The famously private, award-winning actor Carey Mulligan opens up about life imitating art
A few months after giving birth to her second child, Carey Mulligan calls from London to talk about—well, what are we talking about? It’s late at night and her child is stirring and she’s lost her train of thought and suddenly she’s telling me I should watch Designated Survivor. The TV show, I say? “Yes,” she says. “Where everyone gets killed and suddenly Kiefer Sutherland is the president. It’s amazing.”
This is not the first or last surprising tangent she’ll take in a wide-ranging and often very funny conversation in which she reveals she is wary of so-called “important” Oscar films, praises pro wrestler John Cena’s work in the comedy Trainwreck, and swears by clothing from The Row. When asked what her next film gets right about marriage, she says, jokingly: “Whew…struggle. The struggle is real.”
It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d expect any parent with two tiny kids to say. And, for the record, Mulligan and her husband, Marcus Mumford, the lead singer of the wildly successful band Mumford & Sons, seem very happily married. It’s just that Mulligan has spent the last decade keeping the public at arm’s length, so even the tiniest hint of her home life feels like a revelation.
Mulligan, you’ll remember, scored an Oscar nomination in 2010 for An Education, her first true leading film role, in which she played a 1960s London schoolgirl who gets mixed up with a charismatic con man. She was a Sundance “it” girl and has continued to deliver on that promise, doing thrilling, gorgeous work opposite Michael Fassbender in the portrait of a sex addict in Shame (2011), and Oscar Isaac in the 2013 music-driven Inside Llewyn Davis while somehow living part time on a farm in the English countryside, where she reportedly raises piglets. At least that’s the rumor. She maintains zero social media presence, having sworn off even her private Instagram after some presumably personal photos started showing up online, though she’s still lurking. “I don’t comment, I don’t ‘like’ photos. But I spy on people. Otherwise you don’t see people’s children growing up anymore. That’s kind of all I want to see is, like, babies.”
Mulligan, 32, may not be chronicling her daily life publicly, but she’s definitely been thinking about the ride. Next year’s indie film Wildlife, co-starring Jake Gyllenhaal, is partly about infidelity, and the project spoke to her in surprising ways. “[The film] is less about their marriage and more about that moment in her life, that feeling of inertia. Like, she’s suddenly woken up in her 30s with a 14-year-old son and this marriage, and she can’t get a hold of where her life has gone.” She clarifies, speaking personally: “I’m very, very lucky. But I do sometimes go, ‘How am I 32 and I have two children and I’m married and I have a house?’”
Mulligan’s life has been peripatetic from the start. Her father was a hotel manager and she spent much of her childhood in Dusseldorf, Germany, living out of hotels like some European answer to Eloise. At age 8, her family returned to England but Mulligan didn’t live in a proper home until she was a teenager. That rootless, adventurous start perhaps contributed to her skill as a chameleon; she is a great interpreter of the latent desires of human beings, and she was as raw interpreting Anton Chekhov on Broadway as she was dazzling in Baz Luhrmann’s kaleidoscope of decadence, The Great Gatsby—in 3-D!
When she received the script for November’s Mudbound, which is in theaters and on Netflix—and may bring Mulligan and the streaming giant to the Oscar party—she was traveling in South Africa. The project, based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel, tells the story of two families in rural Mississippi struggling to survive post-World War II in the South, and it tackles subjects like post-traumatic stress disorder, racism and women’s rights with an unflinching lens. It was also the exact opposite of what Mulligan hoped to do next. She was tired of period pieces, tired of corsets, and desperate to do something contemporary, once joking: “I wanted to hold a gun.”
What changed her mind—what made her willing to relocate to New Orleans at the height of a steamy-hot summer with an 8-month-old baby in tow—was simply the chance to work with Dee Rees, a female director she’d admired out of Sundance, with a strong cinematic vision and a down-and-dirty shooting style. On Mudbound, the actors would have small, shared trailers that were miles away from set and mostly went unused as they sizzled in the blazing sun beset by mosquitoes. “We couldn’t retreat and go off into our own worlds and check our phones,” the actress says. “We were on this mad adventure. I’ve never been on a film where a snake wrangler was required to stop us from getting bitten. I like the pace of that filmmaking. I can’t bear sitting around and waiting.”
Mudbound unfurls over an epic canvas, but what Mulligan does so well is instill humanity in the smallest moments. She stars as Laura, a city-bred woman, still living with her parents at age 31, who is whisked off to a rundown farm by her new husband (Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke). Laura is a woman who desperately wants to be seen and appreciated—and, yes, touched. The ensemble film tackles big ideas, but, whatever you do, Mulligan says, please don’t call it important. “Important implies that it’s really dull,” she says. “It’s entertaining.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since Mulligan’s career-making debut at Sundance. Reflecting on that period of her life, she now says: “I had a constant insecurity about being in the public eye, which was really time consuming. I was so worried about what people would think of what dress I wore and blah blah blah. And now I just don’t really care.”
That fearlessness will be on full display next year when she returns to the London stage. She has signed on to appear in Boys & Girls—a daunting 90-minute monologue—debuting in February. “It’s a one-woman show, so I’m obviously insane,” she says. “But I just couldn’t bear the idea of anyone else doing it. The writing is superb.” She thinks on this moment another beat, acknowledging she has yet to sort out the logistics of child care or consider her own stamina. The decision came down to the work. “If you’re not scared,” she says, “there’s literally no point in doing it.”
Photography by KAI Z FENG.
Styling by ALISON EDMOND.
Written by MICKEY RAPKIN.
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