Florence Pugh, who plays Charlie in the upcoming miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, talks filming at the Acropolis, working with Alexander Skarsgård, Michael Shannon and director Park Chan-wook and teases what’s to come in the espionage thriller.
Q: Who is Charlie?
A: Charmian “Charlie” Ross loves explaining to anyone who’ll listen that she’s a struggling actress living in London. In the story, she is drawn into the middle of a very elaborate counterterrorism operation and in the midst of all that there is a very complicated, confusing, heartbreaking and deceitful love story.
Q: Why did you want to play her?
A: The character excited me because for the first time in my career I didn’t have to put on a mask. She’s quite a normal girl — a loud, annoying, argumentative and talented being. I think we come across so many of those in our normal lives that I was quite excited to play someone who wasn’t necessarily brilliant at anything; she was just good at being her. But of course that’s why she’s asked to do what she does in the story.
Q: Why do you think she agrees to act as a double agent? She has plenty of chances to opt out…
A: She loves the thrill. Also it’s a challenge, and she’s good at it. I think when you’re good at something — and she’s good at lying, she’s good at acting and she’s good at making people believe her — it’s very difficult to turn down the chance to excel. She’s one of those really annoying people for whom normal life just isn’t good enough. For her, life just isn’t ever enough. It’s completely fine to live like that, but she then gets into something that is way beyond her realm. And she comes out a broken person because of it.
Q: Do you see any of yourself in her?
A: Oh yeah! When I was reading her I was so excited because a) she’s an amazing character and b) there were so many lines that she’d say that sounded just like me … or the way that she’d deal with situations.
Q: What sort of things?
A: I grew up in a very loud family where you had to fight to get your voice heard, in a good way. Everyone had an opinion, and you will now fight me to the death to prove to me why your opinion is more valid than mine! I’ve loved growing up like that, and I think there’s an essence in Charlie that is definitely the same. She is so “bolshie” and is never wrong, or she hates being told she’s wrong. Everything’s a challenge. I think you’re always attracted by characters that are a little bit like you, or at least the worst parts of you that you can finally accept and say, “All right, at least I know that now!” But yeah, she’s a very modern girl, and I love how she just picks fights with people left, right and center.
Q: How did you research the role?
A: When I started the project I downloaded podcasts to understand the history. I really wanted to make sure that I knew every single tiny pea’s worth of information about that time. Charlie’s so hyper and ready to have a fight or cause a fight or shout about the world being wrong that I couldn’t exactly play that character and not know each twist and turn of the story.
Q: Can you tell me a bit about the Charlie/Becker love story?
A: I found my old notebook the other day, and I’d written down, “I really don’t want her to do this just because she’s falling for him.” I didn’t want her to go through this whole escapade just because she fancied the guy. That’s not the story that I wanted to tell. Alex [Skarsgård] felt that too, and it was really cool when we met because I think we both understood what we wanted from this relationship — it needed to be enough to make them both want more. Actually, Becker’s just as much of a sucker for the relationship as Charlie is.
Q: What were the highlights from the shoot?
A: Filming at the Acropolis. I’ve been to Greece a lot since I was a kid, but I’d never been there. I’ve learned about it, I did Classics at school and it was one of my favorite subjects, and it was in the script that they would go there. But so many times when you read a script, you think, “Wow that’s amazing … but come on, that’s not gonna happen.” I asked the production and I said, “Are we actually, actually going to film at the Acropolis?” and was told, “It’s even better than that — we’re going to film at the Acropolis when no one else is there, at nighttime, which hasn’t been done before.” I was like, “whoa!”
The coolest thing about it was that director Park wanted to film our real reactions. We’d only just gotten there and walked around it a couple of times by the time he shot my, or Charlie’s, reaction to what we saw. He stood me at the front of the Acropolis before Alex and I saw all of it, right before we went up the stairs. He got the camera there, and he said, “Go.” We filmed this scene, and my face on camera is the exact face that I made … it was natural. I was reacting to the Acropolis on camera and it was perfect.
Q: What other scenes stood out for you?
A: The interrogation scene with Michael Shannon. If you ever want to be interrogated, get Michael Shannon to do it. He’s an amazing man. I loved working with him. The way he works is … well, I don’t think I could do it, but he loves staying in character. Kurtz is tired of not catching Khalil; he gets excited by the weirdest things and is grumpy. But every now and then you’d catch the real Michael Shannon because he’d like, I don’t know, start throwing ice at me or similar. But usually he would just be Kurtz and you’d have a very cryptic conversation and try to figure out if he’s okay. He’s an amazing guy.
Q: And Alexander Skarsgård?
A: Working with Alex was a dream. He’s really fun, and it was cool to have someone of that caliber who wanted to be just as silly and as goofy as me and be mates. He was so giving as well with his performance — he would always check things with me, do I want to go over things, do I want to try it again, was I happy with what he was doing.
Q: How was it working with Park Chan-wook?
A: I mean, I haven’t done that many things, but I know that I’ll never work with anyone like him again. He deserves all the credit he’s received throughout his career because he is magnificent. There’s something quite special about him when you meet him as well. He’s a very peaceful emperor. Like in his past life he did something really magical but doesn’t like boasting about it. He’s very calm; he says everything but nothing in one sentence, and everything he says is thought through. It was amazing to work with him because he’s considered every single beat in the scene, in the film, in the series — every single beat. The weirdest thing is there’s a reason for everything, and if there isn’t a reason he will think about it until there is one. What was fascinating was how quickly everyone adapted to the way that he worked. He’d say 20 things that you needed to do, and then you’d be like, “Yep, got it, cool, okay, let’s go film.” It’s amazing how everyone just kind of bowed down and respected this master, this Yoda.
Q: What does Charlie look like, and what input did you have in costume and makeup?
A: Nicole [makeup designer] was the first person that I met on this crew. We both knew that I needed a new look: I had been long-haired and red-haired for lots of projects, and I wanted something completely different. I have never had short hair, ever, and I knew that I would really love to have a whole new silhouette for Charlie. So we agreed that I was going to have the 1979 bangs and short hair. We agreed that we wanted her to be strawberry blonde and we wanted her to have body hair – we wanted her to be the type of woman that wanted to shout about anything she could.
Then costume was like a whole other thing, because obviously she is two, three different characters. She’s Charlie, she’s the girlfriend and then she’s a spy, and so costume was exciting because we had this whole other character that maybe wasn’t even Charlie at all that we had to create. She was given these clothes and shoes to wear and maybe felt a little bit uncomfortable in them. Does she know how to do the whole sexy thing? So, we see her at the beginning in denim skirt and ripped tights, and then she’s a girlfriend wearing these long, silky slip dresses and with all this makeup. That was really fun. It was like all these beats were being made for me, and that made my job a lot easier.
Q: How does the production avoid 1970s clichés?
A: Well, that was completely Director Park. I think he is an avid fan of hating clichés, and so when we stepped onto every single set it was like nothing I’d ever seen. The colors were incredible – all burnt oranges or blues or lime greens – nothing was typical seventies. There was not one theme that went through it all.
Q: Did you meet le Carré himself?
A: I deliberately didn’t meet him during the shoot, so by the time I met him I was terrified of what he’d think of me. I had hoped that he had seen some of my work or maybe he was watching the rushes. The fact that I had heard nothing up to that point was good news, I suppose. And then of course we met and we got on like a house on fire. We were seated next to each other at a dinner, and we honestly could not stop yakking. It’s fascinating to listen to him.
Q: What’s your response to people who say The Little Drummer Girl centers on either the Palestinian or the Israeli side?
A: I think that some people are going to think that because it’s been a situation that’s been difficult to sort out and discussed for years. No, our series isn’t going to solve anything, and no, our series isn’t going to stop anyone feeling what they feel, but I do hope that our series will help people understand. Not necessarily about specific facts, but I hope that our characters will help explain that it’s so incredibly complicated, and I think that’s the best possible way to see it. I really do hope that if you come at it with a strong opinion you’ll possibly, maybe, just maybe, think that there is humanity on both sides. What is done really beautifully in the book, in our series and by Director Park is that there’s a lot of love there too. I hope people see that.
The Little Drummer Girl premieres in a 3-night event beginning Monday, November 19 at 9/8c on AMC.
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