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'I'd be an absolutely awful spy ... I'd get too invested and wouldn't be able to pull a gun out smoothly'

Florence Pugh shines in Sunday's new le Carre thriller. She tells Susannah Butter about spies, nudity and new types of hero


Rising star: Florence Pugh

Rising star: Florence Pugh

With Alexander Skarsgard in The Little Drummer Girl

With Alexander Skarsgard in The Little Drummer Girl

Rising star: Florence Pugh

Florence Pugh was drawn to her latest role because it was a chance to play someone normal. Charlie Ross, the star of new BBC series The Little Drummer Girl, is a 22-year-old actress, just like Pugh. We meet her trying to keep her cool at a screen test and later at a smoke-filled house party, making a strident case for not taking sides and achieving peace in the Middle East without killing anybody.

The action begins when she is recruited by an Israeli spymaster and catapulted into a new world of deception, betrayal and men she is attracted to but doesn't understand.

"It is okay to be confused watching the show - Charlie is," Pugh says reassuringly down the phone from Beverly Hills, where she is filming a new project (more of which later). "She's the audience's eyes and ears. She's not a brash spy who knows how to do everything - she isn't from that world. At the moment it feels like women are expected to be magnificent and that's great, but what I like here is that she's a normal person caught in the middle of something. You are not spoon-fed what's going on and the world of spies it shows is as relevant as it was when John le Carre wrote the novel in 1983."

The Little Drummer Girl is the latest le Carre adaptation to be shown on the BBC, building on the success of The Night Manager. That was seen as an extended James Bond audition for its lead, Tom Hiddleston.

Does Pugh fancy her chances as 007? "At the beginning I was excited at the prospect of a female Bond, and with a female Doctor Who maybe that era of (exclusively male heroes) is changing. But actually we have made our own thriller with a woman at the centre of it. Maybe we don't need a female Bond, maybe we can make our own."

Charlie gets what she wants "by lying and being very good at acting". Pugh has the acting part honed but thinks she would be "an absolutely awful spy". "I'd get too invested and I wouldn't be able to pull a gun out smoothly. Alex (Skarsgard, who plays Becker, the Israeli agent responsible for recruiting Charlie) would be great. He makes everything look effortless and it's so frustrating when you're supposed to be the one that looks cool."

From the moment Charlie spots Becker sunbathing on a rock in Naxos, there is an intoxicating electricity between them. They hit it off in real life too, filming in Prague, Greece and London from January to June last year.

"I want to see way more of Alex, but he's too busy gallivanting around being a superstar," says Pugh. "When I see him it's wonderful and we share a hug. When you work with people for such a long, intense period of time, you mould into a family and the hardest part of what we do is when you stop and have to move on. When you have connections with your co-stars, it's wonderful because it makes it feel like it was even more real."

The cast have a "hilarious" WhatsApp group, "it's the thing that lives on after shows finish".

One of Pugh's favourite filming locations was the Acropolis. Becker takes Charlie there at night, when it's deserted, and they gaze at Athens lit up below - it has a La La Land feel and she's even wearing a yellow dress. "I don't think I can ever go back after that," says Pugh. "It felt very real and romantic. When I watch it now, it gives me butterflies."

But for all the sexual tension, there is no actual sex. This was a deliberate choice, to appeal to an American audience who, Pugh says, "are scared of bums and nipples". "You are always surprised when there is no nudity," says Pugh, who is comfortable with baring flesh, "as long as it's not gratuitous". "The difference is when you feel you are part of the scene. The moment you get pushed in a certain direction, that's when you start to feel gross."

Often you have to wear stickers "on your boobs" to cover them, she says. "But you can't be giggling at it because you are all there for a reason."

Her next role, in the film Outlaw King out next month, more than makes up for the lack of nudity in The Little Drummer Girl. It's based on the story of Robert the Bruce and much is already being made of the scenes in which co-star Chris Pine reveals all. She thinks there are double standards at play. "Chris is going, 'Why isn't anyone asking Florence about nudity?'. We were both naked and the conversation is about him. Why is it okay for a woman to be completely naked, but it's totally shocking for him to take his clothes off?"

There is a new mood in Hollywood a year since the launch of Time's Up. "There's a certain level of sensitivity and understanding now. I've tried to keep myself educated because I think it's very easy at this time to attack, and that's not the point. What's important is to listen before you react. The art of conversation is important and there are more conversations to be had."

She's followed Kristen Bell and Keira Knightley's comments about a lack of feminism in Disney films. "When I have kids I will have to rewatch all the Disney films and decide which ones I will axe from my children's list as well.

"We've all grown up on these things that were once made to educate kids, so of course when there's a different era of education the perspectives will change - lots of these women kiss a complete stranger and then have to have their babies." She grew up watching Mulan, Robin Hood and Pocohantas.

On Sunday night, Pugh's family will be watching The Little Drummer Girl. "My family are avid fans. My dad still collects newspaper clippings about me."

Pugh grew up in Oxford, where her father owns a chain of restaurants and her mother is a dancer. She is the second youngest of four siblings - her older brother, Toby Sebastian, plays Trystane Martell in Game of Thrones, and her older sister, Arabella Gibbins, is also an actor.

Despite "being lucky enough to bounce around the world and see everything", London is still home and she enjoys walking, discovering the city.

She researches her roles thoroughly. For Charlie this meant getting to grips with Israeli and Palestinian politics.

"Prior to doing the series, everything about the conflict felt very daunting," she says. "It has gone on for so long. It is important to know which is where and how it happened, so I listened to a lot of podcasts and read a lot to make sure I was ready."

She's full of praise for Park Chan-wook, or "Director Park" as she calls him, the Korean auteur behind the show. He thinks visually and it looks sumptuous. "Director Park is interested in big, bold colours. I'm going to ask if I can keep some of the clothes. My favourite is a cobalt blue pantaloon playsuit, which was a remake of something from the Eighties. Fingers crossed no one has nabbed it."

"Director Park is like a puppet master. It is complex and long, but the payoff is huge. You realise why you had to go through all that because it's stunning to watch."

Pugh has gone straight into her next project, Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women. She plays Amy March and has rewatched the previous adaptations because "if you are working on something that's had a past life it's quite rude not to look at it and see what was relevant then".

"The most exciting thing about making this is that the March sisters mean something to someone everywhere

"That story of four different sisters and the different places they want to end up is still relevant now."

Gerwig is "fantastic". "What matters isn't that she's a woman, it's that she is a brilliant director. Things are shifting now. You can work with people who are brilliant without having to constantly reduce it to the fact that they are women and label them."

Pugh didn't plan to be so busy this year.

"It's come as a lovely surprise, a nice whirlwind. I think afterwards I might take some time to figure out what I'm going to do next."

The Little Drummer Girl, Sunday, BBC1, 9pm

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