Carey Mulligan on the Gray Areas of Consent and Hardest Parts of Filming 'Promising Young Woman'

"This was not a villain story; this wasn’t a 'men are bad' story. It’s about all the gray areas."

Carey Mulligan on Promising Young Woman
Photo: Focus Features

"How old are you?"

"Can I get you another drink?"

"You're so beautiful."

There's a laundry list of lines men use to get you into bed, all of which are shamelessly displayed in Promising Young Woman, a fiery #MeToo revenge thriller directed by The Crown's Emerald Fennell. It opens as ominously as any horror film: Cassie, a barista and med school dropout played by Carey Mulligan, appears overly intoxicated when an unassuming patron [Adam Brody] goes over to "see if she's okay." Even though she can barely walk, he summons her to his apartment, pours her yet another cocktail, and attempts to have his way with her. But before he can do so — surprise! — she reveals that she's dead sober. He freaks out. She teaches him a lesson he will not soon forget. The rest is left open to interpretation.

Cassie repeats this exact same ruse every week: go to a club, pretend to be drunk, wait for a seemingly nice guy to approach and subsequently try to take advantage of the situation. We later learn she assumes this role to exact retribution for her best friend Nina, who was sexually assaulted at a party and later dies by suicide. Mulligan, who also serves as executive producer, convincingly portrays a traumatized woman confronting toxic masculinity and a society that excuses perpetrators and vilifies victims, akin to how Batman's nemesis Joker is pushed to his breaking point when he perceives humanity to be inherently evil. In the tense, harrowing final sequence, Cassie wears a latex nurse outfit, conjuring up an image of Heath Ledger's rendition in The Dark Knight.

Here, Mulligan talks to InStyle about playing the female Joker, wearing makeup as armor, and lip-synching to Paris Hilton.

In addition to starring, what prompted you to executive produce this project?

The minute I read the script, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. It's always a great barometer for me: If I can imagine somebody else doing [a movie] and feel okay with it, then I can walk away. But whenever I imagined someone else playing this part, it made me sick. I just had to do it. "Executive producer" is a very generous term. I came in relatively early and [director] Emerald [Fennell] very generously allowed me to watch her and, to some degree, pull together the cast.

All of the predatory men in the film are played by beloved Hollywood actors: Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bo Burnham. Was that intentional?

Definitely. Emerald deliberately wanted people that we feel safe with and we root for. This was not a villain story; this wasn't a "men are bad" story. It's about all the gray areas. All of the men in the film think of themselves as good guys, and they're not wrong — they just aren't seeing those parts of our culture that we have all accepted as abusive. There's no easy way to look at the film. You can't say, "What a bad person. We're the good guys." Nothing about it is concrete like that.

Carey Mulligan on Promising Young Woman
Focus Features

Mintz-Plasse's character weaving David Foster Wallace into the conversation while praying on a drunk Cassie is a painfully accurate depiction of every man ever.

There's actually nothing in the film that we haven't seen in a comedy in the last 15 or 20 years. We're just seeing it through a different lens. So all of this stuff — the really drunk girl getting taken advantage of — has also been in films that we've all looked at as just being very funny in the past. Those scenes obviously were handled really delicately and really well, but it is a reframing of something that we've all become completely comfortable with. Fortunately I've never experienced anything like this, but I know countless friends and stories of women who have. And we're very aware of that.

Did hearing about other women's traumatic sexual experiences help get you into character? You go from witty and charming to vindictive sociopath so seamlessly.

[Laughs] I read the script and thought, I have no idea how to do this. Then I said, "Yes." And then we were filming it. There were no months of preparation and rehearsal. Bo [Burnham] and I did a bit of work together, Adam Brody and I read our scenes out loud, we all talked a bit, then we shot for 23 days, and that was it. I didn't go in knowing what I was doing. But I had so much fun. I remember I had to be drunk in Wildlife, and it is a very difficult thing to do convincingly. I wasn't sure if I was selling it, but it doesn't matter, because [Cassie's] not actually drunk. If you badly act drunk, then she's badly acting drunk. And those guys aren't necessarily being forensic about their observations at that point, so if you vaguely look wasted, it works.

I thoroughly enjoyed the scene where you and Bo Burnham lip-sync to Paris Hilton's "Stars Are Blind." Were there any practice singalongs?

No, no rehearsal for that, thank god! You don't rehearse something like that, you just, like, get it done.

Carey Mulligan on Promising Young Woman
Focus Features

There are definitely some parallels between Cassie and the Joker that I'd like to discuss. Was her nurse costume in the final scene meant to be an homage to Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight?

No, it wasn't, but I can totally see that — physically, the visual, the lips. I think the different characters that she plays are suits of armor. She's literally padding herself with makeup to look different and not be recognized, to have this sort of shield. I don't think she could do what she does if she went out as herself, and even herself is a construct. I think in [Cassie's] former life, she didn't look anything like that. The nails and the hair is something that's a part of her defense, and isn't it for all of us? Why do we wear makeup? Why do we dress the way we do? For me certainly, I feel like sometimes I'm doing it to protect myself, and I think that's what she's doing.

And her day-to-day wardrobe is very nostalgic, hinting at a stunted adolescence, even though she's 30. The floral dresses and ribbons in her hair.

A lot of it is a reaction to what's happened to her. She doesn't want to be a grown-up; she wants to stay at home. She doesn't want to have a real relationship; she doesn't want to pay bills. She wants to go back; she doesn't want to go forward. All of that is a regression — the way she dresses is a regression, the fact that she refuses to leave her home or grow up in any way.

This movie really defies expectations. You're bracing for a classic slasher, but, without giving too much away, it turns out to be something entirely different.

It's that old [adage]: What's a woman's greatest fear? Physical violence. What's a man's greatest fear? Ridicule. What tools do you really have? You don't have physical superiority on the whole as a woman, as is shown. So what do you have? You have your mind. Emerald wanted to look at, What would I really actually do if this was my mission? And it's a terrible plan. What [Cassie] does is a terrible idea. It's disastrous, but how she handles it is the far more realistic version. We are so used to seeing the easy answer, which is, "Oh, he's a bad guy, kill him." And it's not real. None of us can really relate to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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