The Wonder : Q&A with Actress Florence Pugh

The Wonder : Q&A with Actress Florence Pugh
Synopsis : The Irish Midlands, 1862 — a young girl stops eating but remains miraculously alive and well. English nurse Lib Wright is brought to a tiny village to observe eleven-year old Anna O’Donnell. Tourists and pilgrims mass to witness the girl who is said to have survived without food for months. Is the village harboring a saint ‘surviving on manna from heaven’ or are there more ominous motives at work? A psychological thriller inspired by the 19th century phenomenon of the “fasting girls” and adapted from the acclaimed novel by Emma Donoghue (Room).
Rating: R
Genre: Mystery & Thriller, Drama
Original Language: English (United Kingdom)
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Producer:Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe
Writer: Alice Birch, Sebastian Lelio
Release Date (Theaters):   Limited
Release Date (Streaming)
Distributor: Netflix


Q: How did this project come to you? How did you first hear about it and what attracted you to doing it?

FP: I was contacted by Sebastián [Lelio], the director, and he had been on this project for awhile. He wrote me a beautiful letter saying that he had imagined me [in —the role] — which is always nice to read. I was like, okay, I’ll read it. I read it and saw that Alice Birch helped write it with [the book’s author] Emma Donoghue, an unbelievable writer. Alice and I had worked together when I did “Lady Macbeth” [directed by William Oldroyd, 2016] when I was 19. I instantly recognized all the things that I loved about her writing, her dialogue and the brutal way [she] with words and characters. Then of course, I had to do it.

Q: Had you seen Sebastián’s other films? Did you know his work from before? 

FP: Yes, of course. I remember when “Lady Macbeth” was going around to cities and the festivals, he was also going around with “A Fantastic Woman.” He was very much in my first years of my career and was very much a name, a director that everybody was dying to work with.

Q: Where did you shoot this film? 

FP: We shot in Ireland, in Dublin — the outskirts of Dublin — and also in County Wicklow in the mountains. Sometimes, you’d pretend that you’re on a mountain, but [in this case] we were truly on a mountain. It was far up a mountain as well. And it was windy — very windy, very cold.

Q: You also had the mud. And you had the one costume — with all the mud. 

FP: I had two dresses. One would be kept clean until the very end. Then I had another that we essentially just let get muddy. So by the end of the film, when you see all of the mud halfway up my leg, that was from hours of marching across marsh. It was real mud. My feet were really muddy as well. Every day I walked in those leather shoes, they were wet, very wet — like wearing leather socks.

Q: Does that make it easier to get into character?

FP: Yeah. I think when you’re in any period that you’re playing [that’s important]. For me, putting the costume on is the final piece, like the last piece off the puzzle that makes sense. Especially with rehearsing, I find it really hard to rehearse for movies because I’m always like, “But I haven’t got the clothes on. I haven’t got my hair on. And there’s no camera. We’re in a studio and this doesn’t make sense.” Then when you put the costume on and walk from your trailer to the film set, you start feeling your body get into all of the positions and all of the ways in which your character moves. That’s the final piece for me. So everything that technically holds me back actually adds another layer on to the character that I’m playing, especially in a costume like that with the corsets at that time, and the petticoats — heavy clothing, really, really heavy. That affects everything in a wonderful way.

Q: You’re so plain, almost like you’re a Quaker or something. Like in “Little Women” [directed by Greta Gerwig, 2019], Amy has so many bows and bonnets and she gets to be very glamorous. Even in “Lady Macbeth” you sort of get to be… You’re humiliated and crazy, but there’s a certain reliance on the look of it. Whereas in this, It was all in your eyes, all in your face. It’s a remarkable performance that way. It’s all you, but it’s all stripped down. 

FP: Well, it’s worth noting that this is now the third time that I’ve played a woman from this specific time in history. I clearly like it. “Lady Macbeth” was in 1860, “Little Women” the same [time], this, same. All very, very different women, but all with an unbelievable desire to be heard, and an unbelievable desire to do more and be more. I am intrigued by women of that time. I think women, even to this day, are trying to have our voices heard. I find it especially exciting to think that in an era where everything was against them, everything was pitted against them and it was so hard, there would have been incredible women constantly pushing, constantly pissing a lot of people off. I love that.

I love that about this era, and with her, when I read it there was nothing glamorous about her. She was a woman who had been educated, which during that time was unheard of. She was a woman who had qualifications, and just by that fact alone she was more than a “woman” during that era when women belonged to men, they belonged to their husbands, and they were sold with property. So they did not belong to themselves. That’s why that speech in “Little Women” that Greta wrote about Amy needing to make her own money is so profound.

This character here was actually educated and respected by men, which was not the way then at all. Yet she’s still being told that she’s incorrect and that they don’t want to listen to her. That was such a fascinating story to me.

Q: It’s also the way you believe in her and in what she’s saying. You also stick with it, which is the bravery of the film in some ways. That’s the crux of it — to try and really see what the mystery is and to believe that you can find the mystery and solve it. And, she convinces the men to do what she [indicates]. 

FP: Also, you’ve got science versus fiction. That’s essentially what the whole thought is about. You’ve got a woman who can’t say that she doesn’t believe in it because that’s what the world was run by during that time. She was in Ireland, which was the capital of religion — it was the Church, you know. So essentially what she has to do is play the same game, and the only way that she can get around it is by becoming a believer in order to make Anna [Kíla Lord Cassidy] change. That’s what’s so fascinating — it’s the ultimate manipulation, and so morally interesting because it’s wrong, but it’s right.

Q: When you read the script initially, did you read the whole thing or did you just read to see if you wanted to play the character? 

FP: No, I always read the whole thing. I have a really wonderful team that I’ve had since I was tiny and we’ve always been trying to find these kinds of scripts. Every single one of my movies I want to be different or want to look different. I’m interested in the weird ones; my team is interested in the weird ones too. So when they say “Hey, this is a good weird one,” I read it very quickly.

Q: How weird it was when you made the Marvel movie — in a great way. In “Black Widow” you had a sort of conventional character that you turned into a very interesting one. That’s not this movie, but [it’s consistent with your process] because it’s always something that you’re doing that gives it a twist, which is super-important to all the films that you do. 

FP: With joining Marvel, I especially wanted to go into it knowing that I would be doing something a little different. I didn’t want to just be a female superhero where my silhouette was reduced to just that. To me, it was far more important that, hey, she can be a badass an an amazing fighter, but also not be wearing a super-suit all the time. That was a really exciting moment in Marvel, where they were making amazing movies about amazing people and amazing characters. There was an amazing opportunity where we were able to shake it up a bit. [Director] Cate Shortland was so encouraging of that. She was so ready to hear me out and hear how I was going to make Yelena into a bit of an [oddball]. And everybody was thrilled that I made her into an oddball. So I felt very excited to be given that space.

Q: When you make a movie that’s set in another time, do you do anything intentional to keep your life in another time, or can you walk in and out of [the role] easily? 

FP: I don’t wear leather socks [all the time]. But no, I don’t. As I said, all of my movies and characters are so intense that — as so many actors obviously can — I would go crazy if I was Method. For me, it’s too heavy. That’s not to say that when I’m acting, I don’t think all the things that I should be thinking. That’s specifically why I don’t take it home with me. I’m very much someone that in between takes, I want and love to have a laugh with everyone.  But also you have to be respectful of other people’s processes. Yeah, I can’t be in it all day. I think it would probably hurt a bit too much.

Q: What were the animals like? 

FP: Oh, there’s a famous saying: “Don’t work with animals and  with children.” [W.C. Fields]. And I did both. But it was great. I had an amazing costar. Kila is unbelievable. She’s truly great, she’s fantastic. Her mum is her real mum — Elaine [Cassidy, as Rosaleen O’Donnell] and they’re this powerhouse family. My scenes with her are sometimes very loving and, sometimes, also very aggressive. Having that dynamic on set and having her mum there — and her dad was there as well — we were able to discuss things and talk things through which made the whole process so much more enjoyable. Kila was up for it; she was excited. Her parents were so supportive. They’re a proper actors’ family so they’re on set waiting in case you need them, wanting to go through lines. It was a really cool dynamic.

Kids work so, so hard, because a normal shoot day is hard enough as it is. They have to go and study in their lunch time, and it is brutal. It’s brutal enough as an adult, to wake up at 4:30 am, be in hair/makeup for two hours, get into a costume and go on a mountain. For the child, when they break for lunch they have to go and study, and then when they go home, they have to go and study. So all the times when you’re allowed to have a little nap, and say, “Well, that was quite a scene,” she’s doing math in the corner. It’s true that they’re the hardest-working people on set.

Animals, however — that was hilarious. It was so windy and gross… and wonderful. I mean, it looked great on camera but the mountains were so, so rainy and cold that even the animals would be like, “Nahh, I’m not walking.” Not going. And, I had a run-in with a sheep one day. She butted me over, I fell right in a brook. It was great, though [laughs].

Q: Did they ruin a lot of takes, or you had to just keep doing it over and over again? 

FP: No, they didn’t ruin takes. It was just more like when you know it’s grim, the animals also know it’s grim. You’re like, “Come on, horsey. Walk into the tornado. It’s fine.” They get it.

Q: And the fire? 

FP: No one walked into the fire.

Q: But what was the fire like?

FP: Oh. I was in the fire, yes. I was the horse in the fire. It was actually scary. We were in a house in the studio. Whenever you see flames on set — usually if it’s a wild and they’re getting rid of a set, they actually do put it on fire. But when it’s controlled, there’s lots of pipes around the edge of the set, and these pipes will be leaking gas and then it flickers… And the flames go up. It doesn’t ever travel, really. The takes are quite short. But in this one, they needed to have fire in so many places that the fire would actually start traveling. I had to stand on a specific spot and they would let the fire that they put petrol — so dangerous! — on the bed. When they put the pipes on, you would just watch this bed go like [gestures] and I was standing like a meter away. But it was all safe. I wasn’t in danger, but I’ve never been close to fire like that. It was very exciting, very thrilling. I did no acting, I was totally scared.

Q:You seem so fearless. Do you actually get scared on a set, ever?

FP: I don’t know. When there’s fire next to you, yes.

Q: But in general, when you read something that scares you a little, do you decide to do it? 

FP: Yeah, that’s something I’ve said from the beginning. Whenever I read a script and I’m terrified as to how I’m going to do it, I’m like, “Oh, I’m going to do it. I’m going to see if I can.” So being scared and thrilled out of not knowing how I’m going to do it, to me, that’s is the most exciting thing. And then I instantly have to do it. It’s quite dangerous, really.

Q: Because obviously, she’s figuring things out over time, was the film shot in sequence? 

FP: It’s very rare that you do shoot in sequence. Even if they try to make something logical, like, “Oh, we should probably do this scene of you alive before you’re dead.” It’s also very common that you die before you live, which is always quite fun. But yeah, I think we did. You know what happened is we needed to do all of the mountain sequences in the first two weeks. So we were on the mountains for two weeks, and then we paused the mountains because it was a lot. Then we went into the studio for two weeks so it was all a bit jumbled, actually. I did lots of walking across mountains. For like a week, I was just walking. I remember a week before we started shooting, Sebastián was like, [mimics] “Florence, are you ready?” I was like, “Yes, Sebastián, I’m so excited.” He was like, “No. Are you ready for the love of walking?” I was like, “I think so, yeah. Where am I walking?” Then of course, when we started doing it, I was like, “Oh, okay. I’m marching across mountains for a week.”

Q: But did you get into character when you were doing it? 

FP: Also, my dress was wet. When you’re wearing those — the amount of petticoats that you are wearing — the moment they get wet, you’re carrying so much weight. It’s not like you dry halfway through the day. You’re just wet. And every time you need to get to the toilet, you can’t get out of the dress so you lift it up. Then you’ve got wet mud on your legs all day. It’s just the whole thing. So when I mean the mountains were tough, I had to wee with mud by my ears. That’s the way it goes.

Q: Can you watch yourself easily?

FP: I’ve gotten better at it. I didn’t like it at the beginning. But then I personally find it really important to [do so]. You are going to be your worst critic — as we all know. Especially when I’m filming, I had much rather know if I got it, like if it made sense. For example, if it’s a scene that I’m not quite sure I got what I was trying to get down, I find it sometimes quite important for me to watch it and see if it sold. The same with doing taping. When you start doing auditions for tapes, it’s actually one of the best lessons that you can do because you’re forced to look at yourself and forced to watch all of the things that you’ve done. It is so excruciating and  painful, because you’re like, “What? You didn’t even see the tear? Ohhhh! Now I have to go do it again.” It’s so bad and so cringey, but you do it. Then you realize and teach yourself. I found it really helpful — as much as I don’t like it. To me, it’s important to watch to see if it worked.

Q: Were you a theatrical child, a dramatic child? 

FP: What do you think? [laughter]

Q: Were you putting on plays in the backyard or in the [house]?

FP: Oh, yeah. No, my mum would play like, Macy Gray and David Grey and Damian Rice on the way to school, and I would be in the back of the Chrysler with my hand on the window, and I would be pretending like I’d look out at this field and pretended like Dad used to live there. The lands got sold and the whole house got knocked down. And then the car would fog up because it was winter, so I was [makes sound] and go back to it. Then when we’d arrive at school and I had tears on my face and my mum’s like, [brightly] “Bye!” “Bye, Mama!” All when I was six.

Q: When were you first on stage? What was the first thing you did?

FP: When I was six, I did a Nativity play, and was a Yorkshire Mary who only learned about her varicose veins and her swollen ankles.

Q: You were Mary at six? 

FP: Yeah. And I marched on the stage holding my back, going, “OOOhh my back!” It was great. And my husband was whipped, it was like a whole play. It was fantastic.

Q: How did you know immediately that was it for you? 

FP: Everybody started laughing. I was like, “Oh, I’ll do it again.” I’ll say the line again, one more time.

Q: Did you go on to doing many plays thereafter? 

FP: Yeah. Obviously, I was in on Shakespeare when I was seven. No, I was just doing little stuff. I wasn’t that weird.

Q: But did you tell your parents that this was what you wanted to do? 

FP: They knew. They knew. All of us — my whole family is so weird, this is the thing that we do. We sing, we act, we dance, my mum is a dancer. My dad is a restauranteur. There was a lot of energy in the household. We were always listening to music, always performing, always in plays and talent contests. Whenever there was a talent contest, all the siblings would be in the contest. And other parents, other bands, would be like, “Yeah, I’ve just got one kid in the show.” My mum’s like, “I’ve got three.” It was a thing — we all loved doing it. So it’s not surprising at all that we’ve all gone into the same industry. And there’s been so much support so there would be no reason why not to.

Q: What was your very first movie? 

FP: My first movie was “The Falling.” That was when I was 17. It was directed by Carol Morley and was a BBC film. It was so weird. It was a read-through audition and I happened to do it. It was one of those right-time, right-age, right moments, and I caught it. It was so weird and so wonderful. I starred alongside Maisie Williams — she was the lead — and it was really awesome. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot. Then my second movie was “Lady Macbeth” and that was two years later.

Q: “Lady Macbeth” is an amazing movie and as you said before, it’s kind of a corollary to this one. Although they’re not the same character at all, there is a certain through-line in terms of their independent spirit and the quality of the person. There ‘s a certain intensity about the character that’s similar to Lady Macbeth. 

FP: There must have been women that were irritated. It was tough. And that excites me. How did they get away with it? How did they push? How did they get people to listen? All of that. Women in eras that were not in any way helping them, that is clearly my gem. I keep on coming back to it. One thing that was really cool about her is that she was a Nightingale nurse. Nightingale nurses were seen as angels, they were honestly seen as the purest people, and they were educated by Florence Nightingale, and went to the [Crimean] War [1853-1856] and they saved a lot of men. Because of that, they were actually seen as the purest people. So the very fact that she was educated and was intellectual, and she was needed and paid for, sets her above women at the time. Women were not like her. So the fact that men at the beginning are talking to her and asking her to do something is huge. And the fact that she holds herself like that throughout the whole movie is because she was a Nightingale nurse. She wouldn’t nearly have been as cocky if she was just a noble woman. What’s really fascinating about Nightingale nurses is they were the first to actually put down really major things in medical history. Florence Nightingale was the person who said, “Hey, maybe we should clean our equipment.” Up until that time, all of their surgical equipment — everything — wasn’t clean. it was dirty. She was the person who said, “We should sterilize our equipment.”

She was also the person to say, “Maybe we should document this.” Until her, nothing was put down, nothing was written down. So that’s why the notebook is such a feature. Because these women were actually documenting why these people were dying, why these people were ill, and that’s the whole twist of the movie. She then uses it all herself.

So these women were “pure.” On top of that, they were so pure that if you, as a the member of the public, ever saw one of them in a pub, or saw them in a bar, you could write a letter and could basically dump on them and say, “I saw Florence Pugh in a pub the night before she got on the boat to go to war to go and help soldiers.” And she would be removed from the boat. That’s how pure they had to be. They couldn’t drink and couldn’t take drugs. They had to be purest which is also why it’s amazing that she’s human, because she also does that as well. These women were unbelievable: they were like nuns; they worked as hard as nuns. They were angels. So to be told, “No” and “We don’t care” is deeply frustrating.

Q: So you did a ton of research?

FP: Yeah, it’s so exciting. When you have a role that has a purpose, and within history which has an actual date to it in a job, that to me is everything. It’s so easy to research these characters.

Q: Do you do that in general, on everything you play? 

FP: Not everything. I think definitely with period stuff because I don’t know what it was like to live back then. I have an idea, but I don’t know. I think jobs — whenever there is anything where I have to do a job, or I have to be a professional in it, I definitely want to learn about it. Like if I’m a horse rider, what I did in “Fighting With My Family” [dir Stephen Merchant, 2019], I was a wrestler. I went and basically trained. I went to Florida to train with both the wrestlers. And I was a wrestler.

Q: Did you like being a wrestler? 

FP: I loved it. It was so much fun. That was me and my brother always, we were always fighting each other. So to me, that was epic. I got to learn how to officially beat him. I learned so many moves.

Q: Acting has given you lots of things in life. Did you ever toss somebody just for the hell of it? 

FP: Once I was at a festival and somebody didn’t believe I could do it. It was an executive group of boys, and they were like, “Yeah, whatever.” I said, “Okay.” They were like, “Wait, do a move on me, then.” I was like, “You sure?” They were like, “Yeah, do a move on me.” I’m like, “Okay.” So I did a full Nelson, I think, and he was stuck and couldn’t get out. And he started squirming. I was just laughing and it was amazing. All of his mates were like “Okay, okay, you can let go of him now,” and I was like, “No. He needs to feel the shame.”

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Here’s the trailer of the film.

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