Carey Mulligan joins the upper echelon of a crowded Oscar race with her starring turn in Suffragette. But to talk to her, you wouldn’t know it. Acclaim for her personal triumph in the film seemed the farthest thing from her mind during a candid one-on-one interview in support of the film. Rather, she’s full of enthusiasm for the project as a whole and the painfully relevant message it carries. Suffragette follows the twin stories of Maud Watts (Mulligan), a working class woman who transforms from someone who never believes her life could be better into a full-fledged suffragette, and the larger suffrage movement that is expanding all around her in 1912 London.
Mulligan’s enthusiasm for the project burned brought from the very earliest stages of her involvement.
“I met Sarah pretty much as soon as I could after I read it, because I was so interested in the script. I just had a really great meeting with Sarah, and we talked about the process and how long it was going to take to get the film made, and all the things she discovered in researching the film, and I was so fascinated by the whole topic,” she said. “I thought she was doing a great character, and something I hadn’t really done before. There was lots of different reasons, but a lot of it was to do with just telling a story, because it was a story that hadn’t really been told before.”
Mulligan’s character, Maud Watts, is not a real-life suffragette, but rather a composite of the experiences of many working class women of the time. Mulligan said she and director Sarah Gavron worked extensively on shaping Maud’s arc to feel authentic and believable, a challenge for a character who changes so fundamentally in the space of a feature film.
“I loved that about how she starts the film so ordinary, and then she becomes extraordinary. She starts the film as kind of a meek character, trying to get by in life, not really sticking her head above the water. These women and this movement kind of bring her alive. I really loved that,” Mulligan said. “Basically, the whole journey was figured out between Sarah and I, we tracked every scene, and the points at which she was really having her mind changed. It was a very specific process with Sarah and I, figuring out what points she really gets turned into the system, and gets into the movement, and what points she starts trusting these people. I did think that that was a challenge to try and make that believable that arc … It was one of the things that I was kind of excited about, but nervous about as well.”
Of all of the research and stories that informed Mulligan’s character and performance in Suffragette, none was more inspirational to her that real-life suffragette Hannah Mitchell.
“I read her biography when I was getting ready to make the movie. My mum came across the book actually, and she was a working class woman who had a pretty similar story to Maud, and she came across the suffrage movement and heard a suffragette speaking, and had this sort of lightbulb moment, and realized that she wanted to be part of it. She wanted to effect change, and she went on and became a suffragette, and became very outspoken, and finally later on in life became a member of the Labor Party,” Mulligan explained.
“I always thought that Maud’s life after the film ends would end up in some kind of local government, that she would go on to have a position of authority, having gained all the social confidence and self-assurance, to do things that she gained by being around these women.”
Earlier this year, Mulligan brought another strong female character to life, Bathsheba Everdene, in an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Bathsheba is headstrong and independent, according to her voiceover, too independent for her own good according to many. These women are at once quite distinct from one another, but also rather kindred spirits. Mulligan explained her approach and interpretation to make each of them individual dynamic characters.
“Bathsheba is sort of an early feminist, and I loved that about the character, and how radical she was in her time. She’s sort of got this innate confidence and ease with the world that Maud doesn’t have. I think a naivety, that Maud doesn’t have, I think Maud has sort of been battered into submission in a way. I think she’s sort of very bored in her soul because of the life that she’s led. There’s sort of the youth and vitality to Bathsheba that I don’t think Maud possesses really. I think that sort of life comes out of her as she goes through the story, but I think in terms of their worldview, Maud is far more … not pessimistic, but realistic, whereas Bathsheba is much more of a kind of dreamer. Maud’s world is very small, and becomes larger through meeting these women.”
As Mulligan and everyone else in the picture dove into the history of the story they were telling, they never wanted the film to be just a period drama.
“None of us wanted to make a historical drama. We wanted to be accurate, and to celebrate what these women did. The intention behind the film is also to make people think about today, where women are today in the world, and what there is left to do,” Mulligan said. “I think there’s a lot of themes in the film that resonate today, in terms of women’s education, and women’s treatment in the workplace. … The feeling is definitely… to use the film as much as possible to try and effect change now.”
That unifying goal beyond creating a great picture has given Mulligan a passion and belief in the film beyond other projects she has been involved with.
“This is the first time I’ve been on press junket or interviews where I really liked answering questions about the film. Interviews have been interesting because of the issues that are raised in the film. I think it’s a hard thing to separate yourself sometimes from your work, and I’m often very, very critical of my own films, but I really feel proud of this one, and very confident talking about it. It’s important, and important in such a cliche word when it comes to talking about a film, but I really think it is,” she said.
“You’re jogged into thinking about where we are right now, because I think it’s great to just look at it and say ‘This is what these women did and we owe them a lot,’ but we’ve got 62 million girls around the world who still can’t go to school. 1 in 3 women are going to experience sexual violence in their lifetime, these are really, really awful statistics for 2015. That’s why we’ve been so happy to talk about the film, because we get to talk about issues like that, and try to … keep those conversations going, because they certainly are being talked about, but just to keep that in the public mindset.”
Mulligan also shared her thoughts on the state of women in Hollywood, another area of much conversation where she believes there is reason to hope for progress.
“Something like, between 1 and 11% of films a year are directed by women. That’s a pretty pathetic statistic. It’s just the hangers of a sexist industry, and I think there’s a lot to be positive about now. It does feel like this is being talked about so much, I think there are positive moves to the right direction, but it’s certainly a long-overdue conversation to be having.”
As a film that’s made by women and telling an essential story in the history of women’s rights, feels like one of those bright spots Mulligan alluded to. She shared that the electric spirit of the story at the core of the film transcended into the production itself.
“Definitely before we started filming, there was a real energy between everyone. I think it was that sort of feeling that we were going to be the ones who get to tell this story, finally. Everyone dived into the research, and everyone was excited to come to rehearsals every day and talk about stuff that they’d read about the night before. That was really, really energetic and fun, and on set it was the same.”
For as many harrowing situations as the film portrays Mulligan said that the whole of the shooting process was an absolute blast for everyone involved.
“Me and Helena and Anne-Marie, we had a great time together. Helena can’t take anything seriously for more than about 20 minutes, so even the most serious things ended up in hysterics after about three takes. It was great, there was a lot of tough stuff in the film, and it needed that. We needed to have some light relief on set. Everyone got on so well right from the beginning, so it was just so much fun every day on set.”
Mulligan’s character in particular endures some excruciating trials, but Mulligan said that through it all her castmates made even the darkest moments a warm, happy experience.
“We were shooting a scene where we get stripped off in prison, that’s never fun, really, to shoot that kind of stuff. It was made a lot more fun by having Helena in the room with me. It turned out to be a really funny day when she was there, but that kind of stuff, you need to be able to laugh about it because there’s no point in living it, you’re just acting it. I think there’s a difference,” Mulligan explained. “We had a really, really great time, and the men were wonderful as well. I had such a great time filming with them, Ben Whishaw and Brendan Gleeson, they were just so on-board with every aspect of the film, and so excited to be a part of it.” Mulligan added that for her part, she echoes that sentiment.
“It’s a real privilege. We really are so proud to have gotten to do it.”
Suffragette is now playing in select cities and will expand to additional theaters on Nov. 13.