At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, few titles got Park City buzzing quite so much as Killing Eve season 2 showrunner Emerald Fennell’s debut feature, Promising Young Woman. As one of its stars, Bo Burnham, told Rotten Tomatoes, it’s like a “stick of dynamite” thrown into the conversation around consent and rape culture – and one that critics say is fiendishly and shockingly entertaining as it blows everything up.
You might already know of the movie, due out in theaters in April, from the zeitgeist-capturing trailer – a fierce Carey Mulligan wreaks vengeance on a cavalcade of not-so-nice guys, hopping bars as a #MeToo vigilante egged on by a thrilling, strings-heavy rendition of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” The basics are there in that trailer: Mulligan plays Cassie, who is indeed out to teach certain guys a lesson by playing blackout at the bar before pouncing into sobriety to teach them a lesson at home; Bo Burnham enters the picture as Ryan, the doctor so nice he might derail her from her mission. And the film does pay homage to Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton, with a soundtrack of 2000s pop bangers and a style that feels part music video, part The Simple Life. But the film takes wild story turns and tonal shifts that the marketing only cautiously hints at. We won’t say much beyond that, as it’s the surprises, and the way the film subverts expectations at every candy-colored turn, that make it such a compelling watch.
The opening-night audience was rapt, thunderously applauding Mulligan’s performance and Fennell’s bold vision, and the movie is currently sitting at 100% on the Tomatometer. Its sexual politics, blistering attack on misogyny, and refusal to offer a black-and-white view of the culture it pervades have fueled hours of post-screening conversation and given critics a ton to chew over. The day after the movie’s premiere, we met with Mulligan and Burnham to talk about the film’s impact, good guys and bad guys, Britney and Paris, and how they think this movie is going to go down with audiences.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: Congrats on the film – people are talking. Carey, I was reading that you said you were a little bit nervous the first time you read the script. Did you have those same feelings watching it on the big screen last night?
Carey Mulligan: Yeah. I’m terrified, yeah.
Rotten Tomatoes: What was that nervousness about?
Mulligan: Oh, a million things. I mean, the nervousness reading the script wasn’t… It was just the good nerves. It’s the nerves that I got when I read Wildlife. It’s the nerves that make me want to do a job, where I go, like, “I have no idea how I’d do this. Probably I should do it.” And that’s what I had with this. I thought, like, “What is Cassie? How the hell do I do that?” And then I met Emerald, and five minutes later, committed to doing the job. So it’s the good nerves, and then last night’s nerves was 500 people watching my face. “Look at my forehead. What’s going on there? Why am I so flushed?” And Bo Burnham twisting himself into a pretzel behind me was hard to deal with.
Rotten Tomatoes: So you were nervous in a way too, Bo? Tell us about this “pretzeling.”
Bo Burnham: It was like expressive performance dance. I wasn’t going to sit through [the film at the premiere] and then Carey made me. She guilted me into it by being like, “This is a team experience.”
Mulligan: I was a head of drama school, you know?
Burnham: This really was a movie where just women told me what to do, which is truly very cool. And so I knew that whatever they told me to do, I’d do. But yet it’s horrifying. I mean, for me it’s so horrifying, because it’s like, “I have to be appealing?” Because personally I watch the movie and I go, like, “And then this butthead shows up? Who gives a f–k? And we’re supposed to care?” I didn’t realize, I guess, how scary being a [romantic lead is]. I’d be much more comfortable playing a hate-able character on the screen, because then people have to hate you. The idea that people have to like you is tough.
Mulligan: Yeah, it’s similar… I very rarely in my career have ever played the pretty girl, or whatever, and then when I did The Great Gatsby – he writes like she’s the king’s daughter. It paralyzed me, having to think externally, or think about yourself as being [appealing].
Burnham: Yeah, that’s crazy, that’s like the Helen of Troy of America.
Rotten Tomatoes: You mentioned the idea of hate-able characters, and the thing about Ryan is that he’s complex, as most of the men in the movie are, and there’s this question of what is a “bad guy” and what is a “good guy.” Last night at the Q&A you spoke about how misogynist culture is not just about guys like Weinstein and Cosby, it’s more insidious. Do Ryan and other “nice guys” in the movie speak to that?
Burnham: I don’t know. I mean, truly, if I was a real actor or something, I’d be like, “I can’t even step away from him enough to even see him as another person,” and talk about him like that. But really, I mean, it’s all up to Emerald, you know what I mean? I wasn’t playing him as a metaphor, because that’s just certainly not my job. My job is just “be honest,” and the meaning of that and what he represents, that’s all in Emerald’s hands. And I trusted her completely with that.
If I can sit as an audience member and try to be objective, the movie just does a very beautiful job, I think, of showcasing the full gradient spectrum, from super black-and-white clear to: “What exactly is this? Oh, you were 18? Do you even remember it?” That’s what I feel like we as men definitely need to contend with. But the misogyny, this subordination of women, is not like tumors on the male body. It’s a virus, it runs through the entire culture of male behavior. It’s super deep. It’s not like, “Oh, and then there’s some crazy asshole to take it way too far.”
Even if you think about the geography of a bar, the lighting of a bar: Why is it dark? Why is there music playing? Would this be happening if the lights were on, and there was no music playing, and it was noon? I don’t know. You know what I mean? The movie really casts such a wide net and interrogates so much so thoroughly. Emerald has thrown a pretty compelling stick of dynamite into this conversation, and I just would like to be a part of her crew in doing that.
Rotten Tomatoes: It’s interesting you talk about the grey areas of this conversation, because I think a lot of people are going to look at the poster and trailer and expect something a little more black-and-white, that Cassie is going to be badass, beating people up and getting revenge like this avenging angel.
Mulligan: That’s my next one.
Burnham: Yeah! Alita 2.
Rotten Tomatoes: Looking forward to it. But the film really isn’t that. There’s not a lot of easy satisfaction. Did that appeal to you about the project?
Mulligan: Yeah, it’s just, there’s no easy answers, are there? It’s not as easy as going like, “You’re bad. Now you’re dead.” It’s not about just complete, total condemnation. I think so many of these films have just been so straightforward and they’ve tied everything up in a bow. My favorite films are films where nothing’s sort of finished. I hate that sort of wedding-in-the-end film. Just don’t have a wedding, just don’t have them, do you know what I mean? I want to walk away and wonder, “Ooh, what’s going to happen to them? I wonder what they’ll decide?”
Burnham: “I wonder if they’ll get married…”
Rotten Tomatoes: Let’s talk about Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The movie has a fantastic instrumental version of “Toxic” and a key scene that features Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind.” And there is so much pastel and pink. Watching, it was interesting to see this girly-ness and these come-on songs and I kinda felt that while that was so much visual and musical fun, it could also be the flipside of some of the darker themes the movie explores. At least, it got me thinking about the connection.
Mulligan: I don’t know. I feel like [the songs are] being celebrated. I think it’s a complete celebration of those things. It’s a celebration of things that we so easily dismiss. I mean, like Emerald says, “Toxic” is one of the greatest songs ever written.
Burnham: Incredible. [And] if you read the lyric, “Even though the stars are blind,” in T.S. Eliot, you’d be like, “Holy f–k.” Yeah, but no, it’s true. It really is, in general, totally misogynist, the dismissal of pop music. If you listen to Robyn, or, I mean, anyone, these are powerful [songs]. But it isn’t a guy on a guitar going, like, “And I’ve fallen down the railroad….” But there’s incredible depth and pain to that pop music, and I think the film is a pop song in a way. This flashy, sing-able, danceable thing, that when you actually listen to the lyrics…
Mulligan: That’s like what you said when we were at the Indie Spirit Awards, and you got that award, and you said, like, “Some people say I’m a comedian for teenage girls, and I say, ‘F—k yeah!’” We should celebrate teenage girls. They’re extraordinary. Like I loved – I love – Britney, and I grew up [with her]. All of that kind of stuff is a part of our childhood, our teenage years, our womanhood, and it’s just thrown out as being empty. And actually, people connect to it and feel empowered by it, and culture has decided to cast it aside as not being of enough value. So it’s inherently dismissive of a lot of things that matter to women.
Rotten Tomatoes: Do you have a favorite Britney song?
Mulligan: I mean, “Toxic” has to be up there. I’m going to check… [walks over to grab her phone].
Burnham: “…Baby One More Time” f–ked me up, you know what I mean? I was nine. She was like 16, which is its own problem, whatever. Britney was like 16. I mean, but “Hit Me” was… It’s very loaded, but, Britney is incredible. She f–king shaved her head and it was just like, “My God,” you know what I mean? She’s f–king been through [so much]… Those are our stories.
Mulligan: “Oops!…I Did It Again” just was like…
Burnham: That f–king video was incredible. The red.
Mulligan: Oh, my gosh.
Burnham: Yeah, I mean, Britney has had as deep a life experience as anyone on Planet Earth and it makes her music.
Rotten Tomatoes: One of the things we think about at Rotten Tomatoes is criticism and who’s actually doing the reviewing. I was watching this film – and I say this as the guy who came in to do the interview – and I was wondering if you think this is a film that female critics should primarily be assigned to review? Do you think a particular world experience is helpful in grappling with it? It’s a conversation I can see coming up, especially for a film that’s taking on misogyny in this way.
Mulligan: I don’t think it matters if it’s a man or a woman, as long as… I think it’s… I don’t know. It’s so tricky, isn’t it?
Burnham: I don’t want to pass up the opportunity to pick our own critics. [Laughs.] Well, OK, so your critics are, in theory, a stand-in for the public, which they should be, and which they aren’t right now, and that’s what diversifying the whole critical community is about, right? They would reflect more of the audience. If critics are a stand-in for the audience, I think, and Emerald would say this, we want this film to be contended with and digested by men and women, and those who don’t identify as either. The question comes, though, with the given that the critical body, as it stands right now, unfairly skews towards men. But I think the real beauty of the film, just speaking as a guy, is that it allows men in, because that’s the only way that change is really going to happen, is if men actually stop stiff-arming the conversation away from them and actually can engage with it. I think Emerald is much more interested in the male public engaging with it than the male critics, but if male critics lead to that, great.
Promising Young Woman is in theaters April 17, 2020.