Carey Mulligan on Choosing Roles and Why She Doesn’t Think “Big Picture” When Playing a Character


“You can still understand a character and go with them on their journey even if you don’t approve of them or feel totally comfortable.” – Carey Mulligan

Writer/director Emerald Fennell‘s film Promising Young Woman has made waves for how it addresses sexual assault and its depiction of revenge for past wrongs. Receiving much of the praise for the film is Carey Mulligan, who portrays a woman who seeks to make male characters pay for their misdeeds against women. Speaking about the film to Variety, Mulligan explains how she feels about playing such an ambitious, and in some instances dark, character.

Mulligan points out that she has been very particular about the roles she has performed, but still has certain types of projects that she would like to do. She explains, “I’ve been resistant to playing characters that are just the wife or the girlfriend, and I’ve avoided that fairly consistently so far. You can still understand a character and go with them on their journey even if you don’t approve of them or feel totally comfortable. I’m trying to find characters who are a little less straightforward, and you don’t get all the answers. I want to be constantly surprising the audience. I loved working with comedians. I feel so open to that kind of stuff, but, for me, it’s never struck the right tone. I want to be in a Richard Curtis film and live in a lovely apartment. ”

She says that she enjoys performing in projects that are provocative, and specifically remembers an example of when a fight happened while she was performing in a play. She recalls, “When I did Girls & Boys, I did this monologue at the Royal Court, and in one of the first previews we did, some huge fight broke out where someone almost got punched in the gallery. It was so exciting — not to be deliberately provocative, but I do think that there’s something to be said about something that makes people feel that strongly in the moment.”

With such serious subject matter, Promising Young Woman had some challenging scenes to shoot. However, Mulligan says she felt emboldened by the material, particularly knowing how much it would resonate with others:

“I don’t think big picture at all when I’m playing a character. But it was funny: When we shot the climactic scene, there’s a brilliant monologue that Emerald wrote, and I remember when I read that monologue, my heart was sort of racing, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, if I get to do this …’

But it really felt in that moment much more of a collective feeling of outrage, just when we were shooting that one scene. That’s not to say I have any understanding in a real way of how that must feel, because I don’t. I have no idea how hard it must be to be a survivor, or to be supporting someone who’s a survivor. But in that moment, I felt very in solidarity with people who have been through anything like this. And that was really powerful, because I’m usually so myopic when I’m filming, and it’s just about that one person. But in that moment, because of this direction that Em gave me, it felt like a bit bigger picture for a second.”

Though Mulligan says it does not affect her afterward when she has to portray a character doing something unsavory, she admits that she finds that type of work extremely exciting. She says, “It doesn’t affect me post. The only thing I ever sit in the car on the way home and think is like, ‘Oh, I didn’t do that very well! Why didn’t I do it like this?’ But that’s the really rich scrummy stuff that, as an actor, you are so excited to do. It’s the reason I work — the stuff like that.”

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