Those who will marvel, as I did, at Carey Mulligan’s raw, disturbing performance in the upcoming movie Wildlife might spare a small vote of thanks to a certain Mrs. Jacobsen. Mulligan does. She recently brought her own young children along to pay a call on “Mrs. J.,” who ran the local church choir when Mulligan was a timid 7-year-old girl. “She was the first person to get me to sing a solo on my own. It was my first step into that whole performing world,” Mulligan, 33, recalls. “She used to stand behind me. I’d start singing very quietly, and then she’d just push gently into my back, and I’d sing louder.”
That little girl is still living somewhere inside the seemingly fearless actress Mulligan has become since she caught the world’s attention in the 2009 movie An Education, playing a budding, winsome young woman who falls prey to a slithery predator. Now, nearly 10 years later, she has acquired the moxie to be excruciatingly not winning, which is a lot tougher to pull off than being a heroine. (Remember her quiet strength in 2017’s Mudbound?) In Wildlife, Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are Jeanette and Jerry Brinson, parents of a 14-year-old boy named Joe. Jerry can’t keep a job and signs up to fight a raging forest fire near the edge of town. Jeanette—frustrated, mad as hell, needy, and painfully confused—takes up with a sad, cynical older man.
This is the first feature written and directed by the actor Paul Dano, who spent four years adapting Richard Ford’s novella of the same name with his partner, Zoe Kazan. It’s relentless stuff, bleached of all charm and unwilling to cut anyone or anything any slack—including the shoot-me-now Montana town where it’s set. With Jerry away for much of the movie, Jeanette takes over, and, man, does she do a number on Joe. The poor kid doesn’t know what hit him. Mulligan somehow manages to make Jeanette both villain and victim, unable to restrain her own hurtful urges, or even make sense of them. Maybe it’s because I have a son almost the same age (not to mention with the same name), but Mulligan frequently made me want to jump up and shout, “Don’t do that!” Then again, maybe it’s her acting, which hits hard. “I remember saying to myself, Gosh!” Dano says. “Carey’s just so sharp, her intent is so clear even though the character is so complicated. With a mushy actor, that would have fallen apart. I lucked out.”
Mulligan says she has no master plan in mind when she takes on a new role, except perhaps to wrong-foot everyone’s expectations, including her own. “You do something well and people want you to just repeat that thing over and over,” she says. “After An Education, I got a lot of offers to play quirky girls going through big life changes, and I didn’t want to do that. It’s really just not wanting to take on things I could competently do without much work. It doesn’t seem worth it.”
Mulligan and I are chatting at a café inside London’s Holland Park on a gray morning toward summer’s end. It had rained earlier and I took a gamble and asked if she minded sitting outside so I could smoke while we talked. “Not at all,” she told me cheerfully, and she looked like she meant it.
Much—no, make that all—of Mulligan’s training has been on the job, and she hands out credit readily. Keira Knightley gets a nod for showing Mulligan how to be a star without turning into a diva. They met when Knightley was starring as Elizabeth Bennet in the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Mulligan played Knightley’s little sister Kitty, her first tiny role in a series of English bonnet dramas on which she cut her teeth (fans may recall her stirring rendition of the line “Shhh!”). “Keira had been in Pirates of the Caribbean, and she was unbelievably famous. I didn’t need to put this into practice until years later, but she was the model of how to be a leading actress on set. She was brilliant, but she was also so kind and so sweet, and it sort of removed the possibility in the future of there being any excuse for being anything but lovely. I was watching people not only to learn how to act, but also to learn how to be. I did that for years.”
It wasn’t that Mulligan didn’t have strong roots growing up—it’s just that she imagined herself a different kind of tree. Her father managed hotels—in Germany and Austria, for long stretches, when Mulligan was young. Her brother served in Afghanistan, and it’s largely because of him that Mulligan makes time to work for the charity War Child. The family was religious too, and in a low-key but real way, Mulligan carries that with her. But from the beginning, to the rueful consternation of her parents, there was this acting thing in her, powerful and persistent. “They were just trying to protect me from a life of constant disappointment,” Mulligan says. “It’s just so unpredictable and risky. I get it now. If my daughter sings a song in tune, I think, Oh, no! I keep putting a stethoscope around her neck.”
Mulligan encountered her own bitter disappointment early. After getting through her A levels, England’s high school diploma, she secretly applied to three of the country’s top drama schools. She struck out at all of them (she thinks now she might have erred by choosing to present a monologue given by a suicidal woman). Her dream survived the ordeal, but all the same, she says, “It gutted me.”
Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, turned out to be a friend of the headmistress at Mulligan’s school. He was the only actor she knew, and she wrote to him. What would he advise? Fellowes steered Mulligan to a London theater workshop, and she’s had the wind at her back ever since. “You need a complete twist of fate,” she says. “That’s why I try to stop everyone I know from becoming an actor.” Early on, Fellowes warned Mulligan about the danger of getting what she wanted. Acting, he said, is “the thief of lives.” In Mulligan’s case, he was dead wrong. In 2012, she married the musician Marcus Mumford, and they now have two children, ages 3 and 1. No, she doesn’t want to talk about it. They divide their time between their London home and a farm in Devon, complete with a menagerie of cackling, snorting farm animals. But don’t expect to see Mulligan and her kids chasing the chickens on Instagram. She isn’t there, or on any other social media platform, to burnish her brand.
“She wants to entertain people, and she takes it seriously, but at the end of the day, it’s just a job for her,” says the actor Jamie Dornan, who met Mulligan back when she did Pride & Prejudice and he was going out with Knightley. They have stayed good friends. “She made the decision not to move to L.A., where some people get swept away. Setting up a life for your kids is the most important thing. I sort of always knew she would go that way.”
Early last year, Mulligan took her boldest leap yet as an actor, and it scared the bejesus out of her. She signed on as the only character in Dennis Kelly’s play Girls & Boys, which came to New York last summer for a limited run after opening in London. “If you’re ever going to do anything to test yourself, then a monologue is probably the thing to do,” Mulligan says.
I didn’t see the play, but I listened to Mulligan’s protean performance on Audible, where anyone with an account can and should hear it. I won’t identify the anvil that falls on your head midway through, although the red flags start fluttering early. I will say only that Mulligan has two unseen children she talks to and that the ending is not uplifting. As it happens, Mulligan was pregnant with her second child when she auditioned—Kelly has said he was shocked she even agreed to read for the part. “In the first scene, the children are exactly the same age as my kids are right now,” Mulligan says. “I had to make a really conscious decision to separate them, so I never had my kids in my head, just two totally made-up children. The drama stuff didn’t bother me—that’s the area I feel most comfortable in. The bit that really freaked me out was trying to make people laugh at the beginning of the play, because it was funny! I don’t get offered comedies, so that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to do it. I had a feeling I could be funny, but I didn’t know. It was honestly the scariest thing ever.”
Rehearsals in London seemed to be going well enough until the final week, when the wheels came off. When she works, Mulligan cherishes the “little world” that Ingmar Bergman celebrates in his ode to theater life at the end of Fanny & Alexander. “I find that so romantic, like when we shot Wildlife, and we were all in Oklahoma staying in little rented bungalows, eating in one restaurant—that’s the bit that’s nice, and I miss it when I’m not working.” She doesn’t so much feed off her audience, real or imagined, as she does her fellow actors—and in Girls & Boys she was all alone. “I’d get halfway through the first page, and my throat would close up, and I’d just start crying,” she says. “It was awful. There were crisis meetings—‘Should we cancel the run?’ ” In the end, the spirit of Mrs. J. placed a steadying hand on her back. What Mulligan calls the “curse” was lifted when the opening night audience filed in. And yes, it turns out that Mulligan can be very funny. She’s not one to give herself kudos, but she allows herself a grudging acknowledgement. “There would be some nights when I’d be like, That was all right. That was pretty good. I don’t think I could have done that when I was 20.” Mulligan is not one to let such a modest triumph—modest to her, anyway—go to her head. She is not looking to measure herself against her idols. “To be honest, I’ve seen too many people do those iconic roles too well to want to do them,” she says. “Cate Blanchett doing Blanche DuBois—I don’t think it can ever be done any better.”
With Wildlife and Girls & Boys behind her, Mulligan says she’ll be taking a break. Forget about the stage, even though it’s what engages her most fully as an actor. “I don’t think I’ll be doing another play for a long time,” she says. “Theater means missing my kids’ bath time, and that’s rubbish.”