“I have always wanted to be in a rom-com,” muses Carey Mulligan. Her admission comes as something of a surprise, given the nature of the actor’s previous screen credits – from the suicidal sister of a sex addict in Shame to a radicalized laundry woman in Suffragette. But, apparently, she means it: “I’ve been campaigning for [Love Actually rom-com legend] Richard Curtis to write me something for about 10 years!” she reveals.
The day we meet, Mulligan is dressed soberly in a baggy navy knit, wide-leg black pants and an oversized brown coat. We’re having coffee at a west London members’ club where the actor is a regular, and she looks relaxed and cheery, having “jogged” part of the way here so she wouldn’t be late. She has a place around the corner, but only comes to London for work, spending most of her time at the Devon farmhouse she shares with her musician husband Marcus Mumford [lead singer of Mumford & Sons] and their two children, Evelyn, four, and Wilfred, two.
Mulligan’s rom-com revelation is relevant because the 34-year-old might initially have thought she had landed one with Promising Young Woman, a movie penned and directed by Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell. “It’s funny, because the reaction I first had when I read the script was, ‘This is soooo romantic’,” she says, almost swooning. “There’s this gorgeous ’80s rom-com in there, with this really believable relationship in the middle of it.” Underpinning it, however, is a black comedy about revenge, sexual assault and toxic masculinity.
The themes look set to make it the talking-point movie of the year. Despite its comedic trappings, the story is rooted in the conversations about consent that have arisen out of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in recent years. Mulligan’s character, Cassie, who has a traumatic backstory, leads a double life that sees her going to bars pretending to be paralytically drunk in order to lure men who try to take advantage of her when she clearly couldn’t possibly provide consent. Mulligan says the film’s scenarios deepened her own understanding of the issues.
“They gave us a document that was a code of CONDUCT. Now, I really think it would be WILD for something to happen on set. No one would TURN a blind eye”
“Emerald was very deliberate about not putting anything in the film that we haven’t seen in a rom-com or bro-comedy in the past 20 years,” she says. “Emerald’s [point] was: if [you] take someone home and they are really drunk, and then that person reveals they are not drunk, and you feel guilty, then you know what you are doing isn’t right. What we reflected on, making this film, was the amount of real-life stories like this we know. A lot of this film is stuff that pretty much every woman I know has experienced in some way.”
Given the movie’s focus, talk turns to the changes that Mulligan has witnessed in her own industry on the back of #MeToo. “The first concrete measure I saw was doing a play at the Royal Court called Girls & Boys. They gave us a document that was a code of conduct. It was funny because I was the only person in the play,” she recalls. “But the director, the assistant director and writer, we all had to read and sign it. I had never had that in my career. If that had been going on when I started at 18, it would have felt different. Now, I really think it would be wild for something to happen on set. No one would turn a blind eye.”
“[Fennell] was on her WAY to the Killing Eve wrap party and wearing these AMAZING trousers. I was like, f***, she’s so COOL”
After Fennell sent her the script of Promising Young Woman, Mulligan jumped on board almost immediately, impressed by the writer-director’s strength of vision. “Her confidence really stands out,” says the actor. “I remember sitting with her here and she said, ‘I want to shoot in LA’. Every [indie film] I’ve done was shot in Oklahoma or Louisiana or somewhere random, because it’s cheaper. So, I was like, ‘Cool, I’ll see you in LA’, but expecting to end up in the middle of nowhere. And, sure enough, we shot in LA.”
For the “irritatingly talented” Fennell, who is currently working on a new stage version of Cinderella with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Mulligan has nothing but praise. She even burst into tears at a joint photo call at the Sundance Film Festival because she was “genuinely overwhelmed by love and pride” for her friend. The pair first worked together as actors in the 1997 TV drama Trial & Retribution, though neither remembers the other (“we were blinded by fear”). They met again two Christmases ago at a friend’s house. “[Fennell] was on her way to the Killing Eve wrap party and wearing these amazing trousers. I was like, f***, she’s so cool,” recalls Mulligan.
“My FEMALE friendships have become increasingly important – particularly the ones with FRIENDS I made when I was 14 at school. It’s something about doing stages of LIFE together and supporting each other”
Their closeness echoes another key theme of the movie – the endurance of friendship. It’s something Mulligan recognizes in her personal life, too. “My female friendships have become increasingly important – particularly the ones with friends I made when I was 14 at school. It’s something about doing stages of life together and supporting each other,” she says. “Every year, we do our birthdays together, because all our birthdays are within six days of one another. It’s great.”
It’s with her closest friends that she can share her fears, too, particularly around “the exposure of the industry, being talked about, Twitter and all that stuff”. Mulligan is notoriously private about her home life. She hates being photographed and doesn’t enjoy red carpets. “When I’m on the red carpet, whatever I’m wearing, I am ultimately myself,” she says. “People say, ‘Pretend you’re Cate Blanchett’. And I do go to red carpets thinking, ‘Be Blanchett. Try and be cool. Smiling with your eyes’, but it doesn’t work.” Does Cate Blanchett smile with her eyes, I ask? “She smiles, but she has this amazing smile that is just her eyes,” Mulligan confirms. When I ask her to show me, she blushes. “I can’t, I can’t. So unfair!”
“People say, ‘PRETEND you’re Cate Blanchett’. And I do go to red carpets thinking, ‘Be Blanchett. TRY and be cool. Smiling with your EYES’, but it doesn’t work”
The actor also hates the idea of being onstage and being able to spot people she knows in the audience. Ahead of performing the one-woman play Girls & Boys in 2018, Andrew Scott (aka Fleabag’s ‘hot priest’) offered her some advice on doing a monologue, saying how important it was to look the audience in the eye. Mulligan ignored him (“No, Andrew, you’re the better actor”) and insisted on being so heavily lit that she couldn’t see a soul. It was a nice surprise, then, to learn after one performance that Gloria Steinem and Nicole Kidman had been in the stalls and were coming backstage to say hello. “It was the greatest evening of my life,” Mulligan smiles. “I took a photo with Gloria Steinem. I never take photos with anyone. She was so lovely, so warm.”
“I was so EXCITED to make Suffragette and think that one DAY my daughter will watch this, but I EQUALLY like that my son will”
Mulligan had actually been scheduled to play Steinem in a biopic directed by Mudbound’s Dee Rees. If the financing hadn’t fallen through, it would have joined a roster of her screen projects that are directed by women and have a strong feminist tone. “I was so excited to make Suffragette and think that one day my daughter will watch this, but I equally like that my son will,” she says. “Parity” is the word she uses to describe how she hopes to raise both her son and daughter. Right now, the day-to-day experience of being a mother of two is about being “more tired” and “very grown-up”, which seems to suit her.
“One part of Promising Young Woman that really struck me was that, for the last couple of years, I have been playing moms,” she muses. “I was a mother in Mudbound, I had a 14-year-old in Wildlife. And then I read this script where I am working in a coffee shop and have no dependents.” Did it make her nostalgic for single life? “Noooo,” she cries. “In fact, every time we stepped into a new bar set, Emerald and I would both be like, ‘God, we haven’t been in a bar in a really long time’. And I’m very glad of that.”
Promising Young Woman is out later this year