Carey Mulligan is a hard one to read. A highly respected actress (set to follow in the footsteps of serious British thespians like Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench), she’s a public figure who has garnered a reputation for being politely distant – she’s certainly extremely guarded about her personal life. Unlike many other celebrities of her generation, the actress does not maintain a social media presence and has effortlessly avoided public break-ups, feuds, wardrobe malfunctions or any of the other histrionics that provide fodder for the tabloids. In one respect, her carefully managed image has added to her gravitas: if less is said about her personally then it’s easier for the audience to be swept away by her in character. Just when you think you have her pinned as the fresh-faced innocent, she’s metamorphosed into the beleaguered wife.
As such, I have prepared myself for a circumspect encounter with a thoughtful and somewhat solemn Brit, but am heartened when I join an approachable and very talkative Mulligan for coffee at the Ivy in Kensington. (She’s happy, even, to throw in an f-bomb to illustrate a point from time to time.) Petite in person, with her hair bleached blonde and her face bare save for a dash of mascara, the 32-year-old breezes into the restaurant without any entourage, dressed effortlessly in an oversized men’s shirt and black jeans.
Over the past two years, all has seemed quiet on the work front for Mulligan, who, along with her husband of five years, musician Marcus Mumford, now has a two-year-old daughter and a four-month-old son, but today she has a slew of new projects to talk about, including Dee Rees’s latest feature film, Mudbound, recently released on Netflix, and the upcoming BBC drama Collateral. It’s reassuring to note that her hiatus, while juggling pregnancy and motherhood alongside a career, hasn’t posed a threat. In fact, quite the opposite.
With Collateral, written by acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and director David Hare, she was just six weeks pregnant when she was offered the lead part of the detective. Yet Hare, who she had worked with on the revival of his theatre production of Skylight when she was pregnant with her first child, barely blinked. “I wrote to him and said: ‘You’ll never guess, but I’m pregnant again. So can I do it pregnant?’ He said: ‘I don’t see why not.’” What’s more, her changing physical state barely altered the plotline for her character. “I loved that he didn’t rewrite my character, that he just didn’t make a fuss about it. It felt more real to life, because when you’re pregnant you do just go about your life.”
Mulligan would know: tomorrow she is packing up the whole family and flying to LA to begin the promo tour for Mudbound. “It’s the same as when I had my daughter,” she says of her busy schedule. “We started press for Suffragette like three weeks after I gave birth to my daughter, so you just get back into it and it’s fine, because it’s not like filming, where you need to use your brain all the time. It’s much more about kind of showing up.” On the Vogue cover shoot, she brought along her son when he was just two months, breastfeeding between shots. “We had a really fun time; it was mad,” she says of the photo shoot, which sees her decked out in dramatic haute couture dresses on a rooftop in New York. “I was putting on sunglasses and wearing these absolutely enormous, crazy gowns. I like shoots when you can sort of disappear into it all.”
“It’s very much in Carey’s mind to play real people who are doing real things,” says Hare when I speak to him on the phone. “In both of my projects, she played the principal instigator of the action. When people talk about female role models, that’s not what is important – what is important is that stories are driven by women. Carey wants to be the person who runs the story. She also wants to 100 per cent believe that this might happen in the real world. She hounded me about rewriting a scene in Collateral. I eventually did and it is 50 times better than what I wrote originally.”
As an artist, Mulligan is a big fan of director Paul Greengrass’s style of documentary realism. “I think everything she does in life is an extended audition for one of his films; we’re all there to help her,” jokes Hare. She is certainly most comfortable disappearing into gritty, pedestrian roles. In a surprising revelation, given some of harrowing parts she has taken on, she says that she found the glamorous Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s production of The Great Gatsby her most challenging role to date. “It was the first time I’d played a character where I knew I had to look a certain way, you know?” she explains. “Daisy is described as like ‘the King’s daughter’ and the ‘golden girl’ by Fitzgerald. So I think the weight of that kind of got in my way. I felt too self-aware and I just couldn’t give everything that I wanted to give.”
While undeniably a delicate beauty, Mulligan has never pursued roles that are defined by her appearance. I can’t help feeling this might have contributed to the unanimous industry-wide respect she has garnered, although it’s a shame to consider that beautiful women still have to be strategic to be taken seriously. “After An Education, Carey got thrown into the film industry and was like a lot of young women who immediately find themselves playing the adored or the admired, in which they’re ultimately objects,” Hare offers. “She bore that for a while and then threw it off. I’ve never spoken to her about it, but I can only imagine that she decided it wasn’t for her.”
When Mulligan and I meet, it’s during the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal; the subsequent #MeToo hashtag has been filling up everyone’s Twitter feed. Mulligan doesn’t do social media: “I was on Instagram, but I got rid of it, because I found myself just looking at other people’s babies,” she jokes, but like everyone else, she’s been caught up in the news cycle. “I mean it’s appalling, but I’m not surprised by a lot of the things coming out, which is a sad state of affairs, really.”
Although she started out young, she says she feels like one of the lucky ones. “I know a lot of actresses, friends of mine, who have felt vulnerable, but I don’t think I ever have, in that sense.” She continues: “I have felt belittled and I think I’ve felt kind of lesser-than. I’ve definitely experienced sexism in terms of how I’ve been treated. When I’ve tried to assert my opinion on scripts, for example, I feel I’ve had to fight a bit harder to get my voice heard.”
A self-professed theatre geek, Mulligan has been performing since the age of six and shakes her head at the suggestion that there was any other path she could have taken. “I never did any professional acting while I was at school, but acting was just my thing and I tried to do every extracurricular version of it,” she says, adding with a wry smile: “I was shit at sport. I mean, I was enthusiastic, but I was useless.”
After high school, she applied to drama school but didn’t get in. A chance encounter with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, and a lot of grit on her part, secured her a part as one of the Bennet sisters in Pride & Prejudicealongside Keira Knightley. From there, things slowly took off. She did some TV – Agatha Christie and Doctor Who – and spent time on stage at the Royal Court, doing what all English actresses do at some point in their career: bonnet dramas. Then along came the coming-of-age hit An Education in 2009, which garnered her a BAFTA award, along with Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. She’s never looked back.
In An Education, Mulligan played the part of the ingénue Jenny to perfection, but she has avoided making missteps of her own. Just scan her filmography and you won’t find a single so-so project. Her secret weapon is perhaps a case of severe pickiness, which has meant she hasn’t been afraid to hold out for the right opportunity. “If I can imagine some brilliant actress doing this role and think to myself: ‘Well, that would be nice, I could go and sit in a cinema and watch them’ then I know that I just shouldn’t do it and I should let it go,” she says. Recognising a role isn’t right for her has served her well. To date, she’s clocked up projects with a who’s who of directors: Joe Wright, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steve McQueen and the Coen brothers, to name but a few. “I have a wish list at home that I am just ticking off,” she says, jokingly. (In all seriousness, though? Paul Greengrass, she does have her sights set on you next.)
Mudbound, her first feature release since 2015, marks yet another coup for the actress. Set in the aftermath of World War II in the mud-caked cotton fields of deep Mississippi, the film follows two former servicemen – one white, one African American – and their families, as they struggle to make ends meet and navigate intense racial tensions. Mulligan plays the role of Laura McAllan, the wife of one of the farmers. It’s a supporting part, but the camera can’t help but be drawn to her. Timid at first, as the film progresses she emboldens Laura with the stern defiance of a woman trapped by her circumstances.
Another light-hearted part, I tease? She laughs. “If I read a role and think: ‘I could probably do it quite easily’ then I don’t bother. Because unless it’s really hard and quite scary, there’s no point in doing it,” she says with characteristic pluck. “Plus, I had watched Dee’s first feature, Pariah, and that was such a good film, so concise and well told, and emotional, but not sentimental,” she continues. “I just thought: ‘Whatever she does next is going to be amazing and I want to be in it.’”
For Mulligan, Mudbound meant signing on to yet another period piece, a trend that seems to befall most British character actresses. Yet to say her career has been defined by such roles would be remiss: she memorably tackled raw, of-the-now roles in both Drive and Shame. Still, after her most recent releases, Suffragette and Far From The Madding Crowd, she does admit that she was reticent to get back into costume.
“I was sort of really, really determined that the next thing I did be contemporary,” she says, “but Dee’s so smart, so current and modern, and I knew that she would imbibe the film with all of that and it wouldn’t feel ‘old’, because the story just couldn’t be more relevant.” Much of the press around the film so far has been about the pertinence of its theme: racial tensions from 70 years ago that eerily echo today’s current affairs. “I think in a weird way current events have made the film more accessible, so if that is the way people discover it, that is okay,” says Rees, adding of Mulligan’s performance: “Carey immersed herself in the process, she jammed the dirt into her fingernails and gave this very internal, restrained performance. She had read Hillary’s book [on which the film is based] and we added elements to the script. She really brought forward things into the character.”
For her next act, Mulligan will return to the stage at London’s Royal Court in February for a five-week run of a new one-woman play by Dennis Kelly. This seems to me to be the final feather in her cap – the ultimate test for an actor to undertake, and she’s visibly excited by the opportunity. “It’s very rare to get a one-woman show: there’s more written for men and there aren’t that many written for women. I’ve only ever seen one, I think,” she says, happily. “I actually never thought it would come up.”
Daunting though it might be, she says that she is slightly more comfortable on stage than on camera. “In theatre, once you get through the initial previews, which are fucking unbearably nerve-racking – I don’t even know how I’m going to do this one – you kind of get in your stride and then it feels great.” No mountain too high for Mulligan. Let’s just hope Greengrass is watching.