Carey Mulligan on Taking on Toxic Men and Performing Paris Hilton's Song in 'Promising Young Woman'

Mulligan, Laverne Cox and director Emerald Fennell discuss showcasing female revenge stories in a new light and balancing the darkness of the film by using comedy and the film's soundtrack.   

Emerald Fennell is tackling female rage and toxic behavior in a whole new way in her directorial debut, Promising Young Woman.

Stars Carey Mulligan, Laverne Cox and Fennell spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about showcasing female revenge stories in a new light, exposing toxic men and balancing the darkness of the film using comedy and the film's soundtrack.

The film centers on Cassie (Mulligan), a brilliant former medical student whom many referred to as a "promising young woman." Cassie’s life is soon derailed after a mysterious incident causes her to drop out of med school. As a result, nothing in her life is what it appears to be as Cassie begins to live a secret double life by night where she crawls through night clubs to seek vengeance against toxic men.

Both Fennell and Mulligan have received rave reviews for the splashy dark comedy with THR film critic Todd McCarthy calling the project "a film that dares to take a chance, and wins."

Mulligan called the experience a rich one but noted that the shoot was only 23 days long. "It was one of those parts that just has so much to play with. It's such a delight as an actor. I just felt incredibly lucky from the moment Emerald sent me the script," she tells THR. 

Fennell, who wrote, produced and directed the film, said it was her interest in female rage that sparked the inspiration for the film. "I just wanted to make something that felt honest and encompassed sort of everything that I'm interested in: Female rage and romance and heartbreak and horror," she says. "It just felt like all of our lives are so full of these strange contradictions and I wanted to make something that felt like a real revenge movie with a real woman at its center."

The film also exposes toxic men by exemplifying how preying men can present themselves as the "nice guy." The film even puts emphasis on that point by casting actors that are known for their "nice guy" onscreen roles including Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Sam Richardson, Max Greenfield and Chris Lowell, who all make appearances in the film.

Fennell says the intention was to show how this type of behavior is often normalized.

"There’s nothing in this movie that's not in a comedy of the last 10-15 years in TV shows or movies. Getting girls drunk at clubs and taking them home was very much not frowned upon. It was really important to say, 'you think you're a good person. You believe you're a good person. You wake up every morning and you think you're good and somebody like Cassie is going to come into your life and she's going to show you that you're not - what're you gonna do?' "

Cox, who plays Cassie’s friend Gail in the film, also notes that toxic behavior shows itself to not just men but women in the film as well. "[The film] really invites all of us to look at ways in which we may or may not be complicit. What accountability looks like, what consent looks like."

However, as dark as the film is, the cast also had a lot of fun playing with the film's comedy.

Mulligan says it was difficult working alongside comedians such as Bo Burnham, who plays Cassie’s love interest, as well as Jennifer Coolidge who plays her mother, noting one scene in particular that was tough to shoot. "It was honestly one of the hardest couple of hours of my career because I just could not stop laughing and they literally had to move my shoulders out of frame cuz my shoulder was just shaking."

Cox says the comedy is a testament to Fennell’s writing: "Emerald is genius in finding the humor in all of this which is so crucial."

In addition to the comedy, the film's upbeat soundtrack, which includes an instrumental of Britney Spears hit "Toxic," offers a stark contrast to the dark elements of the film. But there was one specific song that led to a particularly memorable moment in the film —  a full karaoke rendition of Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit "Stars Are Blind" featuring Mulligan and Burnham.

Fennell said Hilton’s song had to be a part of the film because "you would immediately love any man that knew every word of that song." "It was a matter of begging Paris to let us have it before shooting," she said, adding that Mulligan and Burnham "pulled out the performance of a lifetime" when singing the song.

Mulligan added, "It was so embarrassing. A lot of it was Bo and I singing Paris Hilton at the top of our lungs with no music in this completely silent empty pharmacy with 30 crew members staring at us."

As the film is releasing in a timely time, Mulligan notes, "There's often fatigue when it comes to subjects like this, particularly when change is required and I think if you make art to propel the conversation that can be really helpful but that art has to tell the story in a new way."

She adds, "I think what this film does so brilliantly is it talks about this kind of stuff in a way that's totally new and in a way people haven't seen before whilst being a really engaging brilliantly formed dark comedy."

Promising Young Woman is set to be released on Christmas Day. Watch the video above for more on this interview.