The NC-17 rated drama Shame follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New Yorker who refuses intimacy with women while feeding his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. When his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly moves into his apartment, she stirs up memories of their shared painful past, and Brandon’s life begins to spiral further out of control.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actress Carey Mulligan talked about how devastated she would have been if she hadn’t gotten to play Sissy, that she never knew what co-star Michael Fassbender was going to do during their scenes, how unflinching and uncompromising director Steve McQueen is, and how sex addiction is a subject that should be discussed, but that this film is definitely not for children. She also talked about how extraordinary it is to be in The Great Gatsby and work with Leonardo DiCaprio and Baz Luhrmann, how the Coen brothers are her favorite filmmakers and that she can’t believe she gets to be one of their characters (in Inside Llewyn Davis), and that she couldn’t refuse the opportunity to work with Spike Jonze. Check out what she had to say after the jump:
How did you come to be a part of Shame? Did Steve McQueen approach you about the role, or was it something that you pursued?
CAREY MULLIGAN: Yeah, but he was meeting lots of people. They sent the script to my agents, and I asked if I could meet him. We met for breakfast and coffee, and I just said how much I wanted to do it. He didn’t ask me to audition, in the end, but I was 100% ready to go through the whole process and do anything I could to get the job. He gave me the job, a couple of hours later, and I was really surprised. I couldn’t believe he was going to give me the job because he really had no reason to. I read it and I was like, “That’s going to go to someone who’s sassy, and who’s known for doing something similar, and who’s sexy.” I was really surprised that he gave it to me. I was like, “Shit, what am I gonna do?!” I had no idea where to begin. The whole thing was quite surprising.
This is a very bold and raw film. What was your impression of the character, when you first read the script?
MULLIGAN: So much of it was just having conversations with Steve. I did The Seagull, the Chekhov play, on Broadway, a couple of years ago, and I had done it in London, and I became completely obsessed with the character, Nina, that I played in that. She’s an actress. I couldn’t find a play after that, that I wanted to do, because I couldn’t think of doing anything else. Every part is a disappointment, once you’ve done that part. And then, this year, I finally did a play again (a stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly). I had never found a role on camera that matched Nina. There was nothing that was as well written or as well drawn-out. They were all lacking something, in that respect, but I wanted something that matched Nina.
And then, when I read Shame, I thought, “This is comparable. This is a cousin to that character.” So, I just wanted to try. I didn’t want to do a costume drama. It’s a great thing to do, but I’ve done them, and I didn’t want to do the same thing again. Of course, costume dramas can be from all different eras, but at the time, I just felt very sure that I didn’t want to be boxed in as an English actress. I wanted to be an actress, rather than an English actress. So, I was trying to find ways of not being pigeon-holed like that. I didn’t want to be tied down by my accent. I wanted to play Americans. I don’t want to ever be doing the same thing twice, and I just didn’t want to repeat myself.
From Wall Street to Drive was almost a year, when I didn’t do anything ‘cause there was just nothing that was significantly different from the things I’d done before. There was just nothing to explore. But, Sissy really was all of those things, in one role. I was just desperate for that. I would have been devastated, if I hadn’t gotten it, and I was so surprised that I did. And, it was marvelous because he had so much faith in me, for no reason. He’d never seen me on stage, and I hadn’t done anything on screen that he’d seen, that was any kind of proof that I could play an extrovert and exhibitionist, who gets naked and gets drunk and sings. He was like, “Can you sing?,” and I was like, “Yeah! Not really, but okay, yeah!” I just lied, until he gave me the job.
What was it like to work with Michael Fassbender and develop the dynamic between your characters?
MULLIGAN: Half the time, I had no idea what Michael was going to do. We rehearsed, but a lot of our dialogue was improvised. We would get into scenes and I would have no idea what he was going to do. But, he had free rein to be physical with me. I grew up with an older brother, so I’m pretty good at being bashed around. He knew that he wouldn’t hurt me, if he threw me around a bit, but I didn’t know what he was going to do. It was scary, and it was exciting. It was usually all in one long take. We would just do whatever we’d like and Sean [Bobbitt], who was the D.P., would just follow us around with the camera. It was amazing.
How did you view the relationship between Brandon and Sissy? There are some really uncomfortable moments between them, specifically when he’s talking to her naked in the shower and when they fight while he’s naked on top of her. Were you able to find ways to relate to and understand these two?
MULLIGAN: Yeah. We talked in broad strokes about what happened to them when they were younger, that made them whoever they are. It was very obvious that there was a series of events, that happened when they were children, that has led them to behaving the way that they are. For clarity’s sake, it’s definitely not incest, although that seems to be floating around. The only reason I say that is that people have been saying it and it was never a conversation. It just wasn’t something we talked about, so it’s strange.
Whatever happened to them, his coping mechanism and his way of surviving is tied into this addiction. He’s become introverted and he can’t have intimacy and he shuts people out. He doesn’t let anyone close to him. And, she’s gone completely the other way. She’s has her arms stretched out and she’s like, “Love me!” She falls in love, and she runs around and she’s a mess. She’s just trying to be saved, and she comes to New York for him to save her.
I think that naked scene is about her trying to be seen. She wants to hold onto some sort of dynamic they had, as children, and forge a new relationship and try to get him back. Her humor is in his discomfort. When she makes him uncomfortable, and she does in that scene when he throws a towel at her and she throws it back, it’s funny to her. That’s how they always have been. She winds him up, and he is mean to her. That’s their normal relationship. So, she’s trying to get that back. The discomfort is intentional. She keeps on misfiring, all the time. She tries to make a joke or engage him conversation, and he just shuts her down. It’s supposed to feel kind of painful.
What was Steve McQueen like to work with, as a director?
MULLIGAN: I love the film so much. I can’t believe Steve. He’s just outrageous! He’s the most incredible filmmaker. He’s unflinching and uncompromising. This subject matter has been discussed before, in ways, but he’s not interested in acting, he’s interested in people. That’s kind of intimidating sometimes because he wants you to be more truthful. He pushes you, in that respect.
How do you feel about the NC-17 rating for this? Do you think it’s necessary because of the subject matter?
MULLIGAN: Would I be comfortable with a kid watching it? I don’t know. I don’t think children should watch it. I think it’s a film for grown-ups. I think that’s right. It’s not something that young kids should see, but it’s something that should be discussed. The point of Steve’s vision for the film is putting people and situations and ideas on the screen that are uncomfortable and that no one likes to talk about. He couldn’t get anyone in England to talk to him about sex addiction, let alone make a film there, and it is a problem. It’s not a message movie. It’s not about sex addiction. But, there was an article in the New York Times, the week we started shooting, that said that young men can’t maintain healthy relationships because they’re so influenced by pornography and what they see on the screen. It’s something to be talked about, but no, kids shouldn’t see it. There are some full-on images in there. It’s funny that you can murder someone horribly and graphically and disturbingly in a horror film, and it’s not an NC-17, but if you put a naked man on screen, everyone freaks out.
What’s it like to take on such a classic American story that is as iconic as The Great Gatsby? What is it about Daisy that you are most looking forward to playing?
MULLIGAN: It’s so scary! She’s such a good character. She’s so much fun to play. She’s just whipped cream. She’s light and fluffy with no substance, and she knows it, and that’s her tragedy. It’s fun. I’ve not played anyone like her, and I wanted to be in a Baz Luhrmann film. It’s just extraordinary. He’s so amazing at what he does. He makes the most incredible films.
How is it to work with Leonardo DiCaprio?
MULLIGAN: Leonardo is the most incredible actor, on the planet, with a couple of people alongside him. Getting to act with him is just [amazing]. I walked away from my audition for that and I couldn’t believe that I’d been acting with him. I’ve worked with amazing people, but my friends freak out that I’m working with him. I freak out in a geeky acting way. They freak out in a starstruck way. He’s Leonardo DiCaprio, and his fame is so big. That’s a complete tangent about that. But, at the audition, we had been acting out these scenes together. We did 15 takes of one scene. He didn’t really have much dialogue as Gatsby, and the camera was never on him, but he played three other characters. He’d say a line as Gatsby, and then he’d jump up and play Tom Buchanan. We were doing the scene with the cameras over my shoulder, and he was lighting a cigarette for me and looking at me. It was all me, and he didn’t have any words, and he was improvising stuff to say, just to help me. I was like, “Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t need to be helping me in this audition.” He was auditioning girls all day. I was so blown away by how generous he was, let alone being amazing to act with. It’s a crazy film to be in.
Is the Coen Bros.’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis, what you’re going to be doing after Gatsby? What is it about the Coen Bros. that made you want to work with them?
MULLIGAN: Yeah. What doesn’t draw you into a Coen Bros. movie. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it! They’re the Coen Bros. It’s ridiculous.
Did you audition for that film as well?
MULLIGAN: Yeah, I did an audition for them. It all happened really quickly. I just got the script and they asked me to do an audition. I spoke to them on the phone, and freaked out that I was on the phone to the Coen Bros. And then, I did this audition and sent it over, and they offered me the job the next day. That all happened four days ago. Now, I’m going to be doing that. They are my favorite filmmakers, and I can’t believe that I get to be one of their characters. It’s ridiculous. I’m so excited.
Obviously, you’re on a roll with the quality projects you’re doing, and the casts and directors that you’re working with. Do you have the temptation to just work non-stop because you have this momentum, or do you also need to take breaks and recharge?
MULLIGAN: My agent in London told me, after Never Let Me Go, because I loved doing that so much, “If you’re on a lucky streak and you’re doing well, you should only take a part, if you can’t bear the idea of anyone else doing it.” That’s been the case since then, with Drive and Shame and the play (The Seagull), and the stuff that’s going on, like Gatsby. I would have been devastated, if I hadn’t gotten those jobs. With the Coen Bros. movie, you’d have to kill me before I didn’t do that job. And, the Spike Jonze movie (written by Charlie Kaufman) is the same thing. I can’t not work with him. It’s perfect. I’m outrageously lucky! It’s absurd. I still haven’t even got my head wrapped around it. So, if the next job after that is with Pedro Almodovar, then fuck, I’ll keep working. But, I’m not going to work for the sake of working. I’ll work, if I’m extraordinarily lucky enough to continue having the same opportunities, but it will be based on whatever is there. If there’s nothing around, then I’ll go home and make carrot cake for awhile.