Lady Macbeth has been provoking audiences around the world with a title character, only loosely related to Shakespeare’s play, who is somewhere between Elizabeth Bennett and Ma Barker.
She’s played by Florence Pugh, a young British actress in her first major film role, selected because she combines youth, mischief, and more than a hint of mayhem — for her next act, she’s playing a WWE wrestler, alongside Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“I think this film rattles people because it’s set in 1864 or 1865, and it has such a modern feel, or a feeling we’re not used to watching in a period drama. It’s unlike anything they’ve seen before,” said Pugh, just 21, who plays a woman named Katherine, who’s shoved into a suffocating arranged marriage with an older, wealthy landowner in Northern England, and rebels — physically, sexually, and in ways that echo the title (it’s kind of a spoiler).
Lady Macbeth is Pugh’s show, and she dismantles (by design) the movie’s formal trappings by vigorously revealing ever more shocking layers to Katherine. The role (coming off her turn in the BBC drama The Falling) has made her about as in demand as actresses get — she’s just signed to play one of the daughters in a film version of King Lear, starring Anthony Hopkins.
“Florence is magnetic,” said her director, William Oldroyd. “We saw it the first time she walked in the room. She’s charismatic, confident. She’s very tough and competent, but at the same time, she’s this younger woman. It’s exactly what we needed.”
Oldroyd adapted the movie from Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, but changed the ending to make Katherine more formidable, and to break the mold of the 19th-century female character doomed by circumstance.
Katherine is, in the modern parlance, a disrupter — whether lustily eyeing the groomsman (Cosmo Jarvis), or contemplating the obstacles to her happiness, which include her husband and her clothes.
“It was easy for me to find Katherine on the set,” Pugh said. “When was I most happy? When I was in a nightie or dressing gown. Or naked. When is Katherine most happy? When she’s in a nightgown, free of that costume that women were forced to wear. Or in bed. She’s a girl.”
Pugh developed a dislike for the corset, which she often had to wear while in character, and which gave her insight into the lives of Victorian women such as Katherine.
“If you look at it, the corset is a very beautiful item, but when I put one on, I realized how little you could actually move. And I’m a very physical person, I talk with my hands. And I felt how the clothes took that away form me. And that was the idea, I think. It was a way of limiting women. When you see women in these things, sitting very still with their arms neatly folded and placed, it’s because they can’t move. It really opened my eyes to the lives these women were living,” Pugh said, “and it made the character very accessible to me.”
Sometimes, actresses keep the clothes their characters wear. Not in this case.
“I ripped every dress I wore. The dress I wore during the dinner scene,” she said, “ripped completely down the back.”
The self-described physical actress got a bit more than she bargained for in the movie she has just wrapped, Fighting With My Family, based on the true story of an English family of professional wrestlers. She plays Saraya-Jade “Paige” Bevis, who wrestles with and against her mother (Lena Headey) in the ring, and rises to become a champ.
Scenes include a sequence filmed before a real WWE audience, featuring “The Rock,” who coached her before the camera started rolling.
“I loved the role, but I’m not an avid fan of wrestling. And there I am, at the Staples Center right after Monday Night Raw in front of 20,000 people, and it’s obviously scary because the audience is full of these staunch wrestling fans, and they’re used to seeing first-rate wrestling,” she said.
Johnson helped calm her down before the scenes and showed her how to convincingly throw a punch.
“Not just throwing a punch, but throwing at it the proper angles so that the camera can capture it. Obviously, the guy knows what he’s doing. And what an amazing dude.”
Another amazing dude, or at least amazingly tall, is her Fighting director Stephen Merchant, who like “The Rock” stands 6½ feet.
I asked Pugh (5-foot-4) if she has seen the photograph of her positioned between the twin towers.
“Yes, it’s awful and so unfair. I look like a fairy.”