Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to actress Carey Mulligan of Promising Young Woman about the authenticity of Cassie and Ryan’s (Bo Burnham) connection, Cassie’s relationship with her parents, and what her character knows going into that final scene.
Carey Mulligan is scoring the reviews of her career with her performance as Cassie in Promising Young Woman, which follows a woman who pretends to be drunk at bars in order to teach men a lesson.
Mulligan’s Cassie is exhausted and emotionally checked-out from the world, due to a tragedy 10 years prior when she was a medical student. She spends her days working at a coffee shop and evenings documenting her dealings with men in bars via a notebook with a series of tallies that only Cassie—and writer/director Emerald Fennell—know the true nuances behind.
It’s a role we’ve never seen Mulligan—or many actors, for that matter—tackle, as she depicts a victim-adjacent character, someone who rarely gets their own story (or as I learned, when they do, they are normally angry men). When a horrific event occurs, it doesn’t just affect one person, and Promising Young Woman is a testimony for trauma’s repercussions, played to perfection by Mulligan.
Awards Daily: This film was written and directed by a British woman, starring a British woman, about an American woman. Did your and Emerald’s background bring a different perspective to the story? Did it give it some space?
Carey Mulligan: Gosh, that’s so interesting. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it. I guess, I do think that that sometimes can be really helpful. When I did An Education, I felt so much of the humor in it was that Lone Scherfig [director] wasn’t English; she was coming [at it] as an outsider, to the English culture in the ’60s. That added a different layer. But I feel with this, it’s so universal, and it very easily could have been set in England. It came down to the fact that the film was picked up by LuckyChap [Entertainment] based in America, so it was written as an American script. It kind of could have been set anywhere. I don’t think we felt that consciously.
AD: This might sound weird, but some of the biggest champions of the film on social media appear to be straight, white men, the same ones who are villains in the movie. What do you make of that?
CM: I stay offline, particularly when I have a film coming out, because it’s never a good idea to read. (Laughs) What was really important for us was making a film that you wanted to watch, not one that you felt like you should watch. I always feel [about some films], “Gosh, I should watch that,” because I know that it’s very good or or very worthy or very educational, but this film, we wanted it to feel like a film that people were excited to see, and it would attract as broad an audience as possible. It wasn’t a chick flick; it would bring in loads of different people from all different walks of life. So it’s great that men are responding to it. That’s what we want. We wanted a broad audience to enjoy it and feel connected to it.
AD: Cassie appears to be happy for a while with Bo Burnham’s Ryan. You guys have such a great chemistry. Do you think that’s genuine or simply represents Cassie searching to feel something/anything?
CM: I think there is a genuine connection. She’s been closed off to anything like that for such a long time, so I think it’s surprising that it sticks. But when it does, I think it’s something that feels really genuine to her. It’s a testament to her loyalty to Nina in a way, that she gives it up. You need to see that there’s a path for her that’s a lot easier and a lot more pleasant. Actually she can’t take it; she can’t go down that road, because of loyalty to her friend. But I do think it’s a real thing. I love the way that Emerald uses the montage; you feel like you’re swept up into a romantic comedy in the middle of the film. I think it’s real. I played it real.
AD: It definitely feels that way, which makes it harder when it goes down a bad path. Which makes me wonder, had she stayed with Ryan, do you think she’d have a better outcome?
CM: Spoiler alert, spoiler alert: I think if she had stayed with him, I think she would have had a very different ending. But there’s no other possibility for her when she finds out. Once she discovers the truth of that event, the minute she knows that, there’s no going back. There’s not even a choice. I don’t think ultimately that there’s ever going to be true happiness for her in any way. That’s the tragedy of it. Her life was permanently derailed by that event. No matter which way she turns, that’s what she faces. There needs to be some sort of resolution of the whole thing. There’s something that feels inevitable about the route she eventually takes. Not the way that it ends, but what she chooses to do.
AD: We don’t learn a lot about Cassie’s relationship with her parents in the film, but what do you imagine they know about what happened to Nina? Do you think they might have an outdated view of events that maybe makes her feel like she can’t confide in them?
CM: I think they believed her and they believed Nina, and they thought it was wrong and tragic, but it was also 10 years ago. They’ve had a huge amount of patience for her grief, but their patience is wearing thin, because it’s 10 years later and they want her to move on, and everyone around her wants her to move on. And no one has really any patience for her still carrying this much anger about it. Like [her father] says in the film, he didn’t just lose Nina, he lost his daughter as well. Her life has just been stunted, completely, by what happened. They’ve got the full picture, but a decade later, this can’t be the defining moment in your life still that you carry every day. You can’t stay in it forever. I think there’s an element of frustration there for her to move on, and she just won’t.
AD: To work on this film, I’d think you’d have to be in a dark mindset. Did you do any kind of preparation for it? And any kind of cooldown to remove yourself from the role?
CM: Preparation was really just a lot of the conversations Emerald and I had. We wanted to be clear on who Cassie was before this event and what her relationship was with Nina. It’s important for me to approach it as a story about sisterhood, love, and loyalty—not of revenge. You can fall into some pretty generic tropes if you approach it as an actor as a revenge film. I needed to approach it like everything else and accept [that] the world around me is pretty heightened, that everything I was playing was for real. So a lot of it was just talking about what her life was like before this, who Nina was to her, and the event obviously that happened. And there were definitely some days that were darker and more difficult than others [on set], but there are two things: We were filming outside of LA every day, so I’d get in the car with my amazing assistant at the time, Monica, and we would just shoot the shit about everything that happened at work that day. And she’d tell me some really good gossip, and by the time I got home, I was ready to watch American Ninja Warrior and go to bed. Generally, decompression is a good old chin-wag on the way home, but also two kids at home, you can’t stick around in your character when you’ve got two little ones. (Laughs) When they’re like, “Mommy, why is your hair so long? Why do you have strange-colored nails?” In that sense, I’ve had to increasingly leave work at work the last couple of years.
AD: I want to talk about your final scene, without spoilers. Do you think Cassie knows what’s going to happen when she enters that bedroom?
CM: I don’t think she knows. What we agreed on, between Emerald and I, is that she was not suicidal and she was not going there to barter herself, but she had become cavalier with her life. She knew that there was enough of a risk put in place to create a concrete contingency plan. Her hope was survival, but she was realistic about what might happen. So I think she walks in with the knowledge that there are 15 fully grown men who’d all been drinking, who might at any moment realize that it’s her. She definitely has the awareness that it could all go disastrously wrong, which is why she puts everything in place. But she’s not going on a suicide mission.
Promising Young Woman is available on VOD now.