Before I meet her, I expect Carey Mulligan to be ultraserious, maybe even a little gloomy. Nearly every character she’s ever played (in movies like Shame, An Education, The Great Gatsby, Drive, Mudbound) is dealing with death or self-destruction or drinking or drugs or domestic drama — or all of the above. Mulligan is also famously private, rarely speaking about her personal life, her marriage to Marcus Mumford, or the fact that she and Marcus Mumford live with their children on a farm outside of London, where they allegedly raise pigs and wear “woolly jumpers.” But when I meet her at a quiet café on Cornelia Street for coffee, Mulligan is bright and funny and surprisingly open, throwing around the F-word, talking about avoiding looking like “a tit” while playing drunk, and lightly mocking male journalists for asking her “shitty questions” in interviews.
We’re meeting up to talk about Mulligan’s latest role, in Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife, co-written with Zoe Kazan. Naturally, it’s a stark domestic drama; Mulligan is exceptional as Jeanette, a bored housewife raising a thoughtful teenager (Ed Oxenbould) alongside her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s just gotten a job as a golf pro in Montana. When Jerry is unexpectedly fired, he sets off a chain of events that throws their dull suburban existence into sharp relief, and forces Jeanette into something of an existential crisis. It’s a role Mulligan tells me she can relate to on a few levels, even though she’s currently living a “blissful life” — and is finally ready to let down some of her “rigidly private” walls.
You’ve known Zoe and Paul for ten years. How’d you guys first all meet each other?
Zoe played Masha and I played Nina on Broadway in The Seagull ten years ago. So exactly ten years ago we met, and she was with Paul then. And then Jake and I did Brothers — which I was in for, like, less than 30 seconds. Zoe and I became really, really close, and we’ve always kind of dreamt about doing something together, but I always imagined it’d be us acting together. I had to have jokingly said, like, “You’ve gotta write something, and we can be in it!” She’s always writing, but I had no idea that they were writing this for a while there. It just came up out of the blue. [Paul] called me, and he said he was gonna email me the script, and I should read it and casually let him know at some point what I thought of it. Of course I read it, and 19 minutes later I called them back. I was like, “Yes please, yes please, please let me do this.” It’s such a no-brainer on so many levels.
At a Q&A the other night, you said the role was terrifying. What specifically terrified you about it?
Ironically, when I first read it, I was like, I’m much too young to play the mother of a teenager. Then I came quickly to realize that wasn’t the case [Laughs]. It was the sort of lack of control, I think. On stage I’ve explored that kind of thing before, but not really on film, and there has to be a lot of precision to play someone who’s not in control. And there’s so many little twists and turns that she makes through the film. They were all there on the page, but it felt like a mind puzzle to figure out. I didn’t quite know how to get around it.
I was honestly scared because I was acting in front of my mates. Which is terrifying, but also my mates happen to be incredible actors as well, so there was a lot of fear and anxiety going into it. But it was amazing and it’s the best thing now — we’re all hanging out and getting to do this together. This is my job, this is ridiculous.
What was it like with the four of you, hanging out in the middle of nowhere in Montana, in Oklahoma — what were you guys up to when you weren’t filming?
It was quick, we didn’t have a lot of time to hang out, but we had a really nice dinner when we first got to Montana with everyone, where we shot exteriors. We did a week in Montana and went to Oklahoma. I love it when you kind of invade a town a little bit, and it was the most lovely community, full of the sweetest people. We really did sort of barge in there with our trucks and take over. So we found our favorite coffee place, and our favorite restaurant, and there was an amazing children’s museum which came in handy for me.
Were your kids with you?
I only had one at the time, but yeah, she was with me. There was also a really big Walmart, which is the most fun place you can take a kid if you don’t have anywhere else to go, it seems. Everything’s bright and shiny and neon and very interesting to look at.
Can we talk about that great scene where Jeanette is super drunk? Are you drawing on your own experiences being drunk, or is it more someone else you’ve seen being drunk?
What I was saying earlier about precision — you have to make a lot of decisions in those scenes. It’s just really hard and wonderful and you feel like a tit because you’re speaking louder than everyone else. So a lot of it was just trying to not feel like a complete tit all the time.
I’m kind of a happy drunk. She’s not a very happy drunk, so I had to cherry-pick from experiences of other people I’ve met. Also a lot of people can get away with being really drunk without seeming drunk at all. But she’s concentrating super hard on not seeming drunk. It was about not overacting or putting too much — it’s tricky. I don’t think I’ve ever really played drunk before, maybe a little bit buzzed, but she’s fairly wasted by the last scene.
What struck me about Wildlife was its look at gender politics — it really gets at how hard it is to adhere to the boxed-in ideas of “feminine identity” and “masculine identity,” and the damage it does to people. Jeannette goes through so many iterations of what she thinks it means to be a woman, of how she thinks she has to act to survive.
The thing that really struck me about it was that idea of the kind of loss of possibility. That she met Jerry when she was 19, 20, married him, had a baby, but in that two-year period she had this idea of who she could be — several ideas of who she could be — and in meeting Jerry, her fate was sealed to an extent. She’s been, in her mind, reduced to the construct of marriage and of motherhood. In the week that you witness in the film, she’s sort of awakened to the fact that her youth, in her mind, is gone, and that all of these ideas of who she could have been have gone with it. I found that really fascinating and heartbreaking, and completely relatable in a totally different sense.
You know how you hear a song and it makes you think about how you were 18 and you broke up with your boyfriend, and you think, How has all that time passed? Thank God, in my case, I’m here and very lucky and blessed. But you still are paralyzed with the idea that you’ll never be 23 again. She’s experiencing that in such a real, terrifying way.
I found the idea that women can only be, say, five different things — like, there’s a limited data set from which we can choose — so relatable, too. But you seem to have really carved out a very specific and unique space for yourself. You’re private, you’re living on your farm — how do you avoid that pressure?
Someone who is seen to be doing the wrong thing, as a women onscreen, she’s defined by her wrongness. Someone had said to me [in a Q&A], “She’s a terrible mother, no?” I was like, “She’s not a terrible mother, no! This was like a seven-day period, fucking hell, give her a break.” It’s not ideal and definitely she behaves in a not-good way, but you can’t be defined by that.
In my own life, my job, and my life have always been completely separate, and I’ve never felt that my life is part of the contract. I would bring a little bit of my own life to [my work], but largely I feel like it’s not part of my job to have anyone be aware of it. The thing also is that I came out of the gate like that, having watched other people do that and do it successfully.
Emily Yoshida, our film critic, was at your question and answer session at Cannes and she wrote a piece about how she felt that the men in the audience were asking you really shitty questions. Do you remember reading it, did you see it at all?
I didn’t read it, I heard about it though.
Did it seem that way to you? I’m curious about how you felt in that situation.
Yeah. I’m always being asked shitty questions. Like last night, I got asked by a woman whether I still eat red Twizzlers or whatever.
Because last year I came to do press and I had a very small baby and apparently I was banging on about eating red Twizzlers to stay awake. One of her three questions was talking about Twizzlers. I was like, “Really? We’re going to talk about Twizzlers? All right.” Yeah, it did feel like that [at Cannes]. I can’t remember to be honest, I was really knackered, but it did feel pretty … I can’t remember a single thing they asked.
I remember when I first had my daughter, people being like, “How has motherhood changed your [career]?” and I was like, “Do you ask that regularly to fathers? I think not.” But yeah, it was particularly noticeable in that moment how shitty the questions were. But they aren’t generally good, so I wasn’t shocked. It wasn’t a revelation to have shitty, boring questions.
What’s the worst question you’ve ever been asked?
“Your character in Inside Llewyn Davis has an abortion. Would you ever have an abortion?”
You’re kidding me. What did you say?
I think I literally went, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And then moved on.
That’s horrifying. Was it a man?
No comment [laughs]. But yeah, you just get used to it.
To change the subject slightly, I saw you in Girls and Boys, which fucked me up. I almost had to leave. What kind of insane audience reactions did you see over its run?
There were way more [crazy reactions] in London, actually. What I came to realize in New York is that New Yorkers are really fucking tough, because in London, probably five times a week, someone fainted in their seat or walked out. Men mainly fainted. We had multiple people fainting, and on average, five times a week, someone would leave. And in New York, I think two people left in the whole run and no one fainted. So I thought, Either I’m worse in New York and people aren’t buying it, or New Yorkers are just fucking nails. But yeah, in London people were slumping in their seat. It was dramatic.
You tend towards darker stories and darker roles. Why?
I don’t know. I come from an absolutely blessed blissful life, I’m so lucky. I never had any sort of terrible pain, thank God. I think part of it is understanding things that you don’t understand. Some things have been sort of loosely connected to mental health stuff that I’ve tried to wrap my head around; my grandmother had dementia and that started when I was about 14, so there were some things that I found interesting, trying to understand how the brain works a little bit more. I did a production of Through a Glass Darkly here where [my character] was a paranoid schizophrenic, and she was struggling with being aware of not being in control and losing a sense of herself. I found that really moving because of those connections.
But some things — I couldn’t believe Suffragette had not been put onscreen. I could not believe that these women that died and women had gone on hunger strikes just to get our basic rights and we’d never really celebrated it in the cinema.
Feels about right!
It does, feels right.
I read this profile of you in Vogue, and Sienna Miller, who’s one of your friends, had a memorable quote about you. She said that she finds this one part of you intimidating: “She has a certain seriousness, she’s very good at holding stuff back.” Do you feel that way? Is that something that you cultivate?
Oh my God, I don’t think so. No, I don’t know. I’m definitely not serious. Maybe I am a little bit more relaxed now because I’ve got two girls. You just have to chill out. That’s very nice, though. I’m glad she’s intimidated by me. She should be! I’m coming for you, Sienna. No, that’s funny, she’s probably referring to the fact that I was rigidly private for a long time. I still am to a degree, but not quite so frightened by the whole thing anymore.
What do you think shifted?
Just being a bit older and placing less importance on things. Like, if I fall over on the red carpet, no one really gives a shit. There’s very big real-life things happening in the world and what I wear or what I say is not actually very important. That’s quite relaxing to know.
Have you fallen on the red carpet?
No, I’ve tripped. I’ve never fallen.
That’s more Jennifer Lawrence territory.
Yes. But she can do whatever she likes. She’s hilarious. She’s awesome. I’ve ended many red carpets in tears with anxiety, but I haven’t ever fallen over. But thank God that phase is over. It’s more fun now.