Carey Mulligan Gets Candid On Roles For Women, Equal Pay, And Suffragette

Writer Ros Urwin talks with the Suffragette star

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It’s a relief I don’t ask Carey Mulligan about playing ‘strong female characters’.

She loathes the idea.

‘You don’t say to men: “You played another really strong man.” The idea that women are inherently weak – and we’ve identified the few strong ones to tell stories about – is mad.’ Carey has a knack for saying what you’ve long thought, only far more articulately.

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When we meet at London’s Soho Hotel, she’s wearing a Stella McCartney print dress, Christian Louboutin gold flats and minimal make-up.  She greets me with such a warm smile that I fear she’s mistaken me for someone she’s met before.

She’s spent the day doing promotional interviews with the rest of the cast for her new film, Suffragette.

Carey plays the protagonist, Maud, a laundry worker who becomes a Suffragette foot soldier, fighting for the vote in Britain during the early 20th Century.

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The movie notably features the most iconic moment of the women’s equality movement, the feminist equivalent of the moon landing: Emily Wilding Davison stepping in front of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby. ‘It was the first piece of news footage that went worldwide, so it obviously had a huge impact,’ explains Carey.

‘They had her Votes For Women scarf in a frame at the Houses of Parliament, where we filmed.’ Her coffin was accompanied by thousands of Suffragettes dressed in white carrying laurel wreaths while crowds lined the streets.

Carey points out that a film about women’s suffrage has been a long time coming: ‘Just think about the number of times in Hollywood they thought: “Shall we tell the story of the Suffragettes? Nah, we’re never going to make any money, f*ck it.” They’re making three films about the Boston bombers right now, and it’s taken us a hundred years to tell a story about basic human rights.’

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When her agent told her about Suffragette,  her initial reaction was: ‘Period,  eeegh. Corsets,  nurrr.’ Then she read the script: ‘I was shocked: the police brutality, the hunger strikes, the force feeding, the destruction of property. I had a really  naïve  view of the suffrage movement. When I was at school, there was just a paragraph dedicated to it.’

'I had a really naïve view of the suffrage movement.'

Carey is a mix of the expected – a simple gold band on her ring finger to mark her marriage to Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons – and the unexpected: a faint seagull tattoo on her right wrist, which she had done in Selfridges because she felt too middle-class and not cool enough to visit a real tattoo parlour.

At 30, she has an air of serenity, clearly more comfortable in her own skin than when she starred as the ingénue in her breakout film An Education.

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But she’s also open about her vulnerabilities, confessing she used to have tears in her eyes at the end of every red carpet, because she found the scrutiny so uncomfortable.

‘It’s  wonderful to wear nice clothes [Lanvin, Balenciaga, Erdem and Stella are her favourite labels], but my god, that  Mani  Cam!

This is not about me selling my body to you; I’m representing a film. They don’t tell men to give it over their shoulder. And the way they run the camera up and down your body. What are they looking for? A flaw or some great attribute. Either way, it’s objectifying women.’

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She loved working with the female-dominated production team headed by writer Abi Morgan, the creator of the TV series The Hour, and Brick Lane director Sarah Gavron.

‘[In the past when] it has been a really male environment, it has been hard to get my voice heard, or to maintain the integrity of the character I play, or I’ve felt really disappointed to see what’s happened to the female character in the edit. I didn’t have that fear in this film.’

The opportunity to make a feminist film was a big draw for the cast. ‘Meryl [Streep, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst] has wanted to tell the story of the women’s rights movement for 20 years.

For me, it’s the first time I’ve made a film saying something important. Some of the films I’ve been in I hate, some of them I love, but this is the first time I don’t watch it and think: “I hate this about my performance,” or, “I look crazy.” I feel really proud of it, as something people should see.’

‘I feel really proud of it, as something people should see.’

The film’s stars were so excited, they would go home and do more than the required research, often bringing quotes and information to set.

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Even Carey’s mother Nano got roped in, finding Hannah Mitchell’s autobiography The Hard Way after Carey complained there was so little written by working-class suffragettes.

I ask her if women’s stories have been under-told. ‘To a ridiculous degree,’ she replies.

In August, the University of Southern California published research which found that women had fewer than a third of the speaking parts in the most popular films of the last seven years.

Carey is only too aware of this, but reveals she’s found a positive solution to the problem. She’s planning to co-produce her first film, working with Gavron and Faye Ward, Suffragette’s director and producer respectively.

‘We’re looking for the story and the script. Hopefully it’ll be something contemporary, because I feel it’s time to step away from costume dramas for a while.

That Suffragette has been made by a mainly female team bolsters a new narrative of women being the change they want to see, and in the spirit of ELLE’s #MoreWomen campaign, supporting and promoting each other along the way.

During our conversation, Carey’s Suffragette co-star Anne-Marie Duff comes over for a goodbye hug.

Later, over the phone, Duff tells me why she’s a fully paid-up member of the Carey Mulligan fan club, ‘She is a hugely deft actress,’ she says. ‘She has buckets of integrity and cares so much about her work. She’s very emotionally articulate – she really engages with you – but she’s also very naughty and very funny.

We giggled all the time, but then she’s completely committed to every scene.’

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I realise Carey and I have a lot in common. We’re both 30. Her grandmother has  Alzheimer’s and is in a care home (‘There’s a  carer  who tells her every day that I’m having a baby. Sometimes, she’ll nod and say, “Oh, that’s good.”’); mine died while suffering from the disease. Both of us are slightly scarred by our brothers’ childhood nicknames for us: mine was Thunder Thighs, Carey’s brother Owain, an ex-army captain, called her Fatty Boom Boom. ‘I love my brother more than anything, but it stuck in my head,’ she says. 

Neither of us has many friends in our industry: ‘Dianna Agron [currently dating Mumford banjoist Winston Marshall] is a really good friend and I’m sort of friends with people I’ve worked with,’ she says. ‘But my best friend has been my best friend since I was 14 – she’s an illustrator. It’s me, her and two others from school.’ Oh, and we’re both quite sweary, rather forceful feminists, which

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I mean (and take) as a compliment. A lot has changed since Carey’s last ELLE cover in January 2011. Back then, the great unmentionable (Carey hate s talking about her personal life) was her ex, the controversial actor Shia LaBeouf.

Although she tries to avoid talking about Marcus (her childhood pen pal), whenever the words ‘my husband’ pass her lips, she can’t help smiling.  I ask if she married a feminist: ‘Yeah, I can safely say I did.’

A shortage of compelling roles has meant some long breaks between films for Carey. ‘Sadly,  Hollywood has managed to sell the idea that playing some rising star British actor’s wife is a good job,’ she tells me. ‘It’s not. A lot of the stuff I read is playing so-and-so’s wife, so-and-so’s girlfriend.

That’s not where the story is: I want to play him. The path I’ve taken so far is,  “Right:  nothing’s come along – I’m just going to do f*ck all for a year and a half.” I’ve stopped working on things where I feel the female character is diminished or compromised.’

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However, there is a different kind of work hiatus on the horizon now that she’s seven-and-a-half months pregnant with her first child. ‘I’m about to have six weeks of doing nothing but sitting around at home,’ she says. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I love what I do, but I’m excited for this next phase of my life.’

After our interview she’s heading back to Devon, where she and Marcus have a farmhouse.

There, she admits to wearing ‘whatever is lying on the floor’. Home life pre-baby is one of dogs (they have a cocker spaniel called Rambo), dinner with friends and hiking – ‘pretty easy-living stuff’, she says. ‘I like going on adventures and seeing places, but most of the time that I’m not working, I just want to be home, not gallivanting all over the world.

I want lots of normality and to be out of the city – I find the city quite stressful.’

‘I’ve always wanted to be a mother. I love what I do, but I’m excited for this next phase of my life.’

When she’s alone, she works her way through box sets. Veep is a current favourite. ‘Julia Louis-Dreyfus is amazing – I’m completely obsessed with her.’  Before that, it was Parks & Recreation: ‘I’m so sad that’s over – Amy Poehler is a genius. I went through a real trash-TV phase too, watching Revenge and Nashville.’ Normality has always been Carey’s anchor.

She grew up in a ‘sheltered, happy, middle-class family’, the daughter of a hotel-manager father and a lecturer mother. She boarded at Woldingham School in Surrey.

I suggest one of the problems feminism has always faced is that it disproportionately benefits middle-class women.

She nods: ‘That was a big criticism of Emmeline Pankhurst, that it was all very well her going to prison and on hunger strike, but she could go home to a place with maids. The sacrifice and the loss [of the Suffragettes] was far greater for women who had far less; it was far harder for women like Maud.

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I think we’ve continued that to this day. I’ve grown up in a very different world, and enjoyed the benefits and can feel very liberated, but a lot of women don’t. The women portrayed in this film put their lives on the line to afford women the choices we enjoy today. They wanted their children to grow up in a more equal world – as a mum-to-be, there’s nothing more inspiring.’

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Would she have been a Suffragette?

‘You’d like to think that you would [but] you’re a product of your time. I can express my opinion, but I’ve never had to fight, to stand up for anything. And the notion of walking into a gallery with a knife and destroying a piece of art, that seems unbelievably terrifying to me.

And that’s just one, tame example of what they did.’  She doesn’t consider Suffragette an educational film, though (‘It’s so much bigger than that’) and hopes it will open conversations about how far women have come, and where we are now: ‘Until 1991, it was still legal for a man to rape his wife.

Making films like Suffragette will become even more important to me as they’re something I’ll be proud to show my family one day. ’

We touch on the mammoth challenges that lie ahead: sexualisation, violence, the persistent lack of equal political representation (only 29% of MPs are female). ‘Someone asked me yesterday, “Do you think it would be a better world if it were run by women?” And the answer is no, I think it would be a better world if it were run equally – we’re still so far from that.’

Her one regret about Suffragette is that it didn’t come out before May’s general election. However, there’s still the not-so-small matter of 2016’s US presidential election, when
Hillary Clinton will be vying to become the first woman in the Oval Office.

“Do you think it would be a better world if it were run by women?” And the answer is no, I think it would be a better world if it were run equally – we’re still so far from that.’

Carey spent time in New York this year starring in the David Hare play, Skylight, not far from Clinton’s campaign offices in Brooklyn. 

Would she like to see her triumph? ‘Massively,’ her eyes light up. ‘I love her. I’ve always thought she’s amazing and I’m so excited about it.’

She tells me she recently overheard a conversation where people were bashing Clinton: ‘They were saying, “She claims not to have known what was going on in her marriage.” Harking back to that. That has nothing to do with her politics. It’s nonsense, and so completely sexist.’

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We talk about the sexism Carey herself has experienced as a woman in the public eye, and it’s not limited to the red carpet. ‘Playing Daisy [in The Great Gatsby] was the first time I felt physically intimidated by a role,’ she confesses. ‘I remember reading horrendous sh*t [online] when I got cast, people saying, ‘She’s not pretty enough to play Daisy.’ I felt so embarrassed.

I thought, “They’re right, I shouldn’t do it” – all those mad insecurities that you have.’  Carey had a Facebook account before she was famous but left, and does not use Twitter.  She struggles with the virtual world: ‘I feel so freaked out by all the negative stuff out there.’

'Carey had a Facebook account before she was famous but left, and does not use Twitter.'

Does she Google herself? She grimaces. ‘Once in a blue moon, and it’s always sh*t. I have a rule where I don’t, and then when I’m a bit drunk, I do.

Everyone hates  you,  everyone thinks you’re bad at acting. I’ll be so horrified that I’ll stay away, and then I’ll cave in again, and be left a puddle on the floor. It’s a weird cycle.’

Feeling scrutinised pains her, so much so that she admits to having half a glass of wine – ‘enough to make me tipsy’ – before going on talk shows.

These flashes of vulnerability make Carey immensely likeable.

She turned 30 in May and I ask if the Big Birthday hit her hard. ‘In the run-up, I thought: “This is nothing. 30? F*ck off! Everything’s great.”

And then the day after, I thought: “Oh my god, I’m never going to be 21 again.” I started having flashbacks to my apartment in Holloway, where I used to have these great parties.

There’s something about being in your 20s where it feels endless. Then I had a massive mortality crisis – “One day, I’m going to die” – one of those real meltdowns.’

 She pauses: ‘Those big moments do actually happen, where you suddenly have to step out from everything, and you’re like, “Where am I?”’

Listening to Carey, I’d say she’s somewhere pretty great right now – and, as one of feminism’s new voices, she’s going to fight to get the rest of us there as well.

Suffragette is out now.

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