The American dream torn asunder is a concept that might feel all too relevant in today's landscape. The film Wildlife, from first-time director Paul Dano, would like you to consider the ways in which some people are active participants in burning that dream down. In it, Carey Mulligan plays Jeanette, a housewife who finds herself raising a teenage boy and supporting a jobless husband in 1960; how you interpret her reaction to those mounting pressures is as much a litmus test about how you would react as anything else. Mulligan plays Jeanette with a weary tenderness, and brings to life a woman who knows how thankless the world can be, and is learning in real time how to face the consequences of her own actions. For W's annual Best Performances issue, she opens up about learning to dance a cha-cha, why she would prefer not to direct a film herself, and how she unwinds from a long day filming heavy material (The Food Network is involved).

Tell me how Wildlife came to you.

Paul Dano and I have been friends for a long time, and he called me, and said he was going to send it to me. I was flattered that he thought I could do it, and really excited to be asked.

There is one scene in the movie where your character, Jeanette, dances at dinner. Did you find that difficult?

I did find the dancing difficult. [Laughs] How could you tell? But we had a little cha-cha lesson, so I had practiced. Not that it really came into use, because my character was very drunk by the time we shot it, but I did. I prepped my cha-cha.

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In so many movies you have fantastic dance scenes.

Thank you.

You have a dance scene with Dominic Cooper in An Education, and then there's The Great Gatsby. There's a few little dance scenes there. So obviously you're an actress who can dance.

Well no, I'm actually not. I really can't dance. That's sort of a huge amount of effort.

Do you do a lot of rehearsal?

I don't remember doing much with Dom, but for Gatsby, we did. Actually the most dancing I've ever done was in Pride and Prejudice. We did a full week of dance rehearsal in Pride and Prejudice.

And when you saw Wildlife, was it hard to watch this movie?

It was and it wasn't. It's always weird watching yourself on screen. But there's a speech that Bill Camp makes about flying during the dinner scene; I wasn't in the room for it, so seeing that for the first time was pretty amazing. And I loved seeing what Paul had done and how Diego [García, the cinematographer] had shot it, so that was nice.

Have you ever wanted to direct?

No. It just feels like a totally different job. It's never occurred to me to direct. And I suppose people have asked more in the last year because of Paul, but I just don't think I have any passion for it. Telling stories in that way just doesn't appeal to me.

Michael Kors Collection dress; vintage hat from New York Vintage, New York; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Carolina Amato gloves; Capezio tights; Jimmy Choo shoes.

Photograph by Tim Walker; Styled by Sara Moonves.

She’s a tormented character. Did you have trouble shaking her off at the end of the day?

No. When you've got kids, they don't expect you to come, they expect you to come home and be mom, not come home and be some weird... drunk woman. [Laughs] So, I think my daughter would've been somewhat confused if I'd come home in character. And I wouldn't do that. The instinct isn't there for me. I actually feel a great deal of catharsis at work. I really enjoy doing it. It feels like at the end of the day I take off that hat and leave that person at work and come home, and watch American Ninja Warrior and The Food Network.

The Food Network?

I'm only happy if wherever I'm staying when I'm filming has The Food Network.

Do you have a particular favorite show on The Food Network?

Chopped is a firm favorite. They make just disgusting things, and all these judges have to pretend they like them, it's awful. But that's it. American Ninja Warrior or Chopped are, you know, that's the perfect antidote to films like Wildlife.

What was the first album you ever bought?

I think it was What's The Story, Morning Glory? That makes me sound cooler than I am. That was some sort of strange coincidence.

It's a great record.

Yeah, I love “Wonderwall.”

What's your karaoke song?

I have a couple. "I Would Do Anything For Love," by Meatloaf. "If I Could Turn back Time,” by Cher. And "Everything I Do, I Do It For You,” by Bryan Adams.

How do you decide which one to do?

Varying degrees of inebriation I think. Actually, "If I Could Turn Back Time" was my rev up song for the play I did this year, Girls and Boys. It was a one-woman show and I would stand backstage with the crew beforehand and I would dance to "If I Could Turn Back Time" by Cher.

Would you sing at the same time?

You couldn't, because the audience could hear you, so it was sort of like mouthing along.

And that one you couldn't bring home, either. That's a pretty devastating monologue.

Although that play does have a really dark subject, it's actually about the triumph of human spirit. It's about what we are able to overcome, and the inherent goodness of humanity. So it covers a really dark subject matter, but it's celebrating women and people who've been through the worst things imaginable and come out the other side and do extraordinary things with their lives.

I always find that actors have secret skills, strange little things that they can do that surprise people. So what is your secret skill, Carey Mulligan?

I'm very good at organizing fundraisers. I work with Warchild UK, Children and Conflict in America, and the Alzheimer's Society, and I'm really good at writing to famous people I've never met and asking them to do things for charity. [Laughs]

What's your strategy?

I just lay myself at their feet and beg them. I also say that there's no moral obligation and you never need to write back to me and blah, blah, blah, but please come and do this thing.

Related: The Quiet Defiance of Carey Mulligan