Cover story

A Woman Apart


Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan On Messing Up, Directing Movies & Motherhood

She shot to stardom playing complex, headstrong heroines, but behind the scenes CAREY MULLIGAN felt out of her depth. Wearing the season’s coziest coats and heritage-style knits, she tells EMMA SELLS about messing up, being human and her hopes for the future

Photography Sebastian KimStyling Natasha Royt
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First image: Coat Acne Studios; sweater Nili Lotan; boots Gianvito Rossi; earrings Maria Tash, Ileana Makri and Catbird (worn throughout); necklace Pomellato; belt Anderson’s. This image: Coat Miu Miu; shirt Joseph; shoes Church’s; necklace Pomellato

Carey Mulligan’s comfort zone is not like our comfort zone, as evidenced by pretty much any of the films she’s made over the past 14 years. From playing Kathy, a clone created for the purposes of organ donation in Never Let Me Go, to the radicalized and raging Maud Watts in Suffragette; or Sissy, a damaged and wayward singer, in Shame, she’s repeatedly drawn to complex, nuanced women, not always easy to like or comfortable to watch. “For me, it’s literally been like, ‘Oh, that’s quite scary. I don’t know how to do that,’” says Mulligan of how she chooses her roles. “And then, ‘Oh, I should probably do it then.’”

We’re meeting on a Monday morning – a welcome excuse for Mulligan to put some makeup on and leave the house, she says – in a members’ club in West London, where she’s a regular; the 33-year-old recently started a film club with her friends and they head to the cinema next door once a month (where she tries her best to tolerate the noisy eaters). She arrives early, immediately warm and animated, dressed simply in jeans, a blouse and boots. The actress lives nearby with her husband of six years, the musician Marcus Mumford, and their two children, Evelyn, three, and Wilfred, one. Having a young family has inevitably changed the way she approaches her work: on a purely practical level, she simply doesn’t have the time to do the months of research or write the long journals that she previously used to prepare for roles. And now, the desirability of a part also has to outweigh her urge to be home in time to see her children. “My agent, who I’ve been with since I was 18, said to me after An Education [the 2009 drama for which Mulligan was nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA], ‘You’re in this very rare moment where you can be patient and wait for the right things and you shouldn't take anything unless you can’t bear the idea of anyone else doing it,’” she says. “I think [now that I’m a mother], it might’ve just gone up one or two degrees from where I was before and I make sure that I’m doing things absolutely for the right reason.”

It does mean however, that even though Mulligan is as acclaimed for her theater work as she is for her films, she doesn’t think she’ll be heading back on stage any time soon. “It’s great because you get all day with [the children],” she says, “but you miss bath time every night, and putting your kids to bed is the best thing. I mean, it can be a total nightmare, but it’s also a lovely thing.”

“You don’t see women messing up and being HUMAN [in films]. I’ve done jobs where interesting PARTS of the character have been smoothed in the edit like BOTOX”

Coat Acne Studios; sweater Nili Lotan; necklace Pomellato
Sweater and skirt Calvin Klein 205W39NYC; shoes Church’s; necklace Pomellato; earring (worn as ring) Grace Lee

“Morally objectionable CHOICES seem to be filtered out quite a lot for women. Not for MEN. For men, it’s quite sexy and COOL that they’re craggy and stinking of smoke. But for women, it’s like ‘Oooh, no’”

Right now, women in Hollywood are pushing through their own projects in an effort to create better films and parts. Mulligan would like to join their ranks – she’s working on developing a biography of Kate Webb, an Australian journalist who was captured by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war – but she’s conflicted about the idea of directing. “I slightly lose interest if I get involved too early in something,” she says. “In a completely spoilt way, the most exciting thing is getting a script and it being relatively done and being able to get excited about it without being involved in the machinery of it. But then, will I just keep complaining about there not being enough interesting roles and lean on other brilliant women to create them? I mean, there are people doing extraordinary things, like Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Chastain. I don’t know if I’ve got the capacity for that in this moment in my life. I hope that I will in the future, because I think it’s amazing, but right now it feels beyond me.”

Her latest film, Wildlife, is directed by actor Paul Dano, who co-wrote the script with his partner, Zoe Kazan (both long-time friends of Mulligan). Based on the novel by Richard Ford, it’s set in 1960s Montana and charts the breakdown of the marriage between long-suffering housewife Jeanette (Mulligan) and her husband, Jerry (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). “I just thought she was such a rarely seen character,” says Mulligan. “She has an affair, she makes mistakes, she’s not perfect. You don’t see women messing up like that and being human, really. I’ve done jobs before where there’ve been interesting parts of the character that have been smoothed and removed in the edit like Botox, and the director says, ‘Yeah, we tested it and [the audience] really don’t like it when she’s not nice.’ Morally objectionable choices seem to be filtered out quite a lot for women. Not for men. For men, it’s quite sexy and cool that they’re craggy and stinking of smoke. But for women, it’s like ‘Oooh, no.’”

“You suddenly go, ‘My twenties are gone, that will never happen again.’ I remember DRIVING in LA, years ago, listening to this music, FEELING like anything could happen. I hear that song [now] and it feels like whiplash”

Sweater Prada; earring (worn as ring) Grace Lee
Coat The Row; dress Chloé; boots Saint Laurent; necklace Pomellato; ring Loren Stewart; ring Stone and Strand

Jeanette’s reckoning with time – “Where she suddenly realizes that she’s 34 and where’s her life gone?” – is something Mulligan can relate to. “I’ve talked to my friends about it, when you suddenly go, ‘My twenties are gone, that will never happen again’,” she says. “I remember driving through LA once, years ago, and I was single and it was three in the morning and I was listening to this music, feeling like everything is open, anything could happen. Sometimes I hear that song and go, ‘Whoa!’ It feels like whiplash. And luckily, I’m married, I have two kids and a nice job, everything’s wonderful, but Jeanette’s got the opposite of that.”

Sweater Vanessa Bruno; necklace Pomellato

“I took [fame] way too SERIOUSLY when I was younger. It all happened so quickly… I was completely freaked out and so PARANOID about everything. It’s a shame, because it should’ve been really FUN and it wasn’t”

Coat Sacai; shirt Chloé; skirt Maje; boots Gianvito Rossi; necklace Pomellato

Mulligan has always loved the day-to-day aspects of being an actress, but it’s taken her years to make peace with the red-carpet appearances, photo shoots and press junkets. “I find it all much easier now,” she says. “I took it all way too seriously when I was younger because I didn’t know any different. It all happened so quickly. I went to the premiere of Pride and Prejudice but there were 12 of us and no one took my photo on my own. Then An Education happened and suddenly it was awards season in LA, and I honestly had no idea what was going on. I was completely freaked out and so paranoid about everything, people judging me or saying [things] about me. It’s a shame, because it should’ve been really fun and it wasn’t.”

Given her acting choices, people tend to assume that Mulligan is terribly earnest. Clearly, she takes her work incredibly seriously, but she’s also genuinely funny; whether talking about the catalogue of errors that plagued her Broadway run of Dennis Kelly’s one-woman play Girls and Boys earlier this year (from part of the set falling on her head to accidentally ‘overdosing’ on cold and flu medication), or how she celebrated the last night by piling onto her hotel bed with 15 of her friends to watch Love Island. It’s a cheerfulness that comes from learning how to leave her characters’ emotional baggage at the door. Still, certain parts have taken their toll. The rehearsals for Girls and Boys reduced her to tears and panic attacks, in part caused by her anxiety over tackling the comedy. “I didn’t know how to do the jokes, to get a laugh out of an audience, I didn’t know what to do with my hands,” she says. “When I read the script, I laughed on the first page and I wanted to make the audience do the same, but I didn’t know how.”

For the record – and you can hear this for yourself in the audio-recording of her performance – Mulligan really is funny, with pitch-perfect timing and dry delivery. Will she be angling for more parts that play to that less serious side of her – a blockbuster rom-com, perhaps, or a multi-franchise superhero film? “No, I don’t think so,” she laughs. “I’m the first person in line to see Jurassic World. Literally. That’s exactly what I want to see, likewise Mamma Mia!, but I’ve never found a role in them that I want to do. More than anything in the world, though, I want to do an animated film. I’ve banged on about this for years and no one’s offered me a Pixar movie or anything like that. I want to put on a stupid voice and not have to wear makeup to work. What a dream.”

Wildlife is out November 9 (UK)

The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.