For a pivotal scene in the new movie Shame, Carey Mulligan’s character, Sissy, stands naked in the shower, slowly patting her dripping-wet body dry as she casually converses with her estranged brother. It is a surreal scene because of Sissy’s comfort level, and, without explanation or dialogue, the viewer immediately understands this is not your normal sibling relationship.
It was a scene that perhaps on paper seemed horrifying to Mulligan. In private, she is not particularly comfortable with her nakedness—she says she has not worn a bikini since she was 14 or looked at herself naked in years. But she will do whatever it takes for a character she loves.
“Sissy is an exhibitionist. She wants to be seen,” said the 26-year-old Mulligan, whose bright, youthful face took on a sudden intensity as she answered. “This was the ultimate introduction to exactly who she is. It introduces you to the dynamic of the relationship by just taking off their clothes.”
The film, directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger), stars Michael Fassbender as a sex-addicted yet successful executive in New York completely unable to experience intimacy. Any girl (or guy)—at a bar, on the subway, at the office, a pro—offers a quick yet unsatisfying release for him.
Sissy, his sister, is just as damaged but seeks closeness—albeit in warped ways. It is not known what terrible events happened in their family, but clearly neither can escape the trauma.
For a couple of years after playing Nina in Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, Mulligan did not feel moved by the scripts she was sent. She was searching to reconnect with Nina, the aspiring and vulnerable actress in the classic play about art, love, and death. Mulligan says she found a contemporary version of Nina in Sissy. Like Nina, Sissy is desperate to make a human connection and find feeling in her life. And perhaps like Nina, she will endure.
“There was nothing like the feeling of playing Nina on the stage,” she said. “I felt like Sissy and Nina were related.”
And so she tracked down McQueen and practically forced him to hire her when they met in a hotel lobby in central London.
“I wanted to leave, and she wanted me to stay,” he said, admitting that Mulligan seemed “an odd choice” for the part. “She wanted the role quite desperately, and it reminded me of Sissy, so I offered her the role on the spot.”
“With Carey, on the surface she is a sweet girl, but let me tell you, she is a freakin’ tiger with claws,” says director Steve McQueen.
Mulligan’s breakout role in the 2009 film An Education showed a fire beneath the obedient English schoolgirl. Growing up in hotels (her father was an executive with a hotel chain), Mulligan knew from an early age she would be an actor. As a teen, she would have visceral, palpable dreams in which she starred in shows on Broadway or acted in a movie with Judi Dench (her first minor movie role was in Pride and Prejudice, which, indeed, also featured Dench). Studying at the artsy Rudolf Steiner School in England no doubt nurtured her dreams.
“I am not someone who just fell into acting,” she said. “I passionately wanted to be an actress.”
But the role of Sissy needed an actor who could sing, and McQueen said he was not very impressed by Mulligan’s initial demo tape. Undeterred, Mulligan rehearsed and worked on her voice, determined to get the pitch and tone of her sad, down-tempo version of “New York, New York” just right.
“Her voice was very thin on a demo,” said McQueen. “But it was a gamble that paid off. With Carey, on the surface she is a sweet girl, but let me tell you, she is a freakin’ tiger with claws. She seems cute and cuddly and sweet, but beneath that is a person who is passionate and who wants it and is hardworking and argumentative and confrontational, all for the right reasons.”
Director Lone Scherfig, who cast her in An Education, said Mulligan has a deep sense of what feels right and true and will not stop until she gets there.
“I know that some of her magnetism is that you feel strong contact with her as an audience member. There is very little filter between her and what she feels and thinks in a film,” she said. “If she can’t do it with honesty or it is not logical to her, she keeps working.”
Getting to the heart of Sissy took some discussion with McQueen and Fassbender, but not much. They did see Last Tango in Paris at New York's Museum of Modern Art before filming. McQueen said he wanted them to see what it was like to be completely exposed and yet natural.
“I wanted Carey and Michael to look at the whole idea of being open and to commit and to be vulnerable,” he said. “That is where you have to go to.”
Eerily, after watching Last Tango, they found out that Maria Schneider—who played opposite Marlon Brando in the 1972 film—had just died. Although McQueen says he did not see any resemblance between Bernardo Bertolucci’s film and his, Mulligan definitely channeled some of Schneider’s broken openness and retro '70s thrift-shop look with bohemian hats and faux animal-print coats.
“I just thought her openness and comfort was so appealing,” said Mulligan. “You don’t think she is naked the whole time. She was so inhabiting who she was, so it definitely influenced me.”
Fortunately for Mulligan, she was not traumatized by the experience of filming Shame—unlike Schneider, who lashed out at Bertolucci and Brando shortly before her death about their exploitation of her at such a young age.
Instead, Mulligan is on the rise. She has worked with directors Oliver Stone (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), and now Baz Luhrmann in the Australian director’s take on the classic American novel The Great Gatsby. In true Luhrmann fashion, it is a grand production that Mulligan calls “a proper dream job.” While she is ecstatic about landing the role of the great spoiled American beauty Daisy Buchanan, she is also feeling a slight burden with taking on such an outsize character. Intentionally, she has not watched Mia Farrow’s interpretation from the 1970s film.
“I didn’t study it in school. We read Austen and Dickens and Bronte,” she said. “I felt more recently the weight of the responsibility. Everyone who has read The Great Gatsby or seen the film has their own version of Daisy, and I have mine ... I have never seen The Great Gatsby. When I was doing The Seagull in London, I made the great mistake of watching Vanessa Redgrave, and so I played Vanessa Redgrave playing Nina for the next three nights.”
And so for now, Mulligan is enjoying the good fortune of realizing her longtime dream. But she knows fame is not where fulfillment is. She recalled the line in The Seagull that resonated deeply with her.
“Nina has this clarity, and in my opinion she is the character who is going to survive,” said Mulligan, excitement building in her throaty, accented voice. “When she says, ‘I know now and I understand it is not about fame or glory or all the things I used to dream about—it is the ability to endure, to bear my cross, to keep the faith. I do have faith. And when I think about my vocation I am not afraid of life.’”
And then, smiling, she added, “I just loved saying it.”
Note: An earlier version of this story said Carey Mulligan was in Sense and Sensibility instead of Pride and Prejudice.