Carey Mulligan on Tattoos and the Nude Scene She Can't Watch

The Oscar-nominated actress talks about singing and stripping in the daring and provocative “Shame”

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Remember Carey Mulligan? Not like this you don't.

The Oscar-nominated actress who made such a splash as the smart but vulnerable teen in "An Education" has acted in a variety of films since then – " Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," "Never Let Me Go" and "Drive" among them.

But none are likely to prove as startling as director Steve McQueen's bold and provocative "Shame," with Michael Fassbender as a sex-addicted New Yorker and Mulligan as the fragile sister who shows up to disrupt his life of detached pleasure-seeking.

Carey MulliganThe film, which will play at the AFI Fest and is scheduled for a Dec. 2 release, recently received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, as distribution Fox Searchlight knew it would when they picked it up on the eve of the Toronto Film Festival.

And while most of the attention paid to the film's explicit sexuality has focused on Fassbender's copious exposure, Mulligan also turns heads for the ways in which she bares both body and soul.

Her character Sissy, an aspiring nightclub singer, is tightly wound and shaky; she's a bundle of nerves with the scars from self-mutilation evident on her arms.

She makes her appearance in the shower, confronting her brother while naked; later, she sings the slowest and saddest version of "New York, New York" imaginable, in a scene that some have found interminable and others mesmerizing. (I'm in the latter camp.)

When TheWrap first encountered Mulligan on the 2009 awards circuit after her star-making role in "An Education," she seemed ill-at-ease with the attention. Two years and several films later, the 26-year-old actress is far more settled, comfortable and talkative.

And as she explained, she now sports a small, subtle but significant tattoo of a seagull on her inner right wrist to remind her of priorities.

Your character in "Shame" is self-destructive, needy, prone to hysterics, and when we first see her she's naked in front of her brother. For people who know you from "An Education" or "Wall Street," this is going to be something new.
Somebody said to me, "It's so good to see you doing 'Shame,' because you kind of got into your comfort zone with the stuff you've been doing recently." And I was like, fuck, have I? In my mind, the movies have been different. But of course, "Shame" is extremely  different.

Do you feel a connection to the character?
My friend said to me last night, "Sissy is you in extremis." This is my best friend in the world – he's seen the best version of me, and he's seen the ugliest version of me, when I've been horribly drunk and behaved terribly. He knows me in every capacity, and he said she's me at my absolute worst. She's who I would be if I didn’t think or feel that much.

How did you get involved in the film?
I got sent the script to read last year when I was in London for the London Film Festival. [Steve McQueen] didn’t offer it to me, but he was meeting actresses for the part, so I asked to meet him. And I just tried to keep him at the table for as long as I could.

Why?
He's a fascinating, amazing person, and I was completely blown away by "Hunger." I did "The Seagull" a couple of years ago on Broadway and in London. I played Nina, and became completely obsessed with playing her. And I never found a film role that I felt matched the challenge of playing that part onstage. Even though I find camera acting much more difficult than stage acting, the roles weren't as difficult as Nina.

Michael Fassbender and Carey MulliganI was craving that thing that was so hard about Nina, and I read "Shame" and thought, that's it. She's a cousin of Nina, they're related. And I so wanted to do that, to try that difficulty onscreen.

So I said that to him. I said, "I've done a couple of things now, I haven't done very much, but I do know now the kind of thing that I want to do. I've read the script, and  I know that I can try to do this person … "

[laughs] I mean, I sold it to him. I was practically begging. There's a passage in "The Seagull" where Nina, who wants to be an actress, says, "I know now, I understand, it's not about fame or glory or all the things I used to dream about. It's the ability to endure, to bear your cross. I have faith. When I think about my vocation, I am not afraid of life."

This is going to sound so pretentious, but I told him that I read it and I thought, this is exactly why I wanted to be an actress.

And he responded to that?
When I told him, he was like, "Yeah, man, we're artists! We're fucking artists! It’s about putting it up on screen if it's difficult, if it's complicated, if it's real! If people don't like to think about it, you put it up there, you hold up a mirror. That's what we do! We make people think about stuff, we don’t just help people sleep on airplanes!"

I was explaining to him that I did a couple of things that made me really want to remain sure that my decisions were based around directors and writing, and never compromise on that. I said, "I'm thinking about getting this seagull tattoo to remind me of that," and he said, "If you get the tattoo, you can have the job."

[laughs] He offered me the job that afternoon, and the following morning I woke up and went to the tattoo place and got the seagull. My mum hates it.

There are two scenes in the movie I have to ask you about. One of them, obviously, is your first scene in the film. Most of the attention paid to the film's nudity has focused on Michael – but that initial scene of yours is pretty bold, too.
[nervous laugh] I've only seen the movie once, and I didn’t watch that scene. So, yeah. I've always been quite staunchly feminist about taking my clothes off in a film. I always felt like, unless it's completely appropriate, then it's just gratitous.

Carey Mulligan in ShameI mean, I don't wear a bikini on the beach, I wear jogging shorts and a T-shirt. I literally have not looked at myself naked in the mirror since I was 12 years old. I'm horribly uncomfortable with things like that, and I've definitely never been naked in front of my family.

But I read the script, and it was 100 percent who she was. She's a character who wants to be seen. She's got slashes up her arms because she wants … I don't know anything about self-harm, really, there are a million reasons why people do it, but in a forum someone asked this girl, "Why don't you stop?" And she said, "If I stop, people will think I'm okay, and I'm not." I thought that was so interesting.

That opening scene is her trying to be seen in the most extreme way. She's just comfortable, and an exhibitionist, and provocative. And she likes to dig at him.

It's not incestuous, it's not any of the things that people have implied. She knows that it makes him uncomfortable. He throws her a towel, and she throws it back at him. It's funny to her.

The other scene is your rendition of "New York, New York." It's remarkable to take that song, which is all bravado, and drain every ounce of bravado out of it. Where did the approach for that come from?
It was in the script that she sang the song, and that it was kind of a bluesy, a capella version. I can hold a tune, but I'm not a singer, so I worked with a singing coach on that. And then Stephen Oremus, a New York composer and arranger, came up with this arrangement.

Steve [McQueen] really wanted the pause in the middle, where the piano stops and it's just her voice. That was sort of what we wanted to do with Sissy all the way through. She's someone who jumps off the ledge without a harness. So at that point in the song where she's just singing on her own, she tries to sing a really high note and doesn't make it.

I've got quite a low voice, so we knew that I couldn’t reach that note, and so it was the notion of just attempting to get there. Steve came to all the sessions, and he made adjustments, and then filmed it live.

Did you perform it in front of a club audience all the way through?
Actually, there was no one there. Steve wanted it all very close, and he wanted it in one take. We did 11 takes or something, all the way through.

There was no one to perform to, but I could see New York out the window. And I saw this martini glass sitting on a table with a cherry in it, and remembered being 14 years old and going to Studio 54 with my mum to watch "Cabaret," directed by Sam Mendes. They had these little cocktail tables, and I remember my mum sititing there with a drink. She never drinks, but she had, like, a martini thing, and I thought it was so glamorous.

The SeagullAnyway, I saw this martini glass, and it was an astonishing moment. I felt so incredibly lucky, and at the same time there was some idea about New York that became incredibly sad. Putting all your hope into someplace or someone saving you, and that failing you, and becoming lonely, is the saddest thing.

Sissy put all her faith that if she could grow up and get to New York and be with her brother, that would save her. And it doesn't, and he doesn’t. It just became really sad.

You said you got the tattoo to remind yourself to stay on a certain course. Have there been moments when you felt you were getting off that course?
No, I don’t think so. I might have done one or two things slightly differently, but I don't have any regrets.

I mean, I'm in an outrageously lucky position. To be a working actor is way more than I ever thought I would get to do. That same trip when my mum and I went to Studio 54 and saw "Cabaret," we also went to see Kevin Bacon do a one-man show at the Walter Kerr Theater. That's where I ended up doing "The Seagull" with Peter Sarsgaard (photo above) which was another insane thing, because when I was a kid I didn't want to be in movies, I wanted to be onstage.

And when I got to New York, I had light bulbs around my mirror, and I had a fire escape out my window in this tiny little dressing room, and a massive radiator. All those New York, living-in-a-garrett, bohemian actress ideas you have as a kid, and they were all suddenly real.

It was, like, the best moment of my entire life, bar none.