Two years ago, AMC struck ratings gold with “The Night Manager,” its eminently binge-able adaptation of the 1993 John le Carré favorite. Reinterpreted by director Susanna Bier as a smoldering saga of sex, suspense, and spycraft under the Egyptian sun, the miniseries more than brought the writer in from the cold: It kicked off a new Hollywood hot streak for the enduring author, rediscovering a suave, even sensuous charge that still snaps across the pages of his decades-old spy classics.
Enter “The Little Drummer Girl,” a six-episode take on le Carré’s 1983 bestseller that unspools across three consecutive nights, starting Monday. The ’70s-set thriller is at first blush a more visually muted and claustrophobic affair than “The Night Manager.” In the hands of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook (the “Oldboy” trilogy), however, the series soon proves to be a triumph of meticulous mise en scène that perfectly complements the mazelike story with which it’s interwoven.
At the series’ center is rising star Florence Pugh as Charlie, a young actress whose vacation in Greece is complicated by an encounter with the enigmatic Becker (“Big Little Lies” standout Alexander Skarsgard). When Becker reveals himself as an intelligence agent in the employ of Israeli spymaster Kurtz (Michael Shannon), Charlie becomes ensnared by their machinations, tasked with infiltrating a dangerous terrorist cell.
“Charlie doesn’t quite belong in this world she gets drawn into,” says Pugh, 22, discussing the miniseries by phone. “There’s this spy world directly next to her, with Michael and Alex playing two very clever but complicated men; with Charlie, you also get to see the norm next to that.”
Pugh broke out with 2016’s “Lady Macbeth” and has been on a career upswing ever since; she costars in Netflix’s just-released historical epic “Outlaw King” and in the wings has Ari Aster’s anticipated “Hereditary” follow-up, wrestling comedy “Fighting With My Family,” and Greta Gerwig’s high-profile “Little Women” update (now filming around Boston). How much her star has climbed in the past two years, she admits, is dizzying to consider. But being approached by Park for “The Little Drummer Girl,” she stresses, was a particularly jaw-dropping moment.
“I’m still a little bit not in the know about how that happened,” she says, laughing. Pugh’s casting, she notes, owes something to a brief breakfast meeting she had with Park at the 2016 BFI Film Festival, a year before AMC hired him.
“[When it was announced,] ‘The Little Drummer Girl’ was quite literally the talk of the town,” she recalls. “It was a massive role in a massive series, nowhere near anything that I could get, but then director Park came on board and suddenly it was all happening. Even up to when we started shooting, I was confused as to how I was there.”
She speaks highly of sharing scenes with Skarsgard, who plays her conflicted romantic foil. “We were just learning from each other all the time,” says Pugh. “Age wasn’t a thing. Gender wasn’t a thing. It was free and mutual.”
Skarsgard signed on eager to work with Park but says Pugh quickly won him over, both as an actress and a collaborator. “She made it so easy to do my job, because she is so alive,” the actor says by phone. “With her, every second’s real and authentic.” Their chemistry, he adds, was essential to making the densely plotted story line sing on screen.
“The love between Charlie and Becker, and how it grows, is in many ways the heart of the story,” says Skarsgard, 42. Across a five-month, three-country shoot in London, Prague, and Athens, he and Pugh became close; both say the collaboration made them better actors.
Working with Park, whose films are famed for unnerving and hypnotic atmospheres, was another highlight for the stars. “I knew it’d be different, because his cinematic language is so unique and poetic,” says Skarsgard. “He’s the hardest-working man I’ve ever worked with, hands down. It’s extraordinary; he never sleeps.”
For Pugh, shooting was a feet-first learning process. “The past year, it’s been a total mental breakdown in terms of directors I’ve worked with,” she cracks. “With a visual one [like Park], I was being constantly surprised and pushed.” Though “The Little Drummer Girl” marks the most involved of four upcoming roles for Pugh, she says working on it was never arduous — merely invigorating.
“Working on material for that long only improves it,” says Pugh. “What audiences love with series is that they can invest in characters for such a long period of time, and it’s the same for actors. You can truly tell your story, then it’s done. None of it was daunting. I was just psyched to get going.”
THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL
Starring: Florence Pugh, Alexander Skarsgard, Michael Shannon. On AMC, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 9 p.m.