Since giving her breakthrough performance in 2009’s “An Education,” Carey Mulligan has become well-known to audiences for playing winsome, beautiful characters who convey intelligence and vulnerability in equal measures. But in Steve McQueen’s searing new drama “Shame,” she insists that audiences will see a new side of her, and not just because she quite literally exposes herself to them. “This character is kind of me in extremis,” she told The Playlist at the recent Los Angeles press day for the film. “Sissy is sort of me at my ugliest and my worst, and at my most sort of daring – or relaxed, maybe.”
There’s an understandable tendency among moviegoers to see in actors qualities that their characters possess, and vice versa, especially if they play roles that fit even remotely in the same wheelhouse. But Mulligan said she isn’t sure that she would be able to play someone who was nothing like herself, even if it’s the “herself” that she doesn’t always access. “I think it varies,” she observed. “I think it’s different from role to role; like in ‘Drive,’ I play quite a quiet, shy, understated person, and there’s definitely a version of me that’s somewhere in there. But I think it’s different for each thing.”
“I mean, I don’t know if you can transform,” she continued. “I mean, you can allow yourself to change a little bit. Like [for ‘Shame’] I dyed my hair white and then I let the roots grow out so that it looked terrible, and I ate what I wanted to eat, I drank. I wasn’t conscious about how I looked. And that wouldn’t be the case with [‘The Great Gatsby’], which I’m doing now. So those things sort of help you – you sort of, by osmosis somehow, you change.”
In “Shame,” Mulligan plays a boisterous but troubled young woman trying to overcome the troubled past she shares with her brother, played by Michael Fassbender. Comparing her work in McQueen’s film to what she’s doing in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” she said the kind of work she does varies according to the variety of sources she has to draw upon. “I wouldn’t say I transform into another person, but I think a lot of the stuff in the film, the phone calls, were improvised, so there has to be something of me in there. Otherwise I couldn’t have made it up,” she explained, laughing. “So I think it’s a mix, and I think it’s different for like Daisy and ‘Gatsby’ – it’s a different era and it’s based on a literary character and I had lots of different things to draw upon. So I think it’s different from job to job.”
Although her character doesn’t suffer from the same sex addiction her brother does, Mulligan certainly experienced her share of intense scenes in the film. As a director, McQueen is known for shooting long takes rather than via more conventional cutting or coverage, which Mulligan said helped her maintain focus on the emotional core of each scene. “I think you ought to anyway. I think if you’re there to work, you should be able to maintain a whole scene,” she insisted. “It’s the best way to work, I think. But when you’re in any scene, even if the camera isn’t on you, you’re there trying to engage the entire time, but with the camera on you the entire time, it’s like doing theater, it’s like just doing a play, because you have to stay in it the whole time, no one can say ‘cut,’ really, so it’s kind of intoxicating. You kind of forget the camera is there, and it’s nice; you feel freer doing it that way.”
Appropriately, Mulligan said that most of the shoot was very intimate, allowing herself and her costars to explore their characters without the interference of a lot of production machinery. “On this it was pretty quiet,” she said. “It was a pretty small – it was a tiny apartment we were filming in, and it was a pretty small crew, and the crew were like really into the story and really protective of it, and they were very quiet and everyone worked quietly and quickly.” That said, Mulligan indicated it wasn’t an entirely dour experience. “There were some things, like when we were running drunk out of The Standard, which I don’t know if it’s in the film, but we all had a glass of champagne before we shot that and then we all ran out – Steve bought champagne and we all sat around and drank it and ran out the door and it was really fun.”
As with several of her costars, including Fassbender and Ryan Gosling, 2011 has been a great year for Mulligan, finding an interesting variety of roles that keep her in the public spotlight while challenging her creatively. She explained that despite this explosion of visibility – and the increased opportunities she’s enjoyed since earning acclaim for “An Education,” she doesn’t feel like that much has changed. “Well, after ‘Wall Street’ I stopped working for a year so I didn’t work again until ‘Drive,’ but no, I’m really happy – like I’m really lucky with the directors that I’m working with and the stuff that I’m doing,” she said.
Mulligan said she was particularly pleased to see that “Drive” was both well-received and commercially successful, for a film even she admitted was “weird.” “It’s so cool – people love it. I’m so happy,” she beamed. “It’s a crazy film, and it’s so weird – Nic’s a weird person, and he made such a weird film. But that’s okay, whereas usually weird doesn’t really work. People don’t usually like weird. But he made a genre film about stunt cars and getaway drivers and gangsters and it’s so not like any of those kinds of films. It’s so ‘other,’ which is what he does so brilliantly, and so it’s become this massive thing, and I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled for him and for Ryan.”
Meanwhile, she admit that she was mildly disappointed that “Drive” met with enough success to spawn its own merchandising, in particular replica versions of the silver jacket that Driver wore in the film. “I’m so pissed off about that because we have – me, Ryan, [director Nicolas Winding Refn], Nic’s wife, and the costume designer all have our own that they made us while we were shooting, and now everyone’s got one.” But ultimately, Mulligan said that she’s less worried about the commercial potential – or living up to expectations – than she is in finding interesting projects and pursuing the sort of work she thinks is most rewarding, even if it means that she still feels the same way she did before “An Education” broke.
“My agents have really good taste, and aren’t interested in doing sort of anything for money. And you don’t suddenly get inundated with offers because of a little bit of success with something else, so it’s still been a case of auditioning for things that I really want. But nothing’s sort of changed that much.”