In the wake of receiving her first Best Actress Oscar nomination for 2009’s An Education, Carey Mulligan realized that she had the fortunate opportunity to choose roles. She easily could play a leading man’s foil in any Hollywood blockbuster—in fact, she beat out a slew of actresses for the highly coveted role of Daisy Buchanan opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. However, since coming to Hollywood’s attention, the British actress largely has balanced a resume of socially conscious parts—her Tony-nominated turn in Broadway’s Skylight is more about the British class system than the fling between an older man and younger woman—and lost herself in a canon of edgy damsels. When Mulligan first heard about Abi Morgan’s script for Suffragette, about the women’s suffrage movement in Great Britain, she dismissed the 1900s period drama. “I naively had this idea it was tea-drinking ladies chatting, but by page three I was so invested and shocked by all the things that these women did,” she says.
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While you play a fictionalized character in Suffragette you largely drew inspiration from Hannah Mitchell.
My mom found Hannah and brought her story to my attention. She was born into a farming family in the northern part of England and was taught to read by her father. She left home at a young age and became a seamstress. She had an inherent feeling, unlike my character Maud, that something wasn’t right (in society). She met other suffragettes who inspired her in the movement. She had a marriage breakdown and lost her family, and her life became this movement. I try not to read everything out there (about me), but I lost my cool when one critic said that what happens in Suffragette “isn’t real. It isn’t possible that this would happen to one person.” That’s ironic because these things really did happen. There was a lot of sexual abuse in the workplace. Some women were sectioned. Suffragettes faced violent and illegal reactions, and Hannah went through it all.
Are you finding in your travels with the film that different nations define feminism differently?
Sarah (Gavron, the film’s director) has traveled with the film more than I have. I’ve been between America and London with it and I don’t think the definition of feminism is different between the two locations. Recently, it has felt like a new word… People are afraid of labels and I think this year they’re starting to reclaim what the word originally meant, in a positive way that’s interesting.
You’ve mentioned that girls are going to see Suffragette in packs in the U.K.
I’m happy to see that what the film meant to me also speaks to these young girls. Life was incredibly hard then. Women had to fight for every single thing they had. To have a reminder of that, to recognize that and be grateful for that—these girls are seeing the strength of women who took pride in being women and all that power that they had to fight against a law that dictated “You can’t vote.” To hear that in places like Saudi Arabia women can’t exercise their right to vote is a ‘novelty’, and it’s a real reminder to these young girls to take the right seriously.
How did Jennifer Lawrence’s statement on the discrepancy in pay between male and female actors resonate with you?
I think it’s a good thing for someone like Jennifer to speak out; it means an awful lot to women. Sure, there’s been cynicism toward her speaking out and the fact that she makes a lot of money, but she is completely and selflessly rising above that. (The discrepancy) is inherently unfair and she has an enormous platform to speak out against it. Men in Hollywood look up to her because she is powerful. She’s using that platform to correct something that isn’t right. It’s a long overdue conversation and it’s admirable what she has done. This is an age-old issue that’s in every part of society.
Have there been movies purporting to be about female empowerment that weren’t?
There are, and young people today are bombarded with images that I didn’t have when I was growing up. There are some that pertain to female empowerment and others that do not. Young kids are looking to these characters as some sort of a role model. However, there are great ones, such as Jennifer Lawrence’s character in The Hunger Games. What she does with that role is incredible in terms of the subject for young adults. For teenagers that character is an incredibly strong female role model.
Following your Oscar nomination you’ve exercised the power to choose roles and you’ve selected smart material. That said, have there been opportunities to star in tentpoles and franchise films?
Those films have come my way in the past. The style doesn’t appeal to me. The Marvel films—while I enjoy watching these movies—the material doesn’t speak to me. With these types of franchise films there’s always the conversation of starring in more than one film and I’m not interested in playing the same character in more than one film. What’s appealing to me is playing different characters.
To see more of Suffragette, click play below:
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