Carey Mulligan on Pre-Show Rituals and Doing the One-Woman Show, ‘Girls & Boys’

"The subject matter didn’t frighten me as much as doing a one-woman show. I spend my whole career trying to forget I am being watched" - Carey Mulligan

Actress Carey Mulligan

“The subject matter didn’t frighten me as much as doing a one-woman show. I spend my whole career trying to forget I am being watched” – Carey Mulligan

Oscar-nominated actress Carey Mulligan is currently starring in Dennis Kelly’s play Girls & Boys. The production — which has since transferred from London’s Royal Court Theatre to New York’s Minetta Lane Theater — is a one-woman show featuring a woman detailing her love story with the man who would become her husband. Promoting the show in an interview with the New York Times, Mulligan speaks about the challenge of doing a solo performance, her pre-show routine, and working on a character that needs to be compelling enough to sustain the entirety of an audience’s attention for 90 minutes.

When asked why an actress who says that she always aspired to work on the stage has since appeared infrequently in plays, Mulligan says, “I think I was spoiled really early on by getting to play Nina in The Seagull. I had done two plays before that, and the people were brilliant, but I didn’t love the experience. Then The Seagull — I just loved it so much. It was such a romantic time in my life. Playing that part felt like an expression of all the angst I had as a teenager: wanting to be an actress, my parents not wanting me to be an actress. Afterward it was a matter of finding something with such a high standard of writing. I did David Hare’s Skylight, with Bill Nighy, which was wonderful. Then Girls & Boys came along, and it seemed completely impossible. It was daring me to do it.”

Regarding why Girls & Boys seemed “impossible,” Mulligan reveals, “The subject matter didn’t frighten me as much as doing a one-woman show. I spend my whole career trying to forget I am being watched. I look at the other person onstage in the eyes and try to tell the truth. But with a one-woman show, the other person is the audience. They are my Bill Nighy. And I didn’t know how to do that.”

Being that Mulligan’s character is the entire focus of the show, the actress spent a lot of time thinking about the character’s personality… as well as exactly to whom the character was speaking with throughout the play. She explains, “I imagined what songs she might listen to, what outfit she might have worn when she met her husband. I made up lots of stories about the children, trying to flesh them out for myself. As the run went on, they became more and more real in my mind. When I’m really in the show, I can hear them onstage, really loud. The first question for us was, where is this character, who is she talking to? And we decided that she was in this theater, in Chelsea or in New York, aware of her audience. The best shows feel like I am two glasses of wine in, regaling my friends. The bad ones are when you feel you are with a group of people who aren’t interested.”

Then Mulligan discusses another one of the play’s challenges — possibly the biggest — spending the entire duration of the play on stage and alone. She reveals, “I worked through the script with everyone and it all felt very normal. Then one day, I stood up on my own to perform it, and it was really, really difficult. I had never had so much trouble in rehearsal. I would get two pages in, my throat would get tight, and I’d say, ‘I can’t do it.’ Even two weeks before the opening, we were doing a run, and I did one page and my throat seized up. I actually fell to my knees and had to leave the room. I was freaking out. All those lovely people, coming to rehearsals, I had bailed on them and it was humiliating. But I felt either I will get onstage and have a panic attack, or it will work. And, unbelievably, they trusted me, and it worked. I think I couldn’t be alone; I needed the audience.”

Naturally, in order to perform like that Mulligan has an extensive routine to prepare her for the stage. She says, “I have an insane two-and-a-half hour routine. I get to the theater at five, eat something, go to sleep at six for half an hour, shower and do makeup and then go down onstage to warm up.”

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