Carey Mulligan is into taking risks, and her role as Cassie Thomas might just be her biggest one yet.
“I’ve never been in a film people might actually see before,” Carey Mulligan says with a knowing grin. It’s not quite true, given that she burst onto the scene a decade ago when her role as a lovestruck teenage girl in An Education garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination, but it’s a joke not without merit.
In the years since, Mulligan has opted for a rare selectivity with her roles, choosing to work mostly on smaller, arty titles. She’s racked up an impressive CV, with highlights such as the glowering songstress Jean in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis and messy mother Jeanette in Paul Dano’s Wildlife. Her role as Cassie Thomas in Promising Young Woman fits alongside her repertoire of complex female characters while offering audiences a chance to see her in a whole new light.
LWLies: A lot of the roles you’ve played are women that are dealing in some way with the bullshit of the patriarchy. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
Mulligan: Yeah, I guess so – I mean, it’s not like I pick up a script and think, ‘Ah, I really hope I can attack the man with this one,’ but I guess those probably are the parts that are interesting. There seems to have been an improvement, but in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, there have been a lot of pointless female characters. And I haven’t worked a huge amount. I’ve not been making four films a year, so I’ve waited for the parts that have had something to say. I guess, in retrospect, a lot of them are kicking back a little bit.
There’s a sense that you’re quite selective about the parts. What are you looking for when you’re reading a script?
I’m trying to not do the same thing twice. I’m trying to do something that feels new and challenging. I’ve talked about this before, but back when I went to Sundance with An Education, I thought that I was going to get fired from the acting world, and then that film went down well and it completely changed my career. I had a lunch with my agent, who’s been my agent since I was 18, and she said: ‘You’re in a moment now to be quite choosy, which is a rare thing, and you’re lucky to be in it, so try not to say yes to anything unless you can’t bear the idea of anyone else doing it.’
So that’s been my litmus test for everything since then. If I can imagine someone else doing it, and going to the cinema and seeing another actress playing the role and that sitting well with me, then I say no. So when I read Promising Young Woman I was like [gasps] ‘First of all, I can’t believe you want me to do this,’ and secondly, ‘It would kill me to see anyone else playing this part.’
It feels as though this was a chance for you to do something new in terms of of the role’s comic elements – that doesn’t seem to be something you’ve done before.
No. I never get offered comedies! I suppose I’ve leant towards drama, and people don’t want to offer you something if they haven’t seen you do it before. I remember the first four days of filming was just the scenes in the cafe with Bo, and he said, ‘I’m making a rom-com, I don’t know what the rest of you are doing.’ He’d come in and be all cheerful and cracking jokes, after the rest of us had spent the day before trying to break down Alfred Molina. But working with Bo, and Jennifer [Coolidge] and Laverne [Cox], who are all such brilliant comedians, and I remember turning to Emerald and saying, ‘I can’t remember laughing like this.’ Obviously there are films where I’ve had a great time on set, but this was trying to get through a single take without losing it.
“When a woman takes on a man, oftentimes it doesn’t go well.”
What did you and Emerald discuss the first time you met?
We were introduced at a mutual friend’s house, and then she sent the script to my agent, and after I’d read it, we met again. From the beginning, she said she wasn’t interested in making some sort of sad arthouse indie with a woman in a grey sweater staring out of the window crying. If we only make pieces of theatre that are challenging and depressing, it would be easy for us to think we’d done the work and dealt with it. Like, this is a challenging film, but it’s also so delightful and fun. We wanted to use hair, make-up and costumes as an armour: the construct that it often is, or can be. It certainly is for me. She gave me a Spotify playlist, which had Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ on it twice, in two different forms, which gave me an indication of where we were going. I saw her visual references, and we chatted, and within about five minutes I said: ‘I want to do this by the way, just so you know. I really want to do this.’
At Sundance you mentioned that when you first read the script you had no idea how to approach the role. How did you find a way in?
Most of it was chatting with Emerald, but I think the easiest thing to start with for me was that, at the heart of the story, there are these two best friends. I thought about my best friend from growing up, and how we were inseparable and did everything together – practically sisters. So I started from that point and understood that real love. I was doing an interview with Frances McDormand yesterday for another magazine, and she was talking about Three Billboards [Outside Ebbing, Missouri] and she said, ‘I always felt it wasn’t a revenge movie, it was a justice movie.’ I think this is similar. It’s about a wrong that’s been done and has to be righted. And Cassie has found a skewed, dangerous method of coping with it for years, but then suddenly is confronted by the incident again and has to find a way to put things right. All the actors that joined us helped to inform the tone in such an interesting way, because the film is really a series of two-handers. So it was Bo [Burnham] and I for a lot of it, but then, like, a day with Connie Britton, a day with Alfred Molina, two days with Alison Brie. So I never went in knowing exactly what I was going to do – everything just evolved as we went along.
Even though Promising Young Woman is a black comedy, there’s a lot of deeply sad moments within it which really struck me.
Yes, definitely. And that’s the truth of the matter. At the end of the day, when a woman takes on a man, oftentimes it doesn’t go well. And we can play with tone and form and romantic tropes, but the film always comes back to the hard facts.
You’ve said in the past you’re attracted to roles which allow women to be a bit messier or unlikable. Do you think audiences are becoming more comfortable seeing women who they might not necessarily like?
I don’t know. I think there’s a lot that needs to be undone in a way – there’s been so much ingrained in us for such a long time about the way we view women on screen, about the way they look, how they act, and as a society we’ve become very used to a certain representation of women. It’s the real grey areas that I find interesting. Playing a villain is super fun, but not maybe the most interesting way of exploring things – I’m much more interested in the women who are just sort of stepping out of the boundaries of what is deemed to be acceptable.
“This film isn’t a condemnation of men, it’s an invitation to look at all our behaviour.”
I think audiences and critics have a much harder time with that than they do with someone who’s like a murderer, or an out-and-out terrible person. A woman who’s having a tricky time, or maybe just not putting her best foot forward for a minute, trying her hardest but making mistakes, that seems to be more problematic. But I hope it’s moving in the right direction. Cassie is definitely making a bunch of mistakes in this film.
Oh, definitely. There’s never a sense she’s doing the right thing.
No! It’s not a good plan, don’t try this at home.
The film really tackles the idea of the “nice guy” who claims to be different in some way but still hurts women. Do you think the “nice guy” is a myth?
Like Bo said at Sundance, if we just lock up the rapists and terrible men, we haven’t tackled the wider issue. Of course these men deserve to go through the criminal system and be dealt with appropriately, but it’s so much wider than that. I read about the Weinstein trial and I can barely get through an article, because it’s just so horrendous. I think it’s astonishing that these survivors are speaking out in the same room as him. It’s mind-blowingly courageous. But there is so much more to it than just these terrible people. Part of what Emerald and I discussed in our first meeting was that this film is much more about the part we’ve all had to play in this. Alison Brie’s character has made jokes about it, and gossiped about it. I think we’ve all diminished someone’s experience like that at some point. I like that this isn’t a condemnation of men, it’s an invitation to look at all of our behaviour.
And, of course, plenty of the things we see in the film we’ve seen before, in rom-coms and bro comedies, from the male perspective.
Exactly. And these women are always the butt of the joke. I think that’s why we can undercut some of the controversy about the subject matter here. There’s been a wasted woman that’s been taken advantage of in so many films, and no one’s batted an eye.
At points it almost feels like the women Cassie confronts face a harsher punishment than the men.
Well, Emerald talks sometimes about Cassie being a sort of avenging angel – she will grant forgiveness, or vengeance, depending on the way the person she’s confronting reacts. She’s looking for some acknowledgement that what happened was wrong. There are female characters within the film who are supportive of her, but Cassie’s built up such a wall – she won’t let them in. She’s become very good at putting on a different face.
Do you ever get frustrated by the fact we’re still having these conversations about trusting women’s experience and allowing them to tell their own stories?
Yeah. I’ve only become more aware of it, particularly since having kids. I have a daughter, and, y’know, obviously she won’t see it until she’s 30, but I do feel like this is a film I want both her and my son to see. Women have been having these conversations for millennia, but we haven’t seen this on-screen until recently. Films, particularly in our teens and late teens, are so formative and teach us so much about the world. We haven’t had these films to learn from, so we’ve just seen the world through a completely different lens.
How do you think we can do better as a society when it comes to tackling the issues in this film?
Being in the role that I’m in as an actor, I’ve always been interested in telling female stories, and I’ve always sought out female directors, and I do feel like the choices you make in your work are representative of how you feel. Choosing this project, it feels very, very personal now. And I’m thrilled it divides people and it causes conversation. I’d much rather that than never thinking about it again. But I don’t know if I have a statement about it. It certainly affected me, reading stories of women who survived sexual assault, and it’s stayed with me, and I hope to continue supporting female voices. But beyond that, I want it to be a conversation starter. Or a fight starter, maybe.
Promising Young Woman is released digitally in the UK on 16 April.
Published 12 Apr 2021
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