Editor’s Note: The following story contains spoilers for “Promising Young Woman.”
In one of the most beloved scenes in “Promising Young Woman,” Cassie (Carey Mulligan) and Ryan (Bo Burnham) sing and dance in a candy-colored pharmacy accompanied by Paris Hilton’s ooey-gooey pop confection “Stars Are Blind.” It’s meant to mimic the kind of sweep-you-off-your-feet montage favored by rom-coms. It also turned out to be one of the hardest in a film about a woman who avenges her best friend’s sexual assault by feigning blackout drunk in order to trick men into nearly date-raping her.
“It was more just spiritually difficult because as fun as it looks in the movie, you’re recording it in a pharmacy, you have a little earpiece, and they can’t play the actual music in the pharmacy,” said Burnham, who plays a pediatric surgeon and Cassie’s love interest. “And you’re just singing Paris Hilton 20 times at the top of your lungs. It’s almost like a real soul-cleansing level of embarrassment to have to sing and dance a cappella poorly at 8 a.m. in Ventura in front of a bunch of crew people who are working harder than you.”
Burnham, a comedian-turned-director (“Eighth Grade”)-turned actor is a secret weapon for a film like “Promising Young Woman.” He’s funny, not self-serious, handsome, charming, the works. Meaning, he’s not the person you’d peg as an accomplice to a horrifying sexual assault, as his character Ryan is revealed to be.
“I was definitely disappointed, as a person that was getting to know Ryan over the course of the script,” Burnham said. “But as a reader, before that point, I was reading the script going, ‘She’s going to be saved by this romantic relationship with this guy?’ This does not feel right to me. If this is going where I think it’s going, this feel like not the right choice. But of course [writer/director Emerald Fennell] knew what she was doing. The love of this pediatric surgeon doesn’t sweep her away. I was personally sickened, but really saw the importance, and the function of that, of holding the nicest guy’s feet to the fire.”
Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection
It’s a crushing blow when Ryan turns out to be as irredeemable as the many other sexual assailants in Cassie’s life, but Burnham ably carries the film’s swinging arc from comedy to the dark despair. “It’s not that all men are irredeemable, but it’s also saying that no men are off the hook,” he said. “No cis heterosexual men are out of the conversation in this cultural moment, even though Emerald wrote this before the #MeToo movement and it wasn’t a response to it. You can see the #MeToo movement as men finally waking up to what women already knew,” he said.
As for the film’s wild twist ending, which subverts audience’s expectations as Cassie finally confronts her abuser, Burnham said its bleakness aligns with the movie’s barbed message.
“Emerald talks about how there’s a reason women don’t resort to physical violence, because it doesn’t end well. It’s like an uncomfortable thing that she’s saying. As much as we wished she could sharpen her stilettos and get back at the boys in a very cinematic way, it’s a disturbing moment that the cinematic tropes fall away, and the fact that it’s a movie isn’t there to protect her. This is real life, and this guy weighs 100 more pounds than you, and is going to physically overpower you. I found that very disturbing in the script,” he said.
Burnham said he hopes men take notice. “It is inviting straight men into engaging with this, and [with] a spoonful of sugar that I haven’t seen anything like in terms of this particular subject,” he said, noting that his brother texted him after a premiere screening. (“Great flick! Good twists!”)
“So at least some of the Boston straight men are engaging with it,” he said. “My hope is the men who’s behavior is being interrogated would see it. It’s also a culture that extends to people you care about, and maybe people you see in the mirror. To have that conversation within a film that’s so entertaining, I am in awe of what Emerald was able to do.”