When we sit down for this interview Carey Mulligan hasn't seen Maestro yet, at least not the finished film, and let alone with an audience. The SAG-AFTRA strike had only just lifted, so she'd had to miss out on the movie's Venice premiere. "I've seen cuts, because Bradley showed me stuff throughout," says Mulligan of her director, Bradley Cooper. "But I haven't seen it done-done. I think I want to see it in IMAX, so I might just go and buy a ticket."
The last time the actress did that was nearly two decades ago, when she made her film debut playing Kitty Bennet in 2005's Pride & Prejudice. "I went and sat in the theater and watched it," she recalls. "It was so surreal, because it was my first ever job. The whole thing felt like I'd won some special prize to get to be on a film set, so sitting in the theater was wild."
Mulligan's breakthrough came a few years after that, playing an Oxford-bound teenager in the 2009 period drama An Education, for which she received her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In the years that followed, she took on roles in Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (2011), Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013), and Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, for which she received her second Best Actress nomination at the 93rd Oscars.
"I just want to work with directors that are going to put me in a position where I feel nervous to get there," she says. "When I arrive, I feel safe. And when I walk away, I feel like I've learned something. And that was 100 percent this experience."
In Maestro, Mulligan stars as Felicia Montealegre, the wife of legendary composer Leonard Bernstein (Cooper). An up-and-coming actress at the time that she married the aspiring composer, she abandoned her career when he ascended to once-in-a-generation genius. The drama follows the couple over their decades-long romance, as they contend with Leonard's overshadowing ambitions and sexual identity. "I haven't gotten to play a part with this much breadth on-screen," Mulligan tells A.frame. "In that sense, it felt like an enormous challenge, but also exactly the reason to do it."
At the 96th Oscars, Mulligan is once again nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role — her third career nomination. (Maestro, meanwhile, earned seven nominations in total, including Best Picture.)
"We poured so much love and joy into Maestro," Mulligan said of the nomination. "Thank you to Bradley for handing me this gift of a role and an experience. I fiddled with Felicia's lighter all morning, keeping the point of all of this close to my heart. I'm so grateful to the Academy — we are going to have the best time ever dressing up and paying tribute to this extraordinary couple."
A.frame: Do you remember when Bradley first approached you about playing Felicia?
Oh, yeah. Very specifically. It was 2018, I was doing a one-woman show [Girls & Boys] in a little theater off Broadway, and he came to see it. He asked me to meet him a couple of days later, and that's when he talked to me about it. So, that was five years ago.
From what he told you, was it an immediate yes?
I think he said, "I want to make a film about marriage, and I've got the incredible nuclear power of Leonard Bernstein's music and the blessing of the family, and I want to tell the story of this couple and of this marriage." He told me about both of them and about the very clear-eyed understanding that they had when they went into the marriage. She literally wrote him a letter before they got married that said, "You are a homosexual and may never change," and she absolutely wanted to marry him and make a life with him. So, that was fascinating. These two artists living together — one of them who is the most celebrated and famous artist of his generation, and the other, a good actress — I thought that was fascinating. There was so much about it. But I didn't know him as a director yet.
If it was early enough in 2018, then A Star Is Born wouldn't have come out yet.
Yeah, A Star Is Born was finished but wasn't out yet. So, he said, "Watch A Star Is Born, and then, you know." Because of course, I wanted to say yes! It's Bradley Cooper. It wasn't like I needed to see the film, but I was like, "Okay, I'll watch A Star Is Born, but I'm pretty much sure I want to jump in on this anyway." But I watched A Star Is Born. I went with Zoe Kazan, who's one of my best friends — also I think she has incredible taste. I asked her to come with me — and I was completely blown away. We walked out and I said, "Thank God it's so good! Now, I can do Maestro." [Laughs] We walked for, like, 40 blocks downtown just talking about A Star Is Born and how great it was, and it looked like a transformational experience for an actor. Then I rang him and told him how brilliant it was. But I was signed on from the beginning.
How much did you know about Felicia before signing on?
All I knew was Leonard Bernstein was the guy who wrote West Side Story. It wasn't that much more than that. I knew that he was a big cultural icon in the States and in the classical music world, but he wasn't a household name where I grew up. And I knew nothing about Felicia. Maybe I knew he was married to an actress, but it really was starting from scratch with basically both of them. But it's interesting when you talk to people who knew them or came across them, they never talk about just Lenny. They always talk about Lenny and Felicia, so that was the first clue that they were really a couple that came as a pair, and then getting to dive into their marriage was just incredible.
With a character like this, do you start finding your way into her through how she is written in the script, or through your research about the real woman? Or is it in tandem?
It was a combo. Because the script was so detailed and her character was beautifully drawn, so there was a lot there, but we also had full access to home videos, and recordings of them being interviewed. This writer, John [Jonas] Gruen, spent a summer with them to write a book called The Private World of Leonard Bernstein. But he was a friend of theirs, so he interviewed them. And there's two long, long, long recordings of Felicia talking to him, and speaking quite frankly — not in the way that you would in an interview, where you kind of hold some stuff back. She was pretty open, and so was he. So, we had that, and we had pictures, and we had all the anecdotes from the kids. I went to Chile and spent a couple of days there with her extended family and met her brother-in-law, who sadly passed away — he was 95 when I met him — and her nephew and all these people who knew her and loved her, and then also their children and their children. I saw the school that she went to and the area where she grew up. So, we couldn't get enough, and we just had so much to dive into.
Were there things you took from that trip or from spending time with her family that ended up informing how you played her?
Oh, definitely. There was a real sense of mischief to her, which I loved. There's an amazing part of the tapes where she's talking about what it's like to be backstage on tour with Lenny, that all these people come in and particularly women are all fawning over him and falling over themselves, trying to be near him and impress him. He says, "Well, what do you do?" And she says, "A great deal of smoking. A great deal of waiting." There's this sense that she would never be a martyr to the altar. She says that in her letter as well. She says, "I can do this. I can marry you without being a martyr on the altar of LB." She's determined from the offset that she's not going to be that. That sense of being the only person who didn't need him was so key, because that's what she tells herself her whole life.
Actually, when I went to Chile and I met the family, they talked a lot about when she met Lenny, she was the more successful one. She was doing really well as an actor, and they talked a lot about what her life might've been like if she hadn't met him. They loved Lenny and they're incredibly proud of the family that they made, and of all of his work and her work, but there is that interesting question of, "What if they hadn't?" Would her career have taken her to new places? In these tapes, when she's being interviewed, John [Jonas] Gruen says to her, "You're such a wonderful actor. You should go back to acting," and by this point, she's given her life over completely to Lenny and to the family. He says, "You know, you never really gave yourself a chance." And she said, "Well, I never gave myself a chance. I was always half in, half out." I think there was something so poignant about that to me — this sense of, had she not met him, would she have committed fully to her art and had her own sort of greatness? That was the kind of question that hung over the whole thing for me.
Do you feel like when you started, was it ever one foot in, one foot out? Or did you fully commit from the beginning and say, 'Let's see where this goes'?
Definitely one foot in, one foot out. Not because I didn't want to, but I think I'd always felt a little bit embarrassed and that the risks are higher if you really commit to something. Not being a trained actor — because I didn't get into drama school — when I first started, a lot of my contemporaries were all theater trained. I started doing theater without training and tried to just figure it out as I was going along. In theater, I always found it incredibly easy to commit completely, and I played characters onstage that totally took over, but I'd never really done that on film in the same way. And maybe I'd never also been required to in the same way. This required complete and utter commitment, because there was just so much — her dialect, the subject matter — that if you didn't actually believe it, it could be so wrong. So, I just knew that to be able to fluently play her, I needed to be able to fluently speak like her, and move like her, and behave like her. And because Bradley was calling me up as Lenny about a full year before we started shooting, so that set the bar pretty high for where we needed to be. [Laughs]
With film, I think there was a part of me that had always been a little bit tentative through my career. And it was something that really annoyed me about myself as an actor, that I would pull back a bit. There were moments in work that I've done where I didn't feel that way, but as a whole, I felt there was something slightly stopping me from really trying. I worked with this amazing woman called Kim Gillingham, who came and did a dream workshop with Bradley and I before we started shooting. And she said to me, "You don't really think of yourself as an actor." I live in the countryside in England, and she said, "You think of yourself as a farmer." She said, "You're not a farmer, you're an artist." And I was like, "Ugh, I don't know about that..." [Laughs] She said, "What is it that scares you about being an artist and makes you want to think of yourself as a farmer?" And I said, "That's the big question." She said, "Well, what would happen if you actually tried?" We wrote it down on a piece of paper, and I still have it. It's in my workbook for Felicia. It says, "What would happen if I actually tried?" From then on, with Kim, with Bradley, with the whole thing, I did all the stuff that I thought I'd always never do. And now, I can't imagine another way of working. So, it did completely change things for me going forward. I owe that all to Bradley, and to Kim as well, for her helping that.
You've sold me. I'm thinking that maybe I should go do a dream workshop...
I know! Well, I sent my husband, because he's a musician and a writer. I was like, "Go and see Kim! Go and do the thing."
You mentioned that this role does require a distinct voice, it requires a specific physicality. Is there a point you get to where that does all feel second nature, where you don't have to think about it and you can focus on the inner beats?
Absolutely. The idea was for us to get there and not have to think about any of it, so we didn't. We really had done the work. We did hours, and hours, and hours, and hours with Tim Monich, an incredible dialect coach. And we went to their home in Fairfield, which we were lucky enough to shoot in. We spent a day there just walking around speaking to each other as Lenny and Felicia, so we could improvise for hours. To be able to do it the way that we wanted to, we wanted to be able to improvise all the time, and whether it ended up in the film or not, we would improvise our way into scenes a lot. Like, when we're sitting back-to-back at the beginning of the film, Bradley was like, "Let's play a game," so we started playing the game. But none of that was written; it was just improvised.
Wow. That game feels so integral to the film that it's surprising that it wasn't always there.
We needed to be able to be so comfortable in our dialects that we didn't have to think, we could just improvise freely and not worry about whether we'd made mistakes. And we didn't worry about mistakes at all, because I think we, by that point, felt like we had gotten it into that place where it felt very easy.
I don't know whether you ultimately qualify it as Method or whatnot, but is Felicia something you could turn on and off then? Or once you were in it, did you have to stay in it until wrap?
I stayed in the dialect for the most part, but I was still me. I wasn't walking around having people call me Felicia or being mad. [Laughs] I could still FaceTime my kids on my lunch break and stuff, and I would talk as myself. But for the most part, it was easier. And it was also honestly really fun, because I love her voice. I actually felt sad when I had to stop talking like her, because I thought she had a fabulous dialect! Definitely with Bradley, he was talking in his Lenny voice the whole way through, but he was Bradley too, obviously, because he was directing the film. But I definitely found it easier just to speak like her all day, but largely because she just sounded so great and I loved her voice.
What was it like watching Bradley work on set? Because this isn't an easy performance, and this isn't an easy movie to direct, and yet, he was doing both at the same time.
I mean, the guts on that guy. It's insane. Crew call maybe was 6 or 7, and he'd get to work at 2:00 a.m., because he'd be getting his prosthetics on. Even for the young Lenny, those prosthetics still took three or four hours, and for older Lenny, it was like five or six. I rarely saw him as Bradley, because by the time I got there, he was fully Lenny already, chain-smoking by the camera, in the dialect, cracking jokes. I still can't quite figure out how he did it. I think insane, insane amounts of preparation. But then, once he'd done all the prep and he did everything possible under the sun to prepare for every shot and everything that he had in his mind, I think he then had to make a leap of faith that was pretty massive and do something incredibly brave, because Lenny is an outsized character. Lenny is a huge extrovert and a big personality, and so he would be directing in that mode.
The day that was probably the most intimidating of the whole thing was the day that he was Lenny in front of the London Symphony Orchestra in Ely Cathedral, because Leonard Bernstein is revered in the classical music world, as he should be. And this is the London Symphony Orchestra, the most serious musicians who've been playing violins since they were four years old. And suddenly, there's Bradley Cooper dressed up as Leonard Bernstein with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, conducting them. I think that must have been — I know it was — incredibly intimidating for him. And they absolutely felt that he had conducted them on that final take. I saw them go up to him afterwards and say, "That was it. You really did conduct us." I don't even know how he managed that. That's a magic trick to me.
Were you able to shoot somewhat chronologically, or did you find yourself playing Felicia at different points in her life in the same day or so?
Not in the same day, because the makeup took too long. But all of Tanglewood, we shot first, which was a blessing. Everything at Tanglewood, when we fall in love in black and white, was first. But then literally straight after that, we shot the scene in Central Park after she's been given the cancer diagnosis. So, we went from there to the end. And then, it was the usual thing of making a film where you just dance all over the place. I think for the ADs, it was such a huge puzzle of Lenny's prosthetics, my prosthetics, and then also trying to shoot out locations, which was difficult if you had different days where we were different ages in the same locations. I don't know how they did it. It must've just been a complete nightmare to schedule!
I don't know how any of you did this.
I know. We danced all over the place. But the prosthetics give you a lot, and I'd never worn them before. I found when I looked in the mirror for the first time, when they aged me up for the later stuff in the film, I really just looked like my mother. All they did was sort of add weight to my cheeks and give me a neck, and they filled in lots of my lines and things like that. And I said to them, "Well, is this just a time machine then? Is this essentially what I've got to come?" They said, "Yeah," and I was like, "Okay! Well, I can live with that!" [Laughs] But once you are in that and you look in the mirror, all of that does inform when you are actually shooting. So, it wasn't as big a task, really, to jump around, because if I was older, I felt older. I felt like I'd been through more with him by that point.
Did you snap some selfies and send them to your mom, saying, "I'm you now"?
Yeah, I sent them to my mum. I also sent them to my kids, and they hated it! They were like, "Mummy, what are you doing? I don't like it. Take it off!" It was pretty disturbing. The whole thing is a little bit disturbing for the family, I think, seeing your mother, or your daughter, or your wife age. It's a lot!
By John Boone
This article was originally published on Dec. 21, 2023 and has been updated throughout.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for an interview.