Few actors are gifted the opportunity of a one-two punch quite like Carey Mulligan’s this year. At Sundance in January she premiered Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut adapted from Richard Ford’s novel by Dano and Zoe Kazan. As Jeanette, the frustrated small-town housewife who makes her own 14-year-old son complicit in her affair when her husband leaves to fight a raging wildfire, Mulligan delivers a performance to rival the Oscar-nominated turn in An Education that launched her career. She followed it up with a bravura one-woman play in Girls & Boys on the London and New York stages.

 How did Wildlife come to you? Had you read the book?

No. Paul just sent it to me. I’d finished Mudbound at the end of June. I was back in London, and I remember getting it on a Friday night. He sent it to me and said, “Just read it, see what you think.” I called him straight back afterwards and said yes. So it was really a pretty simple, easy decision to make. Then I read the book after that and we were shooting by October, so it all came together really fast. Jake got onboard, then it got green lit, and we were on the way.

It should be crazy to say in 2018 but it’s such a revelation to see a female character who’s actually real onscreen.

I know, I know. And I felt that reading it. I also felt, I have no idea how to do this. She just seemed so complicated, in all the best ways. I thought, I could really make a hash of this, or I could figure it out. It felt like I had this really challenging crossword puzzle that I wanted to, do but I was sort of nervous I wouldn’t be able to finish. She was messy, and human, and flawed, and accurate, I felt. And she had a realistic response to being abandoned with a 14-year-old. I think we’re just so used to seeing the unrealistic response, which is a dutiful, earnest woman silently weeping into her pillow but putting on a fake smile and being great and brave. We are all capable of that. Women are amazing, and women do that all the time. But women also flip out a bit, and react to things, and have struggles. We just don’t like to see that side of things. We only like to see the silent weeping. Most versions of this story follow Jake to the fire. They don’t stay at home. Usually it’s the heroic firefighter and his struggle, and his search for his manhood and all that stuff. This doesn’t do that. And I love that about it.

Her reactions to the situation that she finds herself in are so instinctive, and unguarded. How does that compare, challenge-wise, to doing something more measured?

Being out of control and fluid and unpredictable is way harder than playing contained and measured and thoughtful. There’s a challenge, because out of control isn’t interesting unless you have a plan of what you’re doing. Blindly stumbling around isn’t fun or interesting to watch. As an actor, you need to understand what your character is doing, or what their intention was before they got there. Otherwise it just seems sort of messy. How do you modulate a performance where someone is just so volatile, so unpredictable, and all over the place? That was something I was concerned about.

Is that something that you ended up having to solve on set? Can you really prepare for that?

 I’ve always been so diligent about prep. Not right from the beginning, but from probably The Seagull onwards, which was when I was 21. I’ve been a real prep geek. I had my little workbook, and my internet printouts, and poems, and historical research and everything. And then I had kids, and suddenly there was no time to do anything. I think it’ll return to more of a kind of structured work thing for me in the future, but for the last couple of films I’ve done, it’s been a case of knowing my words roughly, and sorting out the accent. And then everything else, I just figure out when I’m there.

In a way, there’s something quite liberating about that. I think maybe in the past I’ve been a little bit too religious about preparation, or having lots and lots and lots of ideas and thoughts before I come in. There’s a plus and minus to that, but I just sort of showed up and I relied on Paul to guide the story, and that worked. I was also working with really good actors, so that always raises your game somewhat.

Paul has a storied career as an actor; did that give him a deeper understanding when he moved behind the camera?

I think so. I mean, I’ve worked with directors who are really instinctive and thoughtful about acting, and understand actors really well. Like Steve McQueen, who is incredibly intuitive about performance. With Paul, my faith in him as a filmmaker was borne from him being such a truthful actor, being so honest, and having such integrity in all the work he does. Whatever kind of film he’s in, whether it’s an indie film or a genre film, he’s always completely honest and truthful.

I think the thing that he identified with, with me, is that I will always lean towards restraint. He was so good at encouraging me out of that when it was needed. Similarly, with scenes that Jake and I did, he could see when we were falling into our own traps, and he knew how to get us out of them. So I think his understanding of acting certainly played into it. 

And the fact that he’s the nicest guy on the planet. I do think that is an enormous part of creating a set where everyone does really good work, is making a set that’s really comfortable to work in. And he had such an assured kind of feeling on set. He knew exactly how he wanted things to look, and how he wanted them to feel. He wasn’t didactic about performance, but he had brilliant notes and insights. I can’t say enough good things about Paul Dano.

Paul, Zoe and Jake are all such deep thinkers. It strikes me that maybe Ed Oxenbould is too?

Ed definitely is. And it’s been interesting, because Ed hasn’t been around for the press so far and people have been asking what it’s like to work with a child actor. And I keep saying, “He’s not a child actor.” You know, that was never the experience. He was a pro. He was so assured and capable.

That dinner scene, I have to imagine it can’t have been easy. There’s a lot going on.

Yeah, that was the hardest one. The other one that was quite tricky was the scene where we’re talking about our names and how old I am, but that was the first thing we shot in the entire film. I think maybe Paul shot one thing before that, but it was the first thing I shot, and it was smack dab in the middle of her week where Jerry’s away and I felt like I had no idea how to calibrate that scene because I hadn’t figured her out yet. I was kind of swinging in the dark, and trusting Paul to take care of it, which he did. So that was tricky, but day one of filming is always going to be a flipping nightmare.

So you had no rehearsal time?

Me and Ed had two or three hours in the hotel the day before with Paul, but yeah, the dinner scene was probably hardest because she’s just changing strategy every two beats, and getting more drunk, and she’s constantly being reminded of her husband. So it’s like a Grand Prix track; she’s trying to take the corners too fast. It starts at the clothesline where she’s smoking and thinking, and then they go to the dinner, then they go home, and later that night more stuff happens, so the whole night is the climax of her terrible week. Figuring all of that out slightly out of sequence was a bit nerve wracking.

What your take was on why she brings her son, Joe, along?

In my mind it seems logical from Jeanette’s point of view. This is 1960, she dropped out of college, so she has no higher education or skillset to get a job. The best job she can get is the one she’s already got, as a swimming teacher, which doesn’t pay the rent or put food on the table. So when her husband leaves, I think there’s every reason to believe he’s never coming back. He could either run off with someone else, he could just not come back, or he could die.

She is an unqualified, unemployed woman with a 14-year-old to look after and rent to pay. I think she goes straight into survival mode, but that also coincides with the crisis of identity, thinking, I’m no longer this wife, I’m no longer this perfect ’50s housewife. You know, the curtain is dropped. I think one of the practical steps that she takes is seducing this local millionaire to try and secure some kind of future for herself and for her son. I think it seems like such warped logic, but it is logical to her. And if this man is going to take her on, then he’s also going to take on her son, so she’s taking him to dinner essentially to say, “If you’re going to date me, part of the package is my 14-year-old.” 

Did you wonder about what happens next in her story? Where she goes from here?

I think my very optimistic, romantic answer is at some point in the distant future, they find a way to reconcile, but I don’t know if anyone else who made this film would agree with me. I think everyone’s got different ideas. Some people feel really connected to the son, some people feel connected to the wife, some people feel they see their own story in Jerry. And I love that about this film. That it gives so many different perspectives, because there is no judgment, no one is made to be the villain, no one is made to be the bad guy because it’s not the way that Paul has made the film.

Have you had people who’ve seen her as the villain?

Loads. Yeah, we had a guy at the New York Film Festival who was horrified by her. He couldn’t deal with her and thought she was reprehensible and unsympathetic, and it was really interesting. And Paul eloquently, not defended her, but pointed out the things that he enjoyed about her. I said to this guy, “I kind of get where you’re coming from, because I think there is something jarring about seeing a woman behaving realistically onscreen, because we’re so used to seeing women being perfect all the time. So when we see a woman really f*cking everything up that doesn’t seem right or realistic because we just have not been brought up to see women like that.” I haven’t spoken to a single person who’s had an issue with Jerry abandoning a 14-year-old.

What comes next for you?

I’m just going to wait for something else to come along. The bar is set so high by Wildlife and by Girls & Boys and I feel like I’ve just had the privilege of working with such brilliant people and also with such great writing. So I think that means that the next thing has to be on the same level as those jobs and I loved them both so much. I’m reading and waiting and just doing life until the next thing comes along.