In the 2015 British historical drama Suffragette, Academy Award-nominated actress Carey Mulligan (An Education) stars as Maud Watts, a young laundress living in London in the early 20th century who is recruited by the local faction of suffragettes fighting for women’s rights. Upon her joining the group, a local police inspector (Brendan Gleeson) follows her and her radical associates closely, while her husband (Ben Whishaw) refuses to let her see her son. The film also stars Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep.
During an interview with the Current, Mulligan, 30, talked about how the British women’s suffragette movement relates to society today, and whether or not she considers herself a feminist.
Suffragette hits DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday, Feb. 2.
Since Maud Watts wasn’t a real person in the British suffragette movement, although I’m sure there were plenty of women that went through the same ordeals as she did during that time, was there anyone that inspired the character for you?
Actually, yeah. I found a biography by a woman called Hannah Mitchell who was a suffragette and had a really similar story to Maud. She was a working-class woman and married young. She came across a suffrage rally. She
had never heard women speaking up and that sort of lit something up in her and she became a suffragette. So, Hannah Mitchell was a big influence for me when I was preparing for the role.
How does the suffragette movement and what women went through a century ago translate to the struggles women are facing today? Would you liken it to something like the wage gap?
Yeah, I think there are lots of things – definitely the wage gap and definitely women in the workplace in general and women’s representation in the boardroom and high-level positions. There are so many other issues in the film that women face today, especially in other parts of the world like [lack of] education. I think that’s sort of the biggest one to me. Sixty-two million girls today can’t go to school. That’s such a shocking statistic today. That’s certainly something that was a theme in the movie.
There are women leaders who are speaking up for a woman’s right to an education like Malala Yousafzai. Is there anyone specific you look up to that is trying to make a difference on this front?
I think [Malala] is incredible and such an inspiration to everyone. I think [actress] Emma Watson is doing brilliant work with the United Nations and with the HeForShe campaign (www.heforshe.org). She’s got a huge audience and platform from the films she’s made. She’s using that for a really positive thing. [Director/actress] Angelina Jolie has also done a lot of work, especially in respect to sexual violence against women, which is also a theme in [Suffragette].
Do you agree with actress Jennifer Lawrence when she says there is a significant wage disparity in Hollywood between men and women?
Yeah, I definitely agree. It’s just unfair, that’s the thing. It’s difficult to talk about it in terms of our industry because obviously we are such a privileged bunch and the job that we do is so great and we’re paid very well for it. But I think it’s really important to speak out because it is unfair. I think it’s great that she’s done that.
Have you experienced it yourself since breaking out in the film industry in 2009?
For myself it’s a funny thing. I’m sure I have experience it, but I haven’t been totally aware of it. Also, a lot of my films have been independent. I think it’s a slightly different way of working [within indie films]. But I’m sure that it’s happened to me because it’s happened to every woman I know.
You played another very strong-willed woman last year in Far From a Madding Crowd. Do these types of roles speak to you more because they are strong women? Do you feel like these roles are too few and far between in Hollywood today?
Yeah, they are. What I loved about this film is that my character starts as a very ordinary woman and not very strong and she becomes extraordinary and very powerful. She is empowered by this movement. I like playing real-life women and believable characters. I think Hollywood scripts have ideas of women, but not necessarily what women are really like.
Many times, the term feminist brings with it a negative connotation. What does that word mean to you? Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I do, absolutely, consider myself a feminist. Labels are so difficult. People are shy of labels and titles. I think feminism to me is the most basic definition of the word: Equality – men and women being treated exactly the same in all regards and having a fair society. That’s something we’re still a really long way from. I think this film is inspiring because it talks about the serious sacrifices that women made. It makes us think about where we are now and how much further we have to go.
I have a four-year-old daughter who I hope I’m raising to be a strong woman one day. You have a little one as well. What kind of principles do you hope you can instill in her as she grows up?
To be true to herself and to have the courage of your convictions – to stand behind things you believe in. I think that’s the message of the film, really – to be courageous in your beliefs. That doesn’t have to mean being militant or throwing rocks through windows, but it means to be able to stand up for what you believe.