An Interview with Carey Mulligan of Wildlife

Carey Mulligan is on my list of Top 10 actresses working today. She knew she wanted to act when she was a kid in school, after watching her older brother in a production. She got into plays and performances while in school, even becoming the head of the drama department. She wanted to pursue it as a profession, which her parents were against. She worked as a barmaid and other odd jobs, before getting her first paying gig In 2004 in the play Forty Winks at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It wasn’t enough to quit the other jobs, but the following year she made her movie debut in Pride & Prejudice. That lead to some BBC shows.

In 2008 she made her Broadway debut in The Seagull, but it was the following year that she came onto my radar. She blew me away in the movie An Education. Over 100 women auditioned for the role she snagged. The two critics’ groups I’m a part of (San Diego Film Critics Society and Broadcast Film Critics Association) nominated her for “best actress” for the role, as well as as Golden Globe nomination, winning the BAFTA, a SAG nomination, and the biggest of all — an Academy Award nomination. It’s safe to say, her parents at that point didn’t mind that she didn’t pursue a career in law.

Mulligan got a Tony nomination last year for the play Skylight. And it’s a safe bet she’ll get some nominations for her performance in the indie movie Wildlife that comes out this weekend.

I was given the opportunity to interview her over the phone. Since she was going to call at 9 a.m. I was eagerly waiting at my desk. When I didn’t hear from her by 9:45 I thought it wasn’t going to happen, and I headed out. Of course, once I got onto the freeway, the phone rang with a number from England. The first half of the interview I did while driving (but hey…she did the movie Drive, with Ryan Gosling; if he could do those stunts in a fast car, I figured I could keep my Saturn on the road while talking to her). After the first question, I was able to pull off to the side of the road and jot down notes from the rest of our interview.

JOSH BOARD: Before I get to Wildlife, I wanted to ask you a few questions about some of your other movies. I’m a huge fan of Nick Hornby [High Fidelity, Fever Pitch, About a Boy], and I really liked his script for An Education. When you got the script, did you realize it would turn out that well? Sometimes actors say they never know until they’ve seen the finished product.

CAREY MULLIGAN: Yes. Well…no. I loved it. It was a great part. You hope they’re going to turn out great but you never really know. Sometimes you do these indie films and they don’t get the biggest audiences. It might show at a theatre here in London for one week and then it’s gone. In a way, that can be quite good. There’s no pressure. It’s freeing in a way. You don’t feel bogged down.

JOSH BOARD: What was it like when you got the Oscar nomination for it?

CAREY MULLIGAN: Oh my god, I was thrilled! You get that 5:00 a.m. phone call or whenever it is, and it’s surreal. It’s a childhood dream. It’s a dream come true. I called my mom, and she’s a teacher. She was really short with me, and just said she’d call me back later. I thought…what the heck. When she called me back later, she explained that she was in the middle of class and had just reprimanded a student for using his phone in class. That’s right when I called and she didn’t want to be on her phone right after that.

JOSH BOARD: That’s the best Oscar story ever. Usually people just say their manager woke them up with a phone call and then they went back to sleep.

CAREY MULLIGAN: No one ever goes back to sleep! If anybody believes them when they say that, they really do deserve an Oscar.

JOSH BOARD: I loved hearing you sing “New York, New York” in Shame. It was a great version. Was it always that song you’d be singing, or did they try out a few different songs for you?

CAREY MULLIGAN: No, it was in the script. It was always that song. They had a clear idea for that version. They wanted that melancholy sound.

JOSH BOARD: And on the subject of songs, how fun was it recording the songs for Inside Llewyn Davis? I love that soundtrack. Do you listen to it all the time?

CAREY MULLIGAN: Oh yeah, it was so cool and fun doing that. We had a blast recording all those songs, but I can’t say I listen to it all that much.

JOSH BOARD: With Wildlife…you obviously knew Paul Dano was a great actor, but what was it like with him behind the camera?

CAREY MULLIGAN: Oh, he was amazing! We’ve been mates forever. I met him 10 years ago when I was on Broadway with Zoe [Kazan, his longtime girlfriend]. He told me he was doing a film. He sent me an email and told me to read it. I knew he would be good in whatever film he directed.

JOSH BOARD: There are very few actors that blow me away with just facial expressions, and you’re one of them. You sometimes have these subtle looks, or you’ll briefly look away…like a scene in a diner with your son in Wildlife. I always wonder if the actor is just doing that on their own, with how they interpret the character, or if that’s something the director tells you to do.

CAREY MULLIGAN: It’s a little of both. My instincts in that character. We talked about it before. He’s an actors’ director. His instincts are spot on. People like him are crucial. The director sets the tone at the top with what kind of things are done. We worked together well.

JOSH BOARD: How would you explain the extremes your character goes through? In the beginning, you’re so affectionate with your husband. You’re supportive when he’s lost his job. The son even sees you guys being flirtatious in the kitchen. Yet it just seemed a bit harsh with how angry you got towards him after he takes the job fighting the fire. I had a hard time with that.

CAREY MULLIGAN: Well, number one, it’s 1960. This is like the 25th job he’s lost and it’s not like she can go out and get a job with her skill set, other than a swimming instructor. Then he takes a job that only pays a dollar an hour to fight that fire. He could make more than that bagging groceries, but he doesn’t want to do that. She feels like he’s abandoning her, maybe going through a midlife crisis or that he might meet another woman. She also thinks there’s a chance he could die. His leaving is selfish. What she says to him is different at that time than it might be in 2018. She’s trying to be encouraging in the beginning.

JOSH BOARD: All of that makes sense, but…it’s the fact that you’re abandoning your kid. I just can’t buy your character doing that. It’s such an extreme to the way she was before.

CAREY MULLIGAN: It’s not really abandoning him. His dad is back and they’re bonding. She’s not just up and leaving him. The boy also has his own thing going.

JOSH BOARD: You know what? You actually convinced me. I didn’t think there was anyway you could justify the actions of what that character does, but listening to you explain it all like that…it kind of makes more sense to me.

CAREY MULLIGAN: Well good!

You can catch her new movie Wildlife, with shows starting Thursday night, at the ArcLight in La Jolla or the Angelika Film Center on Carmel Mountain Road.