Carey Mulligan on singing for the Coens in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Carey Mulligan plays a terminally angry folk singer in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis." Credit: Getty Images
Carey Mulligan plays a terminally angry folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
Credit: Getty Images

Carey Mulligan was coming from shooting “The Great Gatsby” when she arrived on set for the Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” another film about New York City, this one in the 1960s Village folk scene. “I had spent six months wearing very pretty dresses and spending lots of time in hair and makeup and wearing lots of jewelry,” she recalls. “When I came onto the Coen Brothers film, I wore a big black wig and marched around being mean to everyone. It was quite freeing.”

In the film, which won the Grand Prix (or second place, behind “Blue is the Warmest Color”) at the Cannes Film Festival, Mulligan plays a fellow folk singer in a Peter, Paul & Mary-esque trio, along with her husband (Justin Timberlake). She once had a fling with the titular brooding musician (Oscar Isaac), and it went so terribly she speaks to him solely in profanity-strewn insults.

Even terminally angry, it’s a more nuanced role than she’s often offered. “I was so amazed to see a female character who could string more than two sentences together,” she says. The Coens pushed her to be even more abrasive, if anything. “They wanted to drive me to be meaner and harsher and more brutal and swear more. For some reason they found that funny.”

Like the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Ladykillers,” music plays a large part in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” She spent a lot of time with the music producer, T-Bone Burnett, to get into the vibe. It also required Mulligan — who is married to Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford — to once again sing, as she did in “Shame.”

“I sang at school, like everyone else,” she recalls. “It’s always nerve-wracking. It was really, really scary on ‘Shame’ for the first take, because it was focused solely on my voice, and it was live. [Director Steve McQueen] wanted to do the whole thing without cutting. You always hope they can cut around it.” Singing here was more lighthearted, but it still had its intensity. “I was nervous to sing in front of Justin and T-Bone, but they couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing.”

Like most actors, as well as many viewers, Mulligan is a Coens fan, who cites “O Brother” (and its soundtrack) as being particularly huge for her. “I never, ever thought I’d work with them. Maybe because I’m British.”

The Coens try to stay in the shadows, creating this mystique around them as eccentric brothers sharing the same brain. Anyone who’s seen them speak, however, knows they’re more approachable than that (if not quite normal). “I knew their work but I had no idea who they were or what kind of people they were,” she says. But she wound up loving them instantly. “They’re so relaxed. There’s nothing pretentious about them. We were doing a Q&A in London and someone asked something like, ‘How do you do it? Walk us through your process.’ And Ethan was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know. We watch the movie and it’s all f—ed up, and then we just un-f— it.’ They’re not going to talk about the magic of their genius.”

Their particularly brand of cool extends on set. Mulligan says they don’t just run the camera and figure it out in editing. “They don’t shoot coverage. They just shoot what they’re going to use. They’ve already edited the film before they made it,” she says. “They know the story so well. They know exactly what will be on screen. They’re confident and calm and that gives everyone the confidence to play around and try things.”

She also says, unlike most of her films, which she watches only once, she’s seen “Inside Llewyn Davis” thrice. “I thought it was so brave the way it was paced. They know the audience wants to hear the whole song and doesn’t want to be cut out of it,” she says. “I thought it was really beautiful the first time, then the second time I thought it was really hilarious. I’ve had a different experience each time.”


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