Whatever the Frank Sinatra staple “New York, New York” means to you, it won’t be the same after Carey Mulligan gets done singing it in Steve McQueen’s new film, Shame. The performance, at the Boom Boom Room, takes Michael Fassbender’s chilly, unavailable sex-addict character, Brandon, by surprise. Complicatedly, Mulligan plays his sister, Sissy. After leaning hard on her winning naïveté for her roles in Drive, Never Let Me Go, and An Education (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), in Shame Mulligan finally gets to play a woman who knows way too much.
Was Steve McQueen really resistant to cast you?
I think the work that anyone has seen from me has been these middle-class, comfortable people or quiet and sensitive types, and I haven’t really played anything onscreen over the last couple of years that’s been as extroverted as Sissy. So I don’t think I was the obvious choice for Steve.
How did you convince him then?
I was back at the London Film Festival, and I met him for coffee. And he kept on trying to leave! Finally I told him, “You know, I played Nina in The Seagull a couple of years ago, and I’ve never found a role onscreen that’s been as hard or as interesting or as fun to do.” And then I read Shame and I was like, “She’s practically related to Nina; they’re like cousins. If I feel the way that I felt when I played Nina, I can play this.”I told him that I’d been thinking about getting this seagull tattoo on my wrist as a reminder, because there’s this brilliant thing Nina does: She’s had a child with this writer and she’s lost the baby and she’s lived in abject poverty; she’s fraught but she’s got this clarity, and she says, ‘I know now that it’s not about fame or glory or all the things I used to dream about. It’s the ability to endure, to bear your cross and keep the faith. I do have faith, and when I think about my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.’ ” And I thought, That’s so sick!When I told him about that little passage, he got excited and was like, “Yeeeah!” and I’m like, “I’ll get a tattoo!” and he’s like, “Great!” I got a call a couple of hours later that he was offering me the job and I think it was only because I told him I was getting a tattoo. [Laughs] I got the tattoo the following morning.
How did you feel watching yourself play a woman who’s so raw?
I’ve only seen it once, because I’ve been down in Australia doing The Great Gatsby. But I didn’t watch the first scene because I’m naked in it. Ugh. Watching yourself onscreen is bad enough, but watching yourself naked? It’s just a fucking nightmare.
Sissy’s constantly trying to provoke a reaction from her brother.
Steve would always try to goad me into matching Michael. I thought, I’m going to try really hard to give as much as I’m getting, to push him like he’s pushing me. We had so much fun, and Steve was so excited all the time, and that sort of spurred us on. He’d come in after a take and say, “Fuck! It’s like fucking Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in here! Awesome!”
Is there a certain thrill to just messing with Fassbender until he reacts to you?
It’s fun to have a big fight. I have an older brother, and we used to beat the shit out of each other when we were kids. I’ve never played a character with a brother before, ever, and obviously it’s a little strange because she’s naked all the time, but it was fun to play that.
Since Drive came out, someone threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods and blamed it on the movie, and there’s that weird lawsuit where that woman is suing because she went to the movie.
And thought it was going to be like The Fast and the Furious! I know, it’s so funny!
Why do you think the movie affects some people so oddly?
I think it must be Nicolas [Winding Refn, the director]. He’s so hilarious. We were in London together to do press for Drive on BBC Breakfast a month ago, and I say, “Nic, you cannot swear. This is live, it’s nine in the morning, people have this on when they’re eating their breakfast.” We get on, and ten minutes into the interview they ask a question about the violence in the film, and Nic’s answer is, “Well, you know, violence is a lot like fucking.” And the presenters freaked out.
Did your head go straight into your hands?
The thing is, I’m so used to this kind of behavior. We almost got arrested in L.A.
I used to drive him to and from work when we were doing the movie—I didn’t work very much on Drive, I just came into work and stared at Ryan Gosling occasionally—and one day we shot until two in the morning. Nicolas made a film about driving, but he cannot drive. I’d never had Red Bull before, and I had, like, six of them, and I was like, “This is the best thing, ever!” We got in my white Prius, and we were driving out of downtown Los Angeles, back to where he was living with his family, and I was trying to do the navigational thing while he was sitting next to me—and I’m so wired on Red Bull that I think my head’s going to burst, so I’m, like, veering around in the road. There’s no one around, but suddenly there are flashing lights and I get pulled over. I’m sitting there in my pink fluffy slippers, Nic’s sitting there in his Puma tracksuit looking like a drug addict, and the policeman’s like, “What are you doing?” And I say, “I’m not drunk I just had seventeen Red Bulls!” And Nic’s like, “We’re making a mooovie.” We looked ridiculous. Thank God, he didn’t want to do the paperwork and he let us go.