The British actress describes the brutal realities of the Suffragette movement.
Carey Mulligan has a knack for choosing peach roles and imbuing them with rawness as she moves through worlds full of people that would prey on her elfin form. Jenny in An Education, Sissy in Shame and now Maud in Suffragette are characters that boldly force themselves onwards. LWLies met the British star and discovered great descriptive waves of thought and feeling directed towards the Suffragette movement, women’s rights and taking a more active role in crafting interesting stories.
LWLies: You’ve previously said that you only accept a role if you can’t bear the thought of someone else playing it. What made you feel possessive of Maud?
Mulligan: It was a lot of things. It wasn’t just the character, it was the story. It was surprising to me that this story hadn’t been told, even though it happened 100 years ago; this massive moment in women’s history, and in civil rights in Britain, just hasn’t ever really been put on screen. So it was the character, because she was unlike most characters I’ve played before, and the story in general, and then the creative team that was behind it, who were an exciting bunch of people. But largely because I felt so surprised by so much of the stuff I read in the script and was excited to put it on screen.
So it’s fair to say that, for once, the cause was more important to you than the character?
Yeah, I think I would have played any character in the film if that had been an opportunity because I was excited about what the film was saying on a bigger scale. But the character was exciting because of how she starts the story: she’s an introvert, she doesn’t have any friends, and she starts completely politically apathetic, not interested in the women’s movement and very traditional. She’s a very typical Victorian working class woman, she lives within the construct of her society and she’s very happy in that. She doesn’t want to explore the outside world and then she goes through this radical change. So I was equally drawn to her. But it was all of the stuff that was in the film, the stuff that I just didn’t know about. I don’t know what we studied in school, I guess it was a very sanitised version of women’s history and the Suffrage movement. I didn’t know about hunger striking, I didn’t really know about police brutality. I think I knew that there were women who chained themselves to railings, but really to explore all of that stuff was exciting.
It’s kind of a caricature isn’t it, the Suffragette movement, in the popular consciousness?
Yeah, you sort of have an image of women walking through the streets with flowers and having tea and it’s all lovely, and the reality was just so different. I was so surprised. We live in this world where every five minutes they make a film about the new story that happened a day ago, or a week ago, and the minute something either very brilliant or very tragic happens, there are seven people in Hollywood writing scripts about it. Yet this story happened and Emily Wilding Davison died, and all of these amazing moments in history happened and no one’s ever talked about it, really.
Did you at any point ever ask yourself if you had been around in 1912, would you have been a Suffragette?
Yeah, I have and I don’t know. It was very normal to accept society’s conventions at that time. I wonder if I would have been because you think about the reality of what these women did, it was kind of crazy. Even, you know, going on a hunger strike and being force-fed, I mean that stuff is just unbearable to think about. I can’t even imagine the will it must have taken for those women to endure that, but even women who went into art galleries and slashed famous works of art. I don’t know if I would have the guts to do that, that’s a terrifying thing to do. Can you imagine going into the V&A today, walking up to a painting, getting a knife out, and slashing it? It’s a crazy act of bravery or recklessness or whatever you call it.
Arts and writing and acting, it’s almost a safe space in which to be political, rather than actual street activism.
We’re able to tell the story about it, but they burned down churches and blew up buildings. The hunger striking is extraordinary. We had a man come in to talk to us about the hunger striking and the force-feeding. I think it was a sort of protest against Guantanamo or something that he had gone through. He’d agreed to go on a hunger strike and be force-fed as part of a PSA or an experiment to basically show people what it was like to be force-fed and how brutal it was. He did it very clinically with lots of medical input and before he did it, he had a certain amount of vitamins which none of these women had. They just stopped eating. He went through all of this stuff and then he was force-fed. There is also a video of Mos Def doing it online. He did it as part of a campaign against force-feeding. You see that they get the tube about as far as to the top of his oesophagus, and he freaks out and they have to get it out and he can’t do it, and it’s unbelievable. Itʼs horrible to watch. And we’re talking about modern, 21st century medical tubing that they use now, which is all sanitary and as small as it can be. These women just had plastic, rubber pipes shoved down their noses – completely unclean. It’s just brutal what they went through and the amount of people who did it. I think there was one Suffragette who was force-fed something like 240 times. I just can’t ever imagine I would be strong enough to be able to endure that.
What do you think the equivalent for women today is of the right to vote?
Well, I mean, in a lot of places it’s still that.
What about in the Western world?
In the Western world where we live, I think pay equality and inequality in the workforce is our greatest disparity now. There’s also the comparative lack of women who are in powerful positions – the number of women in government and the number of female MPs that we have. Somebody asked me if I thought it would be a better world if it was run by women and I don’t. I think it would be a better world if it was run equally by men and women. We’re still such a long way away from that. In our very privileged society, where we have come an awful long way, we’re still looking at a massive gap between the way men and women are treated in the workplace.
On the note of being run by women, it sounds like the Suffragette set was run by women.
It was! It was a better place. Yeah, it was overwhelmingly run by women, which was great for us. The rehearsal period before shooting was one of the best experiences I had pre-making a film. We had three weeks of spending time with people who really wanted to learn, because a lot of us had no real clue. Faye [Ward, producer], Sarah [Gavron, director] and Abi [Morgan, writer] knew a lot because they had worked on this for years, but a lot of us came to it not having a massive understanding of the reality of what the women went through. They had a table in the rehearsal room and had, like, 50 books and a million photocopies of diaries and all that sort of stuff. We were sent off on little expeditions. Anne Marie [Duff] and I went to a laundry and I went to the London Museum. We were constantly researching and working then coming back together and saying, ‘I found this, and it’s so cool and we should put it in the film.’ I never had an experience like that.
You often play characters whose feelings and impulses lead them into harm’s way. Is there a way to live a true and passionate life while also staying safe?
I don’t know. I think its part of human nature to make mistakes and to stumble into the wrong things and I don’t suppose you can avoid that. There was a great quote that Emmeline Pankhurst said about life and making a stand for something and it was something like, ‘What is life? At best it’s very short. Wouldn’t it be better to have left this life having struck a blow for what is a truer life?’ If your aim is to do something for a truer life, a better life, you have to accept the consequences as long as you’re not hurting other people. I think that was ultimately what the Suffragette movement wanted, whether you believe in the militant movement or not, these were women who were trying to strike a blow without hurting other people, only risking their own lives to make the world a better place for them, for their children and for the generations ahead of them.
Within your vocation, a way to strike a blow is to take more control and make your own projects. Is this something you are interested in?
I mean I think it is, to a degree, I feel much more excited about that, having worked with Faye and Sarah than I did before. I’ve taken big periods of time off work and been waiting for these great roles to come along, and they have come along but before I did Far From the Madding Crowd, I had 18 months of just waiting for the right thing. With Suffragette, I thought, ‘Okay, I should probably try and generate something myself as opposed to just sitting and waiting for the right part to fall into my lap’, because it doesn’t very often. I don’t have the added advantage of being in a Marvel comic book film. I’m not going to be offered everything under the sun, so I think it is a bit more about trying to make interesting stories about things you want to talk about.
Any plans to direct?
I have a sort of ‘in 20 years time’ idea of directing, but I don’t know. I’m still figuring out acting and still feeling like I’m trying to get better on every job, so no, I don’t have any plans to direct, really. I’ve been very fortunate in that I get to be involved earlier in the process now in films, so I came on this film pretty early on and so therefore got to see the cast form around me and be involved in conversations about that. And Meryl was my idea. Well, she was actually my mum’s idea. That was so extraordinary. It was asked who should play Emmeline Pankhurst. We wanted the most iconic, best actress. Someone who would inspire and who women loved and my mum said, ‘You should ask Meryl Streep’. I was like, ‘Ha, yeah’. Then I told Sarah, ‘We should ask Meryl Streep’, and she was like, ‘Ha, yeah’. Then Meryl Streep said yes. To be involved from that level is so exciting. Just to see it and be around and be in script meetings. But I’m still a way away from the level that I would feel comfortable enough to do what Sarah did. I mean, the workload! She spent the last six years getting the film made. It’s a huge commitment and takes an enormous amount of emotional intelligence to coordinate. And her passion behind it. She’s done extraordinarily well. I don’t know if I’m quite there yet, I feel like I’ve got to focus on my little thing first.