Carey Mulligan and Zendaya on ‘Promising Young Woman,’ ‘Malcolm and Marie’ and Feminist Rage

Kate Aurthur
·10-min read

Carey Mulligan (“Promising Young Woman”) and Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

In “Promising Young Woman,” Carey Mulligan’s Cassie has been knocked off track by the rape of her best friend, Nina. In the aftermath, Cassie has devoted herself to a life of revenge — but it’s getting her nowhere. Mulligan and Emerald Fennell, the writer-director of “Promising Young Woman,” clearly formed a close bond, which she discusses with Zendaya — who has a similarly simpatico relationship with Sam Levinson, the writer-director of her forthcoming film, “Malcolm & Marie” (and the creator of HBO’s “Euphoria,” for which she won an Emmy in September).

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In “Malcolm & Marie” — shot in June and July in Carmel, Calif., under COVID-19 protocols, one of the first films to do so — Zendaya plays the girlfriend of a stubborn director (John David Washington), who stays up late on the night of his premiere to argue (passionately) in the style of a Tenne­ssee Williams play, about his art. And in a move that Marie would approve of, Zendaya asks Mulligan about her calling out Variety’s tone-deaf review of “Promising Young Woman” and our subsequent apology.

Carey Mulligan: I watched “Malcolm & Marie,” and then I started watching “Euphoria,” and I’m geeking out. You’re just so extraordinarily good in both of them. “Malcolm & Marie” is so brilliant and so beautiful. Such an amazing accomplishment in lockdown. What was that like?

Zendaya: I think the No. 1 thing was the ability to do it safely. It started with conversations with Sam Levinson, obviously, who I’m close with and was lucky enough to do “Euphoria” with. “Euphoria” shut down literally the Friday before we were supposed to start on a Monday. So that kind of threw us both for a loop.

I had this thought of like, “Could we just do something in my house?” So we started bouncing ideas around, understanding the parameters — a very small group of people doing something inside a house, or something like that. Then he calls me, and he’s like, “Yo, Z, I got a good one.”

Our producers really did the hard work consulting with different medical professionals and making sure that we had a very, very strict protocol. We created a bubble, essentially, once you were in this place in Carmel. It was a resort, kind of, but it had different houses and was on this huge plot of land with a farm. We brought everything we needed and stayed there.

Mulligan: It’s frightening, honestly, watching you — in a good way. Particularly doing it under the conditions that you were working in, and not having family or friends to go and decompress with.

Zendaya: Being in lockdown, I was definitely itching to do what I love because I hadn’t been able to do it for so long. I had already geared up and was in the headspace of a Season 2 [of “Euphoria”] and that wasn’t happening.

I literally, while I was in quarantine, I would do this thing to keep me motivated. I live with my assistant, who’s also like a brother to me. I told him, “I’ll do some physical activity — I think it’s good for me.” I have a whole bunch of wigs, from many years of being on red carpets, and I would put on a different wig and be a different character every day, and put on this performance for him for like an hour every day.

Mulligan: Wow.

Zendaya: I was just so happy to bring Marie to life with people I really care about. It felt like a safe place. When our dailies got back to us, we were shooting in order, so we’re like, “Did we get that?” We had to watch each other to hold each other accountable.

Mulligan: I’m fascinated by the whole process of it, because it feels like theater. The takes are so long and the cameras outside, and you’re sort of looking in.

Zendaya: My mom worked at the California Shakespeare Theater when I was a kid. I love theater, and that’s where I learned my love for acting. I know you’ve done a lot of theater work.

I’m excited to ask you some questions too. It’s exciting — women being bold and fearless in their artistry. What connected you to [“Promising Young Woman”]?

Mulligan: I actually go a long way back with Emerald Fennell, the director. We worked together when we were both 18. In January 2019, it came to my agent, who gave me no preamble. I was excited to read it, knowing that it was Emerald, and that she was working on “Killing Eve” and knowing her as an actor. I read it in one go and was floored by it. And she sent this playlist along with it, with “Stars Are Blind” by Paris Hilton and “Boys” by Charli XCX. So I met her, like two days later, and then five minutes into the meeting, I was like, “God, I can’t believe you’ll let me into this thing! Yes, please.”

Zendaya: I love when music plays a character in a piece. How did you find Cassie?

Mulligan: It was really a lot of conversation with Emerald. It did feel like a dark comedy, but also a revenge movie — and also kind of a thriller-y thing. It was a real person, and her story felt very real to us. What does female rage look like, and what would you actually do if you were in that position? It was important that we looked at who she was before this event that derailed her life. She’s definitely got hate, she’s got anger, and this is also somebody who’s absolutely point-blank refusing to move on because of her friend who suffered. That felt like the starting place — that this is about sisterhood, and this is about what you do for the person you love.

Zendaya: Recently, you called out a movie review and their criticism — saying that it was sexist. And [Variety] ended up apologizing for it. I just wanted you to speak to that.

Mulligan: I feel it’s important that criticism is constructive. I think it’s important that we are looking at the right things when it comes to work, and we’re looking at the art and we’re looking at the performance. And I don’t think that goes to the appearance of the actor or your personal preference for what an actor does or doesn’t look like — which it felt that that article did. Which for me felt disappointing, because obviously the film is tackling issues around our perceptions and our preconceived ideas about people.

In the broader sense, there’s an element to where we have idealized women on-screen for so long that I think we start to lose sight of what women really look like. When I worked with Steve McQueen on “Shame,” he said, “Really what we’re all doing is holding up a mirror. That’s what we do as storytellers.” And I think if women continually look on-screen and don’t see themselves, that’s not helpful for women or for anyone. So I think in criticizing or bemoaning a lack of attractiveness on my part in a character, it wasn’t a personal slight. It didn’t wound my ego, but it made me concerned that in such a big publication an actress’s appearance could be criticized and it could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism.

It’s important to call out those things, because they seem small and they seem insignificant. People around me at the time said, “Oh, get over it. People love the film.” But it stuck with me, because I think it’s these kind of everyday moments that add up. We start to edit the way that women appear on-screen, and we want them to look a certain way. We want to airbrush them, and we want to make them look perfect. Or we want to edit the way that they work, the way they move and the way that they think and behave. And I think we need to see real women portrayed on-screen in all of their complexity. I felt that it was one small thing to point out that could be helpful.

I didn’t know what the reaction would be to my sort of saying that. Sort of nerve-racking to rock the boat with a big publication. But at the same time it feels like, you’ve got to stand up for these things. Otherwise, it continues and then you’re essentially part of it. So I was really sort of surprised and thrilled and happy to have received an apology. I kind of found it moving, in a way — to draw a line and know that had an impact.

Zendaya: Beautifully said.

Mulligan: If you put your full faith in your director, it gives you sort of freedom, which you clearly have with Sam. I was going to ask how he cast you in “Euphoria.”

Zendaya: I’ve been very lucky, in the sense that every director so far that I worked with — and I’m still getting started — has been lovely. With Sam, I definitely think there’s just like a special connection there. Before “Euphoria,” technically I was still on Disney Channel. He must have seen something in me.

He said that I was on a mood board for Rue. And I was like, “No, you didn’t!” I think there’s something to that kind of faith, and already seeing something in me that I maybe knew was there, but I didn’t ever have the opportunity to explore. I’ve always felt that I could bring things to the table: that I could be creative and free to try things, and put out bad ideas. Because of the Disney kid thing, I get scared of that kind of thing.

Mulligan: You surely can’t think of yourself as a Disney kid now.

Zendaya: The thing is, I am. And to a degree, I am grateful for that. That’s where I started, and I learned so much from that experience. It’s just kind of been this slow progression, and I am happy that it’s all been to prove it to myself and not to anybody else, you know? I embrace it a little bit. It’s part of my heritage to a degree.

Mulligan: I remember seeing your acceptance speech when you won the Emmy for “Euphoria.” You’re the youngest person to win that award. How did that feel?

Zendaya: I was just excited to be involved in the conversation. I was really nervous. And of course, it wasn’t a typical ceremony. But in many ways, I’m grateful for that, because it was really nice having my family around me, quite literally having my back. I felt very safe, even though I was freaking out a little bit. I couldn’t imagine having to go up in front of a big crowd.

Mulligan: Oh, my God. How far through “Spider-Man” —

Zendaya: It’s our third. These things go by so fast. We still have a lot left to do. It’s like running from aliens and things you can’t see. Part of that is kind of fun. A lot of what we do is escapism, just being able to play a teenager again.

Mulligan: Escapism is what we need.

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