Carey Mulligan has been doing great, challenging work for over a decade now. With her latest role as Jeannette in Paul Dano’s directorial review, she latches on to one of her most challenging parts yet. That of a woman becoming quietly more fraught in 1960 Montana after her husband loses his job and she becomes desperate for a sense of security. A state that leads her to difficult and even disturbing choices.
In our interview, we discussed Jeannette’s motivations, her process of getting inside the role, and what it was like working on Paul Dano’s first film behind the camera.
How did you come to Wildlife?
I’ve known Paul (Dano) and Zoe (Kazan) for ten years. Zoe and I did The Seagull on Broadway together. We shared a dressing room and became very good friends. She was with Paul, so I met Paul through her. We’ve been friends for a decade and have always talked about working together. Particularly me and Zoe. Her being a writer, I was constantly telling her she needed to write something we can both be in. We both loved working together on The Seagull. She and Paul wrote it together over about four years and Paul called me up two years ago – I think it was a Friday night. He said I’m going to email you a script that we’ve done together and let me know if you like it. I read it immediately and called him back. I think he tells the story that I called him the next day, but I called him immediately after I read it, and said thank you for offering me this part. Yes, please. It was all very quick and easy.
Your character starts out very supportive of her husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), even during his failures. Eventually though, Jeannette becomes more focused on survival and security. Which culminates dramatically in the dinner scene with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), where she reaches out to an older wealthy man in front of her son. She seemed so desperate. That scene felt like a thriller to me.
It is 1960. She has no skill set or higher education with which to secure any sort of real employment. You are looking at someone who is trying to attach herself to someone who can support her. She’s got a 14-year-old son to feed, to clothe, and house. I think she’s catastrophizing, but I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that Jerry (Gyllenhaal) never comes back, He could die (fighting fires in the mountain). She’s on her own now. Going to Warren Miller, he represents everything she never had with Jerry. He’s stable and secure and wealthy. He lives a very different life. I think she imagines when she was younger she could have had a life like that. I think going to that house, she’s presenting her son as part of the package. If you’re going to take me on, my son comes with me. It seems so inappropriate to take him (her son), but she feels she is doing the appropriate thing. If I’m going to enter into something with this man, if he’s going to be the on who’s going to rescue me, he’s going to rescue my son as well. So he’s introduced (to Warren). She’s kind of scolding him at dinner for not having the right answers to the questions about what he wants to do, what university he wants to go to. It’s kind of fueled by alcohol, but she’s trying to align herself with Warren Miller and have him like her son as well. But Warren isn’t playing the game. That throws her off. And she keeps being confronted by her son. Just by him being there. Just seeing his face is a reminder of her real life and her husband. This is all a bit of a fantasy. So she has to change strategy every two beats in the scene and approach it from a different angle. I think when she stands up to excuse herself…I think what she’s doing is trying to reset and come back from the bathroom and crush this. But then she stands up and all the alcohol goes to her head. You know the way you do when you sit and drink and you think you are alright and you stand up and you suddenly realize you are way further gone than you thought you were. It wasn’t perfectly mapped out, but we had a good idea of what she was going through during the scene.
When the scene appears to end, and Jeannette and her son get into the car, he looks like they just made a narrow escape. But then Jeannette runs back into the house and her son sees them kissing and perhaps more. What do you think was going through her head then?
I didn’t in my mind play that she was going back in for their to be a kiss or for it to go any further. I think she’s going back in to smooth over what just happened. I don’t think she’s going back in to further it, I thinks she’s going back in to reclaim her dignity. Because at the end she says “Joe’s bored” and stomps out of there. I think she’s trying to go back and be more measured and adult and then she gets pulled into that kiss.
Wildlife reminds me a bit of Revolutionary Road and the domestic scenes in Tree of Life. Where a woman is dependent on the man, but neither exactly know their place in the world as the man fails under the weight of expectations. Did you feel any connection to other work that you’ve seen or been a part of?
No, I didn’t. Of all the scripts I’ve ever read, this felt like one of the most complete pieces of writing that I’ve ever come across. Most particularly, with Jeannette, I feel like there was nothing to embellish, nothing to add, nothing to edit – the character was just so clearly on the page. They had given so much complexity and richness to her. I’m sure subliminally I was thinking of things that inspired me, and certainly both of those films have, but there was nothing I was actively pulling into that role. Because she felt unique to me and I felt excited by how much of her was on the page to figure out.
You have to play a lot of interior emotions that are just barely under the surface in this film. Can you talk about that challenge?
I think trying to figure her out as I went was the most challenging part. When I got a handle on her, it didn’t feel hard. The first scene I shot was the scene in the diner. That was such a tricky place to start because it was smack dab in the middle of her week of this identity crisis, so I couldn’t calibrate where she was. We did it a bunch of different ways and Paul edited it. I remember texting Zoe the next day and saying I have no idea what that was. If that was vaguely what you were thinking when you wrote that scene. We did that and then we got to Oklahoma and did the stuff at home with Jerry. Then after a couple scenes with Jake, that were at the top of the story – when they are together or when he loses his job, those scenes we shot first. Then I started getting a sense of her and it didn’t feel hard. The stuff with Jake at home, we got into a really great way of working with Paul and we felt like we were doing live theater sometimes. It was exciting. It didn’t feel hard, it felt so fun.
What was it like working with Jake?
It was great. Jake and I met on Brothers. I was in it for 25 seconds and that was about ten years ago. So we’ve been friends since then. Jake and I’ve missed on a couple of opportunities where we almost worked together and it hasn’t worked out. We read a play together once and didn’t end up doing it. Being great friends, we were really comfortable. He’s amazing to work with. He’s like a lightning bolt. No take is ever the same. He’s always trying to throw something into the mix to make it different. It was the same as doing scenes with Michael Fassbender in Shame. I always felt like they were raising my game. Which is just the best way to work.
It was hard to believe this was Paul’s first movie as a director.
I’ve known Paul for so long and he’s the most calm, smart, wonderful guy. He’s got such energy and he’s so lovely to hang out with. I kind of thought with the pressure of shooting an independent film in 28 days, a period film no less, that I might see him crack at some point (laughs), or see him slightly unsettled or ruffled, and I just didn’t. He was the picture of calm the entire way though and so assured. I really think that was a huge part of creating the environment that made it possible for us to go into those scenes. It was one of those sets that was so creative and wonderful to be on, and he made that happen. He understands acting obviously, because he’s one of the greatest actors of his generation, so he was so intuitive about the performances, and about giving notes. You start with the director and the attitude of the director feeds down to everyone else on set. His was just the best. So, everyone wanted to do their best work. You would never know in a million years it was his first feature.
While watching the film, I could see Paul at a younger age playing the part of the son. He has to be so reactive and speak for himself through his eyes. A type of acting Paul is really good at.
I wouldn’t speak for Paul, but certainly when he read the book, I think it was the character of the son he really connected with. He felt profoundly moved by the experience of the boy. I think that’s absolutely the case.
You often gravitate toward more intimate projects. Is that by design? Because you’ve had success in larger films like Gatsby, but you seem to keep coming back to these independent films.
It’s really just about the role. Daisy in The Great Gatsby, which was a huge film which we did a lot of prep for and got a huge release, was just a fascinating role for me. If they’d done a version of it for 5 million dollars, I would have chased that as well. Between doing plays or films, I just follow the best part. Maybe sometimes less the role and wanting to a part of a director’s vision. I really wanted to work with Nicholas Winding Refn (Drive) and Dee Rees (Mudbound). It was less about the role on the page being extraordinary to begin with, and more believing that the director is going to elevate it all to a different level. For the most part it’s been where’s the best combination of role and director. That’s tended to be for me more in the indie world.
I was actively angry that Mudbound didn’t get more Oscar nominations. That’s a wonderful film. I know the Oscars aren’t the reason why you necessarily do it, but it often leads to more options for talented people.
That is the truth. And also, it encourages people to take a chance on making those kinds of films. It’s similar to Wildlife. If we want to see movies about real women on the screen, we’ve got to get them into the cinema. It makes a difference.