All eyes are on Carey Mulligan’s work lately – and she couldn’t be happier. Her latest film, the provocative Promising Young Woman, casts Mulligan as a flawed vigilante who lures potential rapists with her scanty clothes and sloppy behavior, then turns suddenly sober to knock them senseless with logic and watch them squirm.
“It’s a nice thing to be in something that invites conversation,” Mulligan said during a video chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors series. “Obviously what we’re talking about in the film is something that we’ve all been as women talking about forever . . . and for that to become a wider conversation I think is great. We’ve all been complicit in that culture.”
Viewers might find Cassie vindictive and abrasive, but as Mulligan told Deadline, the story “just felt very real to me, and that’s what sets it apart, in that every action that my character takes has a genuine consequence. There’s no fantasy in what she’s doing. So, it’s always felt very grounded in truth for me.”
From lost innocence to fearlessness and desperation, Mulligan plays characters that she’s determined to portray fully, even if an audience might not understand them. As British theater director David Leveaux once said of Mulligan, “Carey’s a stickler for truth. You can hear when she gets the string to vibrate.”
AN EARLY LOVE OF THE STAGE
Born in 1985, Mulligan fell in love with acting when she was about six. She’s said that she became inconsolable over not joining her older brother in a school production of The King and I. (The show eventually let her join the chorus.)
When she was a teenager, Mulligan was so impressed and inspired by watching Kenneth Branagh perform Henry V that she wrote to him, asking him to be her mentor.
“I explained that my parents didn’t want me to act, but that I felt it was my vocation in life,” she’s recalled. Branagh’s sister wrote back: “Kenneth says that if you feel such a strong need to be an actress, you must be an actress.”
Her mother, a university lecturer, and her father, a hotel management consultant, weren’t keen on the idea, thinking that Mulligan would attend the University of Reading. But the idea of college felt “as if I had got into an arranged marriage and the clock was ticking away,” Mulligan has said, sounding much like the restless 1960s schoolgirl in her breakout film, 2009’s coming-of-age drama An Education.
AN EDUCATION – AND AN OSCAR NOD
As luck would have it, actor and producer Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, Downton Abbey) spoke at Woldingham School, which Mulligan attended. She asked the headmistress to help her get in touch with him: “I knew it was a bit of a long shot, but I was desperate.” Weeks later, Fellowes’s wife, Emma, invited her to dinner at Le Caprice with other young acting hopefuls, then later helped connect her with director Joe Wright, then casting unknowns as Elizabeth Bennet’s sisters for 2005’s Pride & Prejudice.
Mulligan debuted on stage at London’s Royal Court Theatre in Forty Winks in 2004, then won the role of Kitty Bennet in Pride and Prejudice onscreen.
Although she appeared in British TV series such as Bleak House, Marple, The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard, and Waking the Dead, it was her theater work that drew raves, especially a 2007 revival of The Seagull alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kristin Scott Thomas. Reviews described her as “exquisite,” “quite extraordinarily radiating,” and “almost unbearably affecting.”
The performance caught the eye of director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners), who cast the then-22-year-old Mulligan in An Education as 16-year-old Jenny, a British girl who embarks on an affair with a playboy and con man roughly twice her age. Mulligan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. To critics, she wasn’t just a ‘promising young woman,’ but an undeniable talent.
For Mulligan, choosing roles is all about intricacy. She’s known for finding roles that aren’t the wife or girlfriend, or someone who’s lead by romance, or is an accessory to a male lead. Her characterizations in the daring 2011 dramas Drive and Shame exemplify her standards for portraying complete and complex women.
That said, Mulligan has played wives and girlfriends — notably Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 take on The Great Gatsby and the not-quite-ex in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis — but her characters transcend any particular niche. Even in stillness, she telegraphs a world of thoughts, a conflicted spirit.
After decidedly feminist roles in historical dramas such as Far from the Madding Crowd, Suffragette, Mudbound, and Wildlife, Mulligan starred as an investigator in the British TV crime drama Collateral.
Then came Promising Young Woman, a blend of genres (thriller, crime drama, dark comedy) that many call the all-in performance of her career. Her Cassie is a former med student who decides to go after the group of men – and the type of men – who raped her best friend years ago.
Whether audiences find Cassie’s personality and actions, or the film’s ending to be polarizing, Mulligan’s performance is achingly real. To her, it has to be. “I never feel like I need to agree with everything that a character does for me to be along for the ride, and we never do with men,” she’s said. “Cassie has every right to be as closed down, as abrasive, as unpleasant, as vindictive as she likes, because she’s been through hell. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about her.”
A CRITICAL SWIPE – AND AN APOLOGY
Mulligan, who is an executive producer of Promising Young Woman, recently spoke out against a review in Variety that opined, basically, that Margot Robbie — who was also a producer on the film — would have been better cast as Cassie, the femme fatale. In an interview with the New York Times, Mulligan called out the Variety review for being “so transparent” and “basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse.”
For its part, the Times found the review “all the more ironic” for a film that “explicitly grapples with the litany of cultural expectations about how a woman ought to look and behave.”
Variety soon appended an apology to the review, saying it “regrets the insensitive language and insinuation … that minimized her daring performance.” The response left Mulligan “really, really surprised and thrilled,” both by the publication’s actions and because it raises more questions and opens the door for debate about authenticity in storytelling and in criticism.
Mulligan didn’t think the remark was “a personal slight … It didn’t wound my ego,” she said in the Actors on Actors interview. Rather, “[i]t made me concerned that in such a big publication, an actress’ appearance could be criticized and it could be that, you know, that could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism. It’s important that. . .people are comfortable with imperfection. I think it’s important that we are looking at the right things when it comes to work, and we’re looking at the art, and we’re looking at the performance and the way that a film is made. And I don’t think that goes to the appearance of an actor or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like, which it felt that article did . . . I think we need to see real women portrayed on screen and in all of their complexity.”
WHY WE CHOSE HER
Carey Mulligan consistently and deliberately plays women who defy expectations. She pushes back against characters who look, move, or speak the way that stereotypical female characters often behave. Now after challenging herself as an artist and audiences, she’s asking critics to raise the bar as well, looking beyond a performer’s physicality when examining characterizations, and determining what makes a film work or not. As female creatives strive to see the full spectrum of women represented onscreen and fearlessly sign on to bring them to life, Mulligan is calling for an upgrade in critical assessment that recognizes, respects and constructively supports their work. — Valerie Kalfrin