Vogue Magazine: There’s an indelible scene in the film Shame, in which Carey Mulligan, in one of her early breakout roles, performs a torchy rendition of “New York, New York.” Director Steve McQueen frames Mulligan in a tight close-up, so we can see the exhaustion in her troubled character’s eyes as she sings those famous, triumphal lines: “Start spreading the news….” Nothing happens in this scene. And everything happens as Mulligan sings, because what we’re witnessing is a person fighting to keep the spark of herself alive. This, kids, is acting.
Mulligan performs the same magic trick in the new movie Maestro. Only this time, she does it just by listening. Playing Felicia Montealegre, wife of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, Mulligan’s character is not, cannot ever be, the star of the show. She’s married to a once-in-a-generation genius, and her life is defined by her husband’s ambitions—and his appetites. Late in the film, she’s had enough. She leaves Bernstein—depicted by the film’s co-writer-director, Bradley Cooper—only to return to him, after an unhappy hiatus, as he’s conducting Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection symphony. From the periphery of the rapt crowd, she watches him build his cathedral of sound, and here, what you see in Mulligan’s eyes is a lifetime of love and compromise and the crescendoing acceptance that this man, holding the baton, is her world.
You can point to just about any Carey Mulligan movie and find a moment like this, where a story turns on its axis on a shot of her face. She’s so transparent a performer, so revealing of inner life, that it’s surprising to realize, before meeting her for the first time, that the “real” Carey Mulligan is a cipher. Almost uniquely for an actor of her stature, Mulligan has no public persona. She’s not on social media. She’s not the face of any brand. She isn’t amassing her own empire as a producer, like Margot Robbie, or directing films, like Olivia Wilde. Carey Mulligan conjures herself onscreen, like a lightning bolt, and disappears again.
“Here I am, ready for Vogue,” she announces, entering a London coffee shop with a bemused gesture at the yellow diaper-leak stain streaked across her blouse. “That’s right,” she continues, cooing to the infant in her arms, her third child with musician Marcus Mumford, “I’m going to change you, and then we’re going to find Mum another shirt….” She goggles her expressive eyes at me—humor, exasperation, sorry—then darts to the loo. A few minutes later we set off on a meandering quest through Covent Garden, Mulligan’s old theater district stomping grounds, and wind up inside a halogen-lit souvenir stall. Whereupon Mulligan, with great aplomb, buys a tee with a London tube logo and, skirting the curious gazes of tourists, turns herself to the wall and changes tops, right there in the store. This will be the first of three times I see Mulligan change clothes in the course of hanging out with her for this story, conducted as the threat of a SAG-AFTRA strike loomed; call this outfit “Mom Mode.”
“There we are, job done,” she says, freshly appareled. “Now, what do you want to know?”
Every Carey Mulligan performance has a hidden music. That’s one thing I find out the first day we meet: For each of her roles, she has a playlist—“songs that take me into that world, that character.” It’s a habit begun on the stage, preparing for parts such as Kyra in David Hare’s Skylight, she tells me over a late lunch at J. Sheekey, the Leicester Square oyster bar where she was a regular when the play was on a decade ago. For Mulligan’s Oscar-nominated turn in Promising Young Woman, filmmaker Emerald Fennell provided the playlist; for Maestro, Mulligan did the curation herself. Tucking her sleeping baby into its carriage, Mulligan takes out her phone and scrolls through the tracks that carried her into Montealegre’s world: There’s a smattering of Bernstein, of course, but also numerous contemporary duets, like the yearning folk song “The Water” by Johnny Flynn and Laura Marling. That’s how Mulligan sees the story of Lenny and Felicia, as an intertwining of voices. “I know people will talk about Maestro as a biopic, but it’s not—it’s a movie about a marriage,” she notes. “A very complicated marriage.”
Mulligan’s own home life mirrors the Bernsteins’: Felicia Montealegre, too, was an actor who wed a successful musician and gave birth to three children. Mulligan shrugs off the comparison. “It’s very normal,” she says of her and Mumford’s routine in the countryside outside London. “School runs, Sunday lunches.” She allows that the demands of parallel careers entail some “tricky logistics,” then quickly bends the conversation back to her preferred topic. “It was different for Felicia, because everything revolved around Lenny,” she says. “There was a lot of ‘What if?’ with her character…. What if she hadn’t given up acting? When I listened to tapes of her being interviewed, it seemed like she wasn’t sure how far she’d have gone—that she felt like, maybe she didn’t have it in her to be great. But on the other hand, she never got the chance to find out.”
It’s tempting, watching Maestro, to impose ready-made modern narratives on the Bernstein marriage. In one version, Felicia Montealegre is the put-upon mid-century wife, expected to keep the home fires burning while her husband goes off to conquer the world, and turn a blind eye to his sexual adventuring along the way. In another version, Leonard Bernstein is a homosexual forced into the closet, and his love affairs with men permit the flowering of his true identity. It’s a credit to both Cooper and Mulligan that they at once embrace and eschew these interpretations—yes, that’s all correct, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get at the fundamental thing about these two people, which is that they loved each other.
“Their connection was profound,” Mulligan says. “They lit each other up. You can hear it: There are tapes of them trading anecdotes and it’s like they’re dancing.” The arrangement may have been unorthodox, in that Montealegre accepted her husband’s affairs—up to a point—but need that mean the bond was defective? Every pair of lovers make their own kind of love; for the Bernsteins, according to Mulligan, love was a supernatural attunement to each other. “For her, the betrayal wasn’t sex; it was when she felt someone else intruding into the space she held for him, being the person who understood him, who was necessary.”
“This was the most intense preparation I’ve ever done for a film,” Mulligan continues. There was the technical stuff—nailing Felicia’s accent and bearing—but most vital, she says, was tapping into the Felicia-Lenny connection. To manage that, she and Cooper had to meet each other in the numinous realm: Operating well outside her usual instinctive process, Mulligan joined Cooper for a five-day “dream workshop.” “I guess Bradley’s been doing this kind of thing forever, using your dreams to connect your subconscious to the character’s, but it was new to me,” she recalls, shaking her head. “But I had to go all in.”
“I knew her ability,” says Cooper, in an interview conducted prior to the actors’ strike. “All I asked of her was to please do the prep with me; I said, ‘Will you go down this road where we’re basically going to bare our souls to each other?’ And she was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it, I’m game.’ ”
Mulligan doesn’t say so, but you can see how giving herself over to Cooper’s way of working marked the beginning of her transformation into Felicia. For what was she doing if not offering her innermost self to the man with the baton?
“Hey! Look at these jeans!” Outfit change #2: Let’s call this one “Basic Bitch,” in deference to Emerald Fennell’s term of affection for Mulligan. Meaning—fun, unpretentious, up-for-whatever. A “giant latte, fluffy slippers, encyclopedic knowledge of D-list ’00s romances” kind of pal, Fennell details; “an all-rounder.” I get a taste of this side of Mulligan when her mother volunteers to babysit. We’d planned a hunt for vintage at Portobello Market, but, eyeing the fierce rain, divert to a West London boutique Mulligan calls, simply, “favorite shop.” “Not so bad!” she remarks, doing the familiar three-quarter turn to the mirror, to get a view of her backside in a pair of Rachel Comey trouser-cut jeans. “I actually look like a person!” The day we visit “favorite shop,” Mulligan is six weeks out from giving birth. In a month, she’ll decamp for Wales to film an oddball passion project: One for the Money, the brainchild of cult-fave British comedy duo Tom Basden and Tim Key. The jeans, Mulligan tells me, may well wind up in her wardrobe for the shoestring production.
“Nobody dies and nobody cries,” she says of the movie, which she jumped aboard because she’s a Basden-Key superfan. “I’ve never done a proper comedy before; I guess people don’t think I’m funny.”
Fennell disagrees. “Carey’s one of the funniest people I know,” she says, going on to note that she never questioned whether Mulligan could nail the precise, scathing comic tone of Promising Young Woman. “She was always the person I had in mind, because [the film] was going to be set in this somewhat heightened, allegorical world, and it needed someone completely real at its center.”
The awards recognition Mulligan—and Fennell—received for Promising Young Woman was hardly guaranteed at the outset. Another unusual trait of Mulligan’s, among Hollywood’s bankable actors, is that she’ll take a flier on first-time filmmakers, as Fennell was when the Promising Young Woman script landed on her desk. The element of risk appeals to her. “I’m terribly unstrategic,” Mulligan admits. “It’s really all about the script—and a part where I don’t know exactly how I’d do it. I think,” she adds, remarking on her disinclination to launch her own production shingle, “that’s why I don’t develop my own material. I’d know too much. I really prefer for a great project to hit me like a comet.”
Comets come in all shapes and sizes. Maestro gestated for years: Mulligan already had the part, as far as Cooper was concerned, when he invited her to co-narrate a performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2019; by the time shooting began, Mulligan had completed back-to-back films addressing #MeToo themes: Promising, a piece of poison-laced candy, and She Said, where Mulligan played one of the reporters of the story that launched the movement in the first place. The timing was happenstance, and for Mulligan, a worry; she knew she’d be called upon to act as a spokesperson. “I have my opinions, and I’m sure they’re clear, but I hate being put in the position of speaking ‘for all women.’ ” Who could? Mulligan’s feminism seems to run in the opposite direction, and demonstrates itself in her desire to inhabit, through her work, as wide a range of female points of view as possible. There’s certainly very little in common between Felicia Montealegre Bernstein and Poor Dear Pamela, Mulligan’s hilarious cameo character in Fennell’s new film Saltburn, out the same week as Maestro.
Concluding our visit to “favorite shop,” Mulligan and I head back to the center of town, where she’s due to get a haircut. With time to kill, we decide to hide from the ongoing rain at the National Portrait Gallery. Its collection was recently rehung to better reflect the diverse personalities who have contributed to British culture over the centuries, with women and people of color now in conversation with the Great White Men of history. It’s a widening of the lens. Studying the paintings, talk returns to Felicia. “There are so many ways you can tell a story about Leonard Bernstein,” Mulligan comments. “Like, there’s a version where Felicia has one or two scenes. What I love about this version is that it’s about what they created together. He really needed her. He didn’t do it all alone.”
Why did Bradley Cooper want to cast Carey Mulligan to star opposite him in Maestro? By the time this very obvious question occurred to me, the actors had gone on strike, and I couldn’t ask. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who consulted on the film and conducted its original musical performances, believes the answer is that, in certain ways, Mulligan already was Felicia; a visual resemblance, but also, as Nézet-Séguin puts it, “she’s classy, and Felicia was classy.” He saw the Bernstein children bless the casting, after the staging of Candide in Philadelphia, which he also conducted. “I remember them going to Bradley backstage and saying, ‘Yes, yes, we love her.’ It was a very emotional moment; they embraced her fully.”
Here’s another hypothesis: Carey Mulligan cares about, and is interested in, music. She’s married to a musician, and music runs like a red thread through her varied oeuvre—she plays a folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis, sings in films such as Shame and Far From the Madding Crowd. She’ll be back at it in One for the Money, yet another music-themed outing.
Mulligan has her own theory. Cooper had seen her perform onstage, many times, and believed she could handle the demands of certain Maestro scenes that play like theater, with no cuts. I buy this take, with an addendum. About five years ago, Cooper was in the audience at a performance of Dennis Kelly’s one-woman show Girls & Boys when the gigantic stage curtain fell on Mulligan’s head. She crawled out from underneath it and got on with the show. Right after she took her final bow, Cooper rushed backstage, finding Mulligan dazed and likely concussed. He demanded they go straight to the hospital. Which they did, and all’s well that ends well. One imagines the incident stuck with Cooper, and that its moral was: Carey Mulligan does not quit. Who else would you want by your side as you embark on a labor-of-love movie—your hotly anticipated filmmaking follow-up to A Star Is Born?
Fennell can attest to this aspect of Mulligan’s character. Shooting a scene in Promising Young Woman where Mulligan had to be smothered by a pillow, something went awry, and she was nearly suffocated. “And she caught her breath and just went straight in again,” Fennell recalls, going on to add that Mulligan’s don’t-quit ethic also manifests itself in non-life-threatening ways. “She didn’t leave the set once. She was her own stand-in; she ate with everyone every day; she made the impossible schedule possible because she was never late, never forgot a line, never screwed around, never threw a strop. God, that stuff makes a difference when the chips are down.”
The energy and focus Mulligan applies to her work, when she’s working, helps explain why she doesn’t task herself with brand-building, or hop on paycheck projects: A person only has so much bandwidth, and she’s a mother with three kids and a fruitful life far from the limelight. “She just loves acting,” says Fennell. “And she’d rather not work than do something that didn’t interest her.” The rest of the Hollywood stuff—the celebrity, the gala premieres, the press junkets—is sidelong, an incidental part of the gig.
“Do you watch Doctor Who?” Mulligan asks me, in her trailer on the set of her Vogue shoot. Freshly bobbed, she’s in hair and makeup, eyes closed as various unguents are applied to her face. Her mother is here, too, watching over the infant wriggling around on a cushy play mat on the floor. “You know how in Doctor Who, there’s the TARDIS, and it’s a phone booth, but when you step inside, you travel through time and space? Sometimes, that’s how my life feels…. Like, most days I’m just me, I don’t feel famous when I’m out in the country, most of my friends aren’t in the industry, I have this nice, very regular life. And then every once in a while I step into a magic phone box, and—whoosh—I come out the other side in a designer gown and there are lights flashing everywhere.”
I witnessed this transformation myself. Exiting the trailer to take a call, I wander back some minutes later to find Mulligan, regal, stepping outside in a flowing pink Louis Vuitton dress with chiffon petals blossoming from its bodice. Outfit change #3: Carey Mulligan, movie star. With a wink, she strides off toward the lights, where people are waiting for her to take her place before the camera.
In this story: hair, Mari Ohashi; makeup, Niamh Quinn. Produced by Farago Projects. Set Design: Rachel Thomas. Photographed at Wapping Power Station.
The interviews and photography in this story predated the SAG-AFTRA strike.