The last time The A.V. Club spoke with Carey Mulligan, she was promoting her role in Paul Dano’s 2018 film Wildlife, where she played a housewife in 1960s Montana tentatively exploring the concept of self-determination. The last time this author wrote about Carey Mulligan, it was in a review of The Dig, a film where Mulligan stars as an invalid landowner in ’30s England whose fragile health forces her to the sidelines of her own life. All of which is to say that Mulligan’s role in Promising Young Woman is very much neither of those things.
We spoke with Mulligan for The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelopeabout playing the vengeful, morally ambiguous title character in writer-director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, a role that Mulligan says was all about balance—and trying not to crack up playing opposite comedians like Jennifer Coolidge and Detroiters’ Sam Richardson. Hear the entire conversation on this week’s Push The Envelope—which is available now and also includes discussion of the 2021 Gotham Awards winners—or read excerpts below.
Note that this interview discusses, albeit invague terms, the film’s provocative and controversial ending, so stop readingtowards the very end if you want to go in fresh.
The A.V. Club: Looking over your filmography, you’ve been in some violent films—I’m thinking Public Enemies or Drive—but you didn’t play violent characters [in those films]. Was it fun to flip the script and be the one beating in the windshield with the tire iron this time?
Carey Mulligan: It was quite fun. It’s funny, I said to someone the other day—when we were shooting Drive, I always wanted to get out of the elevator and be in a scene. And I think there was a scene originally at some point in Drive where there was a shootout—I think in the basement—and I was there. And then it got cut, and we didn’t shoot it. So yeah, it was nice to get to get to—well, it’s always fun to smash up a car with a tire iron if there’s no consequences.
AVC: When I watched that scene in particular, I thought, “I bet that was fun to shoot.”
CM: It really was. I remember being disappointed because we only got to do it three times, because we had three sets of tail lights. I was like, “come on, let’s do another one!” And Emerald [Fennell] was like, “no, no, calm down, buddy.”
AVC: [Laughs] She was like, “we only have so many cars.”
CM: Exactly. Exactly.
AVC: The dialogue [in this film] is really acerbic and sharp. Did that influence the way you characterized Cassie, or performed as her?
CM: Yeah, definitely. She’s obviously someone who’s very smart—she dropped out of med school, so she’s really intelligent. She’s also, I think, got a really dark sense of humor.
It’s interesting, because we didn’t—I suppose I never do, but particularly with this film, I didn’t go in with a lot of hard and fast decisions about how scenes would be played. And so I think so much of the wit of it was informed by the other actors and who I was playing opposite—particularly with Bo [Burnham], because he was so hilarious. You find your rhythm with the other actor.
When you get writing like that, it’s such a gift, and you can play it a million different ways. That was so much of the fun of it, getting to have a sense of play and do scenes differently and mess around a bit.
AVC: You mentioned the rhythm with the other actors—what about when you were working with, say, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and the [other] men who were playing your targets?
CM: Oh my gosh. I remember we did a little rehearsal of that scene—I think that’s the only scene we actually rehearsed. We did it on a Saturday in the middle of the shoot, because we were scouting that location. And Chris came [to the rehearsal], and I couldn’t get through the first half of the scene without losing it, because he was so funny and gross and hilarious. There was a degree to which that scene was meant to feel like—there’s that rhythm, where she starts stalking him to the other side of the room, and we wanted to plot that out before we shot it, because we were working on such a small time scale. We had twenty-three days, so every moment we were actually on the set, we had to be shooting.
A big part of my job on this [film] was trying not to laugh when other people around me were being so funny. I had that lot with with Jennifer Coolidge, who played my mom. I mean, some of the stuff that didn’t make it into the film—I want there to be a separate film of just her outtakes, because she was so funny. A lot of it was me just trying to keep it together.
AVC: That’s funny, because the character is so deadpan.
CM: Yeah, I know. But everyone around me is a comedian, and their comedy is so brilliant because it’s done so truthfully. That makes it all the funnier. Even Sam Richardson, in the scene when we’re leaving the nightclub—it’s only a couple of lines, but the stuff that he’s saying when we’re leaving the nightclub and I’m pretending to be sort of out of it drunk is so funny. It’s because they’re all playing it totally straight and for real is what makes it even more hilarious.
AVC: That scene with Chris Mintz-Plasse is really interesting to me, because that’s Cassie at her most predatory, like you said, stalking him around the room. And earlier on in the scene with Adam Brody—there’s this moment where you’re laying on his bed and your eyes just flip open. You’re almost like a slasher villain in that moment.
CM: I love it. I didn’t necessarily know that that was a shot that Emerald wanted, and then when we were doing it, she said, “in the next take, just look straight down the lens.” It’s the only time in the film that I do it. I think it’s when you start to see the suggestion that things are not quite as they seem.
And that’s what’s so fun about that scene with Chris, because the audience is allowed to see what she’s really feeling because he’s so oblivious. He’s so in love with himself and whatever’s coming out of his mouth. While he’s rubbing coke on her gums, you can see—I remember Emerald saying, “you want to bite his finger off.” It’s nice to have that: you see what he sees, but also she is able to express how she actually feels, because he’s not going to notice. He’s just too obsessed with himself. It was a fun scene in that regard. [Whereas] in the scene with Adam, the audience still hopefully thinks that she’s in real jeopardy, and that she’s not in control. Later on, you know that she is, and there’s something kind of delicious about that.
AVC: Another thing that really struck me about this film is unabashed femininity: It’s full of bright colors and pop music, and your character wears a lot of makeup and wigs when she’s out on the prowl. How did you balance that with what’s happening on screen? It’s very dark, but what we see is very colorful.
CM: That was part of what was so exciting about signing onto the film. After I read the script, Emerald sent me a playlist of music that she had written the film to, and lot of which was already in the script, including Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” and Britney Spears and “Boys,” that Charlie XCX song. She had this amazing visual board, and she said in our first meeting, “I’m not going to make a film about somebody in a gray cardigan staring out the window. This is not that film.”
And I think it’s interesting, how we use makeup in our day-to-day lives and how easily that kind of stuff gets trivialized. If you have a multicolored manicure, people don’t necessarily take you seriously. And I think Cassie is very much using that to her advantage. If she dresses that way, she’s hiding in plain sight, because not only does she look unthreatening, she also looks fine. She looks like she’s functioning. The last thing she needs is for someone to say, “are you okay? What’s going on?” I think if she dressed truly the way she felt, it would be a different thing. But this is somebody who’s trying not to be seen in a lot of ways.
So it was really fun to come up with that everyday look, but also her outfits for her evening ventures—the different characters, trying to transform herself to not be recognized. And, yeah, caking on makeup and doing a really high ponytail. It’s quite fun.
AVC: What about the now-famous rainbow manicure? Who came up with that?
CM: That was Emerald. That was on the first board she showed me, the pastel rainbow manicure. And it was so funny, because it was one of those [manicures] that lasted for about three weeks, and then they redid them. And right towards the end of the shoot, they started just falling off. We’d get halfway through a scene and it’d be like, “Cut! Pink is gone, we need pink!” It’d have to get reattached to my finger. It was nerve wracking those last couple of days of filming, just trying to keep the manicure on.
But that was part of her original [look]. She always, always had the manicure.
AVC: Isn’t it funny, when you’re all dressed up like that, part of your mind is always dedicated to, “I hope this doesn’t fall down. I hope this doesn’t smudge.”
CM: Oh my gosh. One hundred percent. And also, it’s just a continuity nightmare, particularly in the climactic scene in the film. But the great part about all this was the collaboration between Nancy [Steiner], our costume designer, Angie Wells, our makeup artist, and Emerald and I. Just getting to be a part of these conversations, and coming up with these different looks, and leaning into the femininity and girliness of it all—and celebrating that, to a degree.
AVC: That’s one of the things I really like about this film. There’s this perception that a character like this should be—I don’t know if you would call Cassie a “badass.” I think she’s a little too morally ambiguous for that.
CM: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s it’s a lot to do with the music as well: These are things that often get put into a pop, easy category and giggled at. And actually, genuinely, “Stars Are Blind” is a brilliant song. And there’s a reason why that montage is so effective, because you do get swept away with that music. And it’s the same as “Toxic”—”Toxic” is one of the best pop songs ever written, but it’s also just a brilliant song in its own right. These things that have been typically female, or put into that category—they’re dismissed. And I think part of this [film’s intent] is celebrating these things that we love, and that we shouldn’t have to feel funny about loving them, or embarrassed about loving them, because they’re objectively great. That goes for the way the film looks and the way that it sounds, and that’s a part of it that I really loved.
AVC: Let’s go back just for a second to those hunting scenes we were talking about before. So you’re playing a character who’s playing a character. How was that as an actor? Was it kind of meta?
CM:It was the greatest release from the stress that [I had] initially. The most nerve wracking thought was, “oh, no, I’m going to play drunk, and I’m going to do it badly because drunk acting is so hard.” I’d done it in Wildlife,and I had been so anxious about doing that again. I remember early on saying to Emerald, “ugh, drunk acting. Oh, God.” And she quite rightly pointed out, “she’s not actually drunk. This is someone who’s pretending. So just pretend as effectively as you can, and if it doesn’t seem real, it doesn’t matter, because in retrospect, you want people to look back and realize that she wasn’t actually drunk.”
So that was very liberating in a way, because actually, if anybody in that setting pretendedto be really drunk, they would most likely get away with it. You wouldn’t question that in a nightclub in the dark when everyone’s been drinking. It feels like a pretty easy ruse, actually. So that was a big part of it.
And then, like I said about the scenes with Chris and with Sam, I think that’s the more fun stuff to play. I loved the scene with Adam, but it was delightful to get to play. The the further the film goes, the more the audience is let in on. The more of the story and the more of the history they understand, the scenes become more and more complex, which was really nice. It’s all fun, but it gets richer, I think, the more the audience knows where she’s coming from.
AVC: Well, speaking of knowing where she’s coming from, a lot of times in films about revenge, the main character is a cipher. I’m thinking about Lee Marvin in Point Blank, or movies like Lady Snowblood where the protagonist is almost supernatural. But in this film, you see Cassie’s parents, and things that ground her and who she is as a person.
You said you don’t come in with with certain ways you want scenes to be played. But did you come up with certain details that helped fill out her character.
CM:That was really it. That was the prep. And largely that was just Emerald and I talking and making executive decisions about her life, particularly about her relationship with Nina and who she was before all of this happened. Because she’s dramatically different from who she was before this event.
But more than anything, it was important to me not to approach it with any kind of genre in mind, or with the tag of “revenge” over it. Because, really, I felt the most important thing to carry through the film was that this, for her, is an act of extreme loyalty and love. She’s doing this out of real loyalty to her friend. It’s not something that happened to her. But it happened to her best, best friend in the world, so therefore, it did happen to her.
And I think that this is something that she wouldn’t necessarily do on her own behalf. But because it happened to her friend, her best friend, someone that she felt this sisterhood with, this is something she just absolutely will not let go of, even though everyone in her life, including Nina’s mom, is saying, “move on. Let it go.” And she’s just absolutely refusing to. And that feels like love. That felt like that needed to be the center of all of it. It’s someone who actually is, in a warped way, acting out their love for their friend.
So we talked a lot about Nina and that relationship and the event that happened. We had to decide how that went down. But that was what was so wonderful about working with Emerald, because we just could talk for hours. And then by the time we got on set, it was great, because we’d made a lot of those decisions. But in the playing of [the character], there was room to try things in different ways. We were tweaking things in between takes a lot of time, which was such a brilliant experience because [Emerald is] such a good director, but because she’s an actor as well, that added another element to it.
AVC: That answer actually leads me into something. Do you feel that there is a sadness in Cassie’s story, in that she is doing this out of loyalty and she doesn’t really know what else to do?
CM: It’s definitely sad that her whole life was derailed by this event, and I think that that feels very true. I think the whole film, in that sense, has a true ending as well. The set of circumstances that she finds herself in, that feels like the truthful ending. And it is sad. I think we can feel things sometimes even more deeply for other people than we can for ourselves, particularly a sense of injustice on other people’s behalf. And particularly among women and the solidarity that we feel—that’s felt very present in the last couple of years. People feel a great solidarity and a desire to stand up for people, and stand up for survivors, stand with survivors.
But there’s definitely a sadness in the fact that Cassie’s life took this turn because of something that happened that was so horrendous. That’s what separates it, I think, from a typical revenge movie. She doesn’t walk away at the end with, you know, a burning building behind her smoking a cigarette. It feels like a real story about a real woman and her very real and righteous anger and how she acts it out.
AVC: How did you feel when you first read the ending of the film? I’ve thought about the ending of this film a lot.
CM: The whole way through the script, what I loved about it was that I didn’t know where it was going. When you’re watching film—reading the script for the first time was like that. You just think, “Okay, now [the script’s] completely turned everything on its head. What is going on?” It was so wonderful in that sense, that you just kept on having everything flipped around. And even to the end—I didn’t see it coming, and I was shocked.
But Emerald was so clear from the beginning that this was the truthful and honest way to to end the film. And I absolutely 100% supported and agreed with that, because we just know that statistically, that is the most honest version of what happens. For it to end any other way, I think, would trivialize it. And so it was the ending that needed to happen—not necessarily the one we want, but the one that is right and true. Obviously I wanted a sequel, but for the sake of the film, I think it was the right thing to do.
AVC: [Laughs] You danced around that so beautifully.
Promising Young Woman is out on VOD now.