Promising Young Woman is audacious from the off. A genre-bending revenge thriller, it ricochets between romcom and horror to radical and unsettling effect. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, a medical school drop-out traumatised by the assault of her best friend. By day, she works in a coffee shop; by night, she fakes blackout drunkenness in bars. If “nice guys” take advantage, Cassie snaps open her sober eyes to teach them a lesson.
The film made history this week, landing five Oscars nominations: picture, editing and actress (Mulligan’s second run at the award), as well as original screenplay and director for Emerald Fennell. With her debut feature, Fennell has become the first British woman to be nominated for the director prize. This is the first year in which two women (Fennell and Nomadland’s Chloé Zhao) are in the running; they are only the sixth and seventh women to be shortlisted.
Promising Young Woman will finally open in the UK this spring – a year after its scheduled release. I first met Mulligan and Fennell last March, in a hotel in London. Lockdown was imminent and there was an air of hysteria as I entered the room, Mulligan scarfing down dried mango, Fennell recounting how she had been told off at home for eating the “apocalypse biscuits” her partner had stockpiled. The pair were on a whirlwind round of promotional duties and thick as thieves.
Fennell – who plays the Duchess of Cornwall in The Crown and was the showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve – was an entertaining combination of effusive auteur and no-nonsense Briton, with Mulligan her deadpan foil. Our conversation continued over video call in December and then by phone a few days ago.
Amy Fleming: How are you feeling, a day after the Oscars announcement?
Emerald Fennell: Carey and I are quite shellshocked and overwhelmed. I still feel my brain is somewhere else. When we spoke a year ago, I was hoping that maybe the film would find an audience of some kind. You have to moderate your expectations. And so for this to happen is just amazing.
None of us knew what this year was going to be like for film, but it’s just been such an exciting time. We’re seeing so many different voices and they’re making things in different ways. One Night in Miami, Minari, The Father, Nomadland: they’re all exceptional, but they all feel so distinct.
Carey Mulligan: The thing about awards season that gives it value is celebrating film, obviously, but also highlighting films that might not otherwise have had an audience. That’s brilliant. So it’s really cool to see Another Round up for the best picture and best director Oscars. And the Bafta nominations bringing forward films like Rocks.
I haven’t seen everything, but I loved Minari so much. And Daniel Kaluuya is probably the best British actor working today, so I’m big-time rooting for him. Amanda Seyfried is so brilliant in Mank. Emerald should win everything, obviously. But I am biased.
The very fact that Emerald and Chloé [Zhao] are record-breaking is crazy. That we have got to 2021 and still Emerald is the first British female film-maker to get nominated for best director? That’s wild.
AF: The Golden Globes don’t seem to be on the same page [the organisation that runs the awards, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, has been criticised for its lack of diversity].
CM: It’s very clear that change needs to happen there for it to continue as an organisation that people work with. There’s a very obvious issue there – which has just been quite openly addressed by a group of about 100 publicists who said that they won’t engage on behalf of their clients with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association until they meet some standards that they’ve laid out. So that’s good. And necessary.
AF: How does the film feel against the backdrop of protests in the UK over violence against women?
EF: I certainly don’t think of the film as a vigilante film. It’s angry, it’s about grief and it’s also about how we forgive, how we as a society are able to move forward.
The thing that I feel that is happening right now is that conversation is really happening. It’s such an uphill struggle for things to be taken seriously; it has always felt so relentless. But over the past few years it feels as if we are able to more publicly have a conversation – and to communicate our fear and our anger and our distress. And, for the first time ever, it feels perhaps as if people are willing to listen.
I feel so galvanised and excited by women like Jess Phillips. She makes me feel safe. She’s been reading out those names [of women killed in the UK] for years. I’m just so in awe of those people. I suppose it feels like speaking into a void; they’ve not been listened to or taken seriously. And now there’s the sense that there will be some real change in our systems. I’m tentatively hopeful.
AF: Promising Young Woman has been called a #MeToo revenge movie. Was that your intention?
EF: There’s a need to politicise women’s work, to make it either a memoir or part of a movement. But the issues in this film have been going on for ever and I’ve been thinking about writing it for a long time. So I wanted to see if it was possible to make a very specific type of genre movie. It just so happened that this project is about something that we’re all familiar with, which can seem innocuous and mundane, but when you examine it in another way is incredibly sinister.
CM: This is all very familiar stuff. We’ve all seen it in so many romantic comedies told from the guy’s perspective, who has to get the really hot girl really drunk to persuade her to have sex with him, because sober she wouldn’t go home with him. We’ve seen it in films and thought it was totally normal. Well, I did. I never thought: “Oh, that’s actually quite fucked up.” I’ve always watched it and thought: “Yeah, that’s life, that’s what we all do.” This film is saying: “Hang on, wait a minute.”
EF: Romantic comedies, revenge thrillers, horror movies, I love all of the genres that this movie is. Doesn’t falling in love feel like a romantic comedy? And doesn’t being caught out doing something you thought was fine feel like a horror movie? I wanted to see if there was a way of making a revenge thriller, with all the beats of a revenge thriller, but push people’s comfort and their familiarity and pervert it. And because Carey is so grounded in reality, it was possible to have this seesaw of genres and of plot, because we had this real person in the centre of it.
There’s a movie that we want, that is pleasurable and cathartic, and then there’s the truth. I wanted to try to marry those together and see if we could make a movie that is honest about what revenge is and how it pans out for women in particular. I like to think that the film would still have been made [before #MeToo]. What do you think, Carey?
CM: It’s hard to know what the real barometer is, because a lot of [female-led] projects are not made. So, in that sense, maybe it would not have been made, because it isn’t a superhero film or something.
EF: Well, somebody did call Cassie “Vengeance Barbie”.
CM: I’m thrilled! But a lot of things are thrown out for sexist, pointless, silly reasons. It’s still hard now, and it’s still a waiting game for me, because I’m not in a producing role; I just act, so I wait for the scripts. I’ve been lucky in the last 10 years that once a year something unmissable comes along. I don’t see a huge change yet, but I’m not the first person that would get a script necessarily, in terms of not being in a Marvel movie. So things aren’t necessarily always filtering down to me.
But there’s a feeling that there are more [good roles for women] and there are people being very proactive, like Emerald, like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, like Margot Robbie. Women who are being very deliberate about creating new and exciting things.
EF: This film was made with Robbie’s production company, LuckyChap, which makes it really, really easy. That’s their objective. Of course, for every project that gets made, you have 10 that didn’t. I’ve had so many nos.
AF: Would your younger selves have benefited from seeing this film?
CM: I do wish this film had come out when I was a teenager.
EF: Me too – oh my God, this is totally a film for me at that age. I think that is why it should be accessible and fun and funny and gripping and all the things I hope that it is. First and foremost, you want it to be a film that people will want to watch. If you’re a female film-maker or actor, you very rarely get to just make a film or just write a book. The act of making things as a woman is still subversive.
So much of the conversation about the film has been the context rather than the film itself. I get the impression, still, that men are allowed to speak through their work. They don’t have to express it as some part of their pain; maybe that’s it. I’m a very privileged white woman who’s been incredibly lucky – I can’t even begin to speak for most people, let alone women.
CM: It is super-tricky. It’s a remarkable platform, but our experiences are so different to the majority of the population. And so you want to be careful to not speak for people who aren’t asking for your voice. The film is a representation of our thoughts on these things, but it’s also not answering any of those things.
AF: Some female critics have criticised the film’s handling of the sensitive themes in play – is it a divisive movie? If so, why?
EF: The response has been overwhelmingly moving and positive. But if you make a film about a subject like this, understandably, it can never encompass everyone’s personal experience. There are some people for whom it would be too difficult to watch. I completely understand that and I respect the people who have found it difficult to like it. They have very fair and often personal reasons for feeling that – and that’s part of this stuff.
This is a film about one woman’s specific experience. You can’t ever hope to make a film about something like this that is going to be universally appealing. And the truth of it is: if you did, it would maybe not be challenging some of the bigger questions about all of this stuff. It’s really difficult when you’re talking about women’s stories – there is an enormous pressure to be cathartic and to be empowering. And some of the things in this world that we are talking about are so impossible and cruel and difficult and complicated that you can’t always be those things.
AF: The reviews have mostly been positive, but you raised concerns, Carey, about some of the language used to describe your appearance in Dennis Harvey’s review for Variety.
CM: I feel I’ve said all I want to say about that. The specifics of it became the story, but my intention was to speak a lot more generally about the way that women are discussed in the media. And it became about that particular journalist, which it really isn’t. It’s much broader.
AF: Did you read Harvey’s response [in which he said he felt his intentions had been misunderstood]?
CM: I did. But it’s not about him. It’s not about me. I was interested in discussing the ways in which we talk about this stuff and the way that we are discussed and what message that puts out. And, in the context of this film, I couldn’t see how appearance was particularly relevant to the story. But I’m not online, I don’t engage in social media. I can’t – life’s too short.
AF: Let’s go back to the beginning. Had you met before making the film?
CM: When I first read it, I thought I’d only met Emerald briefly once, but about three weeks into filming we figured out that we had originally met when we were both, like, 19, in an episode of Trial and Retribution: Sins of the Father.
EF: Carey was murdered …
CM: I was Greg Wise’s daughter and Michael Fassbender played the detective, which was very exciting.
EF: I was, as always, “bitchy friend”.
CM: There is a scene we’re in, in which Emerald and I get into a disagreement and Emerald shoves me in the chest across a nightclub, and neither of us remembered it.
EF: Because you’re so nervous when you’re that age. I still get so nervous when I’m acting, but back then it was just like a white noise of terror, like being stuck in a hurricane or something. Even until quite recently – even still sometimes today – I could barely see outside my own complete terror.
AF: How do you prepare for a role like this?
CM: When I read the Promising Young Woman script, I felt the way that you do when you watch Parasite. Constantly wrongfooted, like: “Oh my word, what is this?” In a good way. I also felt the thing that I always want to feel: that I would be gutted if anyone else played this part. I had to do it, but also I didn’t know how to do it.
I’d been exclusively playing mums for a bit. I had a teenage son in Wildlife and then I had children in Mudbound. And I had been performing this Dennis Kelly monologue [Girls and Boys, at the Royal Court in London and on Broadway] in which I had two children.
And then, suddenly, I was a bit like: “Can you still buy me as pre-kids?” It wasn’t anything I’d massively articulated, but I was like: “OK, I’m gonna be in that zone again.” There were lots of things about it that I felt like: “I have no idea how to do this.”
EF: I am very superficial, so a lot of it was sending Carey pictures of a specific manicure. We talked a lot about being angry. There’s stuff that I think you don’t think about too much when you’re a woman, because you push it to one side, like anger.
CM: In retrospect, much of the super-deep research I did for roles when I was younger was because I felt unqualified to be doing my job, because I didn’t get into drama school. I started when I was 18 and I kind of didn’t know what I was doing.
There are some aspects of a role that you might need to learn, like a language or riding a horse. Apart from those things, I increasingly feel that all it requires is thought. My favourite way of working is having really long conversations with the director. When that relationship is solid, and you can talk for hours and figure this person out, and do that to a degree with the other actors, it feels like such a human thing.
I’m not playing someone who exists. So, rather than research, it was a lot of invention. The whole thing starts with love; an incredible friendship and what she’s now doing because that’s gone.
EF: Cassie wants to forgive. She needs someone to admit what happened and apologise. The basis of all religions is that forgiveness is granted if you confess and atone. So many people want to be forgiven without the confession or the atonement.
AF: Did you feel any responsibility as feminists when making the film?
CM: I have not had to experience what Cassie has gone through in this film and I wanted to make sure that it felt accurate, so that it didn’t sit wrong with people who’ve got real pain. That’s the last thing you ever want to do when you’re in this job and it’s why I didn’t want to speak to anyone who’d been through anything related to this film. I would never ask someone to relive something terrible for the sake of a film. There are heightened elements of this film, but the truth is that this situation is so common and what happens in the film is such a sad reality. You want it to be really clear about that.
EF: I think it’s important – and really starting to happen more now – for women to be making stuff. If we get the opportunity, we have to just do it.
I felt a responsibility to make a revenge movie that was honest about what revenge looks like for women, what violence looks like and how sisyphean the world often feels. If there’s a happy ending, I think it is that maybe the next time somebody sees a drunk girl in a nightclub, they might think twice about it.
AF: How has the past year been for you?
EF: I’ve spent lockdown writing, which has kept me sane. I took on so much work at the beginning of the pandemic, because I was so panicked about never working again, and now I’m crushed under the weight of work.
CM: I haven’t worked much. I did a few audiobooks just to try to do some acting. A Matt Haig book called The Midnight Library and a kids’ book called The Worst Warlock, which was really fun, with trolls and wizards. Andthe EM Forster short story The Machine Stops. Published in 1909, it’s about an apocalyptic society where everyone lives in their own bubble and nobody has any human contact and everyone communicates through what are essentially iPads. It’s just nuts.
EF: Pre-pandemic, I had underestimated how important watching things communally is. I’ve never ever wanted to go to the cinema or theatre more. I’m very British and reserved and I find any show of affection quite troubling, but I have never wanted to be physically in a room with people more. I just want to lick everyone’s face.
So much about making films is about trust. At the moment, everyone is filming in masks, nobody is allowed to eat together or meet outside work. I just can’t imagine how joyless it is, because all of our jobs need levity and a social element.
CM: We’ll have to carry on with all of the protocols for a long time even after people are vaccinated. I’m sure that’s an added cost that lots of smaller independent films might not be able to cover, which might limit the work that’s happening.
It’s been unbearably rough for people I know who work behind the scenes in theatre, too. I’m hoping that audiences will rush back when it’s safe. I didn’t even go to the theatre much before, but now I’m desperate to. I was watching Britain’s Got Talent in October, when there was a medley of musical theatre numbers performed by cast members after seven months of theatres being closed, and bawling my eyes out.
Promising Young Woman is coming soon in the UK.
• This article was amended on 19 March 2021 to correct the spelling of the name of Nomadland’s director Chloé Zhao.