Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” — starring Carey Mulligan as Cassie, a woman whose life has been derailed by the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend, Nina — has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including three for Fennell (picture, director and screenplay) and a best actress nomination for Mulligan’s intricate portrayal of Cassie, who is hell-bent on avenging Nina to the point of her own destruction.
In Variety’s December cover story about the film, Fennell talked about Cassie’s unfaltering journey: “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.’”
Cassie’s odyssey reunites her with the people she sees as complicit in Nina’s destruction — the school administrator (Connie Britton) who favored Nina’s rapist, Al Monroe; their former friend (Alison Brie), who didn’t believe Nina had been raped; and Al’s lawyer, Jordan (Alfred Molina), who, as part of his job, “threatened and bullied” Nina until she dropped the case.
In aggregate, “Promising Young Woman” makes an argument about the mechanisms that support rape culture — and Jordan embodies the shark-ish defense lawyer who intimidates victims. The film’s casting is precise, and if the actors playing the movie’s rapacious bros (Bo Burnham, Adam Brody, Max Greenfield and Chris Lowell) turn the mensch-y images of pasts roles on their heads, Molina’s lawyer character has different layers: He played Mulligan’s father in her 2009 breakout, “An Education,” another film that had predation and power dynamics on its mind.
(Spoiler alert! Don’t read further if you haven’t seen “Promising Young Woman.”)
But if Cassie has geared herself up for a fight with the attorney in their key scene together, what she finds when she arrives at his house shocks her: Jordan has been broken by the unscrupulous nature of his job, and is barely able to live with his guilt. “The doctors called it a psychotic episode,” Jordan tells her in his tastefully decorated, but now filthy, living room. He ends up begging Cassie for forgiveness — and perhaps to her surprise, she gives it to him.
Molina appears only once more. In the movie’s final chapter, after Cassie has been murdered by Al, he receives evidence Cassie has sent him of Nina’s rape — and a letter for him to get to the police in case she’s disappeared.
In his only interview about “Promising Young Woman,” Molina discussed working with Fennell and Mulligan, how “Promising Young Woman” and “An Education” complement one another and why his first reading Fennell’s screenplay made him say, “What the fuck?!?”
You played Carey Mulligan’s character’s father in “An Education.” Is that how you came to play Jordan?
I suppose indirectly — I think Emerald and Carey had the sense that because we knew each other as chums and colleagues, it would make the scene easier or would add something to it. I’ve got a better understanding of how she likes to work: I know that Carey likes to gather herself before a take, and she likes to kind of get into a quiet zone. She knows that I’m a bit of a goofball on set, and I’m making jokes and trying to make the cameramen laugh. We didn’t have to do any sort of protocol or prep. We just dove straight in.
What about this role appealed to you?
Well, my admiration for both of them is enormous. When I read the script, I was shocked and intrigued, and it made me laugh — it scared me! But the scene itself struck me very hard. When I read the lines when Jordan says, “Have you come here to hurt me?” And she says, “Do you want me to hurt you?” And he says, “Yeah, I think I do.” When I read that I just went, what the fuck!
I can’t think of a scene where a man — a male character — has begged for a woman’s forgiveness for a whole way of life. For being part of a whole system. And that struck me as very powerful. Not that his apology, or his acknowledgement of his complicity, makes things any easier for her. But just the act of doing it, I suddenly thought, this is rare!
And it’s a joy to pop into movies where you’re not carrying the responsibility of the film, but you’re part of something that you know in your bones is going to be — I just knew it was something special.
Cassie goes to his house thinking, I imagine, that she’s going to have to convince Jordan that he was wrong — and then she finds a complete wreckage of a person. How did you break down the scene physically?
That was all Emerald. Two people talking in a room, you’re going to be sitting down at some point opposite each other, sitting looking at each other. I knew she wanted me to stand up at some point, and she wanted to take advantage of the difference in size between Carey and I. So, when she’s sitting on the sofa, and I’m standing over her, it’s quite a threatening relationship. Where’s this going to go? Is he going to hit her, or is he going to jump on her?
And then, of course, he ends up on his knees with his head in her lap, asking for her forgiveness. That suddenly changes that physical dynamic, and it changes the status in the room completely. The note that Emerald gave me was, “Don’t speed up the dialogue, but make those movements fast. Make them shocking, like a surprise.”
Jordan has the kind of job that one might ask, “How does he sleep at night?” And this movie says: Well, he doesn’t. What did you want to bring to him as a character?
We know that he was probably as responsible for Nina’s death as anyone else. We know that kind of person. What’s important is to find out, or try and understand, what happens to a person after the event. What happens to a person in the darkness, in the silence and the loneliness, and in the solitary-ness of their own room? What happens to you when you come to terms with some terrible thing you’ve done? Or when you realize the enormity of the system that you’ve been part of and have been supporting. Does it crush you? Does it make you double down?
I’m not in AA, but I was thinking in terms of a 12-step program — how you make amends, how you come to terms with and acknowledge your history. I was talking to a couple of people who have had experience with this, and they said to me, “It’s all about exhaustion. You don’t sleep. There’s no joy — every ounce of joy has left your life.”
I’ve never been lonely in my life, because I’ve always been surrounded by people. So it was an interesting thing to think about from a performing point of view.
When we interviewed Carey Mulligan and Emerald Fennell, Emerald said Cassie is an “avenging angel who comes and offers redemption or punishment,” and that she sees the movie as being about forgiveness. Cassie not only offers Jordan forgiveness, but she gives him a chance to help by sending him the phone and the “in the event of my disappearance” note. How did you want to portray that scene?
I thought that scene was about a kind of redemption. It was a situation where I think if that scene had been a dialogue, I think he would have said something like, “Listen, this is the least I can do.” I’m being rather facetious in that way, but it’s that kind of moment: I can’t fix it, but let me do this at least. And I think that was an important beat to have, because otherwise the scene between them wouldn’t have had the same power.
It’s interesting that Emerald talks about the film in those terms, because it starts to sound almost Biblical — this notion of the avenging angel, which is a very powerful image. And it’s not just about forgiveness. It’s also about complicity and consent and culpability and responsibility.
Speaking of those themes, “An Education” was engaging in these same topics. If that came out now, I think it would be much more clear — because of what we’ve been through in the last 12 years, and all that we’ve learned — that David (Peter Sarsgaard) is a predator.
Yes, clearly, David was a predator, and was getting away with it because men like him were never seen in those terms at that time. If you put “An Education” and “Promising Young Woman” back-to-back, I think they would be complementary pieces, regardless of the linking aspect of Carey in the two movies.
Carey likes to joke that she did all her bad acting in “An Education” — that she was learning on the job. I don’t agree with her. I think her talent was perfectly formed. And it’s just gotten better and better.
I think they would be very complementary pieces right now. Another few years, in a Carey Mulligan retrospective!
The reception of the movie has culminated in five Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director and best actress. What’s that been like?
This has happened before when I’ve done a small role in a movie that has taken on a much bigger life beyond the immediate expectations, and that’s always great fun. “An Education” was one, “Boogie Nights” was another, where you pop in for a couple of days, and next thing you know, the film becomes some kind of totem. It becomes a marker for a particular point in history. I think “Promising Young Woman” absolutely deserves all the accolades it’s receiving, and all the attention. I’m delighted and very proud to be a part of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.