With the impending UK release of Never Let Me Go, the hauntingly enigmatic movie based on Kauzo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel of the same name, here is an interview with Carey Mulligan who stars as the adult Kathy and the story’s narrator, a human clone and carer whose lifelong friendship with Keira Knightley’s Ruth and Andrew Garfield’s Tommy lies at the core of what’s a haunting love story and a devastating and desolate meditation on life and death and the loss of innocence. Never Let Me Go hits cinemas nationwide 11th February 2011. The film was released on DVD in the US Febuary 1st.
You’re a fan of not only of the book, Never Let Me Go, but of Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing in general, aren’t you?
Never Let Me Go is my favourite of Ishiguro’s novels, but I sort of love everything he’s written. It’s the lack of sentimentality and these unreliable narrators he creates, these people who can’t say exactly how they feel and so they reveal themselves without knowing. Everything he talks about is so small and beautiful and detailed and never sort of forces you into any sort of emotion but it’s completely overwhelming in spite of that.
I read [Never Let Me Go] in 2006 and then I read the script last year. Then it went away, like English films do, but then it came back in. She’s 31 in the book and I thought, that’s really annoying, I won’t be able to play her for ages and if they do a film soon I won’t ever get to play Kathy [because] I genuinely wanted to play it from the minute I read the book. But they moved it down to 26 in the script [and] it’s all worked out rather well for me.
What did you think of Alex Garland’s script when you first read it?
The minute I read [Kathy’s] voiceover I was sort of in. It was so beautiful and was exactly what Ishiguro wrote. The script’s so faithful to the book.
Tell me about Kathy, the character you play?
She’s not a perfect character, she’s not a perfect narrator, she’s got faults and I think always the mistake with her was to play her as a sort of morally upstanding, perfect narrator who’s really level-headed and passive. I think she could easily be quite passive but I saw this documentary about a children’s hospice and there was this mother whose daughter was terminally ill and the girl was in her 20s and the interviewer said, “Do you ever cry?” and she said, “I do go off sometimes and cry and I will cry one day but it’s not my day to cry yet”, and that was the sense I got of Kathy, she’s not perfect or Mother Theresa but she does just have an instinctive quality of caring for people, and that one day, when this is all over, when Tommy’s gone and when Ruth’s gone, that will be her time to mourn. But up and until then, she holds it together and believes what other people want her to believe to help them along. She’s not a saint but she could so easily be a nothing. That’s why I’m terrified of her.
One crucial element of the film is the relationship between Ruth and Tommy, but it’s as much a love story between…
Ruth and Kathy. Yeah, I know. We could have spent weeks and weeks talking about it, the idea of people growing up in an institution with no parent figures and how that affects you and how you form relationships with other people. But it is as much a love story between Ruth and Kathy and Keira and I, luckily, are really good friends, so that really helped. It was nice, you get to hang out with your mates at work, but we’ve got a real connection, we have a shared history already and that’s what you come into in chapter two of this, these people who have lived together their whole lives. You think how at ease or impolite or comfortable you are around your brother or your sister or your parents, that’s times ten with these people because you’ve known them since you have a memory of knowing people.
How was it playing a character who’s a human clone? Did you ever consider playing Kathy as a little mannered or not quite human?
It’s funny because their language is kind of mannered sometimes, and they do have funny turns of phrases, and when they first come to the Cottages and they have a glimpse of the outside world, I think it’s less about them and more about how they’re perceived. When they go on a day trip to Norfolk, it’s how other people react to them and how their discomfort is with us. For us, it’s playing the truth of the situation. But there is a childishness to some of the stuff we are doing, some of the arguments we have isn’t the way you would argue as a normal 18-year-old or a normal 20-year-old, it’s slightly younger than that, because you’ve always grown up in that environment where everything is about your friends and you don’t really have a parent figure, and part of us hasn’t aged beyond that. But part of us has aged massively because we’re aware, even though its not explicit, we’re aware of what our future holds. But we’re not playing autistic, weird children, we’re not playing it differently, because you do have to believe they do have souls — we do anyway — and that’s the question Kathy asks at the end, “Why would you ever imagine that we wouldn’t?”
On set you had a well-thumbed copy of the novel with post-it notes stuck throughout. How much is the book your bible as opposed to Alex’s script?
They both are. The bible is the book in the sense that it has everything in it and I have to be selective, and sometimes you can’t play it as it is in the book. But Alex is my bible too because he’s there all the time and that helps me so much, because he’s really blunt. If something’s not right, he’s so passionate about it you just know he’s always going to be on you to get the right point. He’s written wonderful notes about the scenes. He was there in rehearsal because Ruth and Tommy have chunks of dialogue where they express things, and a lot of what Kathy does is absorbing information and processing it, and hearing people out, so sometimes it’s hard to figure where she’s at.
So he helps understand what’s going on in specific scenes. And he believes so much in the story and I know how much he wants to do an amazing film for Ishiguro. Everybody does. The first time I met him I was like, please let me be what you had in your head. You can never have that but I didn’t want him to look at me and go, “Uhh, that’s not Kathy.” But he’d seen Sally Sparrow. He said, “I haven’t seen anything else but Sally Sparrow” and I was like, “What!?”
How have you found working with director Mark Romanek?
He’s amazingly talented. He makes everything look so beautiful, and the rehearsal process was for us to get to know each other, me and Andrew, because we’d never met, and Keira had never met Andrew, and for us to become much closer. We spent time with the children and went to where they’re going to be filming, to make them feel more comfortable. He herded us all together and got us working on it, and got us to a level where we could talk to each other really freely about it, so now we’re shooting it’s ticking over a lot faster because we’ve come into it with ideas and we’ve all got on the same page. Because him and Alex have been on the same page for months, and then you bring us three in. So he’s brought it all together, and apparently it’s looking really nice. I never watch the monitor, but the design and the costumes, it’s exactly how I imagined it.
You spent time with the younger actors on set after you finished filming your scenes. Why was that important to you?
I always find it hard to walk away from a job so I kind of wanted to see the whole thing through and I wanted to see them doing their work. By then we had formed little relationships and I was quite close to the little girl [Isobel Meikle-Small] who played me, and we had shot the scene where she is swaying to the music and we had talked about that together and it was kind of nice to get to watch the rest of it play out. We weren’t jumping in and telling them what to do — they were so brilliant — it was just nice to watch it and give occasional little ideas about things. But I was just there to see it all happen and I felt I couldn’t leave without watching Hailsham happen because we had lived those memories in rehearsal with the kids, so it was nice to see them played out.