No one wails like Florence Pugh. The star of Ari Aster’s Midsommar expresses her character’s emotional trauma with guttural, primal cries that vibrate through her body and out into the world. It’s a sound that’s even more unnerving than the grating, eerie soundtrack, and an unsettling reminder that true horror isn’t jump scares and supernatural occurrences — sometimes, it lurks within ourselves.
From the trailer, you might have gleaned that Midsommar is a horror movie about a cult. But more than anything, it’s about a breakup. Pugh plays Dani, a young woman who, in the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, accompanies her inattentive boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to a remote Swedish folk festival celebrating the summer solstice. The constant sunlight and airy white linen attire contrasts sharply with Dani’s inner turmoil, although it soon becomes clear that there’s something dangerous and troubling hiding behind all those flower crowns. Pugh gives a rare performance that combines vulnerability and strength — you have to be willing to go to a dark, fragile place, and be resilient enough to stay there.
At just 23, Pugh has proved that she can handle tough roles. After a chilling turn in 2017’s Lady Macbeth, the actress has shared the screen with Chris Pine (and his peen) in Netflix’s Outlaw King, played Cold War spy games with Alexander Skarsgård in AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, and learned to wrestle with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for Fighting With My Family. In December, she’ll be playing Amy March in Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women, alongside Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, and Timothée Chalamet. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’s also in talks to co-star with Scarlett Johannson in Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow movie.
When I meet Pugh in person at New York’s Crosby Hotel — one day before Aster’s highly anticipated follow-up to Hereditary screened for press for the first time, and two days before the first pictures of Little Women broke the internet — she immediately commands attention. Her on-screen charisma is tempered by a mischievous sense of humor. This is a woman who gleefully recounts that upon first meeting her now co-star Chalamet at the 2017 British Academy Film Awards, she called him Timothée Chalamala-bing-bong to his face. (She told me she nicknamed him that in private, and it just slipped out, which, relatable. Her grandmother calls him Chalamala-bang-bang, an oversight she is quick to correct: "It's Bing-Bong.") Much like Amy in Little Women, part of her charm is her frank willingness to speak her mind.
Ahead, Pugh tells Refinery29 about her biggest movie fear, how Midsommar compares to Hereditary, and her obsession with the one person who can one-up her in the scream department. (It’s Meryl Streep.)
Refinery29: Okay, let’s be real. How scared am I going to be of this movie when I see it?
Florence Pugh: “Oh my God. I saw it yesterday at 10 a.m., so that was a nice wake-up. It's less terrifying than you might think it is. It's more that, hours later, you'll kind of start processing visually. In that way, it's more horrific because you weren't even aware at the time that that was particularly awful to see, because it's so beautiful and it's so well-done that it just gets quickly swept into the artistry of the film. That's why it's alarming — it will suddenly dawn on you that you just saw this series of events, and you're like, ‘Oh my God. What about that bit? That was awful.’ [But] it's not going to emotionally abuse you or anything. Well, in some sense, it might, but in terms of jump scares and all that stuff, it's not like that at all.”
So, I'm not going to have to check the ceiling for Toni Collette every night like I do now?
“No, no, no.You won't get creeped out in that sense. There were moments when I slapped my face with my hands, but the beauty of the community and the way that it's cut, and the rhythm and the music is very ceremonial, and ritualistic. It's very intriguing to watch. You never go away feeling like this is going to torment you in your room and you're going to have to check the beds.”
Traditionally, horror takes place in dark spaces, or creepy, creaky old houses. But in Midsommar, everything takes place in sunlight, in the open. Do you think scary is subjective?
“I definitely didn't watch scary films growing up. I just didn't want them in my head, and I know that the first time I ever got horribly terrified by something was actually Lord of the Rings, when all the orcs came out. I remember my uncle kneeling down, being like, ‘It's okay. They're just all silly men with makeup on,’ and I was like, "I don't like the silly men with makeup on." He was like, ‘See, look? If we pause it, we can see the makeup.’ I'm like, ‘Ahhhhhhhh!’ I just hated it.”
Grief is a scary emotion, and one that we ignore a lot. Supernatural occurrences aside, Hereditary was about the consequences all-consuming, earth-shattering grief. There’s some of that in Midsommar, too right?
“The tricky thing about this film is, there is a whole journey of a failing relationship, and also [Dani] has dealt with such a traumatic family tragedy. I've never really witnessed that level of trauma. So, yes, it's about a community, and, yes, it's about a festival that goes wrong. Yes, it's about this group of friends that get themselves in this horrendous scenario. The horror wasn't how many times I got scared, but how many times I had to watch someone in emotional pain. That, to me, is more horrible to watch.”
The costumes in this film are already being hailed as this year’s summer festival look, even though they symbolize this very dark, scary thing. What do you think of our cultural obsession with making real-life messy moments look perfect?
“That's completely down to social media. You're proving that you've had a wicked time, and it's all great — you definitely don't smell after four days of not showering. I think the hippie lifestyle has always been attractive. Everything about living off the land, and living in the clothes that you've made, and making and wearing the headdresses that you grew — it's all like, "Oh, look how natural I can be and look how beautiful I can be in nature.’ It's quite hypocritical, because one is taking away from the other.
In our film, the costumes were such a massive thing. Every single costume has got a runic symbol — individually designed, and it means something different. The work and the craftsmanship that went into that — I have another fantastic gow that took so many hours to make. When we were there, everybody but us, the five, are wearing white. We stick out like sore thumbs, and that is the whole point.”
I read somewhere that Ari Aster created a 100-page document about the universe within Midsommar? Did you have to study it?
“I never saw that, but that doesn't surprise me at all. The work that went into solidifying that community was immense, and, Ari did a lot of research into cults and into midsummer in Swedish communities. [He] had body coaches, and dancers, and choreographers that taught [the actors] how to move and how to respond and how to emote, I suppose. That was fascinating, because when we walked into that community, it really was a solid community. It wasn't a couple of people had learned some lines the night before.They all moved and spoke and felt in exactly the same way, and all of the Swedish cast had been working for weeks beforehand.”
You’re in almost every scene in the movie.
“Bar like, five.”
How did that affect you? Were you able to let loose, or did the emotional baggage of the character get to you?
“Thankfully, it's not like I had lots of alone scenes ... everybody was in a scene. So, we all had a crazy schedule, and we were all going through similar stuff. I wasn't being [Dani] all the time, but, yeah, she was a very heavy person to play. It was so sad and depressing and emotional to play her, and I knew I couldn't just wing it and figure out how she felt, because it is so important to the storyline that she is struggling. I listened to a lot of music, and I had my headphones on just before I had to do big scenes. Jack helped me through a lot of stuff, and he held my hand. But when you do something this big, you have to expect it's going to hurt somewhat.”
What did you listen to?
“Ólafur Arnalds. He's an instrumental classical musician, and he mainly does big piano pieces or violin pieces. But he was heavily on my rotation.”
What did you do to unwind?
“We'd all get in a bus on the way home, and I'd listen to some Boy & Bear or to some Gemma Hayes. Then I'd go home, I'd make a Bloody Mary, and I'd have a piece of Lindt chocolate. I'd be like, Okay, I'm dealing with this.”
You've been incredibly busy for the last two years, between Lady Macbeth, Outlaw King, The Little Drummer Girl, Fighting With My Family, and now this. And you’re starring as Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. What was that experience like?
“I met Meryl Streep. Met Greta Gerwig. Met Laura Dern. It was wicked. I literally went straight from Budapest to Boston to start on Little Women. So, as I arrived, I had just finished Midsommar like two days previous. That was surreal. But you know what? Looking back at it, I'm so happy that I did get to go straight onto something, because if I had stopped, it would've been that halt. Then I think that's when things get lonely or sad, is when suddenly everything comes to a stop and then you have to kind of deal with the loss. We were best mates in Budapest!
“And then I was met by all of these amazing women that were just so excited to have me, because I was a bit late to the shoot. Also, in terms of content, what I'd been doing on Midsommar was so intense and so heavy.Then I got to be Amy, who is the most delicious, ridiculous, funniest bean, and it was just so, Oh, I was part of a cult two weeks ago? Nah. Now I'm a spoiled brat, and I'm 14. Great.”
Amy’s such an interesting character to play because people love to hate her.
Totally! They love to hate her because they all know that, secretly, if their voice spoke without them thinking about it, they would say the exact same thing. We are all a bit of an Amy, and the fact that she says it with such confidence and she says it without being ashamed or apologizing makes it that little bit cheekier that you love her.
Have you been watching Big Little Lies 2?
“Yes! I love that show so much.”
Meryl fucking Streep!
“She's incredible. Have you also heard what she's done with her voice? It's [crazy], because we all know her, and we know her face and what she sounds like. It's so fascinating. I love her. She's a good lady, good egg.”