Carey Mulligan on "Promising Young Woman," a feminist revenge story for the ages

The acclaimed actress appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss her buzzy new film, a candy-coated dark comedy thriller

By Alli Joseph
December 21, 2020 11:19PM (UTC)
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Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra in director Emerald Fennell’s "Promising Young Woman." (Courtesy Focus Features)

There has been anticipation building in the film fan community for a darkly funny movie starring British actress Carey Mulligan, "Promising Young Woman," set to release on Christmas Day. The thriller is brilliantly acted by Mulligan, who stopped by "Salon Talks" to discuss her role in the feminist revenge story for the ages. The film accosts the senses with great color, costumes, grit and art direction, and is part dark comedy, part noir romance with sobering underpinnings. Mulligan is matched with a cast of beloved comedic actors, including Alison Brie, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Jennifer Coolidge, Bo Burnham and Molly Shannon, all playing straight.

The film is a tale for the #MeToo times, which follows Mulligan's character Cassie as she gives payback to a never-ending list of men who've taken advantage of women sexually, and gotten away with it. Sound familiar after the last several years of headlines? It's intentional. "Promising Young Woman" is not only about revenge, however, it's also a love story, albeit not in the usual boy-meets-girl way one might expect, based on Cassie's romantic adventure during the film. Her devotion to her best friend, in life and death, is both admirable and we're led to believe, perhaps certifiably crazy. 

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But Cassie is no cookie-cutter nut; she's a brilliant former medical student seeking meaning, and justice. From her clothing, to her home, parents and mannerisms, Mulligan's character and environment were carefully crafted. Written and directed by "Killing Eve" head writer Emerald Fennell, Cassie keeps viewers guessing. Fennell was very specific in her intentions for her characters, all of which are nuanced (except, perhaps, the bad-behaving male doctors in the story). Mulligan recalled rehearsing a scene when Brie, playing Cassie's med school nemesis Madison, walks into Cassie's parents' home, and was genuinely both mesmerized and surprised by the set. "Emerald told her, 'Do it just like that!'" Mulligan said.

Watch my "Salon Talks" episode or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more from Mulligan on Cassie, how she found humanity in the character and why her performance is one you'll remember.

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The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I watched "Promising Young Woman" into the wee hours, which might not have been a great idea. It was gripping, unexpectedly funny and really, really dark, which I love. What about the storyline or character grabbed you when you first read the script?

I think it was the reading of the whole script in general. I just felt like I hadn't read anything like it and I didn't know where it was going. I think oftentimes scripts, even brilliantly written scripts, within the first 20 pages, half an hour, you know where it's going. There was just something so exciting about not knowing what was coming at every turn and having all of my expectations thrown off. This character is just stuck in a way and also somebody who's extremely loyal. It was important for me not to approach it as a revenge thing, I think this is someone who just absolutely loved her friend and is loyal to her to her own detriment. I thought she was fascinating.

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That must've been really interesting to read too because even as we're watching the film, without giving too much away, I think there's actually a thought line that perhaps your character, Cassie, is imagining some of the things that are happening, at least that's what my husband thought when we were watching. It was very cleverly done. Did you have that thought at all?

I didn't, but I think that's a really interesting reflection. What [writer and director] Emerald [Fennell] and I talked about a lot was that this was somebody who was in really deep pain. As someone somewhat akin to addiction, these ventures that she's going on in the evening are something that in the moment she achieves that twist where the guy realizes that she's sober, she gets this real hit of satisfaction that lasts for a short period of time and then wears off. For her, it feels like something proactive that she's doing to be able to cope. Actually, it's obviously not.

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She is somebody who's very much just in stasis, and has been like that for 10 years. This event happened a long time ago, and I think something I found so interesting about her is that this isn't somebody who has fresh trauma, this is someone who's lived with something for so long that it's calcified within her and she's just frozen a bit. That's where you meet her at the beginning of the story, at least, I think things evolve quite a lot.

I'm a fan of "Killing Eve," which Emerald is a writer and executive producer on. And with this film, I love the idea of noir, dark humor built into this very sobering story of pseudo addiction, of perhaps mental illness, and also of real true loyalty and true love.

Quickly after reading the script, Emerald sent me a playlist of music that had Paris Hilton, Charlie XCX, it had "Toxic" by Britney Spears in two different forms, and then meeting her rounded out the picture. I do think she's just got a really unique perspective, and she's incredibly funny, incredibly smart and sees things in a very particular way. Obviously her work on "Killing Eve" is amazing, she's also an incredibly accomplished actor, but she's this really difficult tightrope walk of blending these genres of thriller and horror and romance, and I think it's such a difficult thing to pull off. I think it came from her mind and it had to be her. She was the one who could bring it all together because I do think it's a real task.

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"Promising Young Woman" feels like a feminist story for our times. With #MeToo, we have seen these rapey guys who unfortunately exist the world over and are very seldom called on their bad behavior, finally being called out recently. How did playing the alt-times heroine make you feel?

I think it's a different experience now releasing the film than it was making it. I never really think big picture. Obviously Emerald does and was, and there's a lot of religious iconography in the design and the cinematography of the film, portraying Cassie as somewhat of an avenging angel who is going out on behalf and is there to dole out punishment or forgiveness depending on how her subjects react. But for me, I just had to keep coming back to the really simple storyline of these two best friends. Doing justice for her friend, that was the center of it. I think there were two moments in the film that really, well a number actually. Probably one of them, it's a spoiler, so I won't go there.

There was a couple of moments in the film where I was speaking about my friend, Nina, in the film and speaking about her, but because of the conversations that we've heard over the last couple of years and everything that I had read, and it felt in those moments much bigger than me, and much bigger than this film, and much bigger than this character. Because we are talking about so many people's personal experience, and that comes with a hefty amount of responsibility of being as honest as we can. It was just really important to try and be truthful and to be honest with how we're doing all of this, which I think Emerald does through the film and to the end of the film in the way that it's written.

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The film is often described as a revenge story, which you touched on, and it is in so many ways, but it's also a love story as I saw it. Not in the boy meets girl way that you might expect based on your character's romance during the film. What do you think makes it both?

Well, I think there is that aspect of it, there is the brilliant Bo Burnham who comes in and charms the socks off everyone, but this story was a lot about love for me. From the beginning, it was about the love of a family and how people react when they don't know how to reach somebody. I think one of the most moving parts of the film for me really is her parents' inability to reach her. The scene particularly between Clancy and Cassie, where he's trying to reach his daughter again, and of course at the center of it, her love for her best friend. I think that's something that we seldom see in cinema in the same way is this sisterhood, particularly when you're a teenager and a young woman. In my experience, increasingly so, those relationships are so important and you are fiercely loyal to your closest friends.

I think Emerald pointed out that historically, we've probably been more inclined to fight on behalf of our friends as opposed to ourselves in some way. That relationship is really key. It was interesting, I was doing an interview the other day where somebody asked about Cassie and said, "Well, she's nuts, right? Would you say by the end of the film she's nuts?" I thought that was so interesting because I thought we've seen so many films where men have gone on a warpath on behalf of their sister, daughter, wife, I suppose daughter and wife more commonly, or girlfriend or whatever, and I don't think we would ever say, "Well, he's just gone crazy." Because that's something that we're so comfortable with as a genre and an idea, but we're somehow so unfamiliar with this that it seems crazy. That was just interesting. I think a lot of this is just about our expectations of women on screen, and I love that Emerald's so interested in writing characters that feel real, female characters that feel honest.

Absolutely. That's great analysis. The analogy between how men are treated and allowed to behave and how women, in life and in character, it's almost like Freud's hysteria. It's like, "Oh, well, she must be crazy, and yet he's just doing the right thing." Forget that. We can let that one go now. When you're reading scripts for new and upcoming projects, even as we're stuck here in the moment, have you seen an increase in the theme of female empowerment in any scripts you're reading or projects you're perhaps collaborating on since male aggressors and rapists in and outside of Hollywood have finally started being called on some of the bad behavior?

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Well, I think in a way, women have just been really doing it for themselves for the last five years or so. There's definitely been a huge change, and I think that that's in large part because of women getting stuff made. Actors who've just decided that they're going to create their own content. I think there has been a lot more interesting writing for women, interesting projects, and I think that has been largely led by women. The amount of brilliant work for women in the last, however many years, with "Big Little Lies," and starting probably with "Olive Kitteridge" around then when Frances McDormand had put that production together. Women have been creating their own interesting work and that work has been really successful commercially. I think the industry pays attention to that. Then you have "Fleabag" and "Killing Eve" and all these shows with female writer, directors, creators who are putting the stuff out into the world and it's getting this enormous response.

I think that has started something in a real way where there's an understanding now that these stories are relevant to everyone — they're not just for women. Men love these shows as much as women do. Now there's an appetite for it in a really exciting way and we've got all these brilliant people putting this work out. People like Margot Robbie, who produced this film, her production company, LuckyChap, their mission is to find stories about interesting and real women. All of that stuff feels very encouraging.

That's so great. I want to take just a minute to appreciate the art direction in the film. We talked a little bit about the music, the costumes, the locations, what a dreamy and mixed-era approach to what I think was modern-day L.A., and I'm sure this was intentional. I loved Cassie's parents' oddly dated home, for example, as though they, like her, are stuck in time. Can you tell us about it and also what your favorite elements were? Your costumes were fabulous.

Nancy [Steiner], who did our costumes, is just so brilliant. The parents' house was amazing. I remember the first time we'd shot a couple of things in there, Jennifer and Clancy and I, and then Alison Brie came to shoot the scene that she does in the house, and she walked into the set and she looked around, and Emerald went, "Do that. When you come in, do that." Because it was exactly that reaction. She does it in the film, she walks in and she's like, "What? Where am I?" Just stepped into a time machine.

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Were there plastic covers on the couches? Because that's the kind of thing you look for. Then the old intercom in the wall, did you have those in England?

Oh I'm sure. I feel like there was portraits of dogs. It was just amazing. That was such a hilarious set. I loved Cassie's childlike bedroom, it looked like it was a 16-year-old's room. The coffee shop obviously was such a great set. The pharmacy, I think, looks so stunning with the neon pink signage. But I think all of the set design was just so clever. Obviously, the costume was a huge part of the characterization because this is somebody who really understands the power of how to present oneself.

Emerald, when we first met said, "Look, this is not a woman in a gray cardigan staring out of a window. This is somebody who's very much hiding in plain sight, and somebody who has a multi-colored manicure and wears pretty clothes. Doesn't look like somebody who's capable of destroying your life." There's something very intentional about the way that Cassie decides that she's going to dress herself like this. Also, when you look like that, people think you're okay. They think you're functioning.

I think Gail's pretty much one of the only characters who can really see that she's not, and she has suspicions about that, But I think to the outside world, Cassie looks like she's doing fine. I think if she didn't put on makeup, if she looked the way that she feels, which is in great pain, she'd get way too much attention and she doesn't want that, she just wants to shut everybody out. That was really interesting to talk to Nancy about. Obviously Emerald was involved in all of those conversations.

We don't see you get dressed ever in the film, and yet you've got those incredible weaves, or that blonde wig that looked very heavy. It was a lot. There's a lot going on! We have to wrap up soon, but before we do, I just wanted to say on a human note, we're coming up on Christmas. As a mom of two young kids, the pandemic's been really challenging for parents to manage, virtual school and work and maintaining sanity. What have you learned about yourself as a parent in the past eight months? Me, I'm tired of cooking dinner. How about you?

I have felt extraordinarily lucky to live outside of a city and have space, but there's definitely challenges. We've got small children, but I do think we've been lucky, and to be in the minority that's had a good experience in that life's slowed down and became very small in a way, that was probably good. But that's hard because there's so much suffering going on. It's been an incredibly odd year, but I think we've felt lucky to have this window of time of being away from everything in probably good way. But I'm certainly looking forward to getting back to work.

"Promising Young Woman" opens in select theaters on Christmas Day. 


Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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