I've admired Carey Mulligan ever since her breakout role as a schoolgirl seduced by an older man in 2009's An Education turned the Sundance Film Festival on its ear. Mulligan is an actor's actor, not just commanding a role but somehow giving the sense that her character — whether it's Kitty Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, or Maud Watts in Suffragette — has lived long before the film was made. She's just in it, always. However, Mulligan's next film, Promising Young Woman, directed by Killing Eve showrunner Emerald Fennell, is a new turn, a provocative, darkly comic revenge-on-bad-men tale that rings more than one bell of recognition in a post-#MeToo era. (Again, it's testament to Mulligan's skill that, without giving anything away, you would think she's always been an American medical-school dropout who works in a coffee shop.)
Commitment is ingrained in Mulligan, who, at 35, has been married to musician Marcus Mumford (of the folkrock band Mumford & Sons) for eight years and has two children, Evelyn, 4, and Wilfred, 2. When they're not touring or filming, the family divide their time between their home in London and farm in Devon. It's by FaceTime that I catch up with Mulligan, who is in Devon, in her second week of self-isolation from COVID-19. (She flashes her phone around to point out some cows languidly walking past her house.) Now, Mulligan and I once had a grand plan to shoot her cover story in Paris, have dinner afterward, the whole tra-la-la. Due to looming travel restrictions, I had to leave early for New York, but Mulligan kept her commitment, gamely shooting this story in cold, rainy weather with a skeleton crew. A week later, even that would be impossible.
LAURA BROWN: Carey, I have to thank you for making it to Paris for this shoot. It was literally the last story we were able to complete before we all went into lockdown.
CAREY MULLIGAN: Ah. Well, at that point the train stations were still jammed, no one was wearing masks, and they weren't advising people not to travel. But once I got to Paris, it felt odd. I brought one of my best friends, and we were like, "What if we get stuck here? What if someone has it in the hotel?" A week later, none of us would have gone. But I have to say, Paris was still fun. We stayed up late and watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in French.
LB: Our subscriber cover image is you, all dressed up in Givenchy, in front of the Eiffel Tower. It's so glamorous but very poignant now.
CM: There were huge crowds of people there that day. Now, life has been shut down in that sense. Our ability to travel is curtailed, but we're all still curious. I found it so cool how many monuments, zoos, and aquariums started livestreaming their exhibits.
LB: How much of that are you doing? Are you on Zoom?
CM: I've been using Houseparty with my two best friends every Sunday at 8:30 a.m. We've all got kids, so we put the TV on for them and sit in bed with a big cup of coffee and catch up, which has been quite nice.
LB: You've also been working with the organization War Child, right?
CM: Yes. War Child runs child-friendly spaces in refugee camps and conflict zones where children can be protected and educated. Fundraising has come to a grinding halt because the economy has taken such a hit, so I'm planning to take over their Instagram to get more people interested. Marcus also released a cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," and all proceeds go to War Child UK and The Grenfell Foundation. It's such a beautiful song.
LB: What's a typical day like when you're on the farm?
CM: We wake up early and do a Zoom class for school. It's a toddler check-in, which is 20 kids all shouting over each other for 10 minutes. It's hilarious. And then we do some schoolwork. My favorite game to play is filling a tray of toys with water and putting it in the freezer overnight, and then the kids get to "rescue" their toys. They love it and it takes hours. [laughs]
LB: Do you cook?
CM: Do you know the spicy broccoli salad at Sweetgreen? We've made our own version and have it probably four times a week. We've gone back into comfort mode and started to eat more casseroles. When the world is chaotic, you need warm food. [laughs] Variations on casseroles. That will be my cookbook.
LB: One of the things I admire about you is that, professionally, you immerse yourself in things, be it film, theater, or a fashion shoot.
CM: I still feel super unsure in a shoot environment. Although that has kind of changed in the last few years.
LB: What has given you more confidence?
CM: It was probably having kids. I'm not a model. I tell photographers at the beginning of a shoot, "Hey, I'm really bad at this, so the best way to get through this is for you to tell me exactly what to do." In all of our family photos I look like a complete fail. So I say, "If this is going to work at all, it's because of your skills as a photographer."
LB: Prove yourself to me as I lie here like a piece of clay.
CM: Yes, I'll be a mannequin. If that!
LB: The last time I saw you was in L.A., and you were all dolled up for something. How do you go between a home, a set, and the "twirl" of promotion?
CM: It can be weird. When I did a press day for Promising Young Woman (arriving in theaters at a later date), they had me do social-media posts. So I had to say, "Hi, I'm Carey Mulligan, and I play Cassie. Swipe up to buy a ticket!" But I looked like I didn't even know what the Internet was. When I'm not in a press environment, I'm not massively clued in to what's going on. And I think that helps it not consume my life.
LB: It's ironic that even though you don't really engage online, Promising Young Woman reflects the #MeToo movement, which was born on social media.
CM: Emerald wrote it before the movement started, but the conversation has become more nuanced in the last couple of years. Everything in the film, you've seen in a bro comedy, where the guy tries to get the girl really drunk. And it's all been like, "Ha ha." But then you suddenly look at it through this different lens and go, "Actually, no. That makes me uncomfortable."
LB: Did you know Emerald before?
CM: I met her at a friend's house. She was about to go to the wrap party for Killing Eve wearing these really amazing pleather pants, and I was just like, "Wow, she's so cool." We later realized that we'd both been in an old episode of Trial & Retribution together. I was the girl who got murdered, and she was one of my friends, and Michael Fassbender was the police officer. [laughs]
LB: How often do you get lady crushes born of creativity, pleather pants, or both?
CM: Quite a lot. It happened on Mudbound, watching [director] Dee Rees and [cinematographer] Rachel Morrison make an extraordinary epic in 28 days. And again with Emma Thompson in An Education. There are a lot of people who've been quite impactful. More for work stuff than for trousers, but Emerald's trousers just got me.
LB: Promising Young Woman is dark, but there is humor in it. How did it feel to be a bit…winky?
CM: I definitely felt intimidated at first because I was surrounded by comedians like Bo Burnham and Jennifer Coolidge, but we all got on so well. Emerald would say, "Just try one where you're really camping it up." It's the only film I've ever been in that has a blooper reel.
LB: How ambitious are you? And how do you define it?
CM: I get whiplash thinking about the last 16 years. My dream was to be a working actress, but my expectation was maybe I'll be in Casualty or The Bill. And then suddenly I got really lucky and just kept it up. For me, ambition is testing myself. As an actor, you're always trying to prove that you can do different things. I have a fear of recognition and celebrity, though, so I don't have ambition to be well known. But I want to be really good at my job. I always want the next thing I do to be more nuanced, more interesting, more complicated.
LB: It's also OK to say you're good at what you do. Why do we feel like we need to have a disclaimer about it?
CM: I suppose because we're creative — you're a writer, I'm an actress — and that's art. It's subjective. About me as an actress, someone can always say, "I think she was rubbish in something." I do think I'm good at what I do. I try really hard. But what's the real barometer for success in the arts? You just have to do work that you believe in and hope for the best.
LB: Marcus goes off on tour with the band, and you go to shoot films. How do you manage the Tetris of organizing your family?
CM: I don't work that much. I've never done more than two films a year. And 23 days to make Promising Young Woman was not a massive commitment. It'll get more complicated the older our family gets, but right now we're quite mobile.
LB: You got married in 2012, and you're still only 35. You really got moving.
CM: I did! I have the best job in the world, but I've learned that it isn't the be-all and end-all. As someone who finds the public side of this quite intimidating, having a family has made me feel that if I wear a dress that people hate, or if I say something stupid, or if people don't like a film I've been in, it doesn't matter as much as it used to. It's freeing, in a way.
LB: Do you get recognized much out and about in London?
CM: Not really, but I also don't look like myself in any of my films. I don't have very short fringe like in Mudbound or the long hair in Promising Young Woman. If I don't wear makeup, I'm not recognized at all.
LB: When you were younger, who were your film heroines?
CM: Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett. I mean, I watched Elizabeth, like, 50 times when I was 14 years old because it was the only film we had in our common room at school. Also Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Rachel Weisz. Flipping heck. There are so many!
LB: What were you like as a teen?
CM: Oh, man, I was a tomboy. I was still wearing my Les Misérables T-shirt to am-dram [amateur drama] on the weekends when I was 14. It was such a blessing to not have a mobile phone back then. I was awkward! And then I started to work. I was 18 when I shot Pride & Prejudice, and I went through a vintage-clothes stage. When I did Promising Young Woman, all I wanted to wear was pink. My style is heavily influenced by what I'm working on.
LB: Tell me, what are you most confident in and what are you least confident in?
CM: I'm most confident in my instinct for good material. When I read something I remind myself to trust my gut and not get swayed. Look at me, saying that I'm good at something!
LB: You did it!
CM: But, like, what am I not lacking confidence in! I suppose I'm not confident in the reception to my work. And as a lady, appearances and all that kind of stuff. I think way too much about it, and I wish I didn't.
LB: Just wait. I'm 10 years on from you, and suddenly it's like, "Why is my face doing that?"
CM: But I already think, "Why is my face doing that?" I came offstage after doing a 15,000-word monologue in the play Girls & Boys and looked in the mirror and thought, "Where have these lines come from? I think I've been overacting!" I ordered some expensive cream, put it on for two days, and then forgot all about it. [laughs]
LB: What else are you into beauty-wise?
CM: I love facials. If I'm lucky and happen to be in America at the right time, I see [aesthetician] Joanna Czech. She's incredible. In London I go to Pfeffer Sal. But for day-to-day, I just do a little concealer, curl my eyelashes, and use Glossier Boy Brow because I like to comb these bad boys out. I have also really fallen for baseball caps. I used to feel self-conscious about wearing one because I'm not American, but it's a great way to navigate life without makeup.
LB: What's on your cap? Is it a team or just a style?
CM: It's by Outdoor Voices, and it says "Doing Things" on it.
LB: I'll just be over here doing things!
CM: And I always am.
Photographed by Horst Diekger. Styled by Konca Aykan. Hair by Laurent Philippon for Calliste Agency. Makeup by Maria Olsson for Open Talent. Manicure by Virginie Mataja for Airport Agency. Production by Octopix.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download May 22.