Writer-director Dee Rees’s historical epic “Mudbound,” based on the novel by Hillary Jordan, details the daily hardships and vicissitudes of farm life in Mississippi during the post–World War II era.
Two families, one white (the landlords) and one black (the sharecroppers), work the same miserable piece of farmland. Out of need and empathy, the mothers of the two families bond as their younger male relatives go off to war and learn that there is a world beyond racial hatred and fear. We caught up with stars Jason Mitchell and Carey Mulligan on the red carpet at the film’s New York Film Festival premiere.
What were your first impressions after reading the script?
Jason Mitchell: My first reaction reading the script was “Yes! I don’t die!” No, but, I couldn’t believe that no film like this had ever been made. It’s honing in on that sharecropper time, the 40s. The time that really was supposed to be our new America. My grandfather fought this whole fight. He fought in the Korean War and came home and is now a business owner for 68 years, so I can finally be that voice that he never was.
Speak about working with the legendary Mary J. Blige. Were you starstruck?
Jason Mitchell: You know, only for seconds. She didn’t let me feel like that for very long. She told me that, she was a huge fan of mine, and in my world, which is this acting world, I kill it. She was like, I’m following your lead. I’m here to humble myself, but me and her actually ended up getting some scenes written in, because we had such good chemistry. Working with her was a blessing, it was really dope.
Did she sing?
Jason Mitchell: I wish. I wish. It was actually one of the things that I challenged myself not to mention. I wanted to remember my mom for her cooking and her biscuits and things like that. I think it also challenged her as an actress too.
Speak about collaborating with Dee and her vision.
Jason Mitchell: Collaborating with directors is interesting, because my whole job is to give to her … and then she locked off the film and was like “Naw, nobody can see it until Sundance!” So when I saw it, that was the first time I actually saw Dee’s vision, because we shot this movie so fast. It was technically 29 days, so I was like “Wow!” When I saw it, it was amazing. It was amazing.
What was it like filming in that rural area?
Jason Mitchell: That’s an interesting question because those areas that we filmed in, I actually took field trips to when I was a young guy. When I was in, maybe the 3rd grade, that was the first time I took a field trip to these plantation houses and all that, because I grew up in New Orleans. It was interesting to put those two separate landmarks in that one spot. You know what I mean? It was kind of cool.
What’s your next project?
Jason Mitchell: My next project actually is The Chi. It’s my first TV lead, it’s going to Showtime. It’s about Chicago life, so it’s going to be really, really good.
What was key to getting into character?
Carey Mulligan: Actually, it started with a haircut. I loved the idea that she was destined to be a spinster and that she didn’t really fit in anywhere, and I found this image of a woman in the 40s and she had this really terrible fringe, and it was really too short, and I thought, that’s Laura. Laura would probably cut her hair like that in an effort to look sophisticated, and it would backfire. So, I had my hairdresser cut this really, really awful short fringe, and it sort of helped.
That was your hair?
Carey Mulligan: That was my actual hair. I lived with that fringe for about six months afterwards, until it grew out. That really helped, and then … it was really about the relationships in the film. It was about the marriage, it was about working with Jason Clarke and then particularly the relationship with Florence, even though we didn’t have a lot of scenes together, I felt there was this sort of parallel running through the film. A bond that was kind of integral to the story.
What was it like filming in New Orleans?
Carey Mulligan: Really hot. I’m British, so I suffered. It was really hot, but it was great all of that stuff. I’ve done films where I’m meant to be really hot, and I’m really cold, and I have to act a lot harder, to make it look like I’m hot, but I was boiling all the time and sweating, and I felt disgusting and covered in mud and being eaten by mosquitoes. We had a snake wrangler on set, which I’ve never been on a film where you needed a snake wrangler before, but we had a snake wrangler.
What kind of snakes?
Carey Mulligan: Deadly ones, from what I’m told. His job was to protect the crew from being bitten by snakes. It was crazy, but all of that stuff is great because it plays into [the film] … You’re sitting there dripping with sweat. You’re feeling kind of claustrophobic and all of that stuff just adds to the film.
In the press conference earlier today, you said your baby was eight months old. That must have added to your performance.
Carey Mulligan: I’ve played mothers before and now retrospectively I look back and think, “God I got that completely wrong.” That’s not to say that you can’t play a mother, when you aren’t a mother but yeah having a young baby, playing the miscarriage. All of that stuff was so recent for me. I mean I didn’t, thank the Lord, have a miscarriage, but all of that stuff was very recent in history. So it was just easy to tap into the sort of physical, biological, primal side of that motherhood.
Can you speak about collaborating with Dee and what you admire about her?
Carey Mulligan: I mean, gosh, I think she’s a genius. She’s really, really open. She’s kind of an amazing mix, because she’s really, really confident. She knows exactly what she wants but it’s without ego, so it’s not prescriptive and she doesn’t tell you what to do, but you know when you look at her at the end of the scene, and even if you’ve done like one take, you know that she’ll say you’ve got it and you can trust that she does have it, which is rare. That’s what you look for in a director, someone who can kind of hold you firmly but let you kind of f– about and try things and do, and she was really good at that. She’d just let us have a go at it and tweak things here and there but pretty much, it was a very trusting thing.
In terms of immersing yourself in the period, did you do anything specific?
Carey Mulligan: We looked at lots of images from that time and I found the advertising around that period really interesting. It was women in the household and the advertising in the magazines was geared towards “Buy your wife this fantastic vacuum cleaner, she’ll love you for it!” And women wearing their aprons and bringing a freshly baked pie out of the oven, and all of these ideas that were so ingrained in women and young girls growing up. Their ideal was to be a housewife and to raise children and to make home, and anything outside of that was kind of unacceptable till the war came along and then women left the home to go and work. Even then, they were sent home after that. Having experienced this whole new life of independence and getting to be out of the household, so I found the advertising around that, and the literature around that time — what women were being told about what was expected from them.
Mudbound will hit Netflix on November 17, 2017.