How Florence Pugh Made A Good Person All Her Own
For the 27-year-old actress, the film was her first experience with the world of addiction.
Why do bad things happen to good people? And placed into tragic circumstances, how does a truly good person react? These are some of the questions at the heart of Zach Braff’s aptly titled, third indie feature, A Good Person. Like his 2004, Natalie Portman-starring breakthrough Garden State, A Good Person revisits Braff’s home state and specifically, hometown of South Orange with another complex tale of accidental tragedy, addiction and beleaguered family ties. Starring Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman, whose performances elevate the material from melodrama to heartbreaking (and heartwarming) heights, A Good Person examines the depths grief can take a person to and the resiliency of the human spirit in coming back up for air.
Pugh delivers a layered and authentic performance as Allison, a vibrant young woman about to start her life with her fiancé, Nathan (Chinaza Uche). Catastrophe strikes when Allie, driving Nathan’s sister and her husband on the New Jersey Turnpike, glances down at her phone and crashes into oncoming construction, killing her future in-laws. The rest of the film deals with the fallout of that accident, including Allie’s quick and deep descent into opiate addiction after she’s prescribed OxyContin for her injuries. Hitting rock bottom, she eventually finds her way to an AA meeting, where she is surprised to meet Nathan’s estranged father, Daniel (Morgan Freeman). The two become unlikely fellows in grief as they wrestle with resentment toward each other, themselves, and what true accountability looks like.
As always, the 27-year-old British actress makes playing such a tortured role somehow look easy. She fully embodies Allison’s battle with her demons, as she ends her relationship with Nathan, quits her job as a pharmaceutical sales rep and moves back in with her well-intentioned but enabling mother (played with verve by Molly Shannon). As she gets involved in 12-Step recovery and eventually befriends Daniel’s granddaughter (portrayed brilliantly by newcomer Celeste O’Connor), Allie realizes she can only move forward from her grief when she can take full responsibility for her part in the accident—and put down the weight of what isn’t hers to own.
But Pugh was more than just the star of the film; while Braff wrote the screenplay during quarantine, drawing partially on his own experiences after losing close family members and friends to COVID, Pugh, who was in a well-documented romantic relationship with Braff at the time (and is also a producer on the film), was deeply involved with the filmmaking process. From casting, to character choices, to writing and performing original music as Allie, it’s as much her film as it is Braff’s.
Zach Braff wrote the script of A Good Person with you specifically in mind. What were your first impressions when you read it?
I wasn't allowed to read the script for quite some time, actually. I think because he knew me so well, and knows that I am really keen on great dialogue and love getting involved with that kind of stuff, he wanted to make sure that the final product that he gave me was perfect.
As he was writing, we'd dissect it, discussing the character arcs, the relationships, the highs and the lows over dinner. I was such a part, from the beginning of this character and this story, that when I read the script, if there were gaps, I had already filled it with what I knew. It also meant that for acting, the whole thing was so much easier, because I'd already had time with this character. I'd had time with the director, knowing how it is that he wanted it to be and how he wanted it to affect people. So in some senses, I cut so many corners, because I was part of the plans from the beginning. I'd heard all of the ideas and the hopes and the wishes, and so it made the whole process of tackling Allie and becoming her so much easier.
What was your mindset going into a role that deals so explicitly with the roller coaster of addiction?
I think if anything, it helped me that it is a roller coaster. There is no one direction. It's not going downwards and it's not going upwards. It's constantly ebbing and flowing through the peaks and troughs of this woman's story back to health. It's the same as addiction—it's not linear. It's all over the place. And it's hard. Some days are better than others. She wins and she fails almost daily.
It was important to study that world, a world I haven’t come close to, and understand what people with addiction go through, the pain that she's in. Someone that would've taken that drug for as long as she did, your body actually changes to needing it. I think it's something like after six months of taking the drug, the makeup changes, and you actually need that drug now. The physical irritation that her skin and her body is in would've been immense.That stuff is really important to understand the physicalities of a character.
Eventually, Allie ends up becoming very close with Morgan Freeman’s character—the father of her ex-fiancé, whose daughter she has accidentally killed. What was it like to share so many poignant scenes with a legend like Freeman?
It's an amazing thing to say that I went head-to-head with Morgan Freeman for the entirety of a movie. This is an actor that we all know and love so much, and so to have this weird job where I get to work with these incredible actors was just unbelievable. You really get to see up close why these legends are called legends.
And that goes for all of the actors in our movie. We had such a fantastic cast. Celeste [O’Connor] is an incredible performer. Chinaza, who played my fiancé, beautiful actor. I really had such fun acting with every single actor in this, and so many of these characters only interact with Allie for one scene. They really have to be powerful enough to affect her as a character completely. Like the scene with Alex Wolfe, she is completely derailed by that. All of these small but fascinating and impactful characters matter.
Part of Allie’s journey through recovery involves writing and performing songs that you wrote for the film. One of them is about how much she hates herself. What was it like writing music for a specific character?
I wrote the songs partly to process who she was and how low she felt. I've never come close to feeling like this character before, nor do I know anyone that has. It was incredibly important to understand what she truly thought of herself. I wrote that song for it, and Zack put it in the movie. And I wrote another one for Chinaza. Really it was a way of getting into the scenes. It was a wild and weird experience, trying to figure out what Allison sounds like, how she sounds in rehab after months of torturing herself, and really figuring out how broken she is on a creaky piano in this creaky room. It was a true way into this person.
Given this experience and your background as a singer and songwriter, do you have any plans to lean more into a music career?
I would love to. I think the weird one for this was that I wrote it for a character and performed it as a character. So as much as I had the input of singing and writing for her, it was very much like she needed to perform those songs in the ways that she did. But for me, I got to record the songs outside of the film in the ways that I want them to be recorded as my songs. They're going to be released on the soundtrack. And hopefully this is going to continue.
A Good Person premieres in theaters on March 24th.