar, suggests that she is “somebody who really needs to rely on her gut,” and that it’s important for others to trust that as well “because her gut is so extremely trustworthy.” It gives her a beguiling mix of confidence and modesty, of commitment without brash ambition.
The symbol she bears on her body is, it turns out, a worker bee.
“I know,” she says when I suggest this is apt, “and I had no idea.”
Just 24, Pugh has been working as an actor for the past seven years, eschewing predictable routes to fame and choosing intriguing roles without ostentation. In 2018, she starred in Park Chan-wook’s supremely stylish TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl—a performance so fully realized that it inspired le Carré himself to put a character named Florence in his most recent novel. Last year, she starred in the wrestling comedy Fighting With My Family, made by Stephen Merchant, cocreator of The Office; in Midsommar; and, most notably, in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. This year she’ll play Yelena, Scarlett Johansson’s athletic sidekick, in the Marvel movie Black Widow. All of which has made Pugh, somewhat meteorically, a Hollywood performer of wide-ranging, unconventional power—and a person who does, it seems, know exactly what she wants.
WHEN WE MEET, Pugh has just returned to London from Morocco, after spending months grappling with Johansson on set. We are in a Middle Eastern restaurant in a quiet corner of Borough Market, which is bustling with butchers and bakers and licorice-makers, with truffle purveyors and guardians of high-class cheese. Pugh’s maternal grandmother, the indomitable matriarch Granzo Pat, used to bring her here from Oxford when Pugh was a child, and they used to taste the food before going to the theater.
Today she sits opposite me in a black Ragyard T-shirt with two appliquéd scorpions on it, and nurses a vodka and soda over lunch. By her side is a black silk bomber jacket she bought in a charity shop when she was eight and has worn ever since. Her voice is both worldly and cheerful, with a rasp that derives—she later tells me—from a childhood illness.
“I didn’t quite know what it was to be involved in one of these films,” she says of the Marvel enterprise. “Obviously you have to be physically able because the whole point,” she adds with irony, “is that you’re a super-hero.” But the rest, she was told, was up to her. Pugh headed straight to the warehouse where the stunt people were hanging out. “Learning from them was my favorite part,” she says, Although she had a stunt double, she wanted to know how to do it all—and as Black Widow’s director, the Australian filmmaker Cate Shortland, reports, Pugh did most of her own stunts: “She is bloody scary. Steely. Absolutely will not back down. She has a healthy amount of anger in her as a person, at the injustices she sees around her.”
More than anything, though, it was the “gut punch” of the film that surprised Pugh. With Shortland—reportedly selected from among 70 directorial candidates—at the helm, and influenced in large part by Johansson herself, Black Widow is only the second film in the Marvel universe (after Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel) to focus on women. Although details of the plot are under wraps until the movie is released in May, Pugh says the story “deals with some really hard things. It’s rough and painful and emotional and funny, and not in any way. . . girly. It’s about broken women picking up the pieces.” Shortland adds that she—along with Pugh, Johansson, and Rachel Weisz, who also stars in the film—“wanted to make something intimate within the massive Marvel universe. We created female relationships with flesh and blood. They didn’t have to play nice.”
Pugh has entered the industry on a very particular cusp: a time when women can call (at least some of) the shots. Her first role was in The Falling, a hypnotic, minor-key meditation on hysteria, set in an all-girls’ school and directed by Carol Morley. Her two latest projects—Little Women and Black Widow—have also been directed by women. She Has been in a position to take this female force for granted, and to forge ahead undaunted.
If the archetype of the ingenue implies something of a young, impressionable woman whose ascent depends in part on the favour of her (likely male) superiors, Pugh may offer an alternative, a new kind of star on the rise who is emerging at a time when different power dynamics are possible. Looking at her career so far, an optimist might think that the old model holds diminished sway. Pugh remembers reading about Jennifer Lawrence being paid less than her male costars and thinking, “Hey? This cannot be a thing.” But she knows that what’s happening now is the result of a longer conversation. As she puts it: “They’re actually making a reason for women to talk in films now. When a woman speaks, she’s going to have something to say.”
Pugh grew up in a family of hosts: Her father owns restaurants in Oxford; her grandfather worked in fruit markets and ran a pub. “We’re a big eating family,” Pugh says with a throaty laugh. Her mother taught dance, and Pugh relates all of this—the good food and exuberant company—to performance. “It’s all big and loving and homey,” she explains. To this day, she finds making food for someone “one of the simplest but most wonderful ways to have a date.” When we wander, after lunch, to a cheese stall in the market, Pugh asks the stallholder such acute questions that she is instantly offered a job.
“I’ve always been a very loud personality,” Pugh says. “Like, when I was younger I would always wear the brightest thing. I loved painting my face. And because I was good at it, I don’t think my parents found it offensive.” As a teenager, Pugh would often operate as the resident baby-sitter for a visiting Sunday crowd. With a small troupe at her feet, she’d make costumes, serve tea in toy cups, and invent a drama that inevitably included a key role for herself. “I’d be like: ‘No, that’s my part. I play the weeping woman who’s lost her husband.’ ”
Singing and performing has become the family business. Sebastian, who goes by the professional name of Toby Sebastian, released an EP in 2019, and his acting career includes playing Trystane Martell in the fifth season of Game of Thrones. Arabella (now Gibbins) is an actor, singer, and voice coach. Rafaela, who is 16 and still at school, also acts. The siblings, with whom Pugh spends as much time as possible, play the very important function of keeping one another sane. By way of example, Pugh tells me about going to see Midsommar with her family. Midsommar is partly a film about losing your family and attempting to re-create it elsewhere—with disastrous results.
In one of the opening scenes, the parents and sister of Pugh’s character are gassed to death—not exactly fun for all the family, but her 16-year-old sister professed to be underwhelmed.
“I don’t know why they call it a scary film,” Rafaela said. “It’s not even that scary.”
“Um, okay,” said Pugh. “Any other notes?”
SIX WEEKS AFTER our lunch in London, Pugh and I reconvene in Los Angeles. She asks to meet in what she feels is “the only odd, curly-wurly place” in the city. Laurel Canyon was—as a nearby sign reminds visitors—where “the communal and psychedelic spirit of the 1960s . . . coalesced.” Near Jim Morrison’s old house, on the wide wooden porch of the 100-year-old Canyon Country Store, Pugh sits in the sun wearing black satin wide-legged trousers, espadrille wedges, and a black tank top, her hair tied up with an old silk scarf. She has made seven friends in fewer minutes.
Pugh did not always have such an easy go of it in the city. She first came to L.A. in 2015 for the lead role in a pilot called Studio City. Ostensibly it was a dream. She had never been to the U.S.; she was 19. But she had “a horrid time,” she recalls, with her weight an open topic of conversation. “I had a bit of a meltdown,” she says now. “When it didn’t go through, that was when I realized how relieved I was.”
Straight away, she was cast in Lady Macbeth, a dark 19th-century indie drama (based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District—that book, in turn, inspired by Shakespeare) in which she plays the bored, semi-imprisoned wife of a mineowner’s son. Pugh’s character chafes against and then more violently resists the restrictions placed upon her. This unusual, powerful role, Pugh says, gave her insight into the kind of actor she wanted to be. “I like feeling raw. I like feeling naked. Anytime an opportunity of me being perfect onscreen comes up, I panic.”
It was seeing her in Lady Macbeth that made Shortland, Gerwig, and Aster all want to cast her in their respective films. Aster waited for months until she’d finished shooting The Little Drummer Girl and could send him a tape. Dani, the very raw central character in Midsommar, was not just a difficult role because she had to “carry the film entirely,” Aster notes. Dani was also “a dangerous part to take on. She could have become off-putting or self-pitying. It was amazing to watch her avoiding all the traps, without abandoning all of what the character required.”
The experience of filming Lady Macbeth also made Pugh promise herself that she would not return to Los Angeles “until I knew what it was that I was.” Two years later she was back, playing a muscular female wrestler with dyed black hair, gothic makeup, and a Norwich accent in Fighting With My Family, a film based on the true story of a U.K.-based wrestling clan. From Pugh’s perspective, what her body looked like in that film was irrelevant: The point was just to be strong. “And that,” she says now, “is a very wonderful thing to note in yourself, and with the work that you’re choosing to do.”
Now, sitting among the aging hippies of the Hollywood Hills, she looks perfectly at home. “This is a pretty special little corner,” she says, grinning. She is staying with friends and has been there for weeks promoting Little Women. Pugh has been struck by “the outpouring of love” for Little Women—“because it’s people’s childhood book, especially in America.” Just a week earlier, Meryl Streep—who plays Aunt March—hosted a private screening in a house on Mount Olympus Drive. (“I mean, the names,” says Pugh.) More than anything, people seem to appreciate the fact that Pugh has made Amy (as she puts it) “not such a whiny tit.”
Pugh’s Amy is delightfully unapologetic about her desires, and in Gerwig’s version her self-interest becomes a kind of sensibleness. (One early reviewer noted that Pugh’s spirited performance gave “this character a fighting chance to gain our sympathy.”) Pugh herself never disliked Amy when she read the book. “I love all the incredibly spoiled characters,” she tells me, “because they always represent that voice in our heads. Amy basically says everything she wants to say. She doesn’t care.” Pugh smiles. “So I was obviously ecstatic to play her.”
Gerwig’s film injects original material into the script, notably a speech delivered by Amy in her Parisian painting studio—a last-minute addition that Gerwig handed to Pugh 10 minutes before they started filming. Facing the camera, the girl who has aspired to be “an ornament to society” explains her apparently unfeminist feminist strategy. “I’m just a woman,” she begins, “and as a woman I have no way to make my own money.” Her ambitions are not vain or venal, in other words; her era has made them necessary. “Don’t sit there,” she concludes, “and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition.”
Gerwig tells me she has thought a lot about Amy recently. Amy, she reasons, “wants what she wants and she’s going to figure out how to get it. That’s the sister we don’t like. Except for now there seems to be a bit of a change: Maybe we don’t hate that girl any longer. Maybe we see that she was onto something. We’re more comfortable with ambitious girls, maybe. Which”—Gerwig concludes—“makes me a little hopeful.”