In conversation

Carey Mulligan and Frances McDormand discuss matriarchal film sets, parenthood and getting drunk with Joel Coen
Film+TV | 12 January 2021

In anticipation of Carey Mulligan’s new film arriving at the end of this month (The Dig, directed by Simon Stone), we’re taking a look back at our HEROINE 12 cover story and one of our all-time favourite head-to-heads, with Academy Award-winning actor Frances McDormand. A happy coincidence sees McDormand with her own projects set for imminent release, first with early Oscar-frontrunner Nomadland (directed by Chloe Zhao) followed by Wes Anderson’s much anticipated French Dispatch.

Having first met during the filming of 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Mulligan and McDormand remain two of of most prominent and respected actors around, with fascinating views on issues currently facing the film industry and an un-ending supply of brilliant anecdotes. At the time of interview, Mulligan had recently finished work on Promising Young Woman, a story of female revenge directed by Mulligan’s long-term friend Emerald Fennell. In keeping with the film’s theme of shapeshifting between appearances and characters (all in the name of seducing wicked men), Mulligan created six bold, iconic archetypes for the accompanying shoot.

Coat, bra, corset, t-shirt and trousers all from The Contemporary Wardrobe; boots
by Underground

Frances McDormand: Hi, Carey.
Carey Mulligan: Hi, how are you?

FM: I’m good! What’s going on with your new movie [Promising Young Woman]? I love the title.
CM: It’s my favourite thing ever, I love it, and I rarely say that about anything. It’s a film I did with my friend Emerald Fennell last year, in LA. It’s quite hard to describe without spoiler-ishing.

FM: Tell me about Emerald.
CM: I met her through a mutual friend not long before she offered me the job, and then she sent me the script and I loved it. I met her and said yes within about two minutes of sitting down. Then it wasn’t until we were filming, which was about four months later, that we figured out we had met each other before. When we were younger, we had both been in an episode of Trial & Retribution: Sins of the Father, which is kind of a rite of passage in the UK. We were both eighteen or nineteen, it was one of my first jobs and it was one of hers too, she’s an actress as well. She played ‘Bitchy Girl in Nightclub’, and I played ‘Girl Who Gets Murdered.’ We had a scene together where she pushes me over in a nightclub, and then I go home and subsequently get murdered. Michael Fassbender was the detective.

FM: I love those titles, aren’t those great names for characters?
CM: Yes!

FM: That’s a sign of the times: ‘Bitchy Girl in Nightclub’ and ‘Girl Who Gets Murdered’.
CM: [laughs] Yeah, exactly! So we did know each other but we weren’t close friends. Now she’s a very good friend.

FM: And did you develop it with her any more after reading it?
CM: Not really. The script was so brilliant, witty and unique to her. I guess the only thing I felt reading it was, “Fuck, it takes a certain person to be able to do this.” My only fear was: could you get away with it? But then the second I met her I thought, “Right, you’re the only person in the world that could possibly pull this off.” So I was in fairly early and it all came together really quickly. She was so gracious in letting me meet actors with her and that kind of thing. But there was no script development on my side. That happened more with actors on the day, because the rest of the cast are basically comedians. I’m the only person in the film that isn’t funny.

“Our goal is to get in the room and prove to them that we can transform.”

FM: Have you done that before with a project, been that involved with the casting?
CM: I’ve never been producing or anything like that, but I was around early on Suffragette and on Far from the Madding Crowd, where I felt like I had a little bit of a say. But this was so exciting, because every day I would get a phone call or text from Emerald saying some new person had signed on. Then I met with Bo Burnham. He directed Eighth Grade last year, he’s a comedian and director and plays my love interest in the film, he’s so brilliant. We did readings with a couple of actors before meeting him, and he was just completely perfect from the first sentence that came out of his mouth.

FM: In the project I’m doing with Joel [Coen, filmmaker and McDormand’s husband] right now, I’ve been in all the auditions and reading with all the actors that come in, and I thought, “How do you do it any other way?” You know, the whole stupid, really counterproductive idea that agents and managers sell to their clients of, “Oh no, you must have an offer,” or, “Oh no, you don’t go into the room. You’ll have a meeting, but you won’t read.”

It’s like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because – and I know you agree – the last thing I want to do is anything like what I just did. So if a director is only going on your past work, then you’re only going to do the same thing over and over. Our goal is to get in the room and prove to them that we can transform.
CM: 100 percent. I always feel so much better if I’ve auditioned or sent in a tape. I just feel more confident coming into the room feeling like I’ve proved that I have an idea of what this could be, or that I’ve thought about how I could do it. With Promising Young Woman it was really good because we did readings with a couple of different actors and that was the first time I was saying the script out loud in front of Emerald, even though she offered [the role] to me.

It was amazing, at the same time I thought, “This character is so far removed from anything I’ve ever done, you have zero idea that I can actually do it.” So just getting to do a bit of it out loud for a couple of hours was so helpful, to prove to myself and her and get rid of the crazy fear that I wouldn’t be able to do it when I got there.

“If a director is only going on your past work, then you’re only going to do the same thing over and over. Our goal is to get in the room and prove to them that we can transform.”

Jacket by Balmain SS20; skirt by Dilara Findikoglu SS20; necklace and socks stylist’s own; record box from Cenci Vintage; sneakers by Swear London

FM: Yes. How long was the shoot?
CM: I think it was 23 days, really short. It flew by, it was so much fun. They just sent me a blooper reel… I’ve never been in a film that had a blooper reel before, it makes me so happy! [laughs] Also, it’s so rare to be in a film where people are trying not to laugh all the time. So many of the projects that I’ve done have been amazing experiences, but quite serious. So it was really fun to just have days where we were getting told off for laughing too much.

FM: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a joy. As we know, as parents, when you make those decisions to dive that deep, that fast, it has to be worth it, doesn’t it?
CM: Yes, it has to be. I don’t know – you must have made this decision along the way – but there’s a moment where you just think there’s zero point in doing this if you’re not working with people you really like.

FM: Absolutely, and that get it, you know? I’m producing this other project with a female director soon – she’s got three kids – and she said very early on, “How do you feel about a family-friendly set? You know, reasonable days, childcare on set for cast and crew,” and my producing partner, who is also female, and I said, “Absolutely, we’re going to do it.”

A friend of mine sent me this great interview with [filmmaker] Josephine Decker – she was just at Sundance with her film, and she was having to pump, you know? She was breastfeeding and the baby wasn’t there. She said, “I can miss this interview because I have to pump, or I can just pump while we do it. ” So she decided to just go ahead and pump during the interview. She had a portrait taken of her, with her pump attached, which is extraordinary. Carey, it’s extraordinary! But it’s also this amazing picture of a woman at work. [laughs] It was so great. That’s the truth of it. Try to do that, Scorsese!
CM: When I went back and did Mudbound, Evie was eight months old. That was the first job I had done after having a baby. I was so lucky because I got to bring Evie to work. She didn’t stick around very much because it was 40 degrees and we were in Louisiana in the middle of a muddy field, so my mum and Marcus brought her in and out a bit. I was pumping and it was all fine and very much taken care of. But I was so lucky, because there were so many people on the crew who had kids, and weren’t seeing their children for however long. So the idea of childcare on set… I’ve not heard of anyone actually doing it. But you’re actually going to do it, that’s so cool.

“The idea of childcare on set… I’ve not heard of anyone actually doing it. But you’re actually going to do it, that’s so cool.”

FM: Yes, we’re going to do it. Marielle Heller [filmmaker] had a parent-friendly set. There was a really interesting article with her talking about how it worked. It’s all about being able to get your days done as a director, but I think it’s one of those by-products of a female-driven [project]… basically making it a matriarchy.

It’s going to eventually change the process of making a film in the most positive way, I think, because all the crews that we work with have some spouse in some city somewhere holding down the fort, while they’re gipsies and travelling the world. It’s not a healthy way to go about it. But if everybody can bring them along instead, it’s the best way. How many female directors have you worked with? I know there was Dee Rees for Mudbound.
CM: I guess quite a few across theatre and film. But in film, Dee, Sarah Gavron, Shana Feste, Lone Scherfig, Emerald…

FM: That’s a great percentage!
CM: I guess it’s probably half-half. Then Susanna White – that was on a TV show. So yeah, it’s quite a lot. Have you worked with lots of women?

FM: I think I’ve counted nine, which, given our age difference, I feel is pretty extraordinary.
CM: [laughs] I also feel like when you get an email with the script to read, or when you audition for something that is being directed by a woman, it always makes me a little bit more excited, because I think, probably, that woman has had to work that much harder, or be that much better to have gotten to this point. Do you know what I mean?

FM: Yes, there’s a bar.
CM: They must have written something really extraordinary or directed something really amazing, and they’re now getting their second opportunity, or third, or fourth, but the bar is so much higher. I’ve had great, great experiences. Emerald was up there with the best of them.

“When you get an email with the script to read, or when you audition for something that is being directed by a woman, it always makes me a little bit more excited, because I think, probably, that woman has had to work that much harder, or be that much better to have gotten to this point.”

Coat and boots both by Gareth Pugh Archive FW14

FM: I also really think it affects the writing, like my experience with Three Billboards with Martin [McDonagh]. He got in touch and said, “I’m sending you this, I wrote the part for you,” so that was really gratifying and exciting. I read it, loved it, and then automatically said, “Well, I wish I could play it, but I’m too old. I know where this woman comes from, it’s where I come from.

“A working class woman in America would have had her child when she was eighteen, so I don’t really buy that this woman in her mid-50s would have a child that was eighteen. But if you make me the grandmother, I’ll feel really great. I’ll feel really confident, I won’t feel like I’m trying to pretend to be younger, I’ll feel like I’m really authentic to the world that this woman comes from.”

And he said, “No, I just don’t believe that a grandmother would fight as hard for her grandchild as she would for her child.” You know where that went with me. It was, “Well, you’re clearly not a parent, nor a woman, because if anything, a grandparent would fight harder, because she could get the second chance at mistakes she’d made before.” So we went back and forth for almost a year, and then finally Joel said, “Shut the fuck up and do it. If he thinks you’re right for the job, you’re right for the job!”

And so I shut the fuck up and I was right for the job, and we didn’t think about it again. But it was really worth the debate for me, because there were still places in the whole process where I came up against things – I don’t mean to be completely sexist because Martin’s a fucking great writer, and at the end of the day that’s what you want, a great writer and a great vision – but it’s also really interesting when you bump up against things and you go, “Whoa, I think a woman would react differently.” But it all remains to be seen, doesn’t it? So let me ask you about the comedians that you were working with. Were they actors, too?
CM: Yes they were actors too. So the brief set up is – and I’m going to do this so badly, which is why I should never be allowed to do a talk show because I have zero idea of how to explain what a film is about – but it’s basically a woman who is just turning 30, she was in med school, her friend had a traumatic experience and it’s kind of altered the course of her life and she’s now going on a path of vengeance. It’s not quite a revenge movie, but her mission is to teach men about their ways. And so she goes out to nightclubs and she pretends that she’s completely wasted and then she just waits to see what happens, and if a guy takes her home she waits until the critical point and then she reveals that she’s completely sober. That’s the set-up.

“Joel said, “Shut the fuck up and do it. If he thinks you’re right for the job, you’re right for the job!” And so I shut the fuck up and I was right for the job, and we didn’t think about it again.”

FM: Fabulous.
CM: It’s really fun, but what Emerald did is so clever, she basically wanted to ensure that there’s nothing in this film that you haven’t seen in a bro comedy in the last fifteen–twenty years. So I won’t name specific examples, but basically it’s men taking advantage of a very drunk woman, which we’ve seen in lots of very ‘haha’ movies, but Emerald has pushed it from the other side: what if the woman actually isn’t wasted and she’s completely sober? Emerald chose brilliant actors and comedians, all of whom are really comfortable, familiar faces.

People that you know, like Sam Richardson, who’s in Veep and Max Greenfield who’s in New Girl and Adam Brody who was in The OC, they’re all people that we love and have seen in romantic comedies and that kind of stuff. They all present as pretty nice guys. Jennifer Coolidge plays my mum and she’s so brilliant, so funny. I actually couldn’t deal with it – getting to be around and watching comedians who can all improvise, not crack and stay completely in character.

I mean, there was a dinner table scene where Bo comes to meet my parents and Jennifer’s improvising, and Bo’s kind of going along with it and I ruined almost every single take because I’m shaking, I can’t stop laughing. The cameraman behind me had wrapped his bandanna around his head and was just shaking as well… it was just insane. So that was so much fun. It’s a very, very dark comedy but there’s a lightness that runs the whole way through it, which I think if we didn’t have… you just don’t want to be punished by a film.

FM: That’s a really good way of saying it. And you know, when I was talking about Three Billboards I always said it was about justice, it’s a different thing to revenge and it sounds like that’s what Emerald’s interest is. And god what a perfect time. Joel and I have become completely addicted to two podcasts, it’s a stupid way to detox from Macbeth [McDormand is currently working on a new film adaptation] but we come home and listen to The Daily and The Argument. The Argument is with three political pundits, they’re op-ed writers for the New York Times; one is a progressive Democrat, the other’s a moderate and the other’s a conservative, leaning towards Republican.

They just have an argument about a different issue of the day and it’s invigorating, in a way. We were listening to one last night about the Weinstein trial and it was an interview with his defence lawyer. It was interesting in many ways, but one of the things she was recommending was that before any man went past first base he should have a consent form that’s signed. She said that’s how she sees the future of sexual encounters between men and women. It was like, “Oh my god, really? Like that’s where we are?” It’s a very strange time we’re in, a strange, strange time.

“I’ve never been in a satisfying sexual encounter where I wasn’t out of control, that’s the point, it seems to me, to get to that place of abandonment and sheer sensual turmoil. So what’s the contract that you actually have to put into place to get to that abandonment?”

Dress, skirt and collar from Angels Costumier; pearl necklaces by Slim Barrett; gold chains by Van Cleef
& Arpels

I remember when Pedro [McDormand and Coen’s son] went to college and we were talking about the landscape – those situations are just like blobs of hormones interacting on a daily basis, right? And these new blobs of hormones usually connect through devices now, through contracts that are made via social media. Then, after they navigate all those Byzantine rules of swiping and profiles, they get skin-to-skin, they go insane.

But that’s the point, it’s that skin-to-skin, I’ve never been in a satisfying sexual encounter where I wasn’t out of control, that’s the point, it seems to me, to get to that place of abandonment and sheer sensual turmoil. So what’s the contract that you actually have to put into place to get to that abandonment? It’s not something you work out intellectually. I don’t know. It makes me speechless.
CM: It was interesting being in Sundance with this film and so many reporters asking, “Is this a MeToo movie?” or, “This seems to be your response to the MeToo movement,” and Emerald was… not resistant to it, but as she quite rightly explained, “Well yeah, this is going to resonate, of course…” But the MeToo movement in a lot of ways is something that’s happening now, and these are age-old issues, these are things that women have been talking about since they were children, practically.

FM: Absolutely. The Greeks wrote plays about it. I remember working on one and realising that it was their public service announcement. They were basically sent out to these small villages that were the revenue for the large cities and they were saying [through the plays], “You know what? Probably not a good idea to sleep with your mother and kill your father. Because it kind of breaks down societal rules to the extent that we’re not getting our income from you, so cut it out.”

These really basic, moral parables of how you can keep a society together. Now we get hashtags. Is it a response to MeToo? No. MeToo is a response to – like you’re saying – ancient issues, just navigating societal complexity and it can’t be as simple as a hashtag, it can’t be as simple as saying that everything’s a reaction to that. It’s got to be an evolutionary situation or we’re not going to get anywhere, we’re not going to survive. 

“The MeToo movement in a lot of ways is something that’s happening now, and these are age-old issues, these are things that women have been talking about since they were children, practically.”

FM: So Carey, something that we haven’t commented on is that we both do theatre, film and television – we’ve done all three. I was trained to be a classical theatre actor, I went to drama school and I was being groomed as a product to be sent out to regional theatres around America to do the classics. I quickly learned with a $50,000 debt from graduate school, a Pabst Blue Ribbon commercial was going to be a lot better… I mean I had to start working and paying back the loans and theatre was not going to give me that opportunity.

However, I found, especially as a younger actor, doing a play carved the opportunity for the next role in a film. And always going back to the theatre, it’s not because it’s my first love as a lot of people want to say, but it’s because it’s the training ground, the place where you can, from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, work out new muscles.
CM: I completely agree. When I do theatre and then have nothing to do afterwards I feel like I have all this energy. But I didn’t train, I was desperate to go to drama school, it was all I ever wanted to do, but I didn’t get in. I ended up doing my first play when I was nineteen at the Royal Court and I had no idea what I was doing, it was terrifying…

FM: It was drama school!
CM: Yeah exactly! It really was. It was a Katie Mitchell play and she found me crying in my dressing room on the first preview and brought me in with the other actors who taught me how to warm up, because I didn’t know how to warm up my voice, my body, or anything. So theatre was what I wanted to do when I was growing up, but I love, love, love film. I did a monologue last year [a stage production of Girls & Boys] and it was 90 minutes long. I never in a million years thought I would stand on stage on my own. But in doing that, I walked out thinking I just wanted to keep scaring myself.

I scared myself to the point where I almost bailed on the whole thing, I could barely do a run-through without having a panic attack. But in terms of it changing my choices, doing the monologue made me think that, while I’m in this really privileged position to be able to choose what [I work on] to some degree, I just want to make sure that I’m freaking myself out for the next couple of years, and not doing anything that feels like, “Oh yeah I know how to do that, that’s easy.”

“I was desperate to go to drama school, it was all I ever wanted to do, but I didn’t get in. I ended up doing my first play when I was nineteen at the Royal Court and I had no idea what I was doing”

FM: Absolutely. For me, theatre offered the only protagonist roles I ever did, in film I was always generally playing supporting roles to male protagonists, because that’s what most of the films were when I was coming up. But the major shift for me was when I knew that Pedro was going to be graduating from high school and making his next move, I knew I’d be bereft. I was being advised by people who’d known me for many years to consider developing my own work, basically creating roles, and I decided, “Right, if I’m going to create roles, they are going to be ones where I play the protagonist.” That was Olive Kitteridge [2014] and that was when it changed for me.

If there’s some kind of rule, or cut-off for female characters to age in television and film, then I definitely saw long-format television as an opportunity. I’d just seen The Wire for the first time, I realised what was possible and how you could tell the longer arc and the more circuitous route of a female story that way. The industry was also changing and television was no longer ghettoised – that’s where the money was. It became like the independent film world, because it had budget but it was also taking risks and telling female stories. So that was epiphanal for me, I think.
CM: And Olive Ketteridge was early in that whole wave of new, really brilliant TV, wasn’t it?

FM: In America, yes. It was certainly something that the British industry had already done and perfected, but we were catching up with that.
CM: If it’s too personal you don’t need to say, Fran, but I wondered, when Pedro was growing up, did you feel like you held back from that route of making stuff where you could play the lead role, like you were waiting?

FM: Well it wasn’t like they were on offer, Carey, either! But I also came to parenting late, I was in my late 30s when we met Pedro, so getting the opportunity to be a parent was really important to me, it’s not like I ever feel I sacrificed any part of my professional life. It’s interesting, even when Pedro was around eighteen, his perspective of me was that I was waiting for him to come home [from school]. Which is really fascinating given that I had a professional career the entire time he was growing up, but he still considers me as that person just waiting for him to come home from school.

But when I would hear things about there being this kind of age cut-off for women in film, I would look towards the women just ahead of me by ten years, like Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. I would look at their film careers and say, “Well no, they actually made a choice.” Because if you look at their trajectory, it’s generally when their kids are in junior high and high school that they do one film a year, or they do smaller roles; they’re making choices around their personal lives and what they prioritise differently than their male counterparts.

That’s when I started working with The Wooster Group [a New York City-based experimental theatre company], because it was in New York, I could be there all day, it was a matriarchal society. Liz [Elizabeth LeCompte] was the artistic director and had a son, so she got it. If I said I had to leave, to go pick up Pedro from school or bring him in with me, there was no question that the work was still going to continue, and wasn’t going to be compromised, right? Which was the main issue. So I was really fortunate that when I started, there was a demand for that kind of storytelling.
CM: We met in 2000, and then later, when I worked on Inside Llewyn Davis.

“I would look towards the women just ahead of me by ten years, like Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer…they’re making choices around their personal lives and what they prioritise differently than their male counterparts”

Jacket and shirt both by Valentino SS20; rose gold and diamond Agrafe necklace
by Cartier

FM: It was in the recording studio before the movie started. There was Joel and Ethan [Coen], and T Bone Burnett who put together a recording session before the film, so they would have a click track for the musicians to play back. You were cast and Oscar Isaac was cast. Oscar was in the room and Marcus [Mumford, Mulligan’s husband] was too because he was cast as the voice of the dead partner, which I think is fabulous, I love that he played a ghost.

Justin Timberlake was there, and I think maybe Adam Driver at some point. But I was the visiting spouse and was sitting there completely geeking out, it was about five o’clock in the afternoon and Joel came over to me and said, “I think we’re gonna come back to our place after we’re done.” I said, “What do you mean?” he said, “I’m going to invite everybody back to our apartment after we get through with the session.” And I said, “Like, for food?” and he said, “Yeah, that’d be good.” I was like, “Fuck me.”

So I went to a deli and I got a big lasagne and a lot of beer and everybody came over and we stayed up till 3 o’clock in the morning. It was completely epiphanal. I remember watching you sing, you know, the three-part harmony and it was just… wasn’t that an extraordinary event, Carey?
CM: I remember you being there, it was the first time I’d met Joel and Ethan, because I sent them a tape for that [role] – I’d only spoken to them on the phone. So it was the three of you and T Bone in this incredible studio that smells like palo santo.

FM: It’s one of the only recording studios left in New York, it was a really old one, I think on 52nd street between 9th and 10th. Beautiful, right?
CM: The carpets… Persian rugs. I remember starting to do 500 Miles with the boys and we were in a booth and everyone was standing behind the monitors. We were so far away and I was so nervous and I remember Marcus walking in after the second take and doing this hand gesture to tell me to sing quieter because I was singing a little bit like I was auditioning for Les Misérables [laughs]. My entire childhood I’d dreamed of being a musical theatre actress but I didn’t have a good enough voice. Somehow I managed to get this job and I was blasting out 500 Miles and he had to come in and moderate… The Punch Brothers were there [at the apartment], do you remember? And everyone was just around the table in your place. And then I remember at one point –

FM: At one point they all started doing acoustic Radiohead covers.
CM: I was tapping along with my hands because I had no musical instrument and I wasn’t going to try and sing again that day. At one point – and this was just so meaningful to me and you probably won’t remember it – but you said to me that you had seen the production of The Seagull that I did in New York when I was 21. You said something really nice and I almost cried because you had seen that production, you were so kind, it was one of those moments I’ll never forget.

FM: Here’s how we’re going to end it: Carey Mulligan did do, and is, the best Nina of our time. That’s the truth, there’s nothing kind about that. It’s a motherfucker of a role and you kicked it. I love you, girl.

Originally published in HEROINE 12

Read Next


YES PLEASE, SIGN ME UP FOR ALL THE LATEST HERO NEWS