Once the quietly bold, somewhat naïve teenage characters of “An Education” and “Never Let Me Go,” actress Carey Mulligan has swiftly altered course in the past few years and tapped into an inner rage—first as Michael Fassbender’s unsettled sister in Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” and now as the perpetually furious folk singer Jean in the Coen Brothers’ newest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis”. Her character has good reason (mild spoilers): facing the struggles of starting a music career in 1960s New York alongside a volatile affair with Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac), Mulligan’s character is a cathartic, energetic flood of anger over Llewyn’s aimless nature, and a unique touch to the brilliant film that falls in line among the directors’ best.
Recently we got the opportunity to sit down in Los Angeles with the “Drive” actress, who also contributed her own vocals to the brilliant “Inside Llewyn Davis” soundtrack. She had just flown in from Dorset, fresh off Thomas Vinterberg’s adaptation of “Far From The Madding Crowd,” and in our talk she discussed Vinterberg’s approach to the period film, her shift in preparation when working with the Coens and also an update on Nicolas Winding Refn’s announced “all-female horror” film “I Walk With The Dead” (which recently received a new writer in precocious Brit playwright Polly Stenham).
In the script, Jean is described in her first scene simply as “a young woman.” How did you, the Coens, and possibly even Oscar build up Jean’s intense personality?
Well, you get so much of a sense of her from her dialogue. You understand that she’s a very close friend of Oscar’s character; they have a history, they’ve been friends for a long time, and you’re meeting them in the absolute worst week. I think you kind of understand the world that she’s in by the things that Llewyn says about her—the things that she doesn’t say about herself, the things she won’t admit to. She’s in a relationship with the wrong person—Justin [Timberlake's] character—and the person that really knows her best is Oscar’s character. Everything else was just sort of fun to play with; I was trying to temper my anger in her scenes and the Coens just kept pushing to be more furious.
My audition tape was pretty extreme, anger-wise, and then when we got on set we just started playing with it. Ethan particularly thought it was hilarious, because in his mind I was always playing nice people, so he thought it was really funny that a 16-year-old schoolgirl would be playing someone quite so mean. But [The Coens'] are not big for the backstory. They don’t really sit you down and explain. John Goodman is always saying that he has no idea who his parts are or where they came from. I’m not like that at all; I generally tend to go into all of my projects with a huge scrapbook, and I spend months figuring out what I’m going to do—not planning necessarily, but feeling qualified enough. On this I had none of that. I was filming [“The Great Gatsby”] up until four days before I filmed this, so I walked straight off that onto this set and had no prep time. I just kind of winged it, and that was actually great for once. Not that The Coens wing it, but they just want people to get up and do it.
Going from Gatsby, a massively-scaled big-budget operation, onto “Inside Llewyn Davis,” was there a sense of relief coming onto something smaller?
I tend to do lots of small films, so I’m probably more comfortable doing those, but ‘Gatsby’ was strange, it was great. You know, whenever you’re doing something, you want to be doing the exact opposite. When you’re doing a movie, all you want to be doing is theatre, and vice-versa. So I loved going from Daisy, where I’d spent months in a dress and high heels and jewellery and make-up and looking perfect, to going to this with no makeup or emphasis on her appearance whatsoever. Or at least it wasn’t a big conversation about her vanity.
Do you relish roles amongst an ensemble more than having a central lead role?
No, I’ve just done a leading role for the first time since “Never Let Me Go” [in “Far From The Madding Crowd”], and I really liked it. I just hadn’t found the right part, and I had been offered things that I just wasn’t excited by. I was very excited about Nicolas Winding Refn and getting to work with him. The character in “Drive” was lovely, but it wasn’t that that drew me to do it—it was working with Ryan [Gosling] and Nicholas. And then “Shame,” getting to work with Steve McQueen was a huge draw but it was also a brilliant part. The size of the role hasn’t been a huge thought in the past couple of years though.
I prefer doing leading roles actually. Coming into a film in a supporting role is somehow harder, because especially if you’re sort of nervous coming in it’s difficult to establish yourself. If you’re playing a lead role and in every scene, there’s room for error. With supporting roles, it’s less so; you kinda have to nail it in the scenes that you’re in, or it’s a disappointment. But I’ve enjoyed so many of them—I’ve forgotten what it was to play a leading part, and how all-consuming it is. You do end up taking on a lot of responsibility, even in your own head, of how the entire film is, as opposed to just your part.
In talking with Refn about his planned horror film “I Walk With The Dead”, what level of involvement will you have with that?
I don’t know what it is yet. That’s all in his mind. I’ll go with him, I’ll go anywhere with him, because I think he’s just such a brilliant filmmaker, but that’s never been more than the two of us saying we’ll make a film together again.
What was that discussion like?
I lived with him and his family when we were filming “Drive,” and we really liked working together and wanted to do something where I had more to do. And so he always talked about doing this film called “I Walk With The Dead,” and then he announced it at a film festival in a middle of an interview and it turned into a thing. We’re in contact all the time, but we haven’t sat down to talk about what it’s going to be. I mean, it could happen in 10 years, but I hope it happens eventually. I’d love to work with him again.
It’s interesting that you’ve worked with two filmmakers who favor extended takes to really draw the viewer in—Refn and Steve McQueen—but with completely different results. How did your process change from acting in “Drive” and “Shame”?
I loved working with Steve so much, but it was a totally different energy. Nicolas is very low-key and calm and everything’s done very gently. “Drive” was sort of a fairy tale—it was a princess stuck in a tower and a knight in shining armor—so we could afford to really play with those beats and build up that relationship. I mean, we cut all of the lines out of “Drive.” There was so much more to say but we would just come in every day and be like, ‘You don’t need to say any of this.’ So we didn’t.
“Shame” was much more intense. A couple of months before, Steve and I hung out a lot. We went to go and see photography exhibitions together and talk constantly. Then when we were filming it was always a night shoot, it was always one in the morning before I was on-set, and we would always just shoot 16 takes in a row. A lot of it was one shot and the camera would just follow us across the room. There was sort of a manic energy to it. Steve’s got that; he kind of feeds off it and encourages it and he’s like a whirlwind to work with. He used to watch a take and come in and be so excited by what would happen. His expectations are so high, he was like a football coach screaming at you, but never in a negative way. Positive, but so amped up all the time—it was such a high level that he would expect more and more and more.
Well, there’s the tale of you trying to make him stay in a meeting and consider you for the part when he was trying to leave. Do you need those collaborators that perhaps doubt you initially?
Yes, very much. Steve said to me in that meeting, “You’re good, but if you’re going to be in my film you’ve gotta be ten times better.” I was like, “Great. Make me.” I don’t ever want to be the same as like the film that I’ve just done. I want to be much better.
Did Vinterberg say the same thing when considering you for “Far From The Madding Crowd”?
He did, actually. But I think that would always be an ambition for a director. You always want someone who wants one more take. I hate moving on from scenes. I mean, at some point you obviously trust a director and if they’ve got the take, they’ve got it. But you want someone who’s going to push you for one last stretch to see if there’s anything else.
How do you feel that “Far From The Madding Crowd” approaches the English period drama?
Well, Vinterberg is an outsider so he doesn’t have the reverence for Hardy. I mean, obviously he respects and loves the novel, but he’s not precious about it. It’s so hard to describe the way he works, but it’s really liberating. The stakes in “Far From The Madding Crowd” are so high, and the things that happen in that story are so massive and very melodramatic. I think he embraced the melodrama and I think that’s going to be really exciting. It’ll either be something completely insane or it’ll work, and I think it’ll work.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in theatres on December 6th.