An Interview with Marisha Pessl & Carey Mulligan

carey mulligan war child
“[Working with War Child] gives me a greater perspective on the world. It trivializes things that are inherently trivial which gives me a better focus on the acting stuff that matters.”

Carey Mulligan is an actress who defies stereotype. After appearing on Broadway in the 2007 production of The Seagull and nominated for an Academy Award for 2009’s An Education (when it seemed every newspaper hailed her as an It Girl and the next Audrey Hepburn), she has since left the well-worn road of Hollywood ingénue–with its requisite army wife, Marvel comic, and exotic dancer roles–in favor of a path more nuanced and unexpected.

She has no Twitter, no Snapchat, no Instagram. Over the past three years, from The Great Gatsby to Skylight to Suffragette, she has turned in performances that are mercurial, complex, and hard to pin down, unafraid to reveal women in all their sweetness, resolve, and occasional treachery. (In other words, it’s time for her to star in a Netflix series about Joan of Arc.)

Last week we talked about craft–what she seeks in a performance, how she prepares—and the cause close to her heart, War Child.

What do you seek in your work as an actor? I’ve heard of musicians seeking to write the perfect song. As a writer I am always trying to write the perfect novel–perfect meaning inherently flawed, of course, yet somehow alive. What are you searching for in your acting work and have you ever found it?

Carey Mulligan: I think I’m always looking for a totally honest moment–it’s often much easier to achieve on stage when you’re blinded by lights and can convince yourself no one’s out there. But the best moments are when I can’t really remember how the show went or the scene went and I sort of wake up afterwards. That sounds pretentious but it’s really because I spend most of the time painfully self-aware. So my mission is always to lose that self-awareness and portray something completely honestly.

Does fame get in the way of art? Or can it enhance it?

CM: I think it can to the extent that you can put added pressure on yourself because of public expectation. Also that world of press and red carpets and appearances is so odd and inauthentic that if you spend too much time doing it you can lose perspective on life, and then it’s much harder to tell stories that everyone can relate to. Best to do the minimum required to promote the work or causes you are proud of and then stick to the day job.

What role does music play in your life?

CM: A big one. I used to dream of being a musical theatre actress and nothing makes me happier than seeing a musical! But I listen to music a lot when I’m acting to help me get into scenes and stuff.

How do you know you’ve accomplished or finished something as an actor? Is it a fleeting feeling you get when you’re in character; is it the director or general public telling you, you’ve got it; or, is it later when you have some distance from your work that you can say, Yes, I did it? Or is it something entirely different?

CM: I think there’s different kinds of accomplishments. A big part of the joy of making films for me is working with a crew, and the hugs goodbye and drinks at the wrap party are always a really nice way to round off the experience that we’ve all been through together. In terms of performance sometimes I don’t think I did accomplish what I wanted to do and sometimes I feel that I did but it’s edited to where the work I was proud of isn’t represented. On stage I’m constantly surprised how much more there is to discover in characters that you’ve portrayed for a really long time. When I’ve been in transfers from London to Broadway and done the show for another 12 or 16 weeks, I’ve found it more and more interesting.

I’ve always been fascinated by the actor’s preparation, the behind-the-scenes grunt work that goes into pulling off a character, something few actors talk about (though I’d imagine it’s quite vigorous–a combination of craft, experience, guts and magic). Revealing as much as you’re comfortable with, what would you say is your most reliable tool that you use as actor when you take on a new role?

CM: I think a really solid relationship with the director for me is the biggest part of prep. Feeling like I can’t make an idiot of myself and that I can take risks and that we are on the same level.

I had the incredible luck of seeing you on stage in The Seagull in 2007 and again in 2014 on the West End in Skylight. Do you prefer the stage or screen, and does the medium change how you prepare?

CM: I really love both, but stage was always my dream as a child growing up so it holds a special place. If you had to take one away forever I would definitely let film go.

Turning to your work with War Child, how does this philanthropic role affect your acting life? Does it make it less important or more so?

CM: It gives me a greater perspective on the world. It trivializes things that are inherently trivial which gives me a better focus on the acting stuff that matters.

What would you consider the most pressing issue regarding displaced children and what in a really practical, nuts-and-bolts way do children need first and foremost in refugee camps?

CM: I would consider education the most pressing issue. 28 million children are currently displaced. If current trends continue there will be more than 63 million displaced children by 2025, of whom 25 million will cross borders and become refugees. Without a step-change in the provision of education in emergencies, more than 12 million will end up out of school. We’re looking at the possibility of a lost generation. A generation of illiterate, innumerate and traumatized children who will be expected to rebuild their countries in the near future and may not be up to the task because we have failed to prioritize their education and rehabilitation.

In camps there are obvious needs like food, water, sanitation and housing. But it’s also crucial that alongside education children are made safe from harm, the risk of sexual violence and that trauma counseling and safe places for them to play in are provided.

You visited Zaatari in Jordan, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. That is something few of us have experienced beyond reading an article about it in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times. As an eyewitness, could you describe the conditions of these camps? What is the day-to-day life like for these children and what is the overall atmosphere and feeling?

CM: The camp is vast in the desert and it’s hard to see the boundaries. It’s more established than perhaps you might imagine because the people living in it have been there for about 4 and a half years now and have managed to make the best of a really bad situation. This doesn’t mean it’s an acceptable place to live; it’s just an indication of the resilience and innovation of the Syrian families who live there. Day to day for children differs between boys and girls. Girls are less safe in the camp–some aren’t allowed to leave their homes for fear of sexual violence and some are married off at the age of 12, 13, 14 years old to ‘protect’ them from the risk of that. Many children are forced into child labor and kids as young as 9/10 years old do not attend school and spend their days working for almost no money. Schools are overcrowded and sweltering in the summer heat and freezing in the winter.

carey mulligan war child
Photo by: Marcus Haney

Two critical refugee-focused discussions happened in New York two weeks ago, the U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants and President Obama’s Refugee Leaders’ Summit. At the latter Summit, 32 nations pledged over $4.5 billion in aid to support child welfare and education. Is this enough? What is your view on what transpired?

CM: It’s really important that the two refugee Summits happened–it shows that the UN and member states are taking the issue seriously. It was disappointing that the UN Summit didn’t really make any concrete commitments and the outcome was relatively vague, with children referenced rather than put at the heart of the discussions. The Obama Summit was more successful in that regard–the $4.5 billion additional support to UN appeals and international humanitarian organizations is welcome–though it should be noted that this is not solely for child welfare and education. Given that education and child protection are among the least prioritized sectors in UN humanitarian responses, it will be critical to ensure a fair share of this money is dedicated to the needs of children, and that the disbursement of these funds is properly monitored and tracked, so that they don’t end up as empty pledges.

Another positive is that the UN Summit did commit to develop two compacts on refugees and migrants by 2018, and that offers a real opportunity to ensure we get the best deal for children forced to flee. War Child is calling for a global action plan for children forced to flee to be developed as part of these negotiations going forward, to ensure that the specific needs of children are addressed–we think such a global action plan should at a minimum commit to mobilize at least $4 billion for education in emergencies by 2020; ensure that no program for the protection of children displaced by war fails for lack of finance; and to commit to a fair sharing of responsibility to host children who have fled their homes and crossed borders, helping to reunite them with their families.

What is the biggest misconception about the refugee problem we face today?

CM: I think there are several misconceptions–the most important is that many people think that refugees are different and threatening. They are not–they are normal, kind people who just want to live their lives like anyone else. The refugees I have met–as I’ve said–are inspiring, interesting, unique individuals.

‘They’ are not a ‘mass’ of people–it’s terrible to consider these individuals as a threatening homogenous group, as different from you and me.

This misconception is in my view the root of many other misconceptions about refugees. For example because they are seen as threatening this tends to inflate people’s ideas of the numbers involved. In UK just 0.2% of the population is a refugee, yet entire political debates seem to be defined by an idea that we are being overrun. Yet in Lebanon, 1 in 5 of the population is a refugee, and Lebanese people are by and large very welcoming of refugee populations.

Along these lines, in America the refugee crisis is a highly charged topic inherently tied to international terrorism. In reference to the refugee crisis, Donald Trump Jr. recently tweeted a picture of a bowl of Skittles with the caption, “If I had a bowl of Skittles and told you just three would kill you, would you take a handful?” Are such concerns valid? What would you say to people who harbor such fears?

CM: No they aren’t valid. I can’t express how much it pains me that Donald Trump has this enormous platform to spread hate and fear. What’s more concerning even than the complete absurdity of this advert is the way that it is attempting to dehumanize refugees. Take the situation in Syria–the Syrian government are committing war crimes–just look at Aleppo in the last few weeks. What’s happening there is a massacre. Syrians who are fleeing this horror have no choice–many of them have lost members of their family. Their homes have been reduced to rubble and they have been forced to leave them. They don’t have a choice. The fact that politicians like Donald Trump have tried to twist facts to persuade the public that refugees are to be feared shows a staggering lack of compassion and understanding. They are tragic victims of a war they can do nothing about. And it’s our duty as fellow humans to help them. If the situation were reversed and my house was bombed, members of my family killed or displaced and my child was at risk–I would expect people in other countries to reach out to help me. I’m sure Donald Trump and his family would hope for the same.

What can average citizens do to help, starting today?

CM: Write to your local politicians and advocate for refugees. Go on the War Child website and donate so that War Child can continue to do life-saving work with children in conflict. Talk to your friends about the crisis. The more smart people who are having real conversations about this issue the better. It’s important that whilst there are so many trying to spread fear and lies about refugees that we do something to redress the balance.

What is the most startling thing you have learned from the children you’ve met through War Child?

CM: Their resilience. How often despite everything they’ve been through they do not lose their capacity for hope and their confidence–the group of girls I met recently in Jordan are taking part in a new program called VoiceMore–it’s about training young people to be advocates for their own rights and futures, both internationally and in the countries they live. When I was talking to them, I explained that I was going to New York and would be passing on what I had heard. These girls were so different from how the average person might imagine a refugee: they were opinionated and bold, considered and articulate, they were not shy or subdued. They leant into my phone I was holding to record the conversations to make sure that every word could be clearly heard and told me with confidence that they want the right to an education, to be reunited with their families and to choose when they get married. To me this really brought home the campaign that War Child is currently running–highlighting that just because children have moved, doesn’t meant their inherent rights should change. These young women were such a brilliant example of this–they were more assured, intelligent and articulate than say a group of young people you might be lucky enough to meet in the UK or America–so of course they should have the exact same rights and access to as hopeful a future as anyone else.

carey mulligan war child
Photo by: Marcus Haney

Could you tell me a little bit more about War Child–what sort of workers are on the ground today and what are their average days like?

CM: There’s not really an average War Child worker or an average day. All the country staff tend to be local–some are teachers, some are councillors, some are youth workers. I can tell you about some of the people I met. I met some inspirational staff working with children and young people in Jordan. In Zaatari refugee camp, many of the War Child workers there are refugees themselves. One woman called Fatima works at the Child Friendly Space I visited.

She’ll wake up in the same camp as the children, having also been forced from her home in Syria four years earlier. Then she’ll meet her colleagues at a small War Child facility in the camp, there are a couple of classrooms around an AstroTurf yard. The boys have their session in the morning and the girls are in the afternoon. Anyone watching Fatima and her colleagues at work would see them facilitating some informal education for the group–they’re teaching the young boys and girls how to draw Arabic symbols and do basic arithmetic–it looks like a fun, ordinary classroom. However, a closer look reveals what’s really happening. The qualified staff are building relationships with the children and getting a deeper understanding of each child’s personal circumstances, they’re looking for signs of trauma, for children who are withdrawn or lacking communications skills–the sessions serve as an opportunity to provide the specialist care needed. They follow up with the children who need more, organizing sessions with parents to talk about child rights, encouraging fathers to reconsider possible early marriages of their daughter and helping every child who attends to get through their experiences and enjoy their childhood.

Contrasting that reality with the ideal, what would the perfect War Child operation look like when handling a juvenile population inside a war-torn nation?

CM: The ideal situation would of be that War Child doesn’t need to be present to work with juvenile populations in war-torn nations… many of the limitations to the charity being able to achieve the ideal situation are outside their control. For example, War Child does a lot of work in juvenile detention centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. These are facilities where no children should be housed–so while War Child is providing support and care for these children, we would prefer that they weren’t detained at all.

The other limitation is the funds needed to reach more children. Last year War Child directly impacted the lives of more than 125,000 children affected by conflict–but there are so many that can’t be reached. So the ideal would be doing the same, but for far more children.

If you could sit down right now with President Obama or Prime Minister Theresa May and say one thing on behalf of these children what would it be?

CM: That we need to start prioritizing children whose lives have been torn apart by war.

The humanitarian system is severely lacking in its provision for children–less than 5% of humanitarian spend goes on the protection and education of children even though they make up more than half of those affected by war.

War Child is therefore campaigning for world leaders to develop a global action plan for children forced to flee–which would mobilize at least $4 billion for education in emergencies by 2020; ensure that no program for protecting children displaced by war fails for lack of finance; and to commit to a fair sharing of responsibility to host children who have fled their homes and crossed borders, helping to reunite them with their families.

And finally, two book-related questions. One: what is the one book that saved your life?

CM: Like Desert Island Discs allows, I’ll take the complete works of Shakespeare and The Bible.

And two: if you could deliver a single book to each of the children in these camps, which one would it be?

CM: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

About Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan was nominated for an Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award in 2009 for her performance in “An Education,” for which she won the BAFTA for Best Leading Actress. This summer, Mulligan wrapped production on “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees. Mulligan most recently starred in the film “Suffragette,” released last Fall to critical acclaim. Her other film credits include “Far From the Madding Crowd,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Shame,” and “Never Let Me Go.” Mulligan’s theater work includes The Seagull, Through A Glass Darkly, and Skylight, for which she received a Tony nomination.

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