Carey Mulligan is aware.
She very much knows that recently she has appeared almost exclusively in period dramas. Which has led to a perception that she is very serious and perhaps even a bit gloomy. And that nearly every story written about her includes some variation of referring to her as “private” or even “guarded.”
In the new film “Wildlife,” continuing to play in Los Angeles as it has been steadily expanding around the country, Mulligan plays Jeanette Brinson, a woman who finds herself adrift in early 1960s Montana. Her husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), having lost his job, impulsively takes off to fight a wildfire. This leaves her alone with their teenage son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and a growing sense that the life and identity she had made for herself may also go up in smoke.
Mulligan’s performance is startling, somehow both recklessly expressive and deeply interior, as Jeanette tries on personalities like new outfits, lashing out against the limits the world has placed on her and those she has placed on herself. In the course of the film, Jeanette seems to genuinely grow, change and mature, and Mulligan navigates the complicated course with a nimble grace that both hides and allows for the effort involved.
“I read the script, and I was like, ‘How would I do that?’ I just thought it was scary. I liked the idea of being out of control,” Mulligan said in a recent interview. “I've played lots of characters that have had quite noble intentions, or kind of been on a mission or done something very deliberately, and there’s just nothing deliberate about her. Her overall plan is nonexistent. She's just all going off the rails.
“And I thought the challenge in that was trying to do it truthfully, but also that you could somehow still root for her in spite of it,” she added. “That you don't need to be defined by the worst things that you do in life. I don't think we see that very much on the screen.”
Even for an Oscar-nominated actress who is no stranger to critical acclaim, the notices Mulligan is receiving are positive. Times critic Justin Chang referred to Mulligan’s “vividly nuanced, career-best performance.” At the New York Times, critic Glenn Kenny said the actress “gives the best performance of any I’ve seen in film this year.”
“Wildlife” marks the directing debut of actor Paul Dano. He also adapted the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford with his real-life partner, actress and writer Zoe Kazan.
Dano did an early pass on a screenplay, and when he first showed it to Kazan, it was easier for her to just do her own rewrite than try to give him intensive notes. And so began a years-long process of handing their screenplay back and forth, paring down to invoke the spare, literary leanness of the source material.
Mulligan and Kazan have been close friends since they shared a dressing room during a 2008 Broadway production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Mulligan has known Gyllenhaal since they appeared in the 2009 film “Brothers,” and the two have long tried to find something else to work on together.
Adding to the sense of family among the “Wildlife” cast and crew, Dano and Gyllenhaal both appeared in 2013’s “Prisoners,” while Bill Camp, who plays a possible new suitor for Jeanette, was Dano’s father in the Brian Wilson bio-pic “Love & Mercy.”
And yet even with those bonds of familiarity, nothing was a given.
Dano said the decision to cast Mulligan had less to do with any personal friendships than it had to do with the “feeling like you know somebody has something and they just don't always get a chance to do it. Having seen Carey on stage versus certain film roles, I think part of the impulse was, it would be really fun to see Carey be a lot messier.”
“She's an incredibly sympathetic actress. She's one of those people that has that magical quality where our heart goes out to them,” added Kazan. “She's like a prima ballerina. She's so precise. She works so hard, and it's extra exciting when you see someone who's that precise and perfectionistic access their shadow self, let the ends of the rope fray.”
As she’s been making rounds promoting “Wildlife,” which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Mulligan has inadvertently been shining a spotlight on how often journalists, specifically male journalists, don’t quite know how to talk to women about their roles. Even post-screening audience Q&As can become revealing litmus tests of how men perceive women.
There has been a full-on anger underneath some of the questions, as if Jeanette’s drive for personal freedom and satisfaction is an affront to the roles that society, both then and now, would more readily lay out for her.
Making Jeanette willful, enigmatic and yet somehow understandable was no small part of the adaptation process for Kazan and Dano.
“Jeanette was so mysterious and challenging and complex,” said Dano. “A lot of work went into her on the page."
“I felt a very deep connection with Jeanette's character,” said Kazan. “And I think that my entry [to the story] was really through her, and sort of feeling what it feels like to feel conscribed by your gender and by your circumstances and by the choices you've made and the responsibility you feel to your family. Even absent having the same problems that she has, it's very easy for me to imagine myself into that circumstance.”
Much of the discomfort around the character of Jeanette, and Mulligan’s fully inhabited performance in the role, seems to come back to the issue of “likability.” It’s a rather unruly, unquantifiable metric by which female characters in particular are too often harshly judged.
“I think there's a shift happening, and we are seeing more real women on screen,” Mulligan said. “Women have been edited on screen to serve the idea of what women should be, and that's just based on everything we've been raised on for years and years. So it's women like this [and] directors like Paul forcing these full representations through.
“You want to see some version of yourself reflected on screen. You don't want to see some idealized version of womanhood. It's been really interesting, though, seeing people react to it.”
After her breakthrough performance in 2010’s “An Education,” for which she was nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, Mulligan has carved out a career of exquisite taste and a curated sense of intention.
Among her films has been Dee Rees’s “Mudbound,” Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette,” Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” and Mark Romanek’s “Never Let Me Go.”
It is an astounding lineup of directors, movies and roles, all the more so considering that Mulligan is only 33 years old.
Mulligan also appeared onstage this year in both London and New York in Dennis Kelly’s one-woman play “Girls & Boys,” a riveting monologue about a woman making her way through a perilous and troubled world. (An audio version is available as well.) For the performance, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley declared her “one of the most compelling stage actresses of her generation.”
Among other things, Mulligan is also perceived as careful and selective about the roles she takes on. Currently she doesn’t know what she is doing next, though she is reading scripts. If she is choosy, then, yes, now is the choosy time.
“It doesn't feel like choosing; it feels like waiting,” she said. “So I’m happy to be at home and not working. It’s such a luxury, but at a certain point next year I’ll start getting itchy and be waiting for something to come into my inbox that is the right thing.”
When Mulligan first gained attention for “An Education,” she was pushed through the months-long roller coaster of awards season, feeling like an uncomfortable interloper in rooms full of film stars. An outside interest in her private life only grew when she married Marcus Mumford of the musical group Mumford & Sons in 2012. Now they have two children, a girl and a boy.
And while she admits that she may have been “rigid” in some interviews earlier in her career, she has learned to both relax a bit and keep sight of what she wants to hold onto for herself and her family.
“I feel protective, in a good way, but I don't feel defensive,” she said. “It’s so weird because there's the sort of perception of me being so super-serious, I think, and that's not accurate. But I think that is totally understandable because I lean towards doing dramatic films, and I don't like talking about my private life. Other than that, I'm not a very serious person.”