By Nick Romano
July 01, 2019 at 01:02 PM EDT
Gabor Kotschy/A24

These days, you’re lucky to get even 20 minutes with Florence Pugh.

Since her breakthrough role as the treacherous Katherine in the 2017 award-winning indie Lady Macbeth, the 23-year-old has been working nonstop, making memorable turns in AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl on the small screen and Fighting With My Family on the big.

With just a few days to spare in mid June, she’s in New York but can’t stay for long, what with the top-secret Black Widow movie she’s currently filming for Marvel in London (and definitely can’t talk about). For now, she’s debuting the first screenings of the buzzy Midsommar, a Swedish cult horror story from director Ari Aster, who last scared audiences silly just over a year ago with Hereditary.

“I don’t have downtime,” the rapidly rising actress admits over coffee in a Manhattan hotel on a recent afternoon. That, my dear, is an understatement.

Calling Midsommar “Coachella with human sacrifice” makes Pugh laugh, but it’s a fair assessment of the plot: Following a traumatic family incident, Dani (Pugh) joins her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), on a trip to Sweden for a hippie commune’s celebration of the summer solstice — think less Beyoncé, and more unsettling runic rituals.

“I had never come close to any of the trauma that Dani had, that level of pain and that level of exhaustion,” says Pugh, who grew up in Oxford, England with her parents and siblings. “So, that was automatically daunting to me because I think with something as specific and as vulnerable as grief, whether it’s in a script or whether it’s in real life, it is real and you have to be sensitive about that and you have to know what you’re getting into and that’s always alarming when you don’t know… That was something that had always slightly scared me. But then that’s Ari. It’s scary, it’s sensitive, and we made it through. It was exhausting as well, because you have to find ways of tapping into that. The best thing for me to do was imagine the worst thing happening to your sister.”

“Exhausting” is a word that keeps coming up, not just because of the psychological demands of such a role, but for the patience and endurance needed to pull off an Aster film.

Gabor Kotschy / A24

Pugh saw a lot of Park Chan-wook, her director on The Little Drummer Girl, where she played a fiery actress/double agent, in the sophomore filmmaker. “Director Park,” she says, is “such a visionary, but he also has everything in his head and he goes through every possible outcome of the story before he does it.” For one scene, she didn’t understand why she needed to place her spoon in such a specific way in such a specific place on the table, but it’s part of “a bigger picture.” She says, “There’ll be a scene later where someone will do the exact same movement… Only when you watch the final product do you realize that everything flows.”

If she didn’t have that experience with Park, Pugh isn’t sure she would’ve had the patience with Aster’s approach to Midsommar. “He has the whole [film] in his head,” she says. “He knows how he wants it to move and, yes, there are times where it’s really tricky and it’s really hot and you’re getting stung by every bug under the sun and you’re doing the most painful take because it’s a two-minute oner [a long, uninterrupted camera shot] and everything has to move perfectly.” In other words, this wasn’t necessarily one of those sets where improvisation was encouraged.

Though pain seems to be the through-line in her recent work, Pugh says she didn’t wake up after Little Drummer Girl and decide, “Now I want to play a woman that’s gone through trauma and ends up in a field.” It was actually fear that guided her role selection.

“Every single thing that I’ve done, I’ve been terrified of doing, and there are things I haven’t done because I’m not scared,” she explains. “I remember being totally terrified by Lady Macbeth. [The feeling that] I’m going to expose myself in a certain way because it’s terrifying. In that sense, you have to do it.”

Gabor Kotschy/A24

That made her first post-Midsommar role a welcome relief in more ways than one. Pugh was still filming with Aster in Budapest when she entered talks for Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, which entered production in December 2018 with stars Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan as Meg and Jo March, respectively. “We still didn’t know if I could get out [of Midsommar] in time,” Pugh notes. But the official go-ahead finally came done, and Pugh eagerly welcomed a change of pace from the “emotionally draining” Midsommar to Gerwig’s sisterhood. 

“I feel like if something is that intense and that involved and you are so in love with all the people around you, to go to nothing would’ve been really hard. I think I probably would’ve had a tricky time adjusting,” Pugh says. “Also, just the emotional distress of [Dani’s story]. That was a really tough and horrible content to do. So, the fact that I just went straight to be with lots of happy women and play one of the brattiest, brilliant, 14-year-old younger sister, that was perfect for me. I didn’t need to do anything else. That was great.”

When Pugh was younger, she couldn’t “poo poo” all the comparisons she received to Kate Winslet. (Similar to Winslet’s turn in 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, Lady Macbeth featured Pugh in a breakthrough performance with a subtle-to-sociopathic turn.) But now, she’s charting her own path with a rolodex of drastically different roles, including her already planned follow-up to Little Women, that of a still-mysterious character opposite Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Again, Pugh reminds us that when it comes to that Marvel movie, “I can’t talk about anything.”

In a broader sense, she agrees her filmography continues to grow with “totally different’ parts. “They are all such different beasts and they all mean different things and that’s so wicked,” she says. “It’s nice to test out other worlds that I’m not used to. And I think that’s probably why we end up jumping from different things.”

Echoing her career mantra, she adds, “It’s exciting to feel scared and to not know.”

Midsommar opens in theaters on Wednesday.

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