'Wildlife' Star Carey Mulligan On The Modern Parallels Of This '60s-Set Story And Defending Her Character During A Q&A [Interview]

Not that I make a point of getting hung up on awards in general or the Oscars specifically, but it's almost impossible to wrap my brain around the fact that actor Carey Mulligan's only Academy Award nomination was for her breakthrough performances as young Jenny Mellor in 2009's An Education. Considering her fine work in such films as Public Enemies, Brothers, Never Let Me Go, Drive, Shame, Inside Llewyn Davis (this one might hurt the worst), Far from the Madding Crowd, Suffragette, and last year's exceptional Mudbound, Mulligan has been so reliable in so many different types of roles that perhaps we're guilty of taking her for granted.

Debuting at Sundance at the beginning of the year, her latest movie, Wildlife, marks the directorial debut from actor Paul Dano, who also co-wrote the screenplay with longtime life partner Zoe Kazan, adapting it from the novel by Richard Ford. In it, Mulligan plays Jeanette Brinson, mother to teenager Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and the pair finds themselves living alone circa the early 1960s in Great Falls, Montana, when her recently unemployed husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to leave home to fight wildfires hundreds of miles away. The film is told largely from Joe's perspective but the light it shines of Jeanette allows not only for Mulligan to turn in one of the finest performances of her career but also for her to sculpt a flawed characters put in an impossible situation, allowing her to make mistakes that she owns, resulting in one of the most progressive and provocative dramas you'll likely see all year.

/Film spoke to Mulligan recently while she was in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival, where Wildlife was the Centerpiece screening, and the festival paid tribute to her for her already remarkable career. We discussed a recent post-screening Q&A in New York where a male audience member got particularly vocal about her character's flaws, how working on Suffragette inspired her moving forward, and how the climate of changing gender roles in the early 1960s has parallels to a particular movement happening today. Wildlife is playing in select theaters and opens much wider in the coming weeks.

I saw this film for the first time at Sundance, and as I was watching it, there's that final moment when you and Jake exchange a glance while your son is setting up to take a photo of the three of you. And I remember thinking "That glance is the movie. What's going on in their heads right now is what this whole movie is about." I even remember thinking that if I ever got a chance to interview anybody from the film, I'd bring it up. So here we are, nine months later, and that image is the poster, it's the first publicity still.

Carey: [laughs] Don't we have the nicest poster? I love that poster; I usually hate the poster.

So I'll still ask you, what is being said there in that look?

Carey: It's so interesting because I think it's the sort of tragedy of accepting where they are. I think there's the undeniable love that you have for someone, despite everything that has gone on and that you'll never be where you were ever again. It's that love that family has and that bond. Even if you are divorce or if you never see someone again, there's something there that will never, ever go away. And people have said during Q&As "Do they stay together? What happens to them as a couple?" We don't have an answer. What I do think is that if you do spend that part of your life with someone, there is something that will never die, and it doesn't have to be burning passion or love or like, but it's something that's there. So it's that acknowledgement of that something between them, something irrefutable and undying. You'd have to ask Jake what he was thinking, but to me it felt like that tragic realization of what things had come to.

I feel like there's also something being said about their son.

Carey: Well, they've already accepted at that point that he's the grownup in the family [laughs]. From the minute he confronts them in the kitchen, I think that's the moment where the roles have reversed. Someone else is driving this car.

You mentioned Q&As, and I heard about what happened the other day in New York. It's almost impossible for me to wrap my brain around the idea that someone is coming after your character, and you had the best response. People applauded you.

Carey: Thank you. Yeah, that was really cool. The worst thing about that, that wasn't really reported, was that he said that the son was a namby-pamby kid. And Paul and I had our jaws on the floor. I have no idea where he was coming from, and it's just an opinion and it's fine, but it speaks to the more general feeling that we don't like seeing women not behaving themselves and that we ladies need to keep in line and do what we're told and be good girls. That's so boring and not true. It ended up being a really nice thing because that audience was really behind her as a character, and that came out in that moment as Paul and I defended her, and the audience defended her. That was so nice.

I'm guessing that gentleman sympathized with Jake Gyllenhall's character.

Carey: I know, seriously. Actually the first thing he said was "I'm deeply disappointed that Mr. Gyllenhaal isn't here." Alright, sorry [laughs].

You've been fairly open about the fact that it's only been fairly recently that you've started looking into things like equal pay. I did the junket in New York a couple years ago for Suffragette and got to speak with the director and the writer, and I wonder if being a part of that film open your eyes to these issues?

Carey: Definitely, yeah. Working on Suffragette reinvigorated the feminist in me, and it's hard listen to stories of women in that time and not feel so thankful for what they did. It's so easy to be complacent, and working with those women reminded me to take stock in what has been done so I can do my job today and be a woman in society today. So that was an incredible experience, working with those talented, brilliant group of women who were so collaborative and wonderful, and then getting to tell that story that I couldn't believe had not been told.

How did you, Paul and Zoe connect for Wildlife?

Carey: Zoe and I did a production of The Seagull 10 years ago, this autumn actually, so we met and fell in love then. She was with Paul, so I met him, and we've known each other ever since then. Zoe and I have been really good friends for a long time, and we've always talked about doing something else together. And she's been a writer for a very long time—she's written screenplays and plays that were produced in New York. She kept saying "We should do another play together," and I was like "You should write something that we can be in." So two years ago in the summer, Paul texted me saying "I'm going to send you a script. Read it and let me know what you think." I read it and called him immediately back like "My god, I can't believe you're trusting me to do this, but yes please." And everything moved quite quickly after that—that was in the summer, and we were shooting by October. Jake came on board, which got the film greenlit.

Wildlife Trailer

Even today, when a woman has an affair in the film, it's often a punishable action, and that's been the case for decades. Here, it's just a mistake and it's something she has to live with. She realizes it's a mistake almost immediately. Is there a freedom in playing a character whose moral compass is off and doesn't care. And why should we if she doesn't?

Carey: Yeah, totally. And there's a version of this film that could have been told today, and they did explore that. For budgetary reasons, it would have been so much easier to set it today, but there was something about that period when constraints were so much tighter on women, and what she does is that much more unacceptable, more out of the norm. But there is something so liberating about what she does in the film. I do think we excuse men all the time on screen for a multitude of things.

It's interesting, my friend is on the show Barry on HBO with Bill Hader—his name is Rightor Doyle, he plays one of the acting class students—and we were talking about it the other day because Sarah Goldberg who plays Sally is such an incredible character but all there's been all the discussion about her being unlikable and overly ambitious. And in some Q&A, someone brought up how unlikable Sally was as a character, and a writer on the show said "Barry murders people. How is she the unlikable one?" [laughs] It just speaks to that whole crazy issue that we have watching women on screen. So just that in itself is fun, to trash the idea of what a perfect woman should be. Women aren't allowed to mess up.

At Cannes this year, we had a couple of journalists say "She's such a terrible mother, isn't she?" and I had to jump to her defense and say "Wait a minute. This is a week of her life; she's been a perfect mother 14 years that precede this. Give her a break. People make mistakes." It's the 1960s; she has no idea if her husband is coming back; she has no qualifications because she left her career behind years ago. She has to find a way to live, so a lot of it is about survival as well. It's been a really interesting to gauge people's reactions.

In the early 1960s, gender roles were changing. And you always wonder when someone does a period film, what does this say about today? And I feel like we're at another shifting in gender roles; it's different, but it is gender related. As a result, this story feels so modern.

Carey: It totally. I think there still is that idea that women are expected to do everything in the home, and we take on the role of mother and wife, and it can be incredibly consuming and you can lose your identity as a result, and that's certainly something Jeanette is going through: "Am I a person outside of this—these two roles in my life? Is there anything left of me, or am I just these two things to these two men?" It totally felt modern to me. Even watching it, it doesn't suffer the curse of a period film where all you think about is the period. It's stunning to look at, it's beautifully shot, and they've done an amazing job with the production design and costumes, but you it's not one of those glossy things where you get absorbed by the pretty costumes. It's part of the characters, which takes so much thought and hard work from those crew members.

I couldn't help but thing that if her husband had just taken the job back that he loses in the beginning or if he'd gotten another job, none of this would have happened, and she would have never gone through this. Do you think in the end, she's happy she went through this experience?

Carey: She's come back to some version of herself, in a way. The 1950s housewife mask that she put in became suffocating, so something had to happen. I imagine she hoped that it wouldn't have to be this destructive and this upsetting, but ultimately she's being honest and be honest with the people she loves. But before that, it's all just keeping a lid on.

The film makes you remember that a child's world is very small, so when something bad happens, it feels like the end of the world to them. Joe is trying so hard to hold things together, but he senses all of these things happening that he's not supposed to see or hear. And we see most of this story from his perspective.

Carey: I think Ed Oxenbould has an incredibly hard job in the film, because there's so much going on, and it would be easy as an actor to emote or respond or be reactive. But the truth of a 14-year-old boy is that you don't, that you absorb it all and take it all in, and also try to keep a lid on things. I think he takes on a huge amount of responsibility to keep things stable, so part of his job, he feels, is to manage his parents. He doesn't want to rock the boat in any way, and he's doing everything he can to keep the peace.

We have these shots that go between Jake and I, and you see him just sitting in the middle trying to keep things calm, which is why when this guy in the Q&A called him "namby-pamby" doesn't make sense. He doesn't react to anything. He completely missed the point of how honest Ed's work is because that's the truth of what a kid like that would do. They would just be trying to keep things together, and that's even more heartbreaking when this child has to take on the responsibility of the family's survival, when Joe has to take on the mantle of keeping his family together. I think that's all down to Paul and Ed putting the character together and the choices that Ed made to make it so truthful, because it could have been an easy part to go all over the map with, and he's just so consistent and steady and honest and observing. He doesn't do what could have been easy to do, which is react all over the place.

It's hard to be that quiet center of the storm. It looks like you're not doing anything but you absolutely are.

Carey: Yeah, completely agree.

It was wonderful to meet you. Best of luck with this.

Carey: Thank you.