Carey Mulligan Talks Suffragette: "We Need To Keep All Of Those Debates Alive"

Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty.
In Suffragette, which hits select theaters on October 23, Carey Mulligan plays Maud Watts, a laundress enduring miserable conditions in early 20th-century London who becomes a passionate warrior for women's right to vote.

Mulligan’s fictionalized Maud is the central focus of the film, which was directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, but she interacts with characters who are based on historical figures, including suffragette leader Emily Wilding Davison (Natalie Press) and Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep in one powerful scene).

While women’s suffrage would seem to be an unlikely topic to generate controversy in this day and age, Suffragette’s road to release has not been entirely free of discord. Last month, Time Out London published photos of the cast wearing T-shirts that read “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” The quote is from a 1913 Pankhurst speech about the struggle the film depicts, but there was something undeniably off-putting about a group of white women wearing a shirt with language that appears callous about slavery.

The photos were roundly criticized as being indicative of a white feminist viewpoint that ignores women of color. Time Out issued a statement in response, saying that the quote "is a rallying cry, and absolutely not intended to criticize those who have no choice but to submit to oppression, or to reference the Confederacy, as some people who saw the quote and photo out of context have surmised."

“The conversation that started around it is only a good thing,” Mulligan told us via phone earlier this week. “We should be talking about issues like this, and people should be voicing how they feel about things. We need to keep all of those debates alive."

Mulligan, who recently became a mother, also talked about working with a female crew and whether she’ll show Suffragette to her daughter some day.
Suffragette was written and directed by women, and featured a number of women behind the scenes. Was it important to you that the story be told from a female perspective?
"It just needed to be told at all. The fact that it hadn’t been was so shocking to us. I feel like it probably took a female team of writer, director and producer to get it made. It was an uphill battle to get the film made in the first place. We do feel privileged to be the ones to get to tell the story finally."

How so?
"It is sort of a huge moment in our civil rights history in our country and it has just been never been put on the screen before. There was one television series called Shoulder to Shoulder in Britain in the '70s, and aside from that, it’s just never been touched on apart from Mary Poppins and that idea of the suffrage movement. The militant suffrage movement and a lot of Emmeline Pankhurst’s and Emily Wilding Davison's work — all of that has been kind of forgotten in a way. I think it’s going to be surprising to a lot of people, actually what women went through in our country."

The movie strongly makes the case that radical acts are sometimes necessary for progress. How do you think that can be applied in this day and age? What lessons does it teach us?
"One of the things I think we were really excited about in London was the protest that happened at the premiere of our film. Because that was a kind of radical act and it felt appropriate that they were using the premiere as a platform to talk about an issue that matters. [Editor's note: Members of the group Sisters Uncut laid down on the red carpet at the London premiere to draw attention to domestic violence against women.] We felt really excited about that. You make a film like this to get people thinking and get people doing stuff. I think that was kind of part of the intention of the film. It wasn’t a documentary saying this is what happened and how brilliant and aren’t we lucky. It’s sort of saying, this happened, but now we kind of need to carry on fighting the fight."

Right, especially given that the movie acknowledges that Maud has been a victim of sexual violence
and that it's one of the things that motivates her to take action. How did you approach that aspect of your character?
"It was very common in that time, and especially in the working classes, for women to suffer from sexual violence. It was something that Abi [Morgan] had read in the research and wanted to tell as part of the story. I don't think it was the linchpin on which the whole story stood; I don’t think if that part hadn’t been there she wouldn’t have acted. It was a factor. One in three women experience sexual violence right now. I think it was part of bringing it back to relevant issues today."

You just had a daughter. Do you hope to show this movie to her someday?
"Yeah, I definitely will. There are so many educational aspects to it. I think it should be shown in schools for that reason. Everyone loves watching a film at school, but I think it is something kids can learn from. I definitely grew up in a generation of girls who didn’t really know the full extent of what women went through to get the vote. It’s something we should all know about and appreciate more."

Did the movie change your perspective about raising a young girl?
"It’s a little fresh. It’s such a recent experience, I haven’t really had time to reflect in that way. It isn’t a women’s rights film, it isn’t purely a feminist film; I think it is a great story. And feminism also isn’t just for girls. I think that becomes the problem with it: It has become a women’s problem. Inequality shouldn’t be a women’s problem, it should be everyone’s problem, and everyone’s thing to solve. I do feel like if I had a son or a daughter I would have wanted them to see this film and to learn from it."

What do you think about the pay disparity between men and women in Hollywood? Is that something you’ve experienced at all?
"I don’t know. I’m sure I have. It’s the lack of transparency that is the issue. It would be odd to not, because there is an imbalance, so I think I have experienced it. It’s something that needs to be fixed, and I think it’s good that people are speaking out about it, but I think it also shouldn’t just be a conversation about Hollywood and actors and actresses. It needs to be a wider conversation about the rest of society and how women are being paid in the boardroom and even the jobs that they are getting within industry. I think it’s great that we can talk about it and show that it has a wider impact on the rest of society.

I wanted to ask you about the controversy over the “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” shirts that you wore for
Time Out. Did that take you by surprise? Had anyone raised the possibility that it might offend beforehand?
"No, definitely not, no. I don’t think anyone would have ever done anything insensitively. It took me by surprise. Also, when you make a film that’s actually about something important, you expect to spark debate and for people to have conversations around it. With that quote being taken out of context, there are definitely different sensitivities over here [in America]. We never felt shy of the discourse, but we did feel that the narrative of the film was clouded by this negative connotation, because actually the intention behind all of this was to make a film to empower people and to empower women. That was the only regret or fear: that it would cloud over the real intention behind the film. But everything around it I think is a great conversation to have."

Have you encountered any of the criticism that the film focuses solely on the white women who were fighting this fight?
"I think the suffrage movement was very different in England than it was in America. In England at that time, based on extensive research by the filmmakers and historians, there were no Black women involved in the suffrage movement or registered to the WSPU [the Women's Social and Political Union]. There were two [South] Asian women who were upperclass. But we weren’t focusing so much on the upper classes. We were focusing on the lower classes. There were tiny pockets of immigration at the time, but it wasn’t until the '50s that London became the great multicultural city that it is now. So that was more an effort to be historically accurate. I think the filmmakers felt confident that they were portraying the time as it was."

There are several female-fronted movies that tackle serious issues this fall — from your film to Carol. Are you looking forward to seeing any of them in particular?
"Yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol. I love both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. They are really brilliant actresses. It does feel like there are a lot of strong female performances coming out and women playing all sorts of interesting, complicated people, which is great. I’m really excited to see the Malala documentary [He Named Me Malala] as well. That’s the most inspiring story."

Meryl is in this film for a very short amount of time. Was there something you learned about her in this experience that would surprise her fans?
"She’s been a huge advocate of this film from the beginning. The fact that she committed to playing this tiny, tiny role just shows [her dedication]. She has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights her whole career. It felt very special to have her playing that huge historical figure. And the effect that she had on the crew and on the cast members and all the supporting artists on the day she came was amazing. I’ve never really seen a film set react like that to one person. You imagine a group of 400 suffragettes waiting for Emmeline Pankhurst to come out onto a balcony — that's basically akin to 400 supporting artists waiting for Meryl Streep to deliver a monologue. The excitement was palpable, and people were freaking out. It was so perfect. It was exactly how people would have reacted to Emmeline Pankhurst. Because she’s not just a great actress, she’s a great person. She inspires people in lots of different ways, and you could see that in the faces of the people that were watching her."
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