That’s when director Emerald Fennell (who helmed Season 2 of “Killing Eve” and stars as Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in “The Crown”) dispatched a mood board that set the thriller against a backdrop of tunes such as Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind.”
Such are the pop punches “Promising Young Woman,” in theaters Christmas Day, pulls in its dark, twisty tale about a medical school dropout named Cassie (Mulligan) whose life is upended by the rape of her best friend. By day Cassie works in a postage-sized coffee shop, her candy-colored manicure and cheerful wardrobe a winking shield against her sadness. By night, she trolls bars posing as a drunk, waiting to see if any nice young men pounce.
It’s an unexpected take on devastation, which is entirely the point.
“Our focus from the beginning was not on a kind of revenge narrative. It was about why she was doing what she was doing,” says Mulligan, 35, of “Promising,” which played to raves at Sundance Film Festival before its original April release was shelved due to the pandemic.
Cassie, she says, is mourning “a best friend, the kind of best friend that you have when you’re a teenager, who’s the center of your universe … and then they go to college and this event happens that derails both of them.”
Fennell sought Mulligan, who most recently starred in period films such as “Mudbound” and “Suffragette,” to play against type as Cassie. Noting the actress has never taken on an action role before, the director says Mulligan’s private nature – the Oscar nominee lives quietly in the British countryside with her husband, musician Marcus Mumford and their two young children – made her all the more appealing.
“She does only the things she wants to do and then disappears,” says Fennell. “Not only is she extremely talented but she is particular … what she cares about is being completely real all the time.”
At heart, the pragmatic Cassie, who has moved back home and abandoned her ambition, is not a viper; she’s a woman craving the catharsis of an authentic apology. It’s only as her cynicism is proven right that Cassie’s final act of revenge against her best friend’s perpetrator forms.
“Getting girls drunk was a completely legitimate seduction method when I was growing up. And that’s really important because we can’t just pretend this was just villains,” says Fennell, who costumes her bad guys in business suits and easy smiles. “It was endemic.”
Boozy enticements have long been the punchline of coming-of-age comedies (frat guy gets nervous girl drunk), and Mulligan admits she, too, gave those movies a pass growing up. “Never did I question it, never did I think, ‘Oh, that’s a bit (expletive) up.’ ” In 2020, “I want my kids to grow up in a world where actually that’s seen for what it actually is.”
But three years after the #MeToo movement, headlines about workplace misogyny and sexual harassment have dimmed, especially as the pandemic has captured the world’s focus. Meanwhile, domestic violence against women and girls has intensified in the past year, prompting the United Nations to warn against a Shadow Pandemic.
Mulligan knows the public has “a tendency to sort of tire of certain sort of societal issues. And once we feel like we’ve changed a few things, then we’ve dealt with it. And we all know that that’s not the case.” She hopes “Promising,” packaged as a candy-floss thriller, is a way “of getting people to examine their own behavior and continue the conversation.”
Mulligan had planned for a relatively “normal” Christmas at home in accordance with local guidelines, before a new COVID strain hit the London area, spurring fresh lockdowns across the U.K. The actress is set to start rehearsals in April for her next film, Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro.” And as soon as more vulnerable groups and healthcare workers get the immunizations, she will not hesitate to get the vaccine. “The second, like my age group … comes in, I’m the first person in line,” she says, sticking her arm out on a video call.
And for what it’s worth, the killer pop soundtrack to “Promising,” is totally her jam.
In college, Mulligan recalls with relish, friends dubbed her Top 40 taste “Carey trash.” At home with Mumford (who leads the folk rock band Mumford & Sons), “I’m in charge of music most of the time,” she laughs. “But I don’t have a sort of highbrow taste in music at all, much to everyone else’s disappointment.”