Emerald Fennell’s biting dark comedy “Promising Young Woman” serves up a new take on old revenge narratives. In the movie, Cassie (Carey Mulligan) spends her days working at a coffee shop and her nights playing intoxicated so she could trap then scare predatory men from harming other women. When she reconnects with a former college chum, Ryan (Bo Burnham), he inadvertently brings back terrible memories of the defining event in her life that led her to become a consent vigilante. Cassie then hatches a plan to get her message across to the original perpetrators.
Mulligan and Burnham sat down with RogerEbert.com to talk through the film’s different tones, working together and debating the fine line over spoilers.
Carey, your character goes through so many highs and lows through the film. Was that a challenge?
Carey Mulligan: I got to the point where I was so trusting in Emerald. You really only have to spend about 10 minutes with her before I’d sign over my life. She’s absolutely clear-headed and so intelligent and has such an absolute laser vision of what this [movie] was gonna be. I didn't massively know what I was doing but felt like I'd be safe no matter what.
Had you met Emerald before signing on to star in the movie?
CM: I read it and then I met her. Actually, Emerald and I worked together when we were 19 maybe 20. We both did a TV show called “Trial and Retribution: The Sins of the Father.” I was murdered and I was thrown down two flights of stairs. Emerald was “bitchy girl in nightclub.” Michael Fassbender played the detective who figured out who killed me. But neither of us remembered that at all. I can't remember how we figured it out on set. It was like halfway through filming, we realized that we had met.
Bo Burnham: They asked me to chemistry with Carey – they being, you know, agents. I read the script, and then met with Emerald. It's so funny, the tone of the script is obviously like you can’t really be able to pull this off and I don’t really understand how you could pull this off because it’s so disparate, but the tone emanates from Emerald. The tone is Emerald. The tone is being around Emerald. Emerald is dark, funny, sensitive, caring and deep with a huge love of confectionery pop. It's all there. Just talking to her you're like, “Okay, this will make sense.”
How did you find that balance between funny and dark in your performances?
CM: I think it was Emerald. She helps me navigate those things. A lot of the stuff that we have together was just Bo making me laugh.
Was that improvised?
CM: No, Emerald’s a really, really great writer. It’s like things that usually make you laugh. You're also in this surreal environment of a set, acting. I think, especially with the fun little sweet human stuff, if you can live on the edge of the absurdity of what you're doing, it works. For this one, it felt particularly right to almost be breaking character the whole time. This is what a great writer like Emerald does. Life is totally inconsistent. Today, we've had great laughs, great talks and then Kobe Bryant just died in a helicopter crash. Life is abrupt turns into tonal disparate territory. It’s totally freeing as an actor to be in something that feels like mirrors life much closer than it does like something somber and it’s totally somber the entire time or this comedic thing the whole time. You can paint with the whole spectrum.
The movie brings up a lot of issues around consent and #MeToo. Was that part of the appeal of signing on to the project?
CM: As an actress, I'm not in a position to ever say no to a brilliant script because they come along so rarely. If the writing is this exceptional, I would have signed on to a movie about gardening. If it's there, there’s a character that I can relate to and see a real human being and as opposed to a character of a woman.
These things that we're talking about in the film are things that we've all been talking about for forever. I do feel it's always great to be part of a film that people don't just walk away and feel satisfied with. It's nice to be part of something that people think about. It's nice to be a part of something that isn't just pure entertainment. But one of the biggest draws to this film for me was that it was really entertaining. There's something about making this subject matter have a really broad appeal to people. I get award season jaded where I'm like, I know this is going to be a brilliant film, but I didn't really have the capacity for it today because I feel sad about the world, I feel worried about things, and I want to watch something to remove myself from it.
I think what Emerald’s done is so brilliant: take something that we all kind of need to think about more talk about more, but she's put it in a context where it's accessible. Certainly, there are elements to it that are really challenging, but there are also elements that are gonna make you laugh and cry – all the great stuff that you really want from a movie.
At the premiere, Emerald warned the audience not to spoil the twists in the movie. Has it been challenging to talk about “Promising Young Woman”?
BB: As far as the responsibility goes of warning people of the content, I think the movie’s pretty outwardly owning what the content is about – that this does depict dark, violent, triggering stuff about sexual violence. But the film is really, really structured and hinges on that structure. It is like a roller coaster in the dark. Riding Space Mountain with the lights turned on, you're like, “Oh, this sucks.” You don't want to see the stuff. But even saying there's a shocking thing is like a spoiler. What can you do?
Header caption: Carey Mulligan (front) stars as "Cassie" and Bo Burnham (back) stars as "Ryan“ in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Merie Weismiller Wallace / Focus Features