Okay, so she’s mega-famous, but hear me out. She doesn’t have social media, she’s very rarely caught out and about by paparazzi, you won’t ever see her at Nobu with her very famous husband (Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons) — she doesn’t even get recognized on the street. The latter may be because in her movies, Mulligan doesn’t always look like her mind-bogglingly beautiful, buttery blonde self (see: Suffragette, Inside Llewyn Davis, Mudbound, or her latest, Wildlife). In fact, it’s rare we hear a peep out of her unless she’s talking about her work. Which is why she is sitting opposite me in a London office, dressed in a simple black T-shirt and jeans, ready to speed-talk about fame, feminism, and fancy dresses.
Wildlife, her buzzy new film in theaters now, will give you Revolutionary Road tingles, and 100% belongs to Mulligan. Her character Jeanette is a housewife, mother to son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and one half of an unhappy marriage alongside her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jeanette is something of a maverick in 1960s Montana — a woman whose self-determination and self-involvement don’t fit with the expectations of a Midwestern mommy in a nuclear family.
It’s something Mulligan thought about a lot as she was making the movie. "I think with the perfect wife image that everyone had to maintain, the perfect household, there was no room for the kind of modern/messy thing that we are allowed to show now, that we are imperfect humans as mothers and wives today. To show that we have baby sick on our shoulders, and everyone's just cracking on, trying to get on with it… Back then you couldn’t show your feathers were ruffled."
Her character is refreshing, I offer. She’s a woman who is trying her best but fucking up. At times she's lost and desperately unhappy but trying to hold it together. When she cracks, she makes shitty decisions, including sleeping with some gross guy who doesn’t deserve her. Everything falls apart but she pulls it together and she survives. That pretty much describes every woman I know at some point in their lives, yet critics seemed flabbergasted by the portrayal of a woman like Jeanette. In press conferences, junkets, and interviews, Mulligan found herself having to defend her character over and over again. Some people seem to think all women on screen should be relatable or likable. Mulligan thinks not.
She explains: "I never go into a film thinking, 'What will people think?' I generally go in and make it because I feel passionately about the subject or character. I’ve been surprised by the amount of — I don't want to say backlash — the amount of people, generally men, who have asked me to defend her. I don’t think that she needs to be defended. I spent the last couple of weeks doing Q&As where people would say, 'What did you think of her when you first read it?' as in basically, 'I don't like her, what do you think of her?' I had to say, 'Well, I like her, I think she’s a real person, and I like playing real people. You don’t need to like her, she’s just who she is and she makes mistakes but find me someone who doesn’t'."
If we see a mum doing anything negative on screen, they’re generally really fucking messed up crack addicts.
She’s on a roll now. "It’s been interesting, and I think it’s largely because we’re not used to seeing mums, particularly, making mistakes. If we see a mum doing anything negative on screen, they’re generally really fucking messed up crack addicts, ruining their lives kind of thing, or there’s the other end of the spectrum where it’s perfection – a woman who endures everything and is earnest and dutiful, with the strength of an ox. You don’t see any of the stuff in between."
This, Mulligan knows as a mother of two young kids, is not what motherhood is like, for her at least. "It’s really hard because your entire life is taken up by looking after a human being, and it’s exhausting. Occasionally everyone cracks and has bad moments and bad weeks."
Playing Jeanette has been a learning curve, especially since Mulligan's co-star and long-term pal, the sleepy-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal, has had to field no such questions about his character — whose behavior in the movie is far, far worse than Jeanette’s. "If you compare it to the standard at which men are held, it’s kind of amazing the amount we allow men on screen to be all sorts of terrible, and it’s endearing and charming and that’s all cool, but if a woman has an affair and — god forbid — is momentarily selfish, it’s almost criminal," she says. "In the interviews I’ve been doing, it hasn’t been like, 'Gosh, he abandons her'. The focus has all been about Jeanette and the infidelity."
While we’re on the subject of men getting away with reprehensible behavior, it would be remiss of me not to ask about the #MeToo moement. Mulligan says that since the Weinstein pyre was set alight, she has seen concrete change in her industry. She cites the example of London's Royal Court Theatre, which now, for the first time, has a code of conduct, "Essentially a 3/4 page document about what is expected and what is unacceptable. You read it and sign it. I’ve never in my career worked anywhere that’s had anything like that. So every time you do a play there, the first day of rehearsal, that’s what you’ll do. I feel like those kind of changes are being taken on in other parts of the industry. In fact, someone was just talking about the sex scene choreographer that is now working on HBO shows to come in and make sure everyone feels safe doing sex scenes. These have to be things that we carry forward."
I know countless people who have felt exposed and uncomfortable, violated.
I was under the assumption that with lights, cameras, and spectators, filming a sex scene would be the last place anything bad could occur. Am I wrong? "I think there have been people who are abusing their power, and also people who have just not understood the boundaries," Mulligan says. "There’s all sorts of different kinds of actors, people who show up, say lines, and go home, and people who live and breathe it, and I think sometimes people have stepped over boundaries – even unknowingly, but it’s still unacceptable. You have a choreographer for a dance and for a fight scene, and for all these other things. You have someone come in and say, 'Okay, this is how we’re going to do this, this hand is going to go here'. In my experience, I’ve been lucky that the directors I’ve worked with have been that specific, so it hasn’t been a problem for me, but I know countless people who have felt exposed and uncomfortable, violated."
How, then, does she feel about sex scenes? "I feel like I have to go into robot mode to get through it, because it’s just so weird. I’ve had little experience of doing it, but in the time I have done it, I’ve had great relationships with all the actors I’ve had to do it with [and] the director. I’ve always felt comfortable. If I’ve ever felt like I don't think that’s necessary, I’ve been clear to say, 'I don’t think we should do that, you don’t need to see her bra off'. But I’ve been lucky."
At this point, the door opens and we get a five-minute warning to wrap up, so I go into rapid-fire question mode. First, I want to know how Mulligan got to know Wildlife director Paul Dano and his equally talented partner, Zoe Kazan (they wrote the screenplay for the movie together). Basically, I ask her to name drop a little.
She obliges. "Zoe and I did The Seagull together 10 years ago in New York. I was Masha and she was Nina. We shared a dressing room about a third of the size of this room," she says, gesturing to the walls around us. "We fell in love. She was with Paul and so we all became friends, and then Jake and I met a year after. So we, as a group, we have all been mates for a long time."
Good! Now tell me about the fun, glossy, glamorous bits of the job. She’s into it, she says, sometimes. "I like being a part of someone’s vision. If it’s interesting... I did a shoot for Australian Vogue where my son was five weeks old and we were in New York up on a rooftop. Five weeks after having a baby, and I was like, this is awesome. I wasn’t wearing tight dresses, and I knew I had incredible hair and makeup. I was wearing sunglasses and it was complete escapism. It was surreal...Although, there are those times where I’m just like, ugh I want to go home; this is miserable. But sometimes you have to accept how fun and hilarious it actually is."
Next question! How does she avoid being tabloid fodder, and if she and her gazillion record-selling husband can do it, couldn't every other celeb who wanted to do it, too? "I think so," she says, honestly. "I’ve always wanted to do just acting and not any of the other stuff that comes with it. There is a byproduct of that, which is a relative amount of fame or celebrity, but it is all optional unless you are targeted, which some people are or have been in the past...I’ve always been so lucky. I’ve never been massively interested in that side of things. I get really uncomfortable in places where there are millions of famous people...It got to the point where I had to fend off questions about my marriage, and now I feel like people don't really ask that much."
Does she really not get recognized when she’s out and about? It’s true, she asserts. "People actually don't come up to me. If I’m not wearing hair and makeup, people don't really recognize me. So I don't really have to deal with that. Occasionally, someone will double take or whatever but most of the time I can walk around relatively… My husband gets a bit more, you know, and I end up taking the [fans'] photos for him."
It all sounds very unstarry, so I flip the question... Has she ever been starstruck? "Judi Dench. That blew my mind. She was on my first ever film, and on day one of rehearsal she introduced herself to me and I haven’t gotten over that. But I don't think anyone outside of that has… Oh, Daniel Day-Lewis."
We have so little time left, definitely not enough for me to go full-on fan girl and tell her that her Far From The Madding Crowd might be the best adaptation of a Thomas Hardy book – or any book, ever. But I still want to know about her brilliant (some would say out of character) turn in the BBC cop drama Collateral. She was offered the part by David Hare but was worried he wouldn’t want her when he found out she was pregnant. "When David offered it to me, I told him. And he said, 'I don’t know why she couldn’t be pregnant, I think it’s great'. Then he said, 'We’re going to do two things. We’re not going to talk about the pregnancy and you’re not going to cry'. And I was like, 'Fuck yeah, let’s do it'."
There is another knock at the door. The interview is up, and after a short period of time with Mulligan I’ve developed another theory about her. She is not in any way as somber and serious as the characters she chooses to play or as some interviewers have made out. She’s a lively, clever and considered conversationalist; engaged, interesting and interested. She is also totally no-bullshit and a very good sport when it comes to having questions spat at her like a tennis ball machine.
Anyone who’s seen Shame or Inside Llewyn Davis will know that Mulligan can sing, too. So with 10 seconds left, I want to know what her go-to karaoke song is. She doesn’t miss a beat, answering "If I Could Turn Back Time" by Cher. Case in point.
Wildlife is in theaters now.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.