'Audiences want films about real issues that affect women': Carey Mulligan

Actress Carey Mulligan discusses her latest role in "Promising Young Woman" with Margaret Gardiner

07 March 2021 - 00:01
By Margaret Gardiner
Carey Mulligan talks about her new movie 'Promising Young Woman'. File photo.
Image: Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images Carey Mulligan talks about her new movie 'Promising Young Woman'. File photo.

When I was 17 years old and modelling, I toured around SA doing fashion shows with a group of other models. During that trip, I ended up in a hotel room with an older model and two of her male friends, also older than me. My friend and one of the men sat on the only chairs in the room, chatting.

I felt shy and out of my depth, like I'd tagged along. I sat on the edge of the bed and the other man sat next to me, talking. Suddenly, he leaned me back onto the bed and tried to kiss me. I wasn't sure what was happening. I'd felt safe going into the room because I was with my friend, but I didn't feel that way any longer. She looked up and realised what was happening and rescued me. No fuss, just: "Come on Margaret" — and we left.

A year later, I met some sponsors about a project. One of the men approached me after the meeting and asked if I remembered the moment in the hotel room, identifying himself as the man on the bed. I said I did — he didn't know how to react. We went on as though he'd never said anything.

Many women have experienced something along these lines. Some men too. A moment of feeling out of your depth, when someone can take advantage of you. Promising Young Woman deals with that situation. Written and directed by The Crown's Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, it deals with the situation with a provocative humour bordering on farce.

Since the #MeToo campaign many shows have been developed that deal with the topic. For example, I May Destroy You, created by and starring Michaela Coel, deals with the topic of sexual exploitation in a graphic, gritty way with characters that are hard to like. The female lead in this series is raped after her drink is spiked, a story inspired by Coel's actual rape.

While the latter show makes you squirm uncomfortably, Promising Young Woman makes you laugh ashamedly as unthinkable things happen. In it, a young woman takes revenge on the men who prey on the helpless; men who spike women's drinks, or those whose silence or defence of the perpetrators of gender violence make them complicit in acts of sexual assault.

The two shows take different approaches to the topic, but both productions focus on complex female protagonists who cross boundaries, and don't conform to female stereotypes.

Says Mulligan: "My character doesn't behave in the way that society expects. She doesn't care [that she's not accepted]. In the last couple of years there's been a change in terms of scripts and performances. Audiences want films about real issues that affect women."

Mulligan says when she read the script she thought, "What a tightrope walk. How do you marry those different elements: the comedy, the tragedy, the dark humour, but also the surreal sense of foreboding that carries you through the film? It's not horror, but it's definitely something close to it."

The director and actress go back a long way. "We did one of our first jobs — an episode of Trial and Retribution — together playing two friends in a nightclub. We were both 18." Mulligan's eyes twinkle and the dimples in her cheeks deepen. "We reconnected a couple of months before she sent me this script. Emerald has a particular kind of gallows humour. This show was always going to be a dark comedy.

"A lot of this film is about the ways in which we've all, at the very least, heard these stories. They're part of our drinking culture. Emerald pointed out that everything in this film has happened in a 'bro' comedy in past years. We've laughed at these shows because we watched them through a different lens — it was all adolescent silliness. The girl at the party that gets too drunk, the boy that hits on her. It's stuff we're all complicit in allowing. Promising Young Woman flips the lens so we say, ' "That's probably not right. I didn't think about it that way before.' That's what we're hoping the film will achieve. Viewers will ask, 'What part have we all played?' "

Coel agrees: "All the people I spoke to who'd experienced different forms of sexual assault highlighted the idea of consent stolen from them while they were unaware."

Mulligan says: "Just after the #MeToo Movement happened I was in a play at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I was asked to sign a five-page document about behaviour in the workplace. Everybody knew what was appropriate and what wasn't. That's a concrete step in the right direction."

 Entertainment journalist Margaret Gardiner is a former Miss SA and was the first South African woman to win the Miss Universe Pageant. Follow her on YouTube or Instagram.