Carey Mulligan on Wildlife, flawed women, and making respect the new normal

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images, Graphic: Allison Corr
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Carey Mulligan isn’t sure how she became what she jokingly calls a “serious, important” actress. “I’m completely not a serious person,” she tells us on the phone from London. Perhaps it was her start in costume dramas like the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice and the BBC miniseries of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Perhaps it’s her preference for meaty, well-written scripts, or her impatience with films that would have her “gently weeping into her nightdress and being strong for the sake of her man.” Perhaps it’s the sense of curiosity that leads her to roles she characterizes as “mini workshops” into different interesting eras in history.

Or perhaps she’s just very good at what she does. She’s already getting awards buzz for her performance as a frustrated woman struggling to define herself outside of her relationships with men in Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut set in Montana in the early 1960s. We spoke with Mulligan about her performance in the film, her approach to her work, and how she thinks the industry can do better by the women who work in it.

The A.V. Club: Apologies if this sounds strange, but I love the way you do facial expressions. You can completely change the mood of a scene without saying anything.

Carey Mulligan: [Laughs.] I’m quite easy to read. I don’t really know if I’m very good at hiding my reactions to things. There’s not really a thought process behind it—it’s just reacting to stuff. I guess I’ve got quite an expressive face.

AVC: For you, how much of acting is about preparation versus just being in the moment?

CM: It’s tricky. I’ve spent some years doing this job where I’ve taken preparation really seriously. I’ve done a lot of prep, and you know, really done my homework and read a lot of books, and it’s been great. I felt qualified to be there. But there’s also been times where—for Wildlife, for instance—I did a decent amount of work on my accent, and I had some good chats with [director] Paul [Dano] and [screenwriter] Zoe [Kazan], but other than that I just kind of got there and started doing it. And actually, it was great. It was kind of liberating to not be weighed down by all of the practice.

I panicked when I got there, thinking, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not ready. I feel like I’m not prepared,” because I had a 1-year-old daughter at the time. But actually then doing it, it was freeing to not be weighed down by all the stuff that I had preplanned, and I just sort of—I was just doing it, just through rehearsal on set and working with the other actors. It came kind of easily.

For a long time I felt like I had to do [a lot of prep work] to have the confidence to even walk on set. This time around I was anxious about it, but I felt like I didn’t have a choice because I had a 1-year-old. I didn’t have time to do the stuff that I used to do before I had kids. So I just went in there with a blank page and made it up on the spot—which doesn’t sound very professional [Laughs.].

AVC: It works for the character, because she has a similar sort of like, “Oh god, what am I going to do?” energy. My favorite moment in the film is one that’s very subtle, where your character is sitting on the side of the pool where she’s teaching swimming class. She’s looking off to the side, lost in thought, and then someone gets her attention and she smiles at them. I thought that was such a great moment. There’s so much left unsaid.

CM: At the same time, we had such a solid script. It’s unusual to get such good writing for a woman. Although the film also relies on things that weren’t said. I think this film largely lives in silence as well, because Paul really, really understands the things that you don’t say in an argument. There’s things you don’t say when you’re confronting your parents—or not confronting your parents! There are all these unspoken things that go on every day.

AVC: I recently rewatched Mudbound, and also recently saw Collateral. And I saw a common thread with those projects and Wildlife. They’re all about these women who are pushing against the limitations of the system they’re trapped in, whether it’s the racism of sharecropping, or the sexism that affected ’60s housewives, or the xenophobia of the British immigration system. Is there something about that that speaks to you as an actor, or as a person?

CM: I think so. I have this joke all the time with my agent about the work that I do—I’ve had the same agent since I was 18—and I feel like everything I do, I want to be able to tell my grandchildren about in some way. Not that everything has to be “important,” quote unquote, but just that it says something. But it’s also, like, if I did something that just had a complete sense of romance and fun, maybe that would be a nice thing to be behind, you know? And that has such value, particularly these days. We need things that make us happy, that make us feel warm and fuzzy. But those things haven’t really come my way so far.

But I do feel like the things that have come across my path are things that either start a conversation or keep the conversation going or make people think or reflect a little bit. But I also don’t want to get stuck in the trope of “serious, important work.” I don’t go seek out serious, important films to watch. I want to watch things that are entertaining in one way or another.

But I do find I’m drawn to these parts, largely because they’re challenging acting roles. But also because I think it’s just nice to think that, whatever the project is, it’ll have a little place in history. You know, that it holds its ground. That’s just another thing that’s turned out [that way]. I would like everything to have value, so that I can remember it when I look back in 30 or 40 years.

AVC: Why do you think you get offered these quote, unquote “serious, important roles”?

CM: [Laughs.] I don’t know! There was a time when I was being offered broader things, and they just didn’t appeal [to me] in the same way. I didn’t feel as connected to them, so I didn’t do them. And now I suppose there’s this perception of me. The irony is, I’m completely not a serious person. I do a lot of this very dramatic work, but it’s not a reflection of me.

It is a reflection of the kind of stuff that I’m interested in, though. I’m interested in women dying for women’s suffrage in [England] a hundred years ago. And I’m interested in what postwar society was like in America. There’s stuff that I find objectively interesting. But it’s not like—I don’t wake up in the morning and wait around for a script where there’s a lot of screaming and crying.

These stories just tend to have big rollercoaster journeys to them. And they are really, really fun to play. Really, it’s where the strongest writing has been for me. If I could have really great writing in a comedic role, or in a romantic comedy, I would a thousand percent do it. [Those] just haven’t really come my way. It hasn’t really worked out like that.

AVC: You mentioned a couple of period roles you did. Are you a big history buff?

CM: I mean, I took history at school, but I largely did it because I realized that if you did history you got to watch a lot of films. They were always showing documentaries and things like that. But I wouldn’t say I’m a history buff.

I do think it’s a kind of brilliant bonus to an already amazing job to be able to do little bits of research into different times. There’s something really cool about getting a mini workshop on, you know, issues around women’s suffrage [for Suffragette], or Zelda Fitzgerald and Ginevra King and F. Scott Fitzgerald and trying to understand all that [for The Great Gatsby]. Or getting to take riding lessons for a couple of weeks for Far From The Madding Crowd. It’s an amazing thing to be able to dip into those worlds and learn a little bit.

AVC: You’ve done a good mix of period and contemporary roles. Is there a difference in approach or preparation depending on the period, or is each role its own thing?

CM: Each role is its own thing. I try not to think about the period too much unless there are, you know, constraints, or things that you can’t ignore. There are certainly things in Wildlife that add to the pressure that’s on this character, that are important to think about because she’s living in—it’s the early ’60s, but it’s really the ’50s.

AVC: Change comes slowly in Montana.

CM: Yeah, exactly. I think all that has to be taken into consideration. So you have to have an understanding of the period loosely, just to be able to understand what pressures and what kind of expectations that character has on them, and what they’re influenced by. But beyond that I try not to think about it too much, because we tell the same stories over and over. We’ve been telling the same stories for 100 years. And I think it’s all about trying to reflect humanity.

I think when people think about the period too much, or they think too much about the costumes that they’re wearing, they forget to just be normal human beings. Sometimes the costumes are wearing you a little bit. So it helps me to forget the period a lot [of the time], and just try to understand the emotional journey of the person that’s living in it and not focus too much on exactly when it’s set. I think it was kind of inescapable on Suffragette. Her life was so radically different from my experience, and there was a lot to think about [in regards to] that. But particularly with things that are closer to the modern day, it’s less of a focus for me.

AVC: It’s interesting you say we’ve been telling the same kind of stories for 100 years. That’s very true. But there’s also been a movement toward female antiheroes, and more complex female characters in general in recent years. How do you feel about this change? I assume it’s a positive, seeing women depicted as more nuanced human beings.

CM: Oh, absolutely. I think we’ve just come to expect such strange things from women on screen, from what we’ve been brought up to know about women. I’ve always [leaned] into these characters because I think they’re just a true reflection of what women are really like. We see flawed men up on screen all the time, and it’s supposed to be roguish and charming. We just never see women on screen in the same position making mistakes, because audiences are raised to understand that women are saintly and beautiful and earnest and strong. And that’s all great, and lots of women are. But also lots of women make mistakes and fuck everything up and feel terrible. They have a bad week, or a bad month, or a bad year, or a bad life. And we just don’t see that.

Sometimes we see the absolute extreme of that. Sometimes we’ll see the drug-addicted mother who has ruined her kid’s life. Or we see the absolute saint. But we very rarely see [women as] flawed people, and those are the people that are an honest reflection of us. So I think it’s so great and so exciting that we’re starting to see more characters, more women that have complexity and richness and there’s much more thought being put into the writing of these women. Female roles aren’t an afterthought in the same way that they were, or they feel like they have been, in the past.

AVC: I think of old action films, where there’s one female character who’s somebody’s wife and she spends the whole film watching in horror from the sidelines.

CM: That’s what I love about Wildlife. The most common version of a film like Wildlife would be that when Jerry [Jake Gyllenhaal] leaves to go and fight the wildfire, the film goes with him. And we watch him fighting the fire and being heroic and discovering himself in the woods. Usually you have a woman on the other end of the phone sort of gently weeping into her nightdress and being strong for the sake of her man, and we see the man fighting the fire and being amazing and a superhero. But this one doesn’t do that. It stays at home and looks at what actually happens when we are faced with the worst week of our life. What do you actually do? You probably don’t do everything right. You probably don’t make every great decision. I like that about this story.

AVC: You said in a recent interview with Variety that you think that some things in the film industry have irrevocably changed in the wake of #MeToo. How do you think that we can make this slow movement forward sustainable?

CM: I think it’s about putting things in place that become the norm. The first place that I worked after last year’s revelations in the #MeToo movement was at the Royal Court Theatre. Almost immediately, they drew up a code of conduct to deal with exactly these things. And when I went to the first day of rehearsals for that play, I had to read these documents and I had to sign it. It basically laid out all of the things that are acceptable and unacceptable in the workplace, and you read it on day one and you say that you will follow it. I really do think it’s concrete things like that. If everyone were to read that document on day one, which at the Royal Court Theatre they do, it’d be very hard to argue whether you’ve crossed a boundary or not in the workplace. And people would feel empowered to speak up more readily if they felt that those boundaries were crossed.

Similarly, HBO has just said that they’re going to have a sex scene coordinator, or overseer, to come in when they do sex scenes in any of their productions that is there to essentially choreograph and also be a safeguard. I think that’s really smart. If these things get put in place and are encouraged to [become] widespread, if every film had a code of conduct for day one of production, I think that would be a step towards making [these changes] permanent. It would be very hard to go back on that once these things become the norm.

And there’s literally no reason why productions couldn’t do that right now. It’s a piece of paper. You just need to make a copy. And you need five minutes of a production crew’s time for everyone to sit down, read it, agree, and sign it. And then there’s an understanding. There’s no gray area. It’s black and white. I think people would come into the industry with a different attitude if that was the case.

So yeah, I think it’s about that. I think it’s about actually taking real action. Obviously, everyone needs to keep the conversation going, but I think it does need to be put in place, that it’s a part of your employment contract that you agree to behave in a certain way in the workplace. And if you don’t behave in that way, then your employment is ended. And I think if it was that clear, then that would be very difficult to argue with.

AVC: You can’t be like, “Oh, I didn’t know.”

CM: It’s like, “Mate, you sat there, you read it, you signed it.” It’s just a reminder as you come into the process of something you shouldn’t need to be reminded of. It’s a reminder you’re at a workplace. And if you work on however many films a year, every time you went into production, you’d have that reminder of, again, something you should not need to be reminded of. But it’s just to reinforce the message.

If we can reinforce the message over a couple of years, hopefully at some point it becomes standard. It becomes normal. And these things that have gone on for so many years become archaic and we can’t believe that they went on back in the day. That’s the hope, that it becomes so standard that these things that have happened in the past will be shocking. And they are! Hopefully someday we’ll be surprised that the industry conducted itself in that way.