Whatever the Frank Sinatra staple “New York, New York” means to you — whether it’s a rousing theme song for the city, a karaoke classic, or mere sonic wallpaper — it won’t be the same after Carey Mulligan gets done with it in Steve McQueen’s new drama Shame. Her yowling, damaged singer Sissy has been attempting to reconnect with chilly sex addict brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) to no avail, but 30 minutes into the movie, when Brandon reluctantly shows up to one of Sissy’s gigs at the Boom Boom Room, she steps up to the mike and delivers a devastating, intimate rendition of “New York, New York” so full of weary pain that it brings tears to the eyes of her emotionally closed-off sibling (and potentially, the audience). It’s an unexpected moment both for her train wreck of a character and for Mulligan herself; after leaning hard on her winning naïveté for roles in Drive, Never Let Me Go, and An Education (for which she was Oscar nominated), Mulligan finally gets to play a woman who knows way too much. She spoke to Vulture about how she made it happen, and a tattoo was involved.
You’ve said that you begged and begged Steve McQueen for the part. Was he resistant to casting you?
You know what? Someone said to me on the phone in my last interview, “It’s so nice to see you doing a role like this, because you were kind of getting into your comfort zone there for a minute.” I was like, “Wow, okay, all right!” [Laughs.] But I think the work that anyone has seen from me has been these middle-class, comfortable people or quiet and sensitive types, and I haven’t really played anything onscreen over the last couple of years that’s been as extroverted as Sissy in Shame. So I don’t think I was the obvious choice for Steve, and yeah, I had to beg him.
How did that go down?
I met him at the hotel he was staying at — I was back in London for the London Film Festival — and I had read the script and I met him for coffee. And he kept on trying to leave! It had been ten minutes, and he said, “All right then,” and got up, and I was like, “Uhhh,” so I kept on trying to engage him in coversation. You know, Steve is an artist, and he’s very much of the mind-set that actors are artists, too, and everything around that is superfluous. We’re meant to create things, and that means taking away vanity and taking away the machine that surrounds it — though that [publicity] is a necessary thing and a good thing, because it gets people to watch the films that you do.
So he was talking about that, and he was like, “You’re an artist, you’re an artist!” And I said to Steve, “You know, I played Nina in The Seagull a couple of years ago, and I’ve never found a role onscreen that’s matched how difficult it was and how much I loved doing that part and how much it stayed with me. There’s no equivalent, and nothing I’ve done onscreen has been as hard or as interesting or as fun to do.” And then I read Shame and I was like, “She’s practically related to Nina, they’re like cousins, almost the same person. If I feel the way that I felt when I played Nina, I can play this onscreen,” which I’ve never been able to do, because I’m quite uncomfortable around cameras.
So I said that to Steve, and I said, “I’ve been thinking about getting this seagull tattoo on my wrist as a reminder, because there’s this brilliant thing Nina says in Act Four when she comes back and she’s completely fucked up — she’s had a child with this writer and she’s lost the baby and she’s lived in abject poverty, and she comes back and she’s fraught but she’s got this clarity — and she says, ‘I know now that it’s not about fame or glory or all the things I used to dream about. It’s the ability to endure, to bear your cross and keep the faith. I do have faith, and when I think about my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.’” [Beaming.] And I thought, That’s so sick! And it’s stayed with me, and when I told him about that little passage, he got excited and was like, “Yeeeah!” and I’m like, “I’ll get a tattoo!” and he’s like, “Great!” So it was sort of raucous and I got a call a couple of hours later that he was offering me the job, and I think it was only because I told him I was getting a tattoo. [Laughs.] I got the tattoo the following morning.
Have you watched the movie? How do you feel watching yourself play a woman who’s so exposed, like a raw nerve?
I’ve only seen it once, because I’ve been down in Australia doing Gatsby, so I haven’t been out to any of the premieres — the boys did all the film festivals, and I was so sad not to go with them. So I’ve seen it once, but I didn’t watch the first scene, because I’m naked in it. Ugh. Literally, my worst nightmare. Watching yourself onscreen is bad enough, but watching yourself onscreen naked? It’s just a fucking nightmare. But doing the film was a very cathartic experience. I was acting with Michael Fassbender — a complete dream — and we had these whirlwind fight scenes and we filmed a lot at night, so when I’d leave and get in a cab and go back to my apartment, I’d be wired. Like, I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited. It was great, I loved it.
Sissy’s constantly trying to provoke a reaction out of her brother, and she throws everything at him that she can, no matter how inappropriate it is.
Steve always says that women get lost in these movies, so he would always try to goad me into matching Michael, and really, I could never do that. He really is incredible, and I admire him so much. He’s one of my heroes, really, as an actor. So I thought, I’m going to try really hard to give as much as I’m getting, to push him like he’s pushing me. We had so much fun, and Steve was so excited all the time, and that sort of spurred us on. He’d come in after a take and say, “Fuck! It’s like fucking Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in here! Awesome!” So you’d go in and do another one, and it would get wild and out of control.
Last night, my best friend in the world said to me, “Sissy is you in extremis. It’s the ugliest that I’ve seen you, and I’ve seen you that way.” Not that I’ve ever done anything that she … well, I have done a few of the things she’s done. I have got horribly drunk before. I have cried on the phone to a boyfriend before. And [my friend] has seen all those things. So it was awesomely freeing to be able to do that character. I’ve had those moments before where I just get lost in a mess, where I’m just a complete mess.
Is there a certain thrill to just fucking with Michael Fassbender until he reacts to you?
It’s fun to have a big fight. I have an older brother, and we used to beat the shit out of each other when we were kids. Like, we used to damage each other. I’ve never played a character with a brother before, ever, and obviously it’s a little strange because she’s naked all the time, but it was fun to play that. The brother-sister relationship is so amazing.
There’s a lot of purposeful ambiguity around these characters and their backstories. Did you embrace that, or did you want to figure out something a little more concrete to help you play Sissy?
We all do our homework, and me and Steve and Michael definitely had conversations about where these characters came from. But that’s the cool thing: I don’t want to know that stuff, and it’s not interesting to talk about that in a film, because it victimizes them in a way that it shouldn’t. It’s about the business of how they’re handling where they are right now.
I assumed that Shame would be the most controversial film you starred in this year, but since Drive came out, we’ve had someone who threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods and blamed it on the movie, and there’s that weird lawsuit where that woman is suing because she went to the movie —
— and thought it was going to be like The Fast and the Furious! I know, it’s so funny!
The afterlife of that movie is so odd! What happened there?
I think it must be Nicolas [Winding Refn, the director].
I’m sure he’s tickled by all these things.
He’s so hilarious. We were in London together to do press for Drive on BBC Breakfast a month ago and went to the BBC. He’d never been to the BBC, and I’ve done some dramas for the BBC, but I’d never done BBC Breakfast, and it was a huge deal because every morning my parents switch on the TV and watch BBC Breakfast. We always had a thing of, “Maybe one day I’ll get to sit on the sofa with Bill and Sian,” the presenters, so I was psyched because it was a childhood dream. And then we get there and Nic shows up, and I say, “Nic, you cannot swear. This is live, it’s nine o’clock in the morning, people have this on when they’re eating their breakfast. You can’t swear.” He’s like, “Yeah yeah yeah.” I’m like, “Seriously, I’m not messing around. You cannot swear on BBC Breakfast.” He’s like, “Of course! Who do you think I am?”
The ironic thing is that there was this famous rocker who used to be a drug addict that went on before us, and he was flawless. We get on, and ten minutes into the interview, they ask a question about the violence in the film, and Nic’s answer is, “Well, you know, violence is a lot like fucking.” And the presenters freaked out.
Did your head go straight into your hands?
The thing is, I’m so used to this kind of behavior! We almost got arrested once in L.A.
I used to drive him to and from work when we were doing the movie — I didn’t work very much on Drive, I just came into work and stared at Ryan Gosling occasionally — and one day we shot until two in the morning. I’d never had Red Bull before, and I had, like, six of them that night, and I was like, “This is THE BEST THING, EVER!” So I was freaking out. We got in the car at the end of the night, and I had been wearing these shoes that really hurt, and I had pink fluffy slippers in the back of my car and I put them on; meanwhile, Nic had got sent a bunch of free tracksuits by Puma, so he had been wearing Puma tracksuits to work every day, and he looked hilarious.
So we got in my white Prius and we were driving out of downtown Los Angeles back to where he was living with his family, and I was trying to do the navigational thing while he was sitting next to me — he cannot drive, he’s made a film about driving, but he cannot drive — and I’m so wired on Red Bull that I think my head’s going to burst, so I’m, like, veering around in the road. There’s no one around, it’s two in the morning, but suddenly there are flashing lights and I get pulled over. The policeman comes round and I roll down the window and he tells me that I was weaving — which I was, since I was trying to figure out my nav guide — and I’m sitting there in my pink fluffy slippers, Nic’s sitting there in his Puma tracksuit looking like a drug addict, and the policeman’s like, “What are you doing?” And I say, “I’m not drunk I just had seventeen Red Bulls!!!” And Nic’s like, “We’re making a mooovie.” It was so uncomfortable, and the cop just looked at us like, we’re making a movie, really? We looked ridiculous. Thank God he didn’t want to do the paperwork and he let us go. [Laughs.]