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Profile: Carey Mulligan

As Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art far more than art imitates life, and that’s certainly true when it comes to Carey Mulligan’s recent outspokenness on women’s rights - hot on the heels of her stunning performance in Suffragette (2015). In recent media interviews, she’s talked about the inequality that exists in Hollywood, including the wage gap between male and

As Oscar Wilde said, life imitates art far more than art imitates life, and that’s certainly true when it comes to Carey Mulligan’s recent outspokenness on women’s rights – hot on the heels of her stunning performance in Suffragette (2015).

In recent media interviews, she’s talked about the inequality that exists in Hollywood, including the wage gap between male and female actors and the lack of films by female directors. But she’s also gone beyond that, to talk about Hollywood’s lack of interest in telling stories about the lives of women.

In a recent interview with Elle UK magazine about her role in Suffragette, Carey said:

“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.”

To her credit, Mulligan is also aware the gender pay gap is very far from just a Hollywood phenomenon, maybe because she’s worked as a pub barmaid and studio runner between acting jobs.

“It’s important that our conversation isn’t just about Hollywood. It shouldn’t be a self-serving thing; it should be used to have a wider conversation, because it’s the same in all industries. If we’re going to talk about it, we should use it as a platform, as opposed to just try and fix it for ourselves.”

Mulligan is equally scathing on the topic of ‘strong female characters’, telling Elle UK magazine: “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 Mulligan’s definition of a ‘strong’ woman

I agree with Mulligan’s idea that when people talk about a ‘strong’ female character, what they actually mean is a woman who seems real, complex, multifaceted… rather than two-dimensional. In other words, someone that must surely exist in real life, not just on screen.

And that’s the thing I like about Carey Mulligan. She plays women that seem real and all that ‘real’ encompasses – vulnerable, feisty, determined, afraid, suicidal, resilient, passionate, unyielding… Isn’t that what ‘strong’ should mean? Accepting and embracing all our feelings, qualities and experiences as part of a unique whole – rather than seeing them as either ‘strong’ or ‘weak’?

Mulligan isn’t afraid to talk about real-life vulnerabilities either, famously saying she used to be in tears at the end of every red carpet, unnerved by the uncomfortable scrutiny of being in the spotlight. Interestingly, Mulligan’s ability to portray her characters as complex, multifaceted, evolving beings shaped by experience is also the thing she finds most difficult about film acting.

She recently told Hollywood Reporter that she finds it hard to make her characters feel consistent, because in film, everything is filmed out of order. You’d never know it.

Early inspiration – how it all began

Mulligan was born in London on 28 May 1985, but moved to Germany when she was three. Along with her brother, she went to the international school in Dusseldorf, and it was there that she decided she wanted to act. Her brother was in “The King and I”, and as soon as Mulligan went to a rehearsal, she realised she wanted to be too. She was so desperate to be in the play, she literally sobbed until she got a part. It wasn’t the last time she’d fight for a role she really wanted.

Mulligan returned to England with her family when she was eight, her desire to act still burning brightly. After seeing Kenneth Branagh in Henry V (1989) when she was sixteen, she wrote to him about her passion for acting, and got a letter back from his sister, encouraging her to follow her dream.

Mulligan’s big break – Pride & Prejudice

As luck would have it, the screenwriter Julian Fellowes visited Mulligan’s public school, Woldingham, and afterwards, she wrote to him, saying how much she wanted to act, inspired by her role as student head of drama and involvement in school productions. Fellowes invited her to a dinner for aspiring actors, and, impressed by her determination, introduced her to a casting agent who helped her get the part of Kitty Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (2005), starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet.

Carey Mulligan (left) in Pride and Prejudice (2005) - source: Focus Features

Carey Mulligan (left) in Pride and Prejudice (2005) – source: Focus Features

It’s testament to Mulligan that she didn’t give up during this time, especially as she applied to three different drama schools when she was seventeen, but was turned down by all of them. Luckily, she had enough determination and passion to write to Fellowes, despite the knock-backs.

Small screen successes

After her big screen debut, Mulligan went on to appear in a BBC production of Charles Dicken’s Bleak House (2005), as the orphan Ada Clare. The role earned her a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ nomination at the Online Film & Television Association (OFTA) awards the following year.

Mulligan followed that up with more TV roles, including The Amazing Mrs Pritchard (2006), Northanger Abbey (2007) and a Doctor Who episode called Blink (2007), with Doctor Who Magazine readers voting her ‘Best Guest Actress’. She also won ‘Best Female Performance in a 2007 Science Fiction Television Episode’ at the Constellation Awards.

As well as appearing in the films When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007) and My Boy Jack (2007), Mulligan took to the stage in London, playing Nina in Anton Chekhov’s play “The Seagull” in 2007. The part led to her Broadway debut in New York, where she once again played Nina in 2008.

Another big break and an Oscar nomination

After appearing in Public Enemies (2009) and The Greatest (2009), Mulligan got the chance to really make her mark in the acclaimed coming of age drama An Education (2009), alongside Peter Sarsgaard, who had appeared in “The Seagull” with her in New York. Mulligan played Jenny, a bright and restless 1960s teenager seduced by a charming, much-older ‘businessman’ (he turns out to be a conman) played by Sarsgaard.

An Education

An Education (2009) – source: Sony Pictures Classics

An Education went down a storm with the critics and earned her a BAFTA award for Best Leading Actress as well as Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations.

Waiting for the right role and some good advice

It may not seem like it just lately, but Mulligan has had some long breaks between her film roles, inspired by a determination to wait for parts she really believes in. In fact, she’s quoted as saying:

“Hollywood has managed to sell the idea that playing some rising star British actor’s wife is a good job. 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.”

Mulligan also knows that she’s in a privileged position in being able to take time out, and that it’s not a door open to many women, outside of Hollywood. She’s learnt by experience too. For example, after playing Michael Douglas’s daughter in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) Mulligan was reminded that it wasn’t enough for her just to appear in movies, however big:

“It was a great experience, but it didn’t feel there was a depth to the character. It didn’t grip me in the way I wanted.”

It was then that her agent gave her the advice: “You shouldn’t do anything unless you can’t bear the idea of anybody else doing it.” It certainly seems as if Mulligan took the advice on board, because she’s recently said:

“Everything’s been a sort of deliberate choice for the last five years. Since I’ve been able to be a bit more choosy, I’ve been just seeking out real women instead of sort of false depictions of women.”

She also draws inspiration from her favourite actresses, Marion Cotillard, Cate Blanchett and Kate Winslet: “I have a fear of being passive, and what I admire about all these actresses is that every choice they make is really strong. Even if they’re playing something very quiet, it’s visceral and bold.”

Never Let Me Go and Drive

Mulligan reunited with her friend Keira Knightley for the film Never Let Me Go (2010), based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro. She plays the character of Kathy, and it’s clear that the story ‘gripped’ her in the way she wanted to be gripped. She said:

“I read the book when it came out, and I always loved it. I loved it first and foremost as a love story and about people who want very simple things from life and can’t get them. We had Kazuo Ishiguro with us, and you want to be everything that he imagined when he wrote it.”

Never Let Me Go Mulligan

Mulligan, Garfield and Knightley in Never Let Me Go (2010) – source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mulligan’s description of Never Let Me Go, as ‘a love story and about people who want very simple things from life and can’t get them’, also reminds me of Drive (2011), where neither Mulligan’s character, Irene, or Ryan Gosling’s, Driver, can escape the violent world they’re drawn into, and there is no happily ever after.

Drive was also the film that really drew me to Mulligan, because her performance is so quiet and understated, yet luminescent and powerful, underlining the fact that there’s no such thing as the archetypal ‘strong woman’, just real women, shaped by a range of different emotions, qualities and experiences. It also earned her a BAFTA nomination.

A role worth fighting for

Just as she sobbed for her first role in “The King and I” all those years ago in Germany, Mulligan was prepared to fight for her role in Shame (2011). She may not have sobbed, but she’s quoted as saying she did virtually beg the director, Steve McQueen, for the part of Sissy.

Shame (2011) - source: Fox Searchlight

Shame (2011) – source: Fox Searchlight

Interestingly, it’s not any of her film roles that inspired Mulligan to fight for her role in Shame, but her experience on stage, playing Nina in “The Seagull”. She said:

“She’s the ultimate female role. I think I was looking to play her again in various incarnations. I felt a lot for her flaws. She was desperate to be loved and always reaching for something she couldn’t get. That was the connection I made with Nina.”

It was also the connection she made with Sissy – vulnerable, self-harming, suicidal and desperate to be loved. In fact, she poured all this out to Steve McQueen in a conversation that inspired her to get a seagull tattoo as a permanent reminder to fight for roles that were ‘the one’.

The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis

After playing Daisy opposite Leonardo’s DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (2013), Mulligan appeared with Oscar Isaac in the critically acclaimed Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). (It was a reunion, Oscar Isaac played Mulligan’s husband, Standard, in Drive).

Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote, directed and produced Inside Llewyn Davis, are quoted as saying that they deliberately cast Carey in the role of straight-talking Jean Berkey, because the character was so different to some of her ‘sweeter’ roles.

Great roles are like buses

After taking some time off to wait for the right role (again) – ‘like waiting for a bus’ as Mulligan put it – three came along at once. In 2015, she returned to the stage, to play Kyra Hollis in “Skylight”. The role earned her a Tony nomination, with the show itself winning Best Play Revival. She also played Bathsheba Everdene in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and Maud Watts in Suffragette.

I got the chance to see the original film version of Far from the Madding Crowd from 1967, the week before watching the 2015 adaptation, and I actually prefer the original, with the exception of Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Julie Christie was great, but somehow Mulligan captures all the contradictions and subtlety of Bathsheba’s character so well, perhaps because she’s drawn to empathising with her characters, flaws and all, and wanting to bring fictional characters to life, in the way she described when working with Kazuo Ishiguro.

“You want to be everything that he imagined when he wrote it.”

I get the impression she wanted to do justice to Bathsheba for Thomas Hardy too.


In Suffragette, Mulligan plays Maud, a laundry worker who becomes a Suffragette foot soldier, fighting for women’s right to vote in Britain, in the early 20th century. Apparently, she wasn’t too keen when her agent first mentioned the film, put off by the idea of another ‘period’ drama and having to wear a corset. But then she read the script.

Just as I was, when I saw the film, Mulligan was shocked by the police brutality, hunger strikes and force-feeding – a scene she so viscerally brings to life. She also loved working with a female-dominated production team, including writer Abi Morgan and director Sarah Gavron.

Suffragette (2015) - source: Focus Features

Suffragette (2015) – source: Focus Features

Carey told Elle UK magazine:

“[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.

“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 agree that Suffragette is definitely a film people should see, but I think Mulligan is being a bit harsh on some of her former roles… I think by showing women as unique, complex, multi-faceted characters, real women living and coping with real lives, in whatever decade they happen to be in, lots of her films have something important to say. It all goes back to the idea of ‘strength’ and that, to me, comes in many different forms.

What next for Carey Mulligan?

Mulligan is planning to co-produce her first film, working with Suffragette director Sarah Gavron, and producer Faye Ward. It’s all part of finding a ‘positive solution’ to the inequality women (and women’s stories) face in Hollywood.

For example, recent research published by the University of Southern California found that women had less than a third of the speaking parts in the most popular films of the last seven years. Mulligan is quoted as saying:

“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.”

I, for one, can’t wait.

And finally…is an Oscar just around the corner?

Mulligan already won a Hollywood Film Award for Suffragette, but could she win an Oscar? She’s certainly predicted to be nominated, but she’s up against stiff competition from Brie Larson (Room), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Cate Blanchett (Truth or Carol).

Mulligan herself is pragmatic about winning awards, aware that in one way it’s a ‘huge circus’, but equally aware the buzz around awards like the Oscars help films (especially small, independent films like An Education) reach a much bigger audience – and in turn, help her secure the roles she really wants.

From childhood, it seems as if Carey Mulligan has always fought for her right to decide what she wants for herself. From “The King and I”, to choosing acting over university (despite parental disapproval), to waiting and fighting for the roles that really meant something to her. Although I love her revolutionary transformation in Suffragette, I equally love her many different portrayals of women – all real, and in that sense, all strong.

What’s your favourite Carey Mulligan role? Do you think she’ll win an Oscar for Suffragette?

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

I'm a copywriter with a passion for film and screenwriting. I love most film genres but especially thrillers, science fiction, movies based on classic literature and films that can't be pigeon-holed.

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