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Florence Pugh: When you go out to LA as a baby-face, fresh thing who is eager to please, they'll make you into whatever they need to make you sell

She scared the life out of us in Midsommar and starred in one of the most anticipated films of last year. Rachael Dove talks to Florence Pugh about her role in Little Women, Meryl Streep and what it's like being a woman in Hollywood

Florence Pugh
Florence Pugh
Florence Pugh In Little Women with Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen
Florence Pugh on the Graham Norton Show
Florence Pugh in The Little Drummer Girl
Meryl Streep

By Rachael Dove

Florence Pugh is shouting as the other guests at the plush Hotel Cafe Royal quietly polish off their plates of eggs Benedict to the sound of tinkling piano: "MERYL!" The 23-year-old is describing the first time she met Meryl Streep on the pair's new film, Little Women.

"She was already on set, kind of in character, and I came running down the stairs and I was like, 'MERYL!'" Pugh throws back her head and shoots out her arms, almost sending her freshly squeezed orange juice and steaming black coffee flying off the table. "And I flung my arms around her."

Apparently this level of enthusiasm is classic Pugh, whether she's meeting Hollywood's three-time Oscar winning royalty or, well... me.

It's only 9am but she's bursting with energy, arriving for our interview 20 minutes early with no make-up on and her rooty blonde hair still wet from the shower. She has already modelled her new ankle boots with long strides in the hotel lobby ("Chloe makes the best, most stompy boots that I can really stomp about in") before stopping on the staircase to show me her ear piercing from Maria Tash, freshly needled to celebrate finishing her latest film, Black Widow, in which she stars with Scarlett Johansson.

And soon she'll be packing up her west London flat and moving to California for a couple of months. By the time we are shown to our table I am grateful for the sit down.

It's good that Pugh has energy to spare because her career is set to go stratospheric now that Little Women has been released, which has already set the internet ablaze. The heart-bursting adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel, directed by Ladybird's Greta Gerwig, follows the conflicting ambitions of the March sisters as they come of age, hurtling towards poverty in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Alcott fans aside, the film owes much of its hype to its star-studded cast: Saoirse Ronan plays the novel's iconoclastic protagonist, Jo.

Then there is Emma Watson as Meg and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, while Streep does a turn as the austere Aunt March and Laura Dern plays Marmee. Timothee Chalamet is the loping love interest Laurie. It is a who's who of Hollywood.

As Pugh puts it: "They basically put every internet sensation in a film and now everyone is like: 'Oh my God, I can die happy'."

Even in this stellar line-up, it's Pugh's spirited portrayal of the cantankerous youngest sister, Amy, that has the award season rumour mill whirring. Gerwig asked Pugh to send in an audition tape for the role and she has become her loudest cheerleader.

"I needed (the actress playing Amy) to be in the same weight class as Saoirse - someone who could really be equally formidable," Gerwig told the LA Times. "And (Pugh) was that person. I moved the shoot for her because I wanted her to be in it so badly."

Until this point Pugh had been quietly beavering away, notching up lead roles, mostly in well-received indie productions including Fighting With My Family (2019) and Lady Macbeth (2016), for which she won the British Independent Film Award for Best Actress, or else in the BBC's The Little Drummer Girl last year.

But it was July's hit horror movie Midsommer that really tipped Pugh's name into the spotlight. Little Women, on the other hand, is her first taste of blockbuster fame. Is she nervous?

"Not with Amy," she answers quickly, as if her character was actually one of her best mates. "She never weighed heavy on my shoulders and I genuinely enjoyed playing every second of her. So I'm never nervous talking about her."

How do the award season rumours make her feel? "Of course it's exciting. I always get giggly when I hear someone talking about that because I never really know what to say."

Instead, the more pressing concern seems to be which of her friends she's going to invite to what premieres in New York, Los Angeles and Paris.

The role was a gift from Gerwig. Unlike in the 14 past screen adaptations, Gerwig's Amy develops beyond a bratty young woman obsessed with finding a rich husband

Florence Pugh in Midsommar with Jack Reynor
Florence Pugh in Midsommar with Jack Reynor

At one stage she delivers a biting speech: "I'm just a woman. And as a woman there is no way for me to make my own money... so don't sit there and tell me that marriage isn't an economic proposition because it is."

You won't find this in the book. Pugh recalls: "One day Greta came in and was like, 'I feel like this needs to be said'. She wrote this paragraph and was like, 'Can you learn this?' I had 10 minutes. It was my first or second day with Timmy (Chalamet) and I was full-on panting."

She pauses to pant. "What Greta beefed out was just because Amy goes after the rich guy doesn't mean she is any less. Yes it's disappointing for us in 2019 to see someone settle down and get married for money. But in that time Amy was actually wise."

She adds: "It would have been a sadder story if she was married and became a delicate petal. She's not letting this man run her life. She's strong and she's furious and that is so wicked."

For two months of the Massachusetts winter the cast spent their evenings having sleepovers, drinking red wine and cooking one-pots for each other, and naturally they still have a WhatsApp group to keep in touch.

"The girls are gorgeous," she says in her low, smoky voice, topping up my coffee from the pot.

And Chalamet? "He's very funny and beautiful and dorky and tall and weird. When we all said goodbye it hurt."

The result is chemistry that fizzes on screen. You'll recognise every pinch of the sisters' flaming arguments, every giggling pile-on, because it looks real.

"Every single scene that Saoirse and I would wrestle in - that was our suggestion. Sometimes she'd be like, 'God I really want to hit you'. And I'd be like, 'Me too'. And then we'd have a little wrestle and a hug. That was genuine."

Pugh didn't have to look far for inspiration. She is the third child of four "strong-minded" siblings (her older brother and sister are also actors).

"Every time Saoirse was punching me in the face, it was like, 'HA! This feels just like family'."

She grew up in Oxfordshire (and, for three years, Spain) where her mother was a dancer and her father still owns a string of restaurants: Kazbah, Cafe Coco, Cafe Tarifa and Rafaela.

Home was loud, with music always blasting - Bowie, Elvis, Tracy Chapman - and plenty of Sunday lunches to host.

She describes her parents as "very assured of themselves". To this, and spending time in her father's restaurants as a kid, she attributes her innate confidence.

"There's a massive sense of performing in restaurants," she explains.

Her break came when she was 17 and still in sixth form at the private St Edward's School, where Pugh says she was a "c***" but loved art and acting, after she responded to a leaflet audition for a part in the BBC's teenage drama The Falling. Cast alongside six 17-year-old girls, it was a kind introduction to showbusiness thanks to its director, Carol Morely, who wouldn't let the teenagers watch themselves on the monitors.

"She needed to make sure we weren't acting for vanity. She realised she was leading us into this world and she wanted us to feel completely comfortable in our own skins."

Pugh quickly realised, though, that this wasn't industry standard. Two years later she was cast in Studio City, a Hollywood TV pilot co-starring Heather Graham and Eric McCormack, which made her vow never to work in LA again. "Not until I knew what it was that I represented," she says, seriously.

"I went from being on this little feature where women were praised for looking the way they were and not knowing or caring about our best angles. Suddenly everything I was, everything Carol loved me for - my looks, who I am as a person - was getting ripped apart."

She was heartbroken. Though the pilot never made it to air, she returned home with a crushing lesson.

"When you go out there (LA) as a baby-face, fresh thing who is eager to please, they will make you into whatever they need to make you sell, essentially. You need to know exactly what you are representing when you go into meetings so if someone says, 'That's really cool you don't pluck your eyebrows', that you don't f******, like, die and whimper."

She ups tempo. "No I don't want you to cut my hair. No I don't want you to wax my upper lip. I have a face and hair grows out of it. Please leave me alone."

It says much about Pugh's grit that, after some second-guessing, she threw herself back into acting with the part of the hyper sexual Katherine in Lady Macbeth, a role that would see her confidence fully examined, largely because she was required to be naked a lot of the time.

"Katherine changed everything. I loved the fact she was naked all the time. At that point in my life I had been made to feel s*** about what I looked like and that film was perfect, there was no room for me to feel insecure."

Recently, though, Pugh has been making tabloid headlines for different reasons. She is reported to be dating the actor Zach Braff, who, at 44, is 21 years her senior, after they were photographed holding hands in New York earlier this year.

She declines to comment, profusely apologising and quickly mowing over any awkward air by mumbling about the truffle celeriac at Bocca Di Lupo and the state of UK politics, on which she says she feels politicised by Brexit but is "not an expert".

Her next role in the Marvel series Black Widow, alongside Johansson and Rachel Weisz, is as Yelena Belova, who is "bold and rude and gets the job done" and is therefore right up Pugh's street.

"I know it would be very easy to put me in a box and say, 'You've gone for the feisty loudmouth women'. I think in an actor's life, well I hope in mine, you have a responsibility to turn scripts down. All the women I play say something and I think that's so important. That's why I fall in love with them."

She shows a chink in her armour when I suggest her rise to fame has been a slow burn compared with, say, the overnight success of her friend Chalamet. "All I know is that I have been working solidly for the past five years," she says, quietly. "I don't mind how it looks, how it comes out. I have been working hard for a really long time."

Singing and songwriting is another avenue she is keen to explore, as well as theatre: "I want to do it before people recognise who I am."

At the moment she's only stopped by "wonderfully weird" megafans. That's all about to change, but right now it means that she can freely go out for a curry or - her favourite - put her phone in a drawer and escape to the Lake District for a walking weekend with her granny.

She likes cooking and ceramics, anything that uses her hands and forces her to "turn my brain off", though she's not about to take up knitting like her co-star Ronan, who reeled out balls of wool between takes on Little Women.

London is more of a convenience for Pugh than home, as her rental flat is close to the airports and Pinewood Studios.

"Bouncing around" has taken its toll, she says, and the first months of 2020 will mean recharging.

"For the first couple of years I didn't figure out a balance and it resulted in feeling like I didn't have a place. Everywhere I had half friends, not full friends. As much as work is my life, it isn't my whole life and I know I need to slow down every now and then."

We walk up to a suite overlooking the flashing screens of Piccadilly Circus. Seeing them, she powers up again. "It's like the Moulin Rouge!" she shouts. "Let's re-enact it! I'll be Ewan McGregor. You can be the Green Fairy!"

Clearly slow is not a word in Pugh's dictionary.

Little Women is in cinemas now

© EVENING STANDARD

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