Florence Pugh suits up to take on Black Widow
In the Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Widow opening in cinemas here on July 8 and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access from July 9, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff isn’t the only ‘Black Widow’ in town any more.
English actress Florence Pugh portrays fiery assassin Yelena Belova, a product of the Red Room’s ruthless training programme who has a secret history with Natasha that she is determined to address.
Meanwhile, pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, Natasha must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.
Pugh, 25, said: “Yelena is hurt and complicated and acts out. One of the coolest things about playing Yelena is just how complex and broken she is for someone who is so sure of what she does. She knows exactly how to function in the areas in which she’s been trained, but she has no clue how to live as a human being. She’s a lethal weapon but also a bit of a kid. That’s been one of the nicest qualities about her.”
Director Cate Shortland, who saw Pugh in the 2016 film Lady Macbeth, was keen to work with the rising star who’s known for starring in a hattrick of movies in 2019 - Fighting With My Family, Midsommar and Little Women.
“She’s really beguiling,” said Shortland. “She and Scarlett as a team are unstoppable. It was beautiful to see them together.”
Screenwriter Eric Pearson agreed.
“We shot the scene where Natasha and Yelena are reuniting right at the beginning of production. Natasha walks through a safe house in Budapest while they speak to each other - they haven’t seen each other yet. As they reveal themselves, they’re perfectly mirrored. As soon as I saw that, I thought, ‘We have a movie’.”
He added: “Yelena is the perfect counterpart to Natasha. While Natasha is withdrawn, Yelena has achieved a level of emotional freedom. She’s outgoing, assertive and blunt - it throws Natasha off-kilter and brings out more of her personality.”
How do you feel about joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Pugh: I’m from a generation that’s grown up with it, so I’ve watched all of the films — I don’t feel like I’m an amateur. There’s definitely something quite magical about these movies. It’s a serious world about superheroes that aren’t in ridiculous costumes. They are people who are constantly battling with their own stuff. That was something that I personally found quite exciting about this role.
I think with any mega franchise, it’s always slightly daunting because as exciting as it is, you’re walking into so much history of fandom and storyline. These characters mean a lot to people.
Why do you think there’s such mystery surrounding Black Widow?
Pugh: At the heart of this movie is a very brutal journey about figuring out who they are. There are amazing explosions and fight scenes and action, but there is actually a very sad story at the bottom of it. It’s about being damaged and trying to find a way to fix yourself. It’s about the pain, abuse of power.
Natasha is never willing to talk about it. I think that’s what it is. She’s so scared. Now that we’ve got this film, we have this opportunity to look at that story — and you completely understand why she wouldn’t want to talk about it. It’s horrible what happened to those girls. They’ve been abused — trained to be killing machines. This is the right time to be telling this story. With Cate’s approach, you kind of forget that we’re all wearing superhero suits.
How did you and Johansson find the relationship between these characters?
Pugh: Natasha and Yelena were broken up when they were children and grew up to live different lives. We had to figure out what that would do to their relationship and what they would do when they see each other years later. These are people who have been torn apart who probably only have a few memories.
I always find that you end up finding your groove when you’re around a person on set anyway. The first week of our shoot we did one of the most epic fight scenes, which is in the safe house in Budapest. Within two days of knowing Scarlett, I was ramming her into a doorframe or kitchen counter. It was the best way to get to know someone pretty quick — just fight them for a week.
I was so grateful that she was straightaway ready to teach me and guide me through everything. I came into the film very aware that I was doing a superhero film. And she took all of that away, and that was one of the best gifts that she could’ve given me. It was amazing that I got to work with the Black Widow on her film, and I didn’t just get to work with her, I got to play her younger sister. It was awesome.
Describe the fight scene and how you pulled it off.
Pugh: The whole fight is sloppy and messy and emotional. These girls are assassins. They know how to kill people. They know how to move swiftly and neatly to get the job done. Everything about the fight is their version of arguing.
The whole fight is about not knowing how to say what you feel. It’s so aggressive — so face to face. It was so exhilarating as an actor actually do it.
Were the physical aspects of the role demanding?
Pugh: This is obviously a very active job and we have to be physically fit. As a kid, I was always jumping off trees and wrestling with my brother, so being able to do this for a job is unbelievable. It’s a lot of fun. You get very fit. You have to.
One of the coolest things about this job was that the stunt team was so excited that I wanted to do most of it, so I’ve been taught by some of the best fighters around the world — it’s like an action-packed dream.
There was this warehouse on set that was open all day, and all these amazing stunties were just there to teach you their crafts. And so, from the moment I could, I just went to the warehouse. I’d be in there for hours at a time training, kickboxing or doing parkour. Someone taught me how to knife throw, but at one point I was like, “It’s not working”. And he said, “It’s because when you’re throwing knives, you really have to aim to slit the throat.” I found that fascinating, and I tried to do as much as I could.
I have a dancer’s background, so I always knew that I liked movement. And apparently, I’m quite good at high kicks and kicking. It’s always nice knowing that you’re weirdly okay at something you’ve never done before.