The Shame star reveals why she's reluctant to play the fame game.
She may be co-starring with the UK's hottest male lead in Shame and Hollywood’s premier A-lister, Leonardo DiCaprio, in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby; she may count Oliver Stone and Nicolas Winding Refn as past collaborators; she may have been awards-buzzed; and even found herself the subject of tabloid gossip, but is Carey Mulligan actually a star? Maybe a better question would be, ‘Does Carey Mulligan want to be a star?’ Today, the answer sounds disconcertingly like a ‘no’, as LWLies found out recently when we met up with Mulligan to chat about her part in Steve McQueen's latest.
LWLies: Like most people, we first spotted you around An Education. How have the details of your life changed since then – professionally and personally? At the time that you’re living through what looks like a big change in your career and life, are you aware of those changes happening?
Mulligan: I don’t know. It’s strange. We didn’t really expect anybody to see An Education, and not that many people really did, it just became, sort of, a thing. I mean, I’d been working for five years before that but in television and theatre and little parts in films, but that was such a small film we didn’t really know anything was going to happen. And then all that stuff kind of happened and it was all a bit sort of overwhelming. It was very strange. But it all kind of happened in America, which I think made a difference because it felt like… I did The Graham Norton Show last night and I was terrified. But I’ve done talk shows in America where I haven’t been scared at all because it feels removed in a way. I feel like it’s even more of putting on a character because it’s in American so it doesn’t sort of apply to my life. And I did Graham Norton last night with Ricky Gervais and I was terrified – I couldn’t say a word. I just laughed and cried the whole way through. Because it was English and because it was something I’d grown up watching. So yeah. I don’t know. It feels like stuff has changed in America but not in England.
Do you still feel like this here is your real life? This is the life that counts.
I think now, yeah. It was weird, for a couple of years I was living in America so before… I did a play in New York and a film in New York around then, and then I went back and lived there when I did Wall Street. Then I lived in LA for a year – most of which I didn’t work – and then I did Drive and then moved to New York. So I haven’t been in England for a while, really, I’ve been over there. So now, literally in the last couple of months, I feel like London is real life.
What do you do when you’re not working, when you’re between jobs?
The year that I took off, I took off because there was nothing significantly different from stuff I’d already done. I’d done Never Let Me Go and then Wall Street. Then all that stuff happened with An Education, then lots of people started offering me parts playing 16-year-old precocious teenagers, and I didn’t want to, you know, repeat myself or be, you know… So I didn’t work. I just hung out. I didn’t do anything like that impressive. I wish I’d used the time more wisely but I was just around. Recently I’ve been working a bit more so down time’s just been, sort of, chilling out.
Do you get the sense that off the back of the work you’re now doing, which is more high profile, there are new experiences that are open to you that wouldn’t have been before?
Yeah, I don’t think… I mean, Nic[olas] Winding Refn has not seen any of my work apart from my work in Drive. Ever. His wife had seen An Education and she said that he should give me the job. He loves his wife and she’s awesome so he gave me the job. So if it hadn’t been for that film getting publicity or awards or whatever, then I wouldn’t have got Drive. And I certainly didn’t expect Steve McQueen to give me this job, you know? And that’s something that wouldn’t have happened two years ago. Because I read it and I thought that it would have been given to someone sexier and grittier. You know, darker in a way, and I’d done lots of comfortable characters. Never Let Me Go was quite dark but it felt middle class in a way. I felt like I just kept on veering towards those roles and I wanted to do something so vastly different from what I’d done before and had it not been for all that stuff with An Education then I definitely wouldn’t have got… Or Daisy in The Great Gatsby. All of these doors opened but these things don’t become accessible overnight, I still have to audition for things.
How do you find that now? Does the auditioning process change or is it the same as it always was?
Some things are, some things aren’t. Like, Nic didn’t have me audition. Steve didn’t. But for The Great Gatsby, yeah, the first audition was about an hour and a half, the second audition was about two and a half hours, and then you still have the waiting time. I auditioned three times for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And I auditioned for the Coen brothers two weeks ago.
Which was successful, right?
Yeah it was. Thank goodness! So sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. Directors sometimes don’t want to audition you.
Can you tell us more about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo auditions?
The first audition I did, I don’t think I was sort of in his mind for it. So the first audition I did for the casting director without him. And then the second was with him and the third one was with him. He is very specific. He tells you exactly what he wants you to do. He’s very kind. I was intimidated, but he was very… He’s very direct. I like people who are direct. I just sort of went all out for it because I did feel a little bit stuck in sort of being young looking or playing these parts. And I’d done so much costume drama and all these things kept on presenting themselves as opportunities and I just thought, ‘If I could do that… ha!’ And also to work with him and to work with Daniel Craig was an amazing opportunity. It was such a great character. But he was just very, yeah, very specific, very direct, very honest and quiet brief – with me, at least. His reputation of course is that he takes, like, 45 takes so him being brief with me was probably an indication that I wasn’t going to get the job. But that’s okay.
There was a suggestion that there was a real fight for that role among actresses in Hollywood. How does that fight manifest itself? Is it all sharp elbows and first in the door?
No because it doesn’t really work like that. It gets offered out. Or in my mind it gets offered out to a couple of actresses before it goes anywhere near anyone else and then if they don’t do it you start auditioning. And no, I don’t know. I mean also, half the time it’s just rumours that you’re meant to be vying for some job you’ve never heard of, that you’re completely wrong for. That’s strange. I don’t know that many actresses.
The more time you spend as an actress, do you get better at focussing on the job, the craft, or do you have to spend more time playing the game – working out the politics and the studio relationships?
I don’t know because I’ve not ever really made any kind of strategic choices in terms of… And certainly not with studios. Things have sort of been, yeah… I haven’t tried to do a big… The Great Gatsby was, sort of, director and actor and character based, you know? My, sort of, desire to do that film. And Shame was the same. Or Nicolas, working on Drive was just to work with Nicolas, just to be in one of his films. It wasn’t necessarily the character – the character wasn’t a very challenging… Not to diminish it but it wasn’t like playing Sissy in Shame, which was, kind of, terrifying. That part in Drive was, like, lovely but not, you know? So much fun to do but it wasn’t a big thing. I wanted to be in one of Nic’s films. But yeah, my choices… My London agents I’ve been with since I was 18 and we’ve got really similar tastes, and my American agents don’t seem to, maybe they do, but I don’t feel like they push me into things. What's cool is that if you’re a little bit more well known you can help finance independent films better. Michael Fassbender financed Shame because he’s Michael Fassbender. Michael used to just do indie films but the more well known he’s got, the more films he’s been able to help get made, which is probably the best thing about it.
Is that the goal – the ultimate position to be in?
Yeah, I don’t know. I think if you’ve got families and kids and lots of responsibilities then, you know, maybe you do things to supplement making independent films. But even independent films, in relation to the rest of the nation, you get paid really well, you know? It’s not like that small in comparison to nurses and doctors and teachers, you know, you’re getting paid really well. So I don’t totally buy into the ‘one for them, one for me’ thing. But that’s not to say… I’m working on a studio film but I’ve always felt like you get paid very well in television and you get paid very well in independent film comparatively so to do a studio film for the money… Right now, speaking now with no kids and whatever, seems a little bit silly to me. But I’ll probably change my mind when I’ve got, like, seven children and I’ve got to educate them and feed them.
Was there a point where you started to really believe that you’re an ‘actress’?
I don’t know, it’s funny. I used to tell people that I was a geography student until I was, like, 23 because I’d say actress and they’d be like, ‘Oh, what have you been in?’ And I’d be like, ‘You won’t have seen it.’ It was just so awkward and I hate that at Customs because I’d say Never Let Me Go and they’re like, ‘Pfft!’ Because they demand that you tell them because they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re an actress. What have you been in?’ You’re like, ‘You won’t have seen it.’ They say, ‘Go on!’ You say, ‘They’re chick flicks you really won’t have seen it.’ It’s awkward. I think because I didn’t train I’ve always felt kind of quite unqualified. So yeah, I guess I make a living from being an actress and it is always what I’ve wanted to be but there are days when I’m just terrible and I can’t act. Like, there was a day in Never Let Me Go… There was a whole scene where I’m facing down the beach while Keira [Knightley] gives us a little note. It’s a very serious scene and me and Andrew [Garfield] are meant to react emotionally. I couldn’t do anything that day. I couldn’t do anything. I just turned away. It looks like I’m having a moment but I’m just not… I can’t think what to do. Sometimes when that happens I think, ‘What on earth am I doing?’ I think the most confident I feel as an actress is when I’m doing theatre. Then when I get on film I’m a bit more like…
We would have thought there were less places to hide on stage. Is that why?
Yeah. Theatre, if you’ve got a three-hour play there’s three hours where no one can say ‘cut’ and it’s much easier to believe yourself. In film, there’s so many things that you have to forget that surround you, and so much stopping and starting and waiting around. Sometimes, not so much in independent film but definitely in bigger films and in, you know, in Great Gatsby, I am aware what things look like in a way I haven’t really been in other films because I do know that it’s a certain kind of film and she is probably the first part I’ve played that is meant to be an object of affection. I’ve not really had that before. I’ve always just played people and it doesn’t really matter what they’ve looked like – whether they’ve had make-up on or not but they’ve always just been girls or women, whereas Daisy Buchanan is meant to be pretty or whatever. So that’s intimidating. Whereas in theatre, no one can come and check your make-up or wipe your face or, you know, shoot you from one side. You’re just free.
Brit Marling said she writes her own stuff because the roles she was being offered make her ‘sick in the soul’. Does that resonate with you? Or have you moved past that stage?
Yeah, I think she’s right. Especially for, not to sound clichéd, but especially for women you probably do have to take responsibility and create your own opportunities. I mean, the parts that I’m playing next year are really small supporting roles – the Coen brothers things is a character part, she’s in a couple of scenes. And it’s the same with the Spike Jonze film. And there’s no leading or even large supporting roles that, sort of, have struck me. And some are brilliant but they’re things that I feel I don’t want to repeat. So yeah, there is. I’ve been talking to Steve about that as well, and Steve… Steve I saw in LA last week and he said, ‘Go away and read stuff, find your own things and option books and whatever.’ And that is something that I probably should do. My alternative to that is always going back to theatre. When I think there’s nothing to do I go back to do a play because classic revivals always, if you have the right director and the right idea, always work on stage, whereas with film, they tend not to in my opinion. But yeah, I can’t write. Anything. So I’m kind of stuck there but I could get someone else to write something.
That’s about taking control of your own career, and that always strikes me as a difficult thing to do for actors particularly.
I think that’s the thing to remedy. I did a play a couple of months ago that I helped get together, but nothing in terms of films.
Do you worry about saying ‘no too much? Does it affect your reputation among casting agents or producers?
I think it always, in truth, tends to make sense when you say no to something. If it’s for the right reasons. I mean, I don’t think there’s a wrong reason to say no. My agent after Never Let Me Go I think, we went out for lunch and things were going really well and she said, ‘When things are going really well, if you feel like you’re consistently working or can work, you shouldn’t take a part unless you can’t bear the idea of someone else playing it.’ So that’s the thing that I’ve stuck to, is that if I can imagine any number of any other brilliant actresses doing it, then I probably shouldn’t do it. So yeah, that’s where I’ve been coming from. When I say no… And I get told no all the time, you know? So it kind of goes both ways. But when I say no it’s generally because I don’t want to bore people by doing the same thing again. Or it’s a character that’s an accessory to the plot, or it just doesn’t add anything.
To move on to Shame, without getting into the sex addiction stuff, do you have some sympathy for the obsession that consumes Brandon? Because anyone who’s passionate about anything, it’s always going to borderline obsession. Is that something you need to be driven by, particularly as an actress.
I don’t know. Sometimes I feel very lazy and I wonder whether that’s because I’ve made the wrong choice or whether… I don’t know. Part of the reason that I campaigned or begged Steve so much for this part is because I had become really obsessed with Nina in The Seagull, which I had played on stage in London and then did it on Broadway. I was so sad to finish it – really sad – and I kept… I thought about it all the time and if I walked past the theatre that I did it in, here or in New York, I would feel really sad. It felt like a character that I didn’t want to stop playing, mainly because once you’ve done that part, there are no parts that are better written for young actresses until you get to play the older Chekhov roles. So I just pined for it and I loved it so much and I never… I’ve always been able to walk away from everything else, but that part I couldn’t walk away from. I got really, really obsessed with that and had not found a comparable screen role, like a film part, that was anywhere near how I’d felt when I played Nina. Then when I read Shame, I thought that Sissy was related in some way to her, and that if I could play Sissy then I could exorcise that character.
That’s what I said to Steve when I met him, that I’d been playing parts that I loved doing but this was the thing that I thought was going to somehow relieve me of whatever it was that I wanted to… Steve’s whole approach with me at least the whole way through the process was that we were artists. He’s very dismissive of the Hollywood machine and believes in making art – the film is a piece of art. I think it’s so stunning and so real, so he doesn’t believe in ‘acting’, he believes in people just being real on camera and him capturing it. That whole conversation about being an artist and about the work linked back in to the whole Nina/Chekhov thing. That’s all we talked about in our first meeting. And I did feel when I finished that part that Nina was done, when I finished Sissy.
How do you define Shame? Is it a portrait of Brandon in isolation, or is there something broader than that? Is it a film of its time?
When I read it I was so focussed on Sissy… I remember my agent calling me and saying, ‘There’s this part – it’s so crazy. It’s so wild.’ I was so focussed in on that I couldn’t see out of it. I had no idea what Steve was going to do because having seen Hunger, he could have done a million… I knew it was going to be extraordinary, but I didn’t know… It could have gone a million ways. I do think it’s broader than that. I do think it’s more… Steve always talked about it holding up a mirror. It’s taking a small thing that makes people uncomfortable – not the addiction so much as just the man, the way he couldn’t connect with his sister – and the ambiguity as to what went on when they were kids is intentional because it is meant to be broader than just this messed up dude. It is meant to be kind of more familiar than that. So yeah, I do think it’s broader than that.
Our producer, Ian Canning, once said to someone that he felt it was the real Facebook film, you know? That side of it – internet pornography and all that sort of stuff – was the real problem today. That was so current. The week before we started shooting there was an article in The New York Times about how young boys, young men, teenagers, couldn’t sustain healthy relationships because they had been brainwashed by pornography so they had really warped ideas of what women’s bodies look like and how they sounded and how they talked. So they ruined all their encounters, or they were overly aggressive. That side of it is interesting. It’s not the focus, the addiction isn’t the focus but it’s definitely. I do think in terms of Michael’s character it is broader than that. It’s a tiny story elevated to make you think about your own situations.
Was the singing scene harder than doing the nudity? Is there a difference between being naked and actually exposing yourself?
Yeah the singing was by far more nerve racking. The nudity was, you know… I’m reluctant to wear a swimming costume on the beach. I’d rather wear shorts and a T-shirt. I’m incredibly prudish and I’ve always avoided it in all my work. And if there’s been a scene where I’ve been slightly undressed, I’ve put on clothes. I’ve just demanded it. I always see it as being… Unless it’s completely right it is gratuitous. With Sissy, it just felt like the perfect introduction to her character, and just right. There was no concern. And the way Steve shoots bodies is so anatomical I just didn’t… It was never a real worry.
The singing was something that filled me with terror. I sang a bit when I was at school and I sang in the church choir, but I’d never sung properly. It was really, really terrifying. We were in the Boom Boom Room, and there was… He wanted it live so we never dubbed any of the singing and he wanted it all in one take so he could cut away once to Michael and get his reaction and that’s it. So it kind of had to be, you know, perfect. And I can hold a tune but I’m not a singer so it was adopting that performative thing. It was really hard. We did, like, 15 takes and the first four my voice was shaking. And Michael wasn’t there. The matte box was so close to me because my eye line was veering out too wide so they put it right here with a little cross where Michael was and then the New York skyline over there. But it was terrifying, really scary.
Later on that day, we had to do the end of that sequence: she finishes the song and then goes to sit down with Michael and James Badge Dale. Steve said I couldn’t be singing ‘New York, New York’ because I would have to have been singing another song but they didn’t have a song and could I make one up. I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ He was like, ‘You’re an artist aren’t you? You’re an artist.’ I said, ‘Can’t I sing a song that everyone knows?’ He said, ‘No because we can’t afford it so make one up.’ So I had to make up a song, but that’s just Steve…
When was the last time you felt ashamed?
Mulligan: I had a fight with my friend in New York. She came out to New York with me and helped me move into my apartment and she lost her camera in a bar and then I thought she’d implied it was my fault – it’s so ridiculous! – I marched off home. We’d both had a few drinks. We were sharing an inflatable bed in my apartment and my brother and his girlfriend were staying as well. My brother’s girlfriend’s called Lorna. I said, 'You sleep with Lorna!’ And sent her off. It was so awful. We both woke up in the morning and felt ridiculous. I felt terribly bad. I don’t like having fights with people I love.