For his anticipated directorial debut, Paul Dano decided to turn his lens on a teenage boy’s coming-of-age tale, but it’s his parents’ crumbling marriage that becomes the anchor in the wistful, nostalgic Wildlife, in theaters on Friday. Starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ed Oxenbould, Dano’s examination of the Brinson family, living in the suburbs of Montana in 1960, quickly becomes a dissection of the American dream. Joe (Oxenbould) is attempting to carve out his own identity and future while watching his parents Jeanette (Mulligan) and Jerry (Gyllenhaal) tangle with the impact of the underlying frustrations, ennui, and unfulfilled desires of adulthood in that era.
EW spoke to Mulligan and Gyllenhaal about working together to capture a disintegrating marriage and the camaraderie they developed on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Carey, was there anything in Jeanette’s story — especially her role as a mother and you being a mum in real life — that you learned something different about motherhood?
CAREY MULLIGAN: I think that’s what scared me the most about making the film, the notion of failing the children. There were a couple of moments in the beginning of the scene where she says, ‘You know, are we going to be alright?’, and just, the idea of not being able to reassure your child and say ‘Everything’s fine. You’re going to be alright, nothing’s going to happen, nothing bad will ever happen to you’ — having to admit to your kid that you can’t control everything, that was such a terrifying thing. As I have such young children, I hadn’t really thought about it until I made the film. But more for me, the interest was in that kind of nostalgic whiplash, where you realize that a portion of your life is over and it won’t come back. And I think that’s what I thought was so interesting, that she has woken up with this role of mother and homemaker and wife and she didn’t have any choices left to make, and having completely lost her identity in that. And I don’t feel that way, but I do sometimes think, I hear a song that I listened to when I was 24 and I think, Holy hell, how did that… it’s like a decade later, how? What? I’m like a grown up with two children and married, and it’s very strange. [Pointing to Gyllenhaal] We met when I was 22, and now we’re doing this, and my gosh, that’s a whole lot of time that’s gone by.
Jake, your character Jerry is only in the film for a short time as he leaves his family to fight wildfires. Why does he feel like he has to go and fight this natural disaster? What did you understand about that and how did you connect with him?
JAKE GYLLENHAAL: I think it is almost like the height of convention at that period of time, when your typical family was the idea of American success at the time and everyone was living by it. And yet there weren’t the opportunities for both men and woman and even in this case a young boy, to really express who they truly were and what they actually wanted. So freedom wasn’t really there. And it wasn’t that the love wasn’t there, but I think who they are as individuals wasn’t always allowed. And I think for [Jerry], he is just pushing against convention to break through into a space that felt wild and dangerous, which is what I think real freedom feels like to someone. Even if it is in the most literal — I suppose if you put it in the literal — it’s the most dangerous; that’s not the smartest thing to do but he does. And I don’t think it is about not loving and not wanting to be there. In fact, I think it is quite the opposite. I think all convention is pushing on these two so much, that someone has to shift something. And eventually he does, and as a result of him doing it, then she does, and then the truth bubbles up into that space. So that was more how I looked at it, and I think that there is a conventional idea of what being a husband or a father is, as opposed to being real freedom, that it could be entrapping. That’s a much more complicated, much longer discussion to be had, that I don’t want to waste everybody’s time with, but, it’s at the heart of why he left too, I think.
What did you feel you were able to do with this role that you kind of never had a chance to tap in to before?
GYLLENHAAL: It was a very intimate time and it was all just us and nothing else in the town that we were shooting in, except each other and the work that we were doing. The last time I had an experience like that was on Brokeback Mountain, shooting in the middle of nowhere, and we only really had each other. I was friends with Heath [Ledger] before we began that, but in this case, it was a group of friends doing something together, and not to say the pressure was off, but there was a sense of ease and a camaraderie. And to me, it was just lovely that to be with my friends and help my extraordinarily talented friends do extraordinary things. That’s how I feel a little bit, like I can be a part of two incredibly talented people doing something really amazing.
With this being Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and him and Zoe Kazan writing the script together, what was he able to so uniquely bring to this tale?
MULLIGAN: I do think Paul made me cry watching him in War and Peace, in a scene where he literally just ate a potato. That was the whole scene. He sits down, and he sits down towards the end of the series and he regains his household and he’s wearing his fine clothes and they serve him this meal, and he gets a knife and fork and starts to eat a potato. And I was sobbing watching him. He’s such an incredible actor. And I think I always just knew that he would bring all of that truth and integrity to whatever he did. So there was never any doubt that he would make a good film and I think that as a director that it weirdly felt like we were all acting together in some way. Particularly with our stuff [points to Gyllenhaal], a lot of our fights were like a dance in a way and he was like a great choreographer. There’s a big scene when Jake’s character leaves and we’re stuck in a rut at some point, it changed a lot, and we were marching out into the garden and we got completely down a rabbit hole with it, both of us, and Paul just sort of brought us back to the surface again. I don’t know if every director would have the insight to say, “Oh, I know where you are because I’ve been there, so I’m going to help you out of it and get you on to the next bit.” But mainly it was like making a film with your friend, which has never happened really.
Carey, you did this film and then the Netflix four-part murder thriller Collateral. What did these projects allow you to tap into that you want to continue mining further?
MULLIGAN: I think I’ve played lots of quite morally sound heroines who, whether they are passive or active, they have got an integrity or they’ve got a noble cause, or they’ve got a moral backbone, and I think it was quite fun to cut all of that loose. And those are the opportunities that come my way. There is very little but still things are definitely changing, things are moving in the right direction. All of that said, and I’m not complaining, but characters like this don’t come along very often. So, I obviously jumped at the chance. Yeah, I think I just want to carry on trying to find great parts that are really hard and quite fun.
Jake, I know that you are just getting back from filming Mysterio for Spider-Man: Far From Home. How was that experience, being in that superhero world?
GYLLENHAAL: I wish I could tell you. If I was allowed to talk about that.
What’s it like just as an actor, as you more recently have been making smaller, intimate, intense films, and now to be part of a bigger ensemble and a bigger studio project?
GYLLENHAAL: I would say, with John Watts who directed the movie, what makes this installment of that franchise so great is that there is an intimacy to it, and there is a sense of the scenes, with the casting in particular and also the storytelling, that you feel that you’re actually in a movie with human beings in it. That’s what it feels like when you’re working. So it didn’t feel that different but then again, I don’t know, you’ll just have to see.
Carey, when do we get to see you in one of these big superhero movies?
MULLIGAN: I just need a job.
GYLLENHAAL: Who knows? Maybe she’s…already in it.
MULLIGAN: Maybe I already am!
GYLLENHAAL: She’s produced some pretty incredible things.
MULLIGAN: I have children that are very small. I’m going to do that for a while.
I would love to see you in some version of Harry Potter.
MULLIGAN: Potter? No, I want to be a voice in a Pixar movie. Like a mouse in a thing. That’s what I want to do. I love, like, I have done little things for radio and like children’s books and I like putting on troll voices. But no one’s asked me to do one professionally. I like to put on a silly voice.