“I don’t sit in the cinema and wish that I was on screen, but I do occasionally sit in the theater and wish that I was on stage.” – Carey Mulligan
The list of roles where Carey Mulligan has shown her range and brilliance is just as long as her actual resume. From her Academy Award nominated role in 2009’s, An Education, Inside Llewelyn Davis, Brothers, Suffragette and last year’s Mudbound, to her theater work in Skylight (where she received a Tony nomination), The Seagull and Girls & Boys, she’s always spectacular. That continues in her latest movie, Wildlife.
The film, which marks the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan), is set in 1960s Montana, where Mulligan plays Jeanette, a mother who struggles to survive after her unemployed husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), decides to leave the family to fight a raging forest fire up north.
In this interview, she talks about her role in Wildlife and working with Dano, how she prepares for a part, theater and her worst audition.
I thought the film was terrific.
Carey Mulligan: Oh, thank you.
She seems like a really hard character to pull off. There’s so many things going on inside of her.
Carey Mulligan: Yeah. She’s having a rough time. Yeah, that was what was so exciting about playing her. Reading the script for the first time, you have a sense… and the script was so well written, but it does feel like a maze that you that is going on in each scene because she’s changing sort of day by day and minute by minute in some of those scenes. So, that was what was so exciting about what Paul and Zoe had written.
You said that the role was, when you read it, you thought it was terrifying. Which I can totally understand.
Carey Mulligan: Yeah, I think it’s just that thing of playing sort of out of control, which is kind of a ridiculous thing but it just does feel like you have to be so clear in your mind of what you’re doing when you play out of control. Because otherwise it’s just a messy thing. And it’s kind of exposing as well to be all over the place and to be drunk and to be irrational and all other things that she is in the film. So yeah, on every level it was just a challenge of her that was just intimidating.
I know sometimes when I get a part I’m ecstatic and then I think, “How the hell am I gonna do this?” Did you have that as well?
Carey Mulligan: Big time. I mean, the joy lasts so long and you are so excited that you got the job and that they entrusted you with it. It’s specifically massively flattering that Paul Dano thinks you’re good enough at your job to be able to pull it off. I think Paul Dano is one of the most extraordinary actors on the planet, so the fact that he trusted me with a job was amazing and that Zoe did as well. So that lasts for like a week of like, “Wow, this is amazing.” And then the kind of absolute dread kicks in of the reality of trying to pull it off and not disappoint them.
And I think even more so with a writer, director. Zoe and Paul have such clear ideas in their mind of what they had written. So it’s sort of daunting to worry that you might not live up to what they had thought when they were painstakingly writing it over four years.
So yeah, it was a very, very exciting evening when he emailed it to me and I read it and we chatted. I remember having a glass of champagne on the fire escape.
Speaking of Paul, it’s kind of maddening how talented he is. Great actor and obviously a writer and after watching this, a wonderful director.
Carey Mulligan: Yeah, I know. He should really only be allowed to be that good at one thing. And similarly with Zoe as well. She’s just an extraordinary actress and then she manages to write these brilliant scripts almost on the side. They are a fearsome couple and I’m so proud of them for this film. But yes, it’s amazing.
And I knew that Paul would be a brilliant director. He’s just one of those actors that has so much truth and integrity and honesty towards all of the work that he does that it just seems natural that he would take that and put it into a film as a director. So I never had any doubt that he would be brilliant.
You’ve known them for a while and you’re friends with them obviously, so how is it to be directed by a friend? You don’t want to screw anything up. Are there a bunch of nerves at the very beginning?
Carey Mulligan: Definitely. Yeah, there were nerves at the beginning. I mean, there were nerves because he’s such a great actor and I felt like he would be able to see where I wasn’t quite on it or I don’t know, I came into it feeling like I didn’t have a full grasp of her. We sort of developed it together and he was like a coach and every note that he gave was so insightful. He was so good at encouraging me and when I was sort of stuck and couldn’t figure out how to continue the scene, he was just all over it and so brilliant.
But I came into it kind of a little bit in the dark. We’d had a lot of conversations but still when you’re very privileged to not have to audition, which I do think is a real privilege, the flip side of that is no one’s seen you do it. So, no one knows whether you can do it or not. They had faith in me but I kind of went into Day 1 thinking, “They have no idea if I can do this or not.” They didn’t even know if I could do the accent, you know? Let alone do the performance. So there’s a certain amount of nerves going into Day 1 of just trying to live up to their expectations. But, Paul could not have done more to make me feel comfortable and he was so wonderful. And it just took a bit of just shaking that off and then getting into it to sort of start really enjoying it.
You said that you didn’t really know how to play her until you showed up on set. How much work do you do prior to showing up on set? To get into that mindset and to know who she is?
Carey Mulligan: It kind of varies. Like, I suppose in the past there were…. probably from about four years into my career I was going really, really full-on. I have in the past done a lot of research and a lot of preparation and that was what made me qualified to be there, that I’d done my homework, so to speak. But on this, and I had a one-year-old at the time and I just, the way that it came together it just left me with very little time to do that and also be a mom. I did work with Tim [Monich] a lot, he was the dialect coach, on her accent and that was really valuable.
Now, all of that’s to say, that not as much as I would’ve liked to have done. But in a way, it was a little bit liberating to not be weighed down by all of the prep that I usually do. I think I’ve always done it to make myself feel better and ready to be there. But, there was something really cool about just kind of showing up and just throwing ideas out, and having it go and not being as pre-meditated as it probably was in jobs that I’ve done before. So, yeah it was quite fun just to have a go at it.
And also, this felt like such an intimate drama where it was such close work with Ed [Oxenbould] and with Jake and Bill that I don’t know, there was something about kind of the liveness of it that I felt was quite good in the end.
We have a 20-month-old daughter and there’s no time for hardly anything anymore and when you sit down to work, you’re so much more focused.
Carey Mulligan: Yes, yeah. I think so. And I think like you just have to adapt and change to things. And you know, I remember on Mudbound, Garrett [Hedlund] and Jason [Clarke] went on a road trip for like, a couple of days, and drove around America. I had an 8 month old and I couldn’t go on a road trip. I would’ve loved to go on a road trip but you just have to, sort of, move on and figure out a new way of doing things. I think when you have less… you have a 20 month old, I have a one-year-old and a three year old and that’s fine because it won’t always be like this. You kind of get so much from your real life and from living. I’m just less concerned with like making sure I’ve dotted all my ‘T’s’. I want to just be there with my kids and then do my job, and take it seriously and be professional but also, I’m not gonna get completely freaked out if I don’t have all the time in the world that I had before. Because you just don’t. When you are at work, you fully embrace it because it’s so different from your life at home.
When you first get a part, what’s sort of the first couple things that you do to work things out?
Carey Mulligan: First of all, I kind of figure out where she’s from, like geographically. Just figure out where she was born, where she spent most of her life, just to find out. Because I find, particularly when I’m playing an American role, I have to get the accent sorted out, so I need to start working on that straight away. Because that’s gonna be the thing that’s gonna hold me back more than anything, if I don’t feel confident for the voice. Then the rest of it all falls away. So, the first thing I do is find the voice of a woman that’s from that particular place, or has had that particular mix of experiences and then I start working on the accent. So, that’s literally the very, very first thing I do.
At the same time, looking at the source material, if there is source material, and there was with Wildlife. Going back to the book, combing through the book, finding all the information that’s in there and some of it is not in the script but is really useful to know, back story stuff that you can build on.
And then just conversations with the director really, just trying to have as much conversation with the director as possible to feel like you’re on the same page.
I wanna ask you about your theater work. You’ve done a lot, a lot of stage work. Is there a time where you think, “I wanna go back and do theater again?” Do you get a certain itch that tells you it’s time?
Carey Mulligan: Yeah, kind of. The itch kind of seems to always amazingly coincide with the right thing coming along. I was so lucky and the bar was set so high by doing The Seagull when I was 21, and playing Nina because it was such an incredible role on stage. Theater work has been a case of trying to find something that presents a similar level of challenge that Nina does, and Nina is such an incredible part. So, it just happens that that’s come up every kind of couple of years. But I definitely… I don’t sit in the cinema and wish that I was on screen, but I do occasionally sit in the theater and wish that I was on stage.
The stage was I wanted to do when I was little. That was my dream, I wanted to be a stage actress. So, I think there’s always gonna be a 6 year old in me that wants to do a play. And I’ve been so unbelievably lucky with the roles that I’ve gotten to do on stage.
But of course that’s another thing that is harder when you have kids, because you miss bath time. So I was really lucky this year that doing Girls & Boys, they were only 5 week runs, the shortest theater run I’ve ever done. Which was kind of perfect for that role as well because it was quite full-on. But it was like 5 weeks really not anyone to put them to bed, which was, you know, not ideal.
What’s been your most embarrassing or nightmare audition?
Carey Mulligan: Oh my gosh, so easy. Mamma Mia! was one. Oh my gosh, there’s so many. I definitely auditioned for Mamma Mia! I remember very little about it, probably because I sort of blacked it out in my mind.
But also, I remember I auditioned for Gravity. I had to wear a space suit, and I had to do the audition over Skype with a laptop on the floor. And me spinning out of control into outer space wearing a space suit on my own in L.A. And I remember walking away from that thinking like, “That’s the stuff that we do we do.”