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‘Suffragette’ Star Carey Mulligan Talks Independence, Film vs. Theater, and Roles You Can “Sink your teeth into”

'Suffragette' Star Carey Mulligan Talks Independence, Film vs. Theater, and Roles You Can "Sink your teeth into"

Like other intelligent women, Mulligan would much rather tread the boards than take yet another cookie-cutter role hanging on the arm of a fully-rounded leading man. She listened when her London agent Tor Befrage told her that she was in a good enough place to be able to turn down anything that she didn’t feel she had to do because she couldn’t bear the idea of someone else doing it. “I like taking time off,” she told me in a phone interview on her day off from her Broadway hit “Skylight,” for which she and Bill Nighy both scored Tony nominations. Her latest film, “Suffragette,” in which she stars as Maud, a foot soldier in the British women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th century, opens in U.S. theaters today and could score her an Oscar nod.

While she took the plum role of Daisy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s lavishly appointed “The Great Gatsby” and worked for Oliver Stone on “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Mulligan doesn’t like most of what Hollywood sends her to read: “I don’t find a large amount to work with; the majority of things that come along are accessories like girlfriends and wives, so dull and not real, not much to sink your teeth into.”

Instead, she seeks out rich characters unlike any she’s ever played before, and gifted directors. She loved stepping off the plane from Sydney after “The Great Gatsby” and turning up on set in New York’s Greenwich Village to play a folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Unfortunately, Mark Romanek’s 2011 drama “Never Let Me Go” “didn’t catch on,” she admitted, but has picked up steam over time. Fans told her they love it at the stage door of “Skylight.” She took off nine months between “Inside Llewyn Davis” and “Far from the Madding Crowd.”

Playing Bathsheba, the gentlewoman farmer with three suitors in Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd” —which John Schlesinger memorably made in 1967—was a no-brainer. She’d read Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” and “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” but not this one. She was drawn to Bathsheba in the novel and David Nicholls’ screenplay for often being “unlikeable,” she said. “We talked about her stubbornness and fallibility.” It was fun to play a woman who actually turns down a marriage proposal: “She was out of her own social context as an independent woman at a time when it was not done. It’s a great way to start off a Victorian classic. She’s not setting off in search of a husband.”

While Bathsheba could earn her another Oscar nod (reviews were strong, box office solid at $12.2 million domestic), Mulligan is more likely to score for “Suffragette,” which wrapped more than a year ago. She was inspired by this story about an apathetic young British laundress who finds her identity in fighting for women’s right to vote 100 years ago, in the face of virulent police attacks. “I had no idea they were beaten, imprisoned, blew up bridges, went on hunger strikes,” Mulligan said. “We have a very muted picture of happy women with banners marching down the street.”

Mulligan so liked working in an all-female environment in front of and behind the camera that she’s planning to follow the lead of Reese Witherspoon, Rose Byrne and others and seek out and develop more of her own material. “The way to get better stories on screen is to self-generate and find projects to make,” she said, “for yourself or other women, something I can get interested in and involved in, instead of spending a lot of time waiting for projects to come along produced by the industry.”

She brought plenty of feminist strength to Bathsheba in in “Far from the Madding Crowd.” In fact, Mulligan kept trying to keep more of the book in the movie and quotes several key lines that are not in the final film. Clearly, she and Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (“The Hunt”) had a healthy give and take during filming. She liked his “relaxed” approach to the material: “He kept it loose with no real restrictions. It’s not a buttoned down costume drama.” It was his challenge “not to put the book on screen verbatim, to make it cinematic.” 

But Mulligan regrets that some scenes were left in the cutting room: “It’s always a great tragedy of losing things, but you can’t keep everything or it would go on for hours.” 

It was Mulligan who recommended Belgian rising star Matthias Schoenaerts, after seeing him opposite Marion Cotillard in “Rust and Bone.” “He was so extraordinary in that film,” she said. “I wanted him from the beginning to play Gabriel Oak. He’s able to do so much without words. He’s a real hulking presence, such a masculine, huge guy. Oak had to feel like he was a rock.”

Mulligan has been friends with Tom Sturridge since she was 18. She fell in love with him during his audition. “As much as I like him,” she said, “he’s an exciting version of the character.” Was it hard for her to understand how such a strong independent woman could fall so hard for a handsome rake in uniform? “There’s a line in the book where he says: ‘She fell in love as only a self-reliant woman can fall in love when she loses her self-reliance.'” Bathsheba is young, Mulligan reminds, sending silly girlish valentines. “But she has a resilience, the ability to brush herself off and keep going.” 

The actress pinches herself that she’s on Broadway. “It’s my ultimate wish fulfillment,” she said. “It’s the best time. You get better as an actor doing theater. Once you’ve done a play you build muscles, you feel better when you keep it fresh every time, it has to have the feeling it’s never been done before. And it’s a pain. ‘Skylight’ is very emotional, these are full-on characters, some nights I feel I can’t pass muster, but when I get on stage I’m so happy I get to act for two hours with bright lights and I can’t see the audience and I get lost in my imagination. It’s liberating. On a film you can get nervous at the proximity of the camera, which immortalizes one moment, and you can’t do anything about it. You lose control. The theater is a fresh experience.” 

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