The Promising Young Woman star tells EW about luck, being selective with roles, and giving America the gut punch it needed to shock the system while sporting funky footwear.

Carey Mulligan has worn the same pair of slippers — once pink, fuzzy, and cozy — since January 2020, when her Promising Young Woman director, Emerald Fennell, gifted them in celebration of the film's Sundance premiere. A year later, as the 35-year-old mother of two lifts her footwear into frame on a Zoom interview about the project's Oscar glory, it's clear they're tattered and raw, a comical taupe suggestion of their former selves. Still, according to Mulligan, they're lucky, and she's holding on to the charm as long as she can.

"This is really bad," Mulligan says with a laugh, now several months into the virtual awards circuit. "I've had to wash them a couple of times… I'm thinking of splashing out and getting myself some new ones, but keep these ones, obviously."

Like Mulligan herself — a prime Best Actress contender for her work in the rape-revenge drama, which also scored nods for Best Picture and Best Director — these matted mules have run through an awards season wringer.

Credit: Focus Features

What started as a "tiny film we made in 23 days" ended up as one of the year's buzziest films, with its tale of Mulligan's titular med school dropout, Cassie, avenging a classmate's brutal assault dovetailing with cultural pushback against rape culture. But the film didn't hit because it twisted a dark reality into an easily digestible package. There's an element of survivor's guilt brooding under Cassie's cool exterior; she's an avenging angel, but she's knocking on the devil's door, and her plot to lure lecherous men into her web of vigilante justice puts her own body at risk as much as it does her targets' sanity. She's controlling fate, but she's at its mercy, too.

Most revealing, however, is Fennell's insistence on incriminating women as well. Here, it's a system — not one gender or a singular villain — that's to blame for creating a network that fosters, enables, and protects the abusers it birthed.

"Pretty much everyone has said, 'This is what we grew up in, this is what was normal in TV and movies. It's what we all accepted, and, therefore, we all played a part in it,'" Mulligan says of the colorful, highly stylized film, which she has previously described as a piece of beautifully wrapped candy with a poisonous center. "That's what I love about the film, is there are no villains or heroes. Let's look at this thing we've all been living in for so long, without question."

Beyond its timely themes, much of the film's appeal rests in Mulligan's performance. The actress' signature off-camera reserve makes Cassie's red-hot wrath feel like even more of a shock to the system, an irresistible juxtaposition that's as uncomfortable to watch as it is spectacular to behold, whether we're seeing her casually shattering a stranger's windshield with a crowbar or gently spitting into a romantic interest's coffee, then handing him the cup to see if he's bold enough to drink it.

Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features

Mulligan balances grace and ferocity as the film builds to its shocking, unhinged conclusion — a meditation on power dynamics that has real-world implications that can't be fixed with a cathartic Hollywood ending. "You're aware that your'e touching something that's highly sensitive, incredibly personal to lots of people, and is going to be potentially divisive, but… we went into it in the best way possible, with so much love and care," she says, adding that she continued to visit the set after her scenes wrapped, just to get another hit of Fennell's intoxicating authenticity.

"It's feminist because [Cassie is] real," she continues. "She's not perfect, she's not particularly even likable, but she feels honest."

For Mulligan, truth has long been a tenet of her career. She's particular about the roles she takes, and has even passed up "one or two" major Hollywood productions because, well, "never in 10 million years" could she see herself in such a position. "Not that it wouldn't be good; it would be great," she says. "But I wouldn't be."

Perhaps that outlooks stems from her first go-round on the Oscars circuit back in 2009, when she was nominated for playing a 1960s London teen who falls for a much older man in Lone Scherfig's controversial An Education. She navigated the film's campaign wide-eyed and jittery, often feeling "unqualified and freaked out" as a rising star hopping from party to party, rarely a care given to enjoying the luncheons and red carpet events sprawled before her.

"I always look back and wish I just had fun, because I didn't want to get it wrong," Mulligan says. But the years that followed were so right: "I didn't work flat-out after, I waited to do things I felt strongly about. Lots of projects became possible: Never Let Me Go, Suffragette… I never would've been in that position without An Education."

It's all brought her to this moment, to her second Oscar nomination more than a decade later. Now instead of second-guessing her poise or fretting over interviews, she's busy texting fellow Best Actress nominee Vanessa Kirby about what they'll wear to the April 25 Oscars ceremony, or swapping fashion photos with Fennell, her biggest concern whether or not whatever remote coffee shop Fennell has plunked herself down in has adequate cell service.

"I wish we could've had a premiere," Mulligan says. (A pandemic will complicate matters.) "But there's an element of the silver lining, and we all have to focus on silver linings at the moment: I've gotten to be at home with my family, I haven't had to travel a lot… But obviously everyone wants to wear a dress."

With luck, she'll find one that matches taupe.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring exclusive interviews, analysis, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's best films.

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Promising Young Woman (2020 Movie)
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