Courtesy of Marvel Studios
By Emlyn Travis
It’s mid-afternoon on a hot September day in 2019 when the actress Florence Pugh sweeps into the press tent at Pinewood Studios, located in a rural town outside London, with a secret weapon: a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
“Do you want one?” she goads, outstretching the open bag toward a group of journalists. “I think some of you might want one of these, because there are so many.” Pugh’s lighthearted charisma is a salve in the sweltering autumn heat as she laughs loudly. She hands out candy while dressed in a white, battle-worn stealth suit minutes after stepping off the set of a multi-million dollar Marvel blockbuster film. “They’re minis! Go on, have one! Pass it around!”
As she settles into a studio chair, Pugh is excited to “finally” talk about the marvelous mystery that is Yelena Belova, the sarcastic, battle-hardened assassin she plays in Black Widow. What she couldn’t have foreseen was that the film would be among the first to be delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic six months later, pushing its release date back three times before finally hitting theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on Friday (July 9).
Instead, Pugh finds herself on the precipice of superhero superstardom and feeling slightly “nervous” about how the film’s release will impact her life. “When I first signed on I was like, oh great, I’m going to be in a Marvel film!” she says. “Then, since being in a Marvel film, every single person has asked me about my life changing and now I’m thinking, oh! What is going to happen?”
Despite her hesitations, Pugh, now 25, has never shied away from roles that pull her out of her comfort zone at any point throughout her acting career. Whether capturing the adorable brattiness of Little Women’s Amy March (for which she was nominated for an Oscar in 2020) or stepping into the ring as the indomitable WWE fighter Paige in Fighting with My Family, she’s shown time and time again she’s unafraid of a good challenge that tests her natural acting ability.
In fact, it was during the filming of Fighting With Family that Pugh began performing her own stunts, a skill she brought onto the Black Widow set. “I love the stunts; it’s probably my favorite part of this film,” she says. “The stunt team is so excited when you want to do more — it’s amazing how much they want you to enjoy [the combat scenes you’re filming]. They’ll create fights that you are capable of doing, if you’re up for it, and that was so exciting.”
Taking inspiration from 2000’s Charlie’s Angels, Pugh envisioned Yelena as an unstoppable, badass heroine who could perform incredible high kicks — and in the Marvel canon, this is one of the character’s greatest strengths. But through the filmmaking process, she’s come to admire different aspects of Yelena’s personality, like her blunt attitude and determination to succeed at any cost. “There are no bells and whistles with her; she gets it done. Whether that’s fighting or verbally abusing someone, it’s all pretty straightforward,” Pugh answers. “She’s ready to fight, whether it's an argument or physical, and there’s no stopping her.”
Yelena Belova made her Marvel debut in 1999 with the Inhumans series. A fierce fighter, gymnast, and expert marksman, Belova underwent brutal training in the notorious Soviet brainwashing facility, the Red Room, that also created the Black Widow herself, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson). In the film universe, Romanoff takes on the role of an older sister in Belova’s life but, despite familial ties, the duo has been out of contact with one another for quite some time. It wasn’t until 2019 that fans saw their relationship actualized on screen when the first Black Widow teaser trailer was released; the two-minute visual sees the long-lost siblings greet each other at gunpoint before breaking into a fistfight that culminates in Natasha being kicked into a glass door.
Coincidentally, on Pugh’s first day working alongside Johansson, the two shot an intense, one-on-one battle scene that required her to shove Johansson into a kitchen counter. “We had only met the week previous so it was like, ‘Hi! I’m going to beat you now,’” she says with a laugh, punching the air to mimic the fight scene. “But it was great and we fell in love during that fight because it was just so messy and cool.”
While the major plot points of Black Widow have remained under tight lock and key, the film offers a glimpse into a portion of Natasha’s life to which audiences have long-wished to be privy: the era before she became an Avenger. Aside from the self-described “red in her ledger” of violent acts that she’s committed throughout her espionage career, a brief reference to a battle in Budapest with Clint Barton, and her frightening flashback to the Red Room while under mind control by Wanda Maximoff in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, large swaths of her backstory have been left unaddressed until now.
Set in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Black Widow sees Natasha reconnect with a collection of allies who were once her surrogate family, including Yelena, mother Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), and father Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour). Pugh calls them one “big, bonkers, mad, loud Russian family” with “a lot of love for each other,” and their reunion leads to some hilariously awkward situations that can only arise from spending time with people who know you better than anyone else. Melina criticizes Natasha for slouching at the dinner table; Yelena calls Natasha a poser. “We meet these characters as they’ve developed as adults away from one another,” Pugh adds. “Figuring out their relationships as grown-ups is tricky because they still have the same patterns of when they were kids or parents.”
While the family’s interactions with one another bring a source of levity to the film, Pugh believes that one of Black Widow’s biggest “heartbreaks” is that it is “essentially about women that have been abused” and manipulated into a life of brutality through the Red Room’s brainwashing. “Whether it’s a system or whether it’s physical abuse, they’ve all been in some way trapped and I think this film is the realization of the life that was taken from them,” Pugh replies. “That’s how Natasha and Yelena start repairing [their relationship], I suppose.”
Just as her character relies on Natasha, Pugh came to lean on Johansson for guidance throughout the making of Black Widow. She recalls sitting with Johansson and listening to her talk about her multi-year career portraying Natasha Romanoff within the Marvel universe. “I’ve never been on a film this scale — I don’t think anyone has other than all the superheroes — but it’s incredibly daunting coming up to this and knowing what prep is Marvel expecting you to do,” she notes. “I definitely had no idea what they were going to expect from me, and Scarlett was super helpful with all of that.”
Two years ago, a bag of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in hand, Pugh was keenly aware she was breaking into unknown terrain with her performance in Black Widow. Despite that, she was excited to join Marvel’s ever-growing roster of superheroes and ready to take on whatever would come her way in true Yelena Belova fashion — no bells or whistles necessary. “I’ve always been a very honest and open person with interviews and with fans, and I hope I can continue doing that,” she answers. “I guess now I’ll just have to see.”
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