“We had a snake wrangler on set,” Carey Mulligan told me on the red carpet of the New York Film Festival screening of “Mudbound.” I asked what it was like filming in the rural area of New Orleans where Dee Rees’ epic was shot.
Based on Hillary Jordan’s novel, “Mudbound” is a giant story that features an all-star cast. In addition to the “Far From the Madding Crowd” actress, the stars of the ensemble are Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke and Rob Morgan, all of whom were on the red carpet at Alice Tully Hall Thursday evening. (Jonathan Banks is also featured in the film but sadly didn’t attend the event.)
Distributed by Netflix, the movie opens in theaters Nov. 17.
Set in 1940s Mississippi, the story revolves around two farming families, one white, and the other black. Their common struggles involve providing for their family in an inhospitable land in which they are literally and metaphorically drowning in the mud. The movie looks at many things, including what happens to people when they come back from War, how family drowns you and racism in the Deep South after World War II.
Mulligan plays Laura McAllan, a woman on her way to becoming a spinster at the late age of 31 when she finds a suitable mate. Raised with the comforts of the city, her options are dwindling and she settles for Henry (Jason Clarke), a rough hewed man who moves her and her daughters to a rural area of the Delta without electricity or running water. A once-a-week bath is a great luxury. (Mary J. Blige, in a remarkably restrained performance, plays the matriarch of the other family, sharecroppers on Henry’s land.)
A remote area of New Orleans, on former plantation country, was a stand in for the Mississippi Delta of Rees’ film. The snake wrangling bit of information from Mulligan was one of many challenges.
“I’ve never been on a film where you needed a snake wrangler before,” said Mulligan. She added, “It was hot, really hot. I’m British so I suffered. It was really hot but it was great… I’ve done films where it’s meant to be really hot and I’m really cold and I had to act a lot harder to make it look like I’m hot, but I was boiling all the time and sweating and I felt disgusting and covered in mud and being eaten by mosquitoes.”
By the way, what kind of snakes, I backtracked?
“Like deadly ones from what I’m told. His job was to protect the actors and crew from being bitten by snakes. I mean it was crazy. But all of that stuff was great because it sort of plays into the atmosphere,” Mulligan told me.
So what was key to getting into the character of Laura I asked?
“Actually it started with a haircut,” she told me. “I loved the idea she was this sort of, she was destined to be a spinster and that she didn’t really fit in anywhere. And I found this image of this woman in the 40’s and she had this really terrible fringe and it really was too short, but I thought that’s Laura. Like Laura would probably cut her hair like that in an effort to look sophisticated and it worked for her so I had my hairdresser cut this really, really awful full fringe. And it sort of helped.”
So that wasn’t a wig?
“That was my actual hair. Yeah, I lived with that fringe for about six months until it grew out so that actually helped. And then it was really about the relationships in the film. It was about their marriage. It was about working with Jason Clarke. And particularly the relationship with Florence even though we (Mary J. Blige) didn’t have a lot of scenes together I felt there was a sort of parallel running through the film, a bound that was kind of integral to the story.”
As for working with Dee Rees, who should be recognized for her directing as awards season warms up, Mulligan described her as “a genius… She knows exactly what she wants but it’s without ego, so it’s not prescriptive and she doesn’t tell you what to do, but you know when you look at her at the end of the scene, and even if you’ve done like one take, you know that she’ll say you’ve got it and you can trust that she does have it, which is rare.”
To immerse herself in the era of the 1940’s, Mulligan said she turned to images from the time for inspiration.
“I found the advertising around that period really interesting,” she said. “It was women in the household and the advertising in the magazines were geared towards, ‘Buy your wife this fantastic vacuum cleaner, she’ll love you for it!’ And women wearing their aprons and bringing a freshly baked pie out of the oven and all of these ideas that were so ingrained in women and young girls growing up.”
Jason Clarke, who is Australian, is also getting a crash course in American history. To get into his character and period of time he told me he listened to Shelby Foote.
“He’s in the Ken Burns documentary about the American Civil War but he wrote an incredible tome on the Civil War and that was really key actually. Understanding the Civil War and that whole period, Henry, my character, was a child of the Civil War and out of that came the mess that was sharecropping after emancipation… Usually we go straight from Civil War, Emancipation, Lincoln, jump that to Martin Luther King, and then Civil Rights, and I think sharecropping is a forgotten part, or not a taught part of what happened to several million people who had no education, no jobs, no money, no help in a part of the country that had been destroyed by Civil War and had no economy or finances. It was a big mess.”
Next up for Clarke is another historical figure: he plays Teddy Kennedy in “Chappaquiddick” due out later this year. (The film screened at the Toronto Film Festival and will be released November 22.) Photos have been circulating already and the resemblance is remarkable although he told me he wore only a wig and some false teeth to get the physical likeness.
After that he plays another figure from a key moment in American history. “Now I’m about to do Damien Chazelle’s film (‘First Man’) playing Ed White, the first American to walk in space, so I’m specializing in modern, 20th Century American history,” he laughed.