If you want to catch Carey Mulligan’s eye, do it early. “If I read the first 20 pages [of a script] and I think, ‘Oh, I know where this is going,’ I just don’t find it interesting,” the actress told IndieWire during a recent interview. “There has to be something that feels like there’s a definite risk and that I could fuck it up. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel worth it.”
First-time feature filmmaker Emerald Fennell might not have known about Mulligan’s well-honed 20-pages-in internal alarm, but her “Promising Young Woman” fit the bill perfectly. For audiences who saw the film when it premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the neon-bright black comedy is a surprise from start to finish, and this is a film that opens with its seemingly impenetrable protagonist exacting wild revenge on simpering “nice guys” before alighting into still crazier spaces. No wonder Mulligan, who has spent her entire career making unexpected choices, went nuts for it.
“That’s what I loved so much, every five pages, getting wrong-footed,” the actress said. “That was so refreshing to read something and have no idea what was going to happen with each character and where it was going to go and what she was doing and what was the truth of what she was doing. There was so much surprise in it for me the first time I read it. Even to the end of the film, I just wasn’t expecting things to go the way they did.”
The Oscar-nominated Mulligan, best known for dramatic fare like “Wildlife,” “Shame,” “An Education,” and “Never Let Me Go,” has always had a keen sense of humor — see her breakout portrayal of the ditzy Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s “Pride & Prejudice” — but Fennell’s film is the first that has so cannily married those skill sets into one remarkable part for the British actress.
“It could only be her,” Fennell told IndieWire. “Carey is so good and just famously good and she chooses so carefully and she’s really always kept to her own journey in terms of what she picks. She’s very private, which makes quite an enigmatic actress. I really wanted somebody who wasn’t going to come and make her a kick-ass superhero comic book character. I wanted her to be the stillness at the center of it all. She was my dream person.”
The pair first met at a mutual friend’s house before Christmas 2018 — Fennell had gently maneuvered the meeting, knowing how much she wanted Mulligan for the role — and by New Year’s Day, Mulligan had the script in hand. The actress said she quickly gravitated to Fennell’s sense of humor and confidence, and so while she had some idea of what was in store for her, Fennell left nothing to chance.
With the script came a mood board, plus a Spotify playlist that included not one, but two versions of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” “And I thought, right, I get where this is going,” Mulligan said. “Then we met and sat down and within five minutes, I said, ‘Thank you so much for asking me to do this. A hundred percent, yes, please. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ And then we got to work.”
Fennell’s film is built around a heightened world — that the film is both a black comedy and a revenge thriller, while also boasting a candy-colored production design and a creeping sense of mortal dread gives some indication of the many layers it contains — but Mulligan was always drawn to finding the truth at the heart of its razor-sharp design.
“I had to come to it from the way I would approach anything, which is, what’s the most truthful way to tell the story of this person and why is she doing the things she’s doing?,” she said. “And usually the reason I’m so interested in doing something is because I read it and I’m sort of thinking — and this is increasingly so, as I’m a bit older and have worked a bit more — ‘Oh, God, I have no idea why she said that,’ or ‘I can’t understand her behavior.'”
That’s something that might be daunting to other performers, but that’s what really thrills Mulligan, the possibility that she might “fuck it up.” In 2018, it was Paul Dano’s period drama “Wildlife” that gave her that same zing, and it’s no coincidence that her work in both films has drawn the best reviews of her career.
“It was the same with ‘Wildlife,’ there were some things that Jeannette said that I didn’t understand, there were things she did that didn’t make sense,” Mulligan said. “And then when I sort of figured her out, it was like, ‘Oh, okay, this is why she did this, and this all makes sense to me now.’ It was the same with Cassie, sort of reading it and some of it feeling that I couldn’t kind of get to grips with it. Then when we worked on it and we figured out where this was all coming from and how she was affected by the events in her life, and it all sort of started coming together.”
That’s when things get really fun for Mulligan. “Then we got to play within those parameters and go quite sort of boldly in one direction or another, which Emerald was key in helping me do, because my tendency will always be to be less, because I’m afraid of overacting and I don’t like big showy things,” Mulligan said. “I like things that feel truthful, but in some cases, you need to move out of your comfort zone, and Emerald is really good at pushing me a bit out of it.”
One good way to get out of your comfort zone: play a character who doesn’t seem to have one anymore. A former medical student — the “promising young woman” of the film’s winking title — Cassie’s life was upended after a terrible tragedy ruined first her best friend Nina’s life and then, in many ways, Cassie’s own, too. She’s spent years wrapped up in her missions to ensnare and terrify the kind of dudes who think nothing of using “nice” behavior to violate innocent women. As the film unfolds, Cassie’s missions evolve, aided by a series of revelations that only sharpen her focus.
“I think this is a permanent state of being for her,” Mulligan said. “It’s not something that happened yesterday. This has sort of settled in to her body. It’s important for her not to spill out in ways that she can’t control, because she needs to be in control to complete her missions on these evenings with the ‘nice guys.’ She needs to be in control, because otherwise, it can all go very wrong.”
Cassie’s meticulous planning and white-knuckled sense of control is thrown for a loop by the reintroduction of Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former med school acquaintance who charms both Cassie and the audience. Maybe, she wonders, there really are nice guys in the world.
As Cassie falls deeper in love with Ryan, her tough exterior begins to chip away, leading to one of the most purely joyous scenes in a film that tends to only ever find the bitter alongside the sweet. It is, funnily enough, a scene that revolves around the use of Paris Hilton’s debut single “Stars Are Blind” (sample lyric: “I don’t mind spending some time / Just hanging here with you / ‘Cause I don’t find / Too many guys / That treat me like you do”).
In the early days of their relationship, Cassie and Ryan find themselves at a local pharmacy, which just happens to be playing Hilton’s song. As might only happen in that first flush of new love, the duo start singing and dancing to the pop jam, a raucous, full-force performance that seals their bond and also includes some well-placed junk food-tossing.
“It was the hardest day of my career,” Mulligan said. “It was honestly, of all of the acting challenges I have experienced, it was one of the toughest. Oh, man alive. Well, first of all, ‘Stars Are Blind’ is really hard to learn, because the lyrics are kind of, well, they’re not straightforward.”
She’s not kidding about this, either. In the midst of all the darkness of playing a traumatized vigilante, it was the Paris Hilton song-and-dance that really flipped Mulligan out.
“Bo and I had known each other for like three days when we shot that, and suddenly we’re in a pharmacy, singing and dancing,” she said. “We do the first take and Bo is amazing and gets really into it, and I hide behind my character and insist that Cassie wouldn’t dance. And Emerald’s like, ‘No, she would,’ and I’m like, ‘No, Emerald, honestly, I don’t think Cassie would. I think she would just sort of stand there looking pissed off.’ Emerald was like, ‘Come on, Carey, do the scene.’ So finally, after a couple of takes, we got into it and we did a really fun take, and we’re sort of singing at the top of our lungs, dancing, whatever.”
And then the duo had to film a scene without the music playing throughout the entire set. Mulligan is still a little harried when thinking about it. “You’ve got a little earbud in your ear and no one else can hear the music!,” she said. “And you’re just singing the fucking song, with Bo dancing around the pharmacy, feeling like, ‘Oh, my God.’ Honestly, we both have flashbacks when we think about it. It was so stressful. It was torture to film. It was a very good bonding experience for Bo and I, so I’m thankful for that element of it, and it’s so worth it in the film. But yeah, it was so mortifying.”
While dancing around in front of hundreds of people to Paris Hilton jams and singing without any kind of a backing track freaks Mulligan out, not much else does. The stuff that other performers might find daunting, that’s what she lives for.
“I’m interested in real portrayals,” she said. “It was really interesting with ‘Wildlife,’ to see that kind of weird reaction to Jeanette’s behavior that was shown by some critics and some audience members at Q&A’s and things, of the sort of outrage that this conventional 1950s mother would be making not perfect decisions. That really intrigued me.”
The “discomfort” of that performance made one thing clear to Mulligan: she wants to get messy, and she’s kind of bummed when that possibility is taken from her. “It made me reflect on experiences where I’ve made a film where I’ve found that the spiky edges of a character or her behavior or things that she’s done have ended up being cut out of the film and not being in the final edit,” Mulligan said. “It’s kind of annoyed me, because I feel like, ‘Oh, well now I just look like I’m saying something really two-dimensional, when actually, on the day, I was doing something more interesting.’ It’s going to look like it’s my performance choice, as opposed to an edit choice for the film.”
If she’s going to be surprised, like she was with “Promising Young Woman,” it has to mean something. “I want to keep looking for parts of people who don’t have all the answers and people who are human and flawed like everybody is, and it was just shocking to me, how little there is of that,” Mulligan said. “So it’s awesome to see when there’s more parts like that coming up, not necessarily just for me, but in general. It seems like things are definitely on the turn in the last couple of years.”
And Mulligan is hoping that the sort of surprises that delight her can do the same for audiences. “Promising Young Woman,” which is rife with twists and turns and real shocks, is her ideal.
“I think it’s great to be a part of something where people don’t know whether they’re allowed to laugh or not, and creating that kind of unease and that sort of tension and relief, where people could feel extremely anxious for a character or for a situation,” Mulligan said. “And then they get to release that anxiety and then they laugh, and then the next second they’re doing something else. That’s what I go to see a film for, I think watching films is for that experience of being taken on a proper ride. I just love not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Focus Features will release “Promising Young Woman” in select theaters on Friday, December 25.
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