‘Promising Young Woman’: How Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell Made the Most Audacious, Feminist Movie of the Year

Photographs by Zoe McConnell

At the first test screening for “Promising Young Woman,” writer-director Emerald Fennell wanted to sit in the back so she could gauge the audience’s reaction. When the lights went down, she was stricken with terror. “I thought, ‘No, oh, my gosh, what if everyone hates it?’” she remembers. “This is a nightmare!”

And so it was. During the film’s surprising and brutal climax, two audience members entered into a shouting match, with one of them yelling, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay!” The other walked out. “That’s not what you necessarily want from your first test screening,” Fennell says.

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Zoe McConnell for Variety

Her leading lady, Carey Mulligan, disagrees. Recalling the film’s electric premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Mulligan says: “No one was sitting comfortably in their seats. You could feel their stomach muscles all tightened up. I think that really is a rare thing. It does provoke a reaction that is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time.”

That’s the promise of “Promising Young Woman,” a radical, genre-blending thriller that introduces Fennell as both a distinct cinematic voice and a blunt social commentator. Mulligan stars as Cassie, a former medical student whose life has been derailed by the rape of her best friend, Nina. After dropping out of school to care for the broken Nina, who is never seen in the movie, Cassie is adrift and boiling over with rage.

Her days are spent slinging coffee at a local café, and tiptoeing around her exasperated and worried parents (played by Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown). Her nights are spent feigning reckless drunkenness, baiting toxic bros dressed in business casual to swoop in to take advantage of her — only to reveal she’s stone-cold sober. She then confronts and shames them about their predatory behavior.

When the perpetrators behind Nina’s rape and its subsequent cover-up resurface, Cassie’s dark hobby escalates into a revenge mission. At the same time, a new love interest, Ryan (Bo Burnham), shows Cassie a different path — if she finds the will to move on.

Drenched in neon pink and baby-blue hues, “Promising Young Woman” looks playful on its surface, but yanks the rug out from under viewers. Among other things, the film is a stunningly unapologetic indictment of men and the societal mechanisms that support rape culture.

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Zoe McConnell for Variety

“It’s a sort of beautifully wrapped candy, and when you eat it you realize it’s poisonous,” Mulligan says of the film.

Yet if these descriptions make “Promising Young Woman” sound dogmatic, or strident, it never is: Against all odds, given its subject matter, the movie is fun as hell. “Promising Young Woman” combines elements from revenge movies, romantic comedies and suspense thrillers — brewed together to create something volcanic.

Peter Kujawski, head of the film’s distributor, Focus Features, says of Fennell’s film that the “hair on my arms stood up watching the first cut of this movie, and the realization of what she’s done here. Not only is it the degree of achievement, which we think is at the highest level, but it’s about the boldness.”

“We want audiences to know that, love it or hate it, you have to show up — because we’re delivering you a real jolt,” Kujawski continues.

That jolt comes from first-time filmmaker Fennell, an actor (she plays Camilla Parker Bowles on “The Crown” and was on “Call the Midwife” for several seasons), screenwriter-producer (she ran the second season of “Killing Eve”) and writer of horror novels. Fennell knew she wanted to direct when she began “screenwriting in earnest,” she says, because she found it hard to describe exactly what she meant tonally, and found that having created a world in her writing, she had the desire to “deliver that world, and make it fully realized” on-screen.

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Fennell, who’s 35, the same age as Mulligan, developed “Promising Young Woman” in 2017 with Margot Robbie’s company, LuckyChap Entertainment, which came on board as producer immediately after hearing her pitch: the movie’s cold open, in which Cassie surprises a potential rapist by dropping her drunken act. LuckyChap co-founder Josey McNamara says their reaction was “Whatever the rest of it is, we want to do it.”

The script did terrify some potential investors, McNamara says, who worried about the film’s ending, or about the audience’s potential response: “Emerald was very strong, and was sticking to her guns about how she saw the movie.” The right partners arrived in sales agent FilmNation and, later, distributor Focus Features. “FilmNation very much saw the movie the way that we and Emerald did, and were very supportive in promoting that vision,” says McNamara, adding that Focus was “very confident in what she would deliver and that it would pay off.”

If there was ever a thought that Robbie might play Cassie — yes, she was tempted. “This was a hard one to step aside for,” Robbie says. “But I felt like I would perhaps be the kind of Cassie people might expect, you know? And I feel like someone like Carey — we just haven’t seen her do this. She brings gravitas to it.”

But not even Mulligan’s Cassie could have anticipated the daunting challenge that the coronavirus would present to movie theaters this year. “Promising Young Woman” was scheduled for release in April, but — well, we all know what happened then. The film has presented a particular challenge, even to Focus, which has enthusiastically embraced premium video on demand as a necessary fallback in these pandemic times. With this movie, the filmmakers, the studio and the punch-drunk Sundance premiere audience would unanimously agree that “Promising Young Woman” is a singular theatrical experience — especially with an ending that will get people talking. “This is something you want to see with other people,” Robbie says.

Add to that the film’s serious awards potential this year, and that’s twice the pressure on Focus to make the right choice. The distributor is rolling out the film in theaters on Christmas Day, with an accelerated streaming premiere targeted for January.

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“This is working, and we wouldn’t keep doing it if it weren’t,” Kujawski says of the strategy. “We look at it as a tool in the arsenal to generate business but also to have something that allows us, in this impaired world, to share this movie for those who want it at home or safely in theaters.”

Fennell was more than seven months pregnant in spring 2019 at the start of the 23-day shoot for “Promising Young Woman” in Los Angeles, and she gave birth to her first child three weeks after production wrapped. She then took a few weeks off before she began editing the movie. “It was quite grueling, but that’s OK, isn’t it?” Fennell says. “It’s not very often you get to make a film.”

Now, more than a year and a half later, she will unveil “Promising Young Woman” to the world. In a lengthy interview with Variety, Fennell and Mulligan discuss the intentions behind one of the year’s most audacious films.

Why did you want Carey to play Cassie?

Emerald Fennell: Who I really wanted for the role was someone who was a surprising choice — certainly somebody who hadn’t done a ton of action movies or thrillers or genre stuff. In my wildest dreams, Carey was top of my list.

Carey Mulligan: Emerald and I worked together on this episode of “Trial & Retribution” when we were both 18; it was one of our first jobs. I was a girl who got murdered, and Emerald was this sort of nasty girl.

Fennell: Bitchy friend! If you need a bitchy friend —

Mulligan: — she’s available! We had a fight in a nightclub, and then I subsequently was murdered in the show. And Michael Fassbender was the detective! I hadn’t seen Emerald since then. Then I met her at somebody’s house just before Christmas, and she was on her way to the “Killing Eve” wrap party, wearing these amazing skintight pleather trousers with a hole in them. You were like, “I’ll just wear them anyway.”

Tor [agent Victoria Belfrage] sent me the script, but gave me absolutely no preamble: “Just read this.” I just never read anything like it; I knew pretty certainly that I wanted to do it straight off the bat. But when we sat down and met a couple of days later, after five minutes, I said, “Tor gets really cross at me when I do this, but I just have to tell you, I really want to do this job. I’m doing it! Let’s do it.”

Fennell: It was actually so much cooler than that. You had the script in your hand, and you just put it on the table and you said, “I’m in.” And then you said, “Fuck, I’m not allowed to say this!”

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Why was it unlike anything you’d ever read, Carey?

Mulligan: It’s so lovely to read something and have no idea where it’s going, and you’re wrong-footed at every turn. Every time you decided something about somebody, it was ripped away from you and changed.

Carey, you’ve spoken before about being resistant to “wives and girlfriends” roles — how does this fit in your body of work?

Mulligan: “Promising Young Woman” exists in its own genre, and that role is so unique. I felt like definitely I wanted to be a part of something contemporary that was an original idea and not an adaptation, as much as I love those. I’ve been resistant to playing characters that are just the wife or the girlfriend, and I’ve avoided that fairly consistently so far. You can still understand a character and go with them on their journey even if you don’t approve of them or feel totally comfortable. I’m trying to find characters who are a little less straightforward, and you don’t get all the answers. I want to be constantly surprising the audience. I loved working with comedians. I feel so open to that kind of stuff, but, for me, it’s never struck the right tone. I want to be in a Richard Curtis film and live in a lovely apartment. I know Richard Curtis, and I say this to him all the time. He knows.

Emerald, how would you describe the visual language of the film?

Fennell: I’d sent Carey and all of the producers the mood board and my playlist that I used to write it. Because I really was keen to explain to everyone: How this reads isn’t how it needs to feel. It needs to be kind of come hither. It needs to be sumptuous and beautiful and appealing. It needs to hide in plain sight and surprise you. It needs to feel like you’re on the best date of your life, your heart’s fluttering, you think this is going to be it. And you go home to someone’s apartment, and it’s beautiful, and it’s amazing. And suddenly you find out that the door’s locked behind you, and you just can’t get out.

I wanted to make the movie feel like I think a lot of our lives feel, which is that they are beautiful and they are horrific.

Focus is marketing “Promising Young Woman” as the kind of film that “smacks us awake.” Was that your intention?

Mulligan: It felt quite smacky in Sundance! Sitting with the audience, it felt like that.

Fennell: The first test screening we had, which was in quite a big theater with a very diverse group of people, in a particularly difficult scene, a fight broke out between two audience members. I couldn’t hear what was happening — all I knew was two people were shouting in the middle part of the movie theater. Somebody was shouting, and then somebody else started shouting. One person did not like what was happening, and then the other person was saying, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.” They both stood up, and somebody left. I was quite nervous after.

Mulligan: When I did “Girls & Boys,” I did this monologue at the Royal Court, and in one of the first previews we did, some huge fight broke out where someone almost got punched in the gallery. It was so exciting — not to be deliberately provocative, but I do think that there’s something to be said about something that makes people feel that strongly in the moment.

Fennell: I think that too, but also I was thinking, “Oh God, the distributors are here!”

Is this a story about two women and their friendship? Or is it a story about how outraged we all should be when it comes to sexual assault?

Mulligan: I don’t think big picture at all when I’m playing a character. But it was funny: When we shot the climactic scene, there’s a brilliant monologue that Emerald wrote, and I remember when I read that monologue, my heart was sort of racing, thinking, “Oh, my gosh, if I get to do this … ”

But it really felt in that moment much more of a collective feeling of outrage, just when we were shooting that one scene. That’s not to say I have any understanding in a real way of how that must feel, because I don’t. I have no idea how hard it must be to be a survivor, or to be supporting someone who’s a survivor. But in that moment, I felt very in solidarity with people who have been through anything like this. And that was really powerful, because I’m usually so myopic when I’m filming, and it’s just about that one person. But in that moment, because of this direction that Em gave me, it felt like a bit bigger picture for a second.

Fennell: I have always been quite interested in morality tales. In terms of the way it was shot, there are lots of parts of it almost touching on Greek tragedy — Cassie as the avenging angel who comes and offers redemption or punishment. And it’s ultimately, for me, a film about forgiveness, but that people only get forgiveness if they admit wrongdoing. She’s called Cassandra as a kind of nod to the original Cassandra.

So the whole purpose of the movie is to say, look at these two paths in front of this promising young woman. One is just skipping through daisies and delicious, beautiful candy land. And one is hard and lonely and bleak. Who chooses the hard road? It’s a horrible road to choose. And isn’t it funny how frightening a character becomes — particularly a woman becomes — when they say, “Actually, I’m right. And so I’m going to keep going. Even when everyone else is bored. And even when everyone else is furious, I’m going to keep going.”

And that, without Carey, was impossible. Because Carey is so exceptionally gifted, it was only her who could have given this character that in my mind was, as you say, this kind of an allegorical person — to make it completely and utterly real.

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Zoe McConnell for Variety

The film has a lot to say about how women treat women who’ve been sexually assaulted. Why did you want to explore that?

Fennell: You can’t write a film like this unless you examine yourself and your own past. If this is a movie about forgiveness, it’s important to say this is just a culture we’ve all grown up in. The incidents in this movie are in every romantic comedy, every TV show — we laugh at them.

When I was thinking about the character of Madison, who’s played by Alison Brie, I had to think about how I might have done better in the past. Of course, you want certain characters to be all bad or you want to hate them. But there’s also a kind of rotten truth to it, and there are so many arguments from both sides: “It happened to all of us.” “But I really like him, and I’m not sure he would.” “What if they don’t believe me?” The movie itself is just a sample of the excuses and the lies that we kind of tell ourselves when we let ourselves down.

It’s not just a movie for people who are very well-versed in all of this stuff. I feel very privileged that it’s something that I care deeply about. But for generational reasons — or all sorts of reasons — lots of people haven’t thought that deeply about this. And it needs to be accessible to them.

Were you concerned with making sure that the audience is still behind Cassie on her journey?

Mulligan: It’s important to me to never really care what the audience thinks. I think a lot of it was about just telling the truth. There’s these sorts of tropes that we see in films where people do really badass things, and then afterwards they sort of ride off into the sunset in celebration. And actually, the truth of most of what Cassie does is it wasn’t great — she probably feels terrible.

There’s a scene that’s in the trailer where Cassie loses her temper and smashes somebody’s car up. And instead of gleefully throwing the crowbar to the ground and walking off in her high heels, you see the terror of what’s come over her, and what’s allowed her to do that thing. Because it’s mad, and could get her arrested.

There was such freedom, and a lot of the time Em would be encouraging me to go further and further. And I felt like I could do all of that, trusting her to make the right decision.

Fennell: I did have to keep an eye on the tone, very much so. And also one of the main jobs I felt I had on this was to say to all departments, “This is what’s happening — but this is the trope we’re subverting.”

But the thing about Carey is: I am the monster, building it all around her, but she is always Cassie. And the important thing about having someone as brilliant as her is that it means you can do all of those things, because you have the consistency of this line of truth, and this line of someone’s heart going through it.

What is “Promising Young Woman” saying about men?

Fennell: Look, I love men! Nobody comes out of this movie very well, no single person — including Cassie. We’re talking about something that isn’t nice. So this movie has no reason to be preoccupied necessarily with the good deeds that we all do. Like, that’s another movie. It’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow — but that’s how the conversation starts, isn’t it?

This film is not supposed to be fanatical. This is a real genre revenge movie. It’s all it is. We’ve seen this movie a billion times. Let’s then be honest with it.

Carey, despite your character’s romantic detour, you have to chart an arc of escalating rage. How was that as an actor?

Mulligan: It doesn’t affect me post. The only thing I ever sit in the car on the way home and think is like, “Oh, I didn’t do that very well! Why didn’t I do it like this?” But that’s the really rich scrummy stuff that, as an actor, you are so excited to do. It’s the reason I work — the stuff like that.

That’s the whole point of my life; that’s my real Nina in “The Seagull.” That’s my vocation; that’s my sweet spot. I just found the whole job like that — because if it wasn’t me collapsing in laughter at Bo Burnham or Jennifer Coolidge, it was getting to do these scenes that are just so rich and so well-written and so crunchy. So it was just like this constant wave of satisfaction of having worked with the best people, with the best material, with the best director. There was no cost. I felt like I gained huge amounts from the whole process.

What do you hope the audience walks away with from the movie?

Mulligan: It’s always such a hard one. Emerald said a couple of times it’s a beautifully wrapped candy, and when you eat it, you realize it’s poisonous. There is something so delicious about this. There’s nothing didactic about it; there’s nothing that’s telling anyone what to think. And there’s nothing boring about it.

The reason I wanted to be in it is because I felt it was nothing I’d ever read or seen before. And I want people to feel that feeling that I felt when I read it: of I can’t believe this concoction can work. And what a thrill. It’s a magic trick, and you don’t see that very much these days. You kind of always understand how the magician’s done it. And with this, I just don’t think you do.

Fennell: My hope would be that everyone universally thought it was the greatest film ever made. And that I was quite a sexy genius. That’s obviously what you want!

It’s very easy to get kind of concerned about the political side of things, and the bleak things. But also I want it to be a film that people enjoy — that they laugh at, they’re shocked by, that they’re intrigued by. And that they leave and go, “Holy shit. I want to talk about that!”

Mulligan: I also think there’s something to be said for, whether you like it or not, being in a film that is memorable in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. I always want to work on things that find their place in the world, and that people revisit. And I think this will be a film that people will come back to.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Styling, Mulligan: Nicky Yates; Makeup, Mulligan: Jo Baker; Hair, Mulligan: Halley Brisker; Styling, Fennell: Colomba Giacomini; Hair, Fennell: Hair by Bjorn Krischker/ORIBE/frankagency; Makeup, Fennell: Lucy Wearing; lead image, Mulligan: Dress: Galvan; Shoes: Jimmy Choo; Ear Cuff: Sophie Billie Brahe; lead image, Fennell: Dress: Roland Mouret; Shoes: Malone Souliers; cover, Mulligan: Blue Top: Carolina Herrera; Ear Cuff: Delfina Deletraz; cover, Fennell: Jumpsuit: Ong-Oaj Pairam; Image 3 & 7, Mulligan: Dress and coat: MM6 Maison Margiela; Boots: Malone Soulier x Roksada; Ear; Cuff: Ana Khouri; Image 4, Fennell: Dress and coat: MM6 Maison Margiela; Boots: Malone Soulier x Roksada; Ear; Cuff: Ana Khouri; Image 5, Mulligan: Top: Carolina Herrera; Image 6, Fennell: Dress: Emilia Wickstead; Jewelry: Theo Fennell