The actress talks about careers, defying convention and the problems still facing women today

Waiting in London’s Soho Hotel for Carey Mulligan to arrive is a nerve-wracking experience. I don’t usually confess to being starstruck, but Mulligan’s achievements cast a long shadow: numerous acclaimed performances on stage and screen, Bafta winner, Oscar nominee and ambassador for the charity War Child—all before the age of 30. 

She must be intimidating in the flesh, surely? 

Finally she arrives, dressed in a long floral dress and heavily pregnant (she and her husband, the musician Marcus Mumford, are expecting their first child later this year). She smiles and I immediately relax. Far from being intimidating, Mulligan the person is reassuringly… normal. We’re here to talk about Suffragette, which has already caused a buzz of excitement among those who have seen it.

Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan and the cast of Suffragette
Carey Mulligan (centre, next to Meryl Streep) and the women behind Suffragette

Six years in the making and written by British playwright Abi Morgan—who brought the life of Margaret Thatcher to the screen in The Iron LadySuffragette begins in London in 1912 and ends with the death of Emily Davidson, whose tragic collision with the king’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby gave the suffragette movement its first martyr. 

Mulligan plays Maud, a laundry worker and housewife who gets drawn into the movement almost by accident. Although her character is fictional, she’s a useful cipher for the women of that time, who were gradually radicalised by the injustices they witnessed. 

“What’s good about Maud is that she begins the story not involved in the cause at all,” explains Mulligan. “She’s within the boundaries of her social convention. She’s in a Victorian working-class family, she’s a wife and a mother, and she works in the laundry. But she has absolutely no interest in the suffragette movement and absolutely no interest in being involved in politics. She keeps herself to herself. But through meeting these women and being inspired by them, she finds her voice.” 

Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff in Suffragette
Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film with co-star Anne-Marie Duff

Mulligan has spoken out about how sexism in the film industry is the reason this movie is long overdue. Yet in considering her career, it's easy to forget these gender restraints. After all, her credits over the past five years alone include movies such as Never Let Me GoShameThe Great GatsbyInside Llewyn Davis and Far From the Madding Crowd, some of the best films of the past decade.

Good judgement and a degree of luck helps, of course, but none of Mulligan’s achievements have been easy. “Before I did Far From the Madding Crowd, I hadn’t worked for about 18 months,” she reveals. “That was mainly because there wasn’t anything that interesting to work on. You either make a lot of compromises and play roles you’re not very keen on, or you have to wait.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky in getting the jobs I’ve done, and I did enough work in the earlier part of my career to allow me to sit around a bit. But that’s a privileged position—not many people get to do that.” 

Carey Mulligan and Tom Sturridge in Far From The Madding Crowd
The actress chose not to work for 18 months until an "interesting" part came up. Here she plays Bathsheda Everdene in Far From The Madding Crowd

When discussing the problems other, less fortunate female actors face, we briefly touch upon the Bechdel test. You can try it yourself: think of a film with at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. Although only intended as a rough indicator, it’s amazing how many movies fail. 

Thankfully, Suffragette passes—within the first five minutes. But as well as the numerous standout female performances, it’s also worth highlighting a couple of male ones—not least Ben Whishaw as Maud’s husband Sonny, an ordinary workingclass man dismayed at his wife’s growing radicalism. 

“Yes, Ben’s extraordinary,” agrees Mulligan with a smile. “It would have been easy to make him a draconian Victorian patriarch, but he added all this colour and empathy. Lots of men were supportive of the suffragette movement, but Sonny represents the average working man who was brought up in the way that most men were brought up. He just can’t grasp why his wife is suddenly having these ideas.” 

The contemporary relevance of the film is also reflected in another great male performance—that of Brendan Gleeson, who plays Inspector Steed of the Metropolitan Police. He keeps tabs on the suffragettes from the start, secretly photographing members and compiling dossiers. The references to today’s debate on surveillance, of course, couldn’t be clearer. 

Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby
With Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby

“It was the first time the Met used that kind of surveillance, and it was on women,” Mulligan points out. “The whole surveillance culture rolled out from there, from following the suffragette movement. It was the first time they felt that kind of threat.” 

And we should remember that the devastating film of Emily Davidson going under a horse was the first such clip that went worldwide. The news footage of her funeral—which closes the film—likewise had an enormous global impact. 

Given that we’re still debating the power of images and the power of global communications, Suffragette really is a movie for our times. “Absolutely,” agrees Mulligan. “It’s using the framework of 1912 to talk about the period we’re living in today. I never felt like we were making a documentary about events long ago; it’s about the way things are now.” 

And with that, we shake hands and part. Mulligan, you sense, knows that Suffragette represents some of her finest work as an actor, and should figure prominently in the awards season. Ten years since her debut, her star shows no sign of waning. 

Now that’s intimidating.

The full interview can be found in the October issue of Reader's DigestSubscribe online or download the digital app

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