[Interview] Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh on BLACK WIDOW’s fights and friendships

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s not every day that actors’ in-person introductions involve fisticuffs (scheduled and intensely choreographed, of course), but here we are with what happened on the set of BLACK WIDOW.  Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh made those stereotypical first-day jitters on Marvel’s stand-alone spin-off work for their characters brilliantly, playing estranged sisters (of sorts) Natasha Romanoff (Johannson) and Yelena Belova (Pugh). The first scene the two actresses shared was the fight scene that takes place in the apartment safe house in Budapest. The pair battle against each other before hitting the road to reunite the rest of their family unit as they’re being pursued by a villainous henchperson.

Pugh, speaking from the film’s virtual press conference, elucidates,

“That was my first week of shooting and Scarlett’s second week of shooting. So literally on my first day I was, like, throwing Scarlett up against a wall, and she was smashing my face in the sink. There was no greater way than to just break the ice than really wrestling Scarlett Johansson to the floor, trying to choke each other. We got to know each other and we were friends.”

Johansson quickly chimes in,

“It definitely was an ice breaker. I’m very lucky because Florence is an athletic person. She has a background in dance. She nailed all the choreography. She was right there, and totally game to go at it, which was great because with the characters, it’s such an emotional fight. It’s all driven by emotion. It’s just two people expressing their frustration, the power struggle and their genuine surprise and affection for one another. It was such a unique way to bond with another actor. It also felt like a very safe way to do it somehow. There was like no trepidation; we were just like in the muck. It was a good scheduling on our part.”

Pugh concurs,

“I also feel like in terms of where our relationship went after, it’s probably perfect timing.  These two sisters that haven’t seen each other in years, and they don’t know how to be around each other. Maybe that all added to the [mix].”

Director Cate Shortland adds further context to the actresses anecdote,

“It was a heat wave. We kept having to stop shooting because the set was like a microwave oven. It was kinda great watching these two women fight and making it look effortless. Then they’d stop and we’d kinda hose them down and then put them back in.”

Johansson relished the chance to show her character in a place that she’s never been seen before.

“Natasha at the beginning of this film is really alone for the first time. She’s always been a part of something that was part of a greater whole. Then suddenly she finds herself sort of floating in this weird in between space and she’s off her game. And she realizes that she’s got all this possibility in front of her and it’s really suffocating.

She’s blindsided by this person who comes from her past who is just on fire and is a liability – this crazy energy and is dangerous, full of life, and isn’t needy, but needs her. She’s so thrown off her game in this. It’s great to see her like that.  We never get to see her like that. That was fun place to start from. She’s just full of doubt. [That] leaves a lot of openings for stuff to kind of creep in.”

Pugh’s approach to her character was fairly simple.

“From the get-go, in the script, it was very obvious that they have this connection and they have this relationship.  And ultimately despite her skillset, she is that wonderfully, annoying young assistant that says all the right things in all the wrong times. That wasn’t hard at all for me to get into that. 

Pugh appreciated Shortland allowing her the creative freedom to build her character.

“Cate was so welcoming of me to figure out how she thinks and how she moves and what she wears. That was such a fun part of figuring out this character, because she really comes out of the Red Room and can live. She can buy her own clothes, and she can buy a vest that has lots of pockets and she’s really excited by it. Cate really encouraged me to find the oddities of her and lean on that. I really found it such a wonderful and creative space.”

BLACK WIDOW opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 9th.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.