Not to be mistaken by William Shakespeare’s creation, Lady MacBeth is adapted from the 1865 novel, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, by Nikolai Leskov. This is not your run of the mill period drama about a young girl, barely a woman in a loveless marriage that she’s forced into. Lady Macbeth stars Florence Pugh who so brilliantly depicts Katherine. Her performance as the twisted, murderous, and vulnerable Katherine is so incredibly delightful and shocking to watch.
Pugh, director William Oldroyd and screenwriter Alice Birch deliver a film that has you feeling sympathetic to the main character as she find her freedom with the stable hand, Sebastian. Pugh’s Katherine is a character who in her quest for female empowerment and freedom, might kill a person or two, but ultimately, we see the veil removed to reveal a young girl who is alone.
I caught up with Pugh to talk about the fascinating Katherine in Lady MacBeth.
I love this character.
Thank you. People always ask me what I think of her and say, “You must find it difficult to play her.” Are you kidding? She’s a woman who speaks her mind to anyone and gets away with it, why on earth would I hate playing her?
She’s forced into this marriage and rather than being docile, she is fierce and fiery. What was your first impression when you were reading the script?
I was so amazed by her. That’s my main thing, every single page I read she was bigger and better than the last. Even until the very end, she yet again surprises us, she throws this character at the end right under the bus, and I love that even when she’s lying, you’re still gasping. My reaction to that is, did you really think she wasn’t going to flirt again. I love that about her, one death is one thing, but she does it right up until the end and she gets away with it in a cool and sexy mean way.
She was a non-villain. Lots of people are baffled by how I speak to her because they think she’s a baddie, but actually, she isn’t. She is a young girl who is put into this horrendous situation. She’s quite simply fighting for her freedom. She’s not wearing a cape and wearing green makeup. She is dealing with a situation and you can’t label her as evil because she’s not. I don’t think she’s evil within herself, I think she does bad things to save herself. That’s not an awful thing, she’s powerful.
I think that’s what made her a great character. She could have been sinister, but you feel sympathetic to her. What was your process to get that across?
The biggest thing I wanted from her was that I needed her to be human and lovable. People ask how much preparation I put into her, and the truth is, I didn’t put that much into her because I feel she’s quite instinctive. I don’t feel everything she does has been measured and sorted. I don’t feel that every new step she takes, she has to be a bit of a baddie. I feel she’s acting in the moment and she is dealing with what’s thrown at her when it’s thrown at her. I didn’t want everything to be prepared.
I wanted to find parts of her as I was doing it and I think that’s what makes her more human. I think because we can watch her dealing with things and it makes her accessible. For me, I needed her to be lovable and likable and to have the support of the audience, for the audience to want her to succeed — even though we don’t want her to kill people.
I think we’re watching a girl being forced to be a woman.
People forget she is a child. She’s having sex for the first time and feels like a woman, but at the end of all of it, she’s a child and she becomes a woman so quickly. People just her way too soon because she has this mask of “I’m organized and I know how to do things” but she was just married off when she was a teenager. Why are we passing judgment so soon?
Was it a challenge to play someone who could actually be hated for what she does?
Not at all because she’s human. That was what was so obvious to me. She could be a baddie from the beginning and people would expect her to locked up at the end, just like Dorian Grey, you expect her to get something bad at the end, right?
I didn’t find her hard at all.
What did you and William discuss about her?
We both wanted her to be childlike in moments. We both shared this love for the idea that she’s so needy. It’s so childlike and you see that when she kisses Sebastian whenever something is going wrong. We really wanted to make her annoying in moments and that’s when the child is coming through. She doesn’t know what to do so she’s just going to kiss Sebastian when she’s just killed her husband.
Will and I when we were rehearsing, I’d say, “But I would say something here.” He would remind me it was 1865 and I was a woman. A lot of our relationship was him reminding me of the norms and that was helpful. When she was ready to break out, we were so ready to let her open her mouth and speak.
I found it physically difficult to sit and watch these men abuse her over and over again. I wanted to say something but Will pointed out that was the modern woman in me.
Did you like how the costumes were representative of how she was feeling?
For me, it was absolutely huge. I’d get in that corset, they’re very pretty and beautiful, but they are there for one purpose, to imprison you. You can put dresses on, you don’t need to have a small waist, but you put a corset on and it changes.
I was excited about putting one on, and I remembered during the fitting, I had to sort my breathing out. I put it on at 7 am or earlier, and I’d get out of it in the evening and by then, I’d have a really bad backache because our bodies aren’t designed for that.
It made it easier to understand why Katherine was so annoyed and angry. I loved how our costume designer, Holly Waddington did the costumes. When she’s out walking, she’s wearing a wax work skirt and she can walk with her boots, but when she’s home she has on this stifling dress that you can’t breathe in. It made so much sense for Katherine because when she’s in her night wear she’s happiest because that’s when I’m happiest.
That’s why I love the scene where she’s drinking tea with her husband, her posture changes and she’s such a child in that moment. I love what a costume can do for you.
These women did that every day, and Katherine doesn’t like it. So, when the men aren’t there she wears her dressing gown.
You’re playing this girl one minute and then a woman the next. What did you identify most about that?
It didn’t screw with my head. She is allowed to be a child. She can’t be calculated and powerful and strong all the time. She is allowed to stomp around and search for Sebastian. I think that’s how I understood it.
We all have two faces. One that is ready for the world every day. We have another one when we are alone. I understood that and by the end, she is believed as the person in the right. She has these words ready and she is correct and she speaks well.
She has her whole story ready, and when everyone has gone she is a little kid. I love that she’s a woman when she needs to be taken seriously, and she’s a kid when she doesn’t know what to do.
How did playing this change how you look at scripts?
She has risen the bar so high. I was speaking to my agent about it and how brilliant Katherine is. She is a one-off. A character like that shouldn’t be in my hands when I’m nineteen. I got it as my second job and I know it’s an eye-opener that you can write a kick-ass script about a woman in 1865 and she doesn’t have to wear a bonnet.
If anything, I’m glad it’s put a spotlight on female characters because we do need loads of them. There are some amazing actresses who all deserve a part like Katherine to show what they can do.
Looking for jobs that excite me as much as Katherine has is difficult. It’s about finding a new character to direct yourself in a new direction. I’m up for it.
Alice Birch wrote a great script. She understood.
Of course. That’s why the scenes didn’t seem gratuitous. Even the way she wrote it when Alexander asks me to take off my nightdress, that’s something that taps into every woman when that happens. What a great opportunity to win the heart of the audience. Everyone feels sorry for the girl and they want her to do well.
From the get go, Alice had us enthralled. Even Will did the most amazing job of carrying that through.
Lady MacBeth is on general release