Carey Mulligan: Film is “lagging behind” TV when it comes to creating good roles for women

The star of the BBC's new drama Collateral explains why she wanted to return to the small screen: "Hollywood's still playing catch-up to the idea that women can excite and entice big audiences"

Carey Mulligan, Collateral (BBC, EH)

Carey Mulligan featured in a lot of British TV dramas (Bleak House, Northanger Abbey and Doctor Who to name a few) before she was discovered by Hollywood and became the Oscar-nominated star of box-office hits such as Drive, An Education and Never Let Me Go. So it seems something of a coup for the BBC to have tempted her back to the small screen for the first time in a decade.

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Yet, Mulligan says, it was an easy decision because Kip Glaspie in Collateral is a smart and rounded woman: the type of role that isn’t often written for women in film.

“There are lots of wife and girlfriend parts [in film] where the male protagonist is driving the story. You’re just aiding the performance of the man who is the great inventor or politician or superhero saving the world, and you’re there going, ‘I’ve baked you some banana bread, darling.’ I just don’t find those parts interesting. I want to be the great inventor myself.”

Put like that, it’s not hugely surprising to find Mulligan, 32, coming back to television. After all, the calibre of TV drama is now so high, there is barely a Hollywood star who hasn’t dipped their toes into the small screen. Even Meryl Streep, Mulligan points out excitedly, has just joined the cast of Big Little Lies alongside Nicole Kidman.

“Hollywood’s been lagging behind. It’s a good few years since Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence, but still we weren’t getting lots of films made with women in the lead roles because there was this misconception that only men can bring the numbers in at the box office. That’s just not the case, and it’s been proven so many times, but they’re still playing catch-up to the idea that women can excite and entice big audiences.”

A fiercely bright and serious actress, Mulligan has never been tempted into a fluffy romcom, and insists on an element of control in the roles she does take.

She prefers to work with writers and directors who will take her opinion into account. “There have been times,” she explains, “where I’ve said: ‘That doesn’t feel right to me.’ Or: ‘That feels a bit thin to me.’ But it’s been brushed aside a little. So I look to work with people who don’t behave like that and I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of women and lots of very collaborative people.”

Never more so than with David Hare on Collateral. Mulligan spent hours talking through the role with him and the series’ female director, SJ Clarkson, who directed several episodes of Life on Mars and most recently directed Marvel’s The Defenders.

The plot begins with the shooting of a pizza delivery man, whom police identify as a Syrian immigrant. But the series unfolds not as a whodunnit but “whydunnit”, which asks huge questions about the treatment of immigrants in the UK.

“It’s putting the story of immigration on screen and inviting you to just look at these people and think about what they’re going through. How do we treat them? How do we remember their humanity among the statistics?

“It’s fascinating that hasn’t been explored in drama before. We become so tired of the news, and this barrage of stories, so to frame this as a thriller is such a smart and original idea. Drama is so brilliant because it can be enjoyable to watch as well as getting your brain ticking at the same time.

“I watch a lot of TV and look forward to Sunday nights when I sit down for The Night Manager or whatever the big drama is. So, it’s been my dream to be in something where people can’t wait for next week to see what happens. I hope that’s what Collateral will be for people.”

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Collateral begins on Monday 12th February at 9pm on BBC1