Black Widow: Michelle Lee on Her Character's Secret Backstory & Why She Loves Florence Pugh

By Julia Delbel Updated:
Yelena Belova Florence Pugh Michelle Lee

After a two-year span of no theatrical releases from Marvel Studios, Black Widow finally became available to watch in cinemas and via Disney+ Premier Access last month. The film served as a send-off for Scarlet Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, introduced audiences to Florence Pugh's Yelena Belova, and revealed their past as sisters forced to train as Black Widows in the brutal environment of the Red Room.

The Direct was fortunate enough to chat with Michelle Lee, who plays former Black Widow member Oksana in the film. Oksana was the one to free Yelena of her Red Room mind control but was subsequently killed by her in the process of doing so.


Black Widow Michelle Lee

During our discussion about Lee's work on Black Widow, she shared her experience with the notorious secretiveness of Marvel Studios - particularly the "blocked out" script - and how she worked around it to bring her character to life.

"Usually if I have a role [as opposed to when I work as a stunt double] I get the whole script; this was definitely not happening [with Black Widow]. Or, usually, you get your pages that [your character is] on. But this one was literally the lines; I think from what I remember, everything was blocked out above and [below], and it would be the lines. And since I had so [few] lines, it was [barely anything], and then maybe some description. So I was like 'hmm, I guess they don’t want me to know a lot!' which I get because there are so many twists and awesome things happening, [and] if any of it leaked it just wouldn’t be cool. So yeah, I had very little information, and they had this kind of software that they give you your lines and your scenes in where you can’t download it, you can’t copy it, [...] you can just read it, and then that’s it. [...] I was like, 'how do I get this down? I need to hold it! I need to print it out!”

Lee went on to describe how she brought her character to life without having the full context on her, saying that she "[created] this whole backstory" about Oksana.

"I feel like as an actor that’s the fun part; you just create this whole backstory [and] you’re like “I don’t even know if this is right, but this is what - in my head - I’m gonna do.” And as long as it doesn’t clash too much with the words that are on the page, or, like, me pretending I’m the star of the show when I’m not, as long as that doesn’t happen I feel like there can be a lot of backstory that you make up in your head that either is right or wrong, but whatever it is, it brings more life to the character, and that’s what you see onscreen.And I did bring some backstory [to Oksana]; I worked with someone on creating where she came from and who she is, and who she is in relation to [Yelena], and it turns out it was kind of right!"

As for Lee's backstory that was "kind of right," she tried to come up with "the most interesting choice" for the character.

"During the fight, [in my head] I was kind of like 'okay, why are we fighting? She’s trying to get this, I’m trying to run away with it.' And at the end when I release it, I kind of thought, 'what is the most interesting choice here? [...] Maybe we have a backstory and she came from this place where she’s now been, you know, taken over, but I came from a place where I knew her, and maybe I was of her mother’s generation of Black Widows. And me, I’m free, and I’m trying to free the rest of the girls, and now I look at her and she’s not the same little girl that I once knew.' You know what I mean? I came up with this whole thing where I once knew her as a little girl, and I was in the generation of the older Black Widows that were trained, [and] I now want to set her free. And so when she kills me, to me it was very ironic because it’s like 'nooo baby, but I took care of you, but it’s okay, I forgive you.' It was all there [in my performance] but it wasn’t said."

There have been stories from various Marvel actors about having limited access to scripts, facing tight security surrounding them, and not being given the full context for scenes they are in, and Lee has provided some interesting insight as to how actors deal with not having the full picture on the stories they are helping tell and the characters they are playing.

In Lee's case, it turns out that her take on Oksana matched up with what the filmmakers had planned, but like she said, all that truly mattered is that her preparation for the role allowed her to bring as much spirit and life to the character as possible.


Yelena Belova Black Widow

The Direct also made sure to talk to Lee about what it was like to work with Oscar nominee Florence Pugh, who began her tenure in the MCU with Black Widow. Lee had nothing but love for Pugh, calling herself a "huge fan" of her co-star and praising her on her strong work ethic and serious acting skills.

"I love her; after this I’m like, 'oh my God, huge fan!' Number one, she’s a hard worker. She came in with her fights and was dirty and tumbling and getting bruised up and beat up, and really working out with everybody else, which was really lovely to see; she really wanted to do it. And she’s so talented; [...] we were talking about our backstory, me and her, as characters, because for me it wasn’t written, so we just kind of chatted about it along with the director, Cate [Shortland]. [...] And she just has her emotions right there. She’s so lovely in every respect. [...] I think she just came in with a great attitude, and killed her debut in the MCU."

From the sound of Lee's words, it seems like Florence Pugh is shaping up to be a great addition to the MCU, potentially for the long haul. It seems like fans can expect her to see her in the role of Yelena once again pretty soon, as she is heavily suspected to be appearing in the upcoming Hawkeye series on Disney+.

In addition to her great experience working with Pugh, it's noteworthy that Lee actually discussed the aforementioned backstory she came up with for Oksana with her as well as director Cate Shortland. Even though Marvel works hard to keep spoilers at bay, even among those directly working on its projects, it makes sense that Shortland may have been able to indicate whether she was on the right track with her mindset while performing her role.

The Direct sends our utmost gratitude to Michelle Lee for chatting with us, and she can be seen in Black Widow in cinemas and on Disney+ Premier Access.

- In This Article: Black Widow
Release Date
July 09, 2021
- About The Author: Julia Delbel
Julia Delbel joined The Direct when the website launched in 2020. She is primarily a features writer for the Marvel section of the site, though she has also dabbled in the DC Universe. Besides these, Julia covers other major franchise content, particularly those under the Disney banner.