Carey Mulligan's 'Suffragette' director asked that her performance be three things: bold, bold and bold

November 25, 2015   |   Written by Gina Piccalo

In a corner of the Hotel Bel-Air, “Suffragette” star Carey Mulligan marveled with the film’s director and screenwriter about feminism and the myriad ways it’s been misunderstood. A life-sized portrait of 1970s-era Cher dominated the wall behind them, like an exclamation point.
“It sort of feels like this is the year,” Mulligan said, when feminism is “getting a basic understanding, as opposed to [feeling] like something you have to make a big deal about to stand behind. It’s a really basic idea. It isn’t that complicated.”
Mulligan’s new period drama, costarring Helena Bonham Carter and Meryl Streep, emphasizes that point and then some. The rare film produced, written and directed by women with all female leads, “Suffragette” depicts a pivotal moment in women’s history, when English women’s rights activists circa 1912 turned radical. After decades of peaceful efforts are ignored, they’re driven to bomb and fight and starve for their cause. Disney’s Mrs. Banks, this is not.
“It was one of the biggest social movements in the 20th century, certainly in Britain, and it just hadn’t been covered,” “Suffragette” director Sarah Gavron said, as rain spilled off the roof outside, lending the moment an English sort of seriousness. “We knew the ‘Mary Poppins’ version of it. We knew the sanitized version of it. But we didn’t know the truth of it.”
Gavron and screenwriter Abi Morgan spent years collaborating on the story, drawing from prison diaries, testimony, declassified police records and news accounts. They aimed to create a portrait of the radicalized working-class women who had the most to lose and yet sacrificed everything to gain votes for women.
“The more I read, the more fascinating and resonant and contemporary it felt,” said Morgan, whose credits include “The Iron Lady” and “Shame,” which costarred Mulligan. “There were issues around equality of pay and educational rights and custodial rights and sexual violence at home and at work. And I thought this is the spirit and this is the drive.”
“Suffragette” depicts the movement at a crucial moment when its leader — Emmeline Pankhurst, played by Streep — demands “deeds, not words” of her supporters. That mandate leads women to vandalize store windows and even bomb vacant buildings to get the government’s attention. In retaliation, they’re beaten by police, shunned by their neighbors, disowned by their husbands and imprisoned — and when they hold hunger strikes in protest, they’re roughly force-fed.
Mulligan plays the unflappable Maud Watts, a young woman exploited since age 7 in one of London’s East End laundries, barely earning enough to help feed her husband and young son. She collaborated closely with Morgan and Gavron to steer clear of sentimentality in her performance, despite the wrenching conditions of Maud’s experience as she’s drawn into the movement.
“I was really worried she’d feel flat,” Mulligan said, turning to Gavron. “I remember, I sent you an email early on. And you wrote in the title [of your response] ‘Bold Bold Bold.’ That every choice in the performance we made would be bold.”
“It had to feel like that same girl at the beginning that had this huge awakening,” said Gavron. “It’s like that quote from Hannah Mitchell.”
Mulligan finishes Gavron’s thought.
“She, it was, that lit the flame that consumed the past,” Mulligan said, quoting “The Hard Way Up,” the memoir of English seamstress and suffragette Hannah Mitchell, whose commitment ended her marriage and led to her nervous breakdown. Mulligan kept the book on hand throughout filming.
“It felt like that with a lot of women,” said Gavron. “It was that kind of idea that they were ready for it. They just needed someone to vocalize it. And they could never look back.”
Gavron and Morgan were struck by how little of this history is taught in schools. And how much of it still resonates today.
The script coincidentally came together around the wave of 2011’s Arab Spring uprisings, presenting troubling parallels for the filmmakers, between the civil rights the suffragettes demanded and those still denied women in many countries. As a result, Gavron ends her movie with a startling list of nations and the years women earned the vote in them.
“One of the reasons we wanted to make this film was not just as a slice of history that needed to be told,” she said. “But also to speak to people all over the world today about further inequality and how we have to continue to stand up and challenge.”