As an artist, Carey Mulligan seems to thrive in discomfort. After her 2005 breakout “Pride & Prejudice,” she nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing an underage girl who falls for a seductive con man in “An Education,” was the disturbed, suicidal sister of a sex addict in “Shame,” and a frantic young activist at the center of “Suffragette.” For Mulligan, that pattern stems from conviction.
“We aren’t allowed to see the messiness of women onscreen very much,” she said, “and when we do, they’re generally villainized. I don’t think I’d sign on to things that felt that far from the truth.”
With “Wildlife,” she consolidates that strategy into her finest role to date. In Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Mulligan plays Jeanette Brinson, a Montana housewife in the ‘60s whose marriage to her hard-drinking husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) collapses through a series of arguments and misguided choices, while her devastated son (Ed Oxenbould) remains the innocent witness. All three actors deliver, but Mulligan emerges as the magnetic force at the center of a downward spiral: In a series of dizzying sequences, she battles with her husband until she’s exhausted and turns to a new suitor. Everything rests on shifting emotions and attitudes so well calibrated she carries the movie with every evocative closeup. “I wanted to figure her out,” Mulligan said. “It was so scary, in a good way.”
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Dano, who wrote the script with his partner, Zoe Kazan, said Mulligan eased into the challenge. “I was shocked how much trust she gave me,” he said. “It felt like she was all in from the start.”
Mulligan liked having the agency to tap into character aspects rarely manifested in other dramas. “There are people sitting in test screenings with their joysticks hitting like and dislike,” she said. “People have been editing their films to this likability factor, and for women, it’s a much harsher edit when an audience doesn’t like a female character. They tune out of her experience. I think what Paul has done in this film is making you want to be all right even though she’s doing shitty things.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
This perspective has created an aura of gravitas around Mulligan’s work even as her celebrity expanded. Tabloids reported on her relationships and fans adored her pixie haircut, but audiences eager to engage with her star power up close found a very different experience. “I’m very aware of having done a lot of serious work,” she said. “I used to go on the Craig Ferguson show when I was promoting things years ago. He’d be like, ‘So, another super-serious show about super-serious things.’ I’d go, ‘Oh shit, I know!’ I can recognize the truth in that.”
It’s often pointed out that many of Mulligan’s movies take place in the past, as if the setting were a requirement for the sort of sturdy, character-based storytelling that attracts her. (“I’m not on a period-drama binge.”) She’s intrigued by the possibility of doing a satire, but most comedy projects haven’t appealed. “It’s always been a bit too broad, and I don’t think I’m the right person for that,” she said. “I’m desperate to do something completely contemporary or not set in a real world. I’m not talking ‘Avatar,’ but ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.’ I need my ‘Eternal Sunshine’ — or my Paul Greengrass movie! He’s just so brilliant.”
Mulligan met Dano and Kazan 10 years ago, when Kazan and Mulligan co-starred in a Broadway production of “The Seagull.” Danyo recalled being struck that “the timbre of her voice was really wonderful” and that “she has this facility with language.” The couple became fast friends with Mulligan, and Dano continued to admire her stage work in other well-received performances, including “Skylight.” However, he said their existing connection made it harder to approach her for the role in his directorial debut. “You don’t want favors, because this just takes too much work and care,” he said. “You need people who want to be there when you’re making a film in that scrappy fashion.”
Mulligan embraced the precious nature of a dramatic role that found her in “Woman Under the Influence” territory, inching up to the possibility of showboating in every scene. “You’re playing drunk, out of control, volatile,” she said. “There’s a massive risk in going too far. But I always knew Paul would figure out what felt truthful, and what felt beyond that. I had faith that I could do anything in the room.”
Growing up in England in the ’80s, Mulligan didn’t watch the kind of movies that she makes now. Her favorite movies were “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Jaws,” but her real ambition was to act in musical theater. “I liked big Hollywood films, but that wasn’t my kind of goal.” That remains unchanged. “I haven’t really been offered something that has real class but can be produced on a real scale,” she said. “It’s quite hard to come across. They do happen, but they just few and far between.” Among the exceptions is “A Star is Born,” which called “really commercial, with wide appeal, but you feel like you’re watching an indie film. The truth is all there, but you also have the swelling romance. Those films come along so rarely.”
Asked to name her acting idol, she shrugged. “Daniel Day Lewis?” Everyone says that. “I know,” she said, grinning, and admitted that serious method acting never appealed to her. “I haven’t taken it home for years,” she said. “I figured out that it doesn’t really help. You have a bit of a rubbish time.”
Still, she found ways to access her “Wildlife” character through a personal lens, referring to the “nostalgia whiplash” that Jeanette endures when considering the halcyon days of her relationship. She compared it to a few bittersweet moments in her own life: Lying on the floor at the age of 21, having recently broken up with a boyfriend, and listening to Coldplay’s “Fix You;” later, she was driving around Los Angeles while filming “Drive,” while pianist Ludovico Einaudi’s “The Berlin Song” burst through the speakers.
“I’ll remember those things, and have such a profound moment in my head,” she said. “I’ll hear those songs and be like, ‘How did this happen?’ Ten years later and I have two children and I’m married and I have a house? It’s great. I love my life. But I also go, ‘I’m never going to be 25 again,’ and that’s life. I recognized that. That was all familiar to me.”
Mulligan has two children, aged three and one, with Mumford & Sons frontman Marcus Mumford. “It’s really important to know that Carey is a good mom,” said Dano. “It mattered for this character.” He remembered a key scene in which Jeanette attempts to console her children even as the household falls apart. “Something happened to her in that scene that really beautiful and an unexpected,” he said. “Her kids are very young, and she hasn’t had to think about telling them that we can’t guarantee everything is OK and safe.”
Mulligan usually brings her children with her to set if she has to be away from their London home for any lengthy period of time, but they have only the vaguest understanding of her profession. “My daughter knows that I tell stories,” she said. “She’ll be able to see ‘Suffragette’ one day, which will be great. But there’s nothing now they could possibly watch.”
She was appalled by one audience member at the Cannes Film Festival, who watched “Wildlife” when it screened at Critics Week and told her that Jeanette was a terrible mother. “I was like, ‘That’s not fair!’” she said. “She’s making some very poor choices, but you can’t categorize her entire motherhood as terrible because she had one week where she failed her children. We’ll all fail our children. Part of what I found terrifying about making a film was that one day, I’ll fail mine.”
IFC Films releases “Wildlife” in New York and Los Angeles on October 19, 2018, with a nationwide expansion to follow.