SANTA MONICA, California—As an actress, Carey Mulligan is drawn to women who are unapologetic, but as a person, she still cannot help but be a bit self-conscious.
“I’m so sorry I’m late,” the 33-year-old Mulligan said as she sat down across from me at a Santa Monica coffeehouse. When told that she was only tardy by two minutes—an awfully minor infraction when it comes to celebrity interviews—Mulligan still felt compelled to apologize. Why? “I can’t help it, I’m English,” she said.
We had met up to discuss Wildlife, the new film in which Mulligan plays Jeanette, a 1960s housewife who must fend for her and her son after her husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves them in the lurch to go fight a forest fire. Jeanette embarks on a risky affair that will either stabilize her family or destroy it, and that sort of challenging character choice is what drew Mulligan to Wildlife, which director Paul Dano and his cowriter, Zoe Kazan, adapted from the novel by Richard Ford.
“Jeanette doesn’t need to be likable,” Mulligan said. “She just needs to be who she is.”
For Mulligan, who had her breakout moment with the Oscar-nominated An Education (2009), Jeanette is the latest in a series of complicated leading women that has led her to Mudbound last year and the play Girls & Boys, which she performed off-Broadway this summer. Mulligan was excited to discuss her recent career path, though ever self-deprecating, she ended our interview by exclaiming, “I feel like I just talked a load of bollocks!” Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Has it fascinated you to see how other people judge Jeanette?
It really has! I’ve been doing a lot of Q&As with real audiences, and they’re the punchiest Q&As I’ve ever done. They’re asking me to defend her a lot, in a roundabout way. We had one guy in New York who went after me and the character—never had he seen such an “appalling woman.” No women have disliked her in the Q&As, but we’ve had a couple of men who do.
Why do you think that is?
Because they don’t like seeing a woman who’s out of line, you know? They’ve been raised to see women in a very particular way and have very particular expectations of women, and allowing a woman onscreen to screw everything up for a minute just seems so out of what they’re used to.
Even the fact that the movie stays behind with your character is something they may not be used to. Many films would instead follow Jake Gyllenhaal’s character as he goes off to battle a wildfire, and you’d be reduced to a pleading voice on the phone.
There’s kind of an injustice to it. “Why does he get to go off and fight a wildfire? I want to go off and fight a wildfire.” I think quite a lot of women and mothers can identify with that.
Have you been offered a lot of “wife on the phone” parts?
I’ve been offered the wife to a great man millions of times—the wife of the brilliant politician, the girlfriend of the tech genius. Not many parts like Jeanette exist, and I couldn’t believe that Paul and Zoe trusted me with it. It was like proof that Paul thought I could act.
How has your relationship to acting changed as you’ve gotten older?
When I first started and had no idea what I was doing, I would draw a lot from my own life. If I had to be emotional, I would think of something awful happening to a family member. But when I did this play, Girls & Boys, about a woman who loses her two kids, I said from the outset, “I really don’t want to think about my kids when I do this. I want to keep it totally separate, because it’s the only way I could do this show.”
And did that work?
The further the play went on, the less I could make that separation. But I really miss Girls & Boys now. I remember midway through the last performance being like, “I will never do this again,” and now, four months later, I’m like, “I wonder if they kept the set!” When I finished the play, I said to my husband, “I feel weirdly sad about saying goodbye to the invisible children in this play.” Which is the most pretentious thing I’ll ever say.
What do you miss about playing that character?
She was bold and funny. She didn’t care what people thought of her and I do, massively. Way too much, more than I should.
Do you feel like you have a good idea of what Hollywood thinks of you?
They think I’m “serious,” probably.
Do you ever get offered comedies?
Barely. And the ones I’ve been offered are incredibly broad, not-great ones. I would totally do comedy if the right thing came along, but it’s so scary. What if you tell a joke and nobody laughs?
By and large, you work in independent movies. The Great Gatsby was a big-budget studio film, but that’s a rarity on your résumé.
After An Education, my agent told me, “You shouldn’t take a job unless you can’t bear the idea of someone else doing it,” and that’s how I’ve chosen everything since. If I’m reading a script, I think, “How would I feel if Insert-Name-of-Other-Actress was doing this, and I saw the poster up outside the theater?” And if that makes me feel gutted, then I
want the part.
So you don’t have anything against Marvel movies, in theory?
If I found a part in a Marvel movie where I was like, “It’s going to kill me if someone else take this,” then I would do it. But I could never make myself do something that I’d be miserable in, where I’m just doing it to increase my box-office draw or make money. Now I have two children, so if I’m missing bath time with them, it has to be a good reason.
Have you ever gone back and watched an older film of yours?
I’ve caught bits. Most of the time I’ll switch it off, but if they play Pride & Prejudice on some movie channel, I’ll flick over and watch some of it.
Could you watch An Education now?
It was so long ago that it feels like a different person, so maybe. There were no expectations about anything I did back then, which in retrospect is so lovely. It feels a little bit different now: I would worry about playing a part and getting terrible reviews. Maybe that’s very self-involved to say, but there’s an expectation now to be good that I genuinely didn’t feel then. I could do whatever I wanted to and no one was watching me. n