For Carey Mulligan, navigating the Oscar circuit as a wide-eyed starlet ahead of her 2010 Best Actress nod for An Education was “a complete blur” of traveling, parties, and “nerve-racking” red carpets. But the thought of traversing another uncharted awards bid via Zoom chats and virtual Q&As for her extraordinary turn in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (out Dec. 25) is a far less daunting affair — even during a pandemic.
“I’m kind of down, because I don’t have to wear heels,” Mulligan admits. “At Sundance, Emerald gave me these amazing pink, fluffy Ugg slippers…. I’m wearing them [for] for every interview I’ve done since.”
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Mulligan might feel at ease working from home, but Fennell’s film actively marks the thorniest character the 35-year-old has played — and such a clash is tonally in line with the film at hand. A sleek, stylish take on rape-revenge, Promising Young Woman follows Mulligan’s med-school dropout Cassie, who tempts lechers into her twisted web to avenge an assault against a classmate. It’s a discomfiting tale layered against Fennell’s neon-coated aesthetic, giving the film’s biting darkness a surreal edge, both tempting and frightening, with musical cues by Paris Hilton and an inviting, pastel production design. The film culminates in a shocking conclusion that subverts the film’s sweet dressings with a bitter gut-punch.
In fact, it was Fennell's singular vision for bucking trends of the subgenre in a post-Me Too moment (the script gestated prior to news of the Harvey Weinstein scandal breaking in late 2017) that inspired Mulligan to commit to the project minutes into her first meeting with the former Killing Eve showrunner.
"She’d sent me this Spotify playlist of all the songs she imagined [for the film]. She showed me ideas of what the set would look like, the costumes, makeup, and with all of that in place, I was so blown away," Mulligan remembers with a laugh. "Within five minutes of meeting her, I said, ‘Look, I know I’m really not meant to do this because I get in trouble with my agent for doing spontaneous things like this sometimes, but I have to tell you I just really want to do this film, thank you so much for asking me. I can’t believe you want me to do this!’ It was love at first sight."
The same can't be said, however, for Cassie. She's a prickly character, in ways that are both foreign and familiar to Mulligan. On some levels, the actress empathizes with the realness of rage burning inside Cassie — particularly when it comes to issues of gender inequality — and has been attracted to similarly conflicted characters in the past; though much to her disappointment, some of those women were ultimately "smoothed out in the edit." One such instance where that didn't happen, Mulligan recalls, was in Paul Dano's 2018 drama Wildlife, in which she plays a young mother, Jeannette, who unravels in the wake of her husband's abrupt disappearance. Mulligan enjoyed the chaotic complexity of the character's emotional arc, but was floored when audience feedback labeled Jeannette an "abhorrent" example of motherhood.
"We don’t represent women honestly in film. We have historically liked to see idealized versions of what women are and what motherhood is, what romance is, how women behave in those scenarios," she observes. "Women onscreen not behaving in ways deemed appropriate or likable don’t go down well. Emerald is interested in writing real characters about real women, and of course there’s an element to this film that feels stylized or that steps a little bit out of a straight up drama, but it’s true to represent a female rage and all of the anger that women have experienced with all of the wrongs that have been done. Not just in these sexual assault cases, but in general: We don’t see women angry at all. We see lots of muted women.... Emerald always says that’s just the truth [and] it would be bulls—t to pretend any different."
On the other hand, it was refreshing — fun, almost — for Mulligan to interpret such delicate material through Emerald's unique gaze. "A lot of it was hilarious," she says. "A lot of the ways she directed the men in the film was to say, 'You think this romantic comedy is your romantic comedy, you think you’re the good guy in the rom-com.'" Further driving the point home is the casting itself, with the deceptively sweet predators Cassie hunts portrayed by TV heartthrobs (The O.C.'s Adam Brody), adorkable man-boys (Superbad's Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and general dreamboats (Max Greenfield, Chris Lowell).
"No one’s in that film thinking they’re doing the wrong thing," Mulligan explains. "A lot of [the men] really do believe they’re the best version of themselves. They’re the 'nice' guys." That is, until their toxic methods of persuasion cross paths with Cassie's plot for retribution.
“Emerald describes it as a beautifully wrapped piece of candy, but when you suck on it, you realize it’s poisonous,” says Mulligan. “Audiences will love it because it’s so much fun. It’s dark and challenging, but not in a boring, didactic way. You’ll go have socially distanced supper [after watching], sit, and fight about it,” she finishes. “You want a film that people talk about in years to come, not something that gets lost in the sea of awards season films.”
With those costumes and Mulligan’s performance — and her pink slippers leading the promotional charge — who could miss it?
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