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Carey Mulligan on playing the wife of composer Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro'

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

The joys and the strain of a marriage between two driven artists - that's the central line of a new biographical movie, "Maestro."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) If I'm going to read a scene with Maestro Bernstein, I better make a show of myself.

BRADLEY COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Maestro Bernstein.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre, laughing) Yes.

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) That sounds very fancy.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Yeah.

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) And I'm the king - OK.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) The king, and this is your castle.

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Oh, wonderful.

SELYUKH: It charts over three decades of a relationship between bombastic conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and elegant, reserved actor Felicia Montealegre.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) And you're the understudy.

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Yes.

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) No, I think you should be Margaret (ph). I think you should be Margaret eight shows a week. That's what I think, front and center. And if it's fear that's stopping you, Felicia...

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Oh, there are many things stopping me, but fear isn't one of them.

SELYUKH: Bernstein, most famous for "West Side Story" and many classical works, is played by Bradley Cooper. He also directed "Maestro," which is now streaming on Netflix. The movie is filmed in the style of Old Hollywood, stitched with Bernstein's music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELYUKH: But top billing in the credits goes to Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre, and she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

MULLIGAN: Hello. Good afternoon. Well, good afternoon for me.

SELYUKH: Good morning. Good afternoon. Bernstein is a legend in classical music. Felicia Montealegre is much less known in the cultural fabric. What did you want the viewers to walk away knowing about her?

MULLIGAN: I mean, I knew nothing about her, but I think I was struck by the question of what it would be to be two artists living, you know, this life together, but, you know, one of whom everyone publicly lauds and the other is just sort of not touched by God in the way that Leonard Bernstein seemed to be, because she came to New York as a young, very ambitious actress and was actually more successful than he was when they first met. So the idea of the two of them deciding to live their life together and the impact that his genius had on her and the impact that she had on him was just so fascinating to me. The more I read about them, the more I just fell in love with their relationship.

SELYUKH: There is a, you know, scene where Felicia talks about the price of being in Bernstein's orbit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

MULLIGAN: (As Felicia Montealegre) Having this imposition of a strong personality is like a way of death, really. Yet the moment I see that that is making him suffer, I realize it's not worth it. No, what for? It isn't going to kill me, really. And if it's going to give him pleasure or stop him from suffering and it's in my power to do it, then what the hell, you know? But one has to do it completely without sacrifice.

SELYUKH: Can you explain this exchange?

MULLIGAN: This is all real, taken straight from a transcript of an interview that she did. I think what she was really trying to say - and it's a piece I listened to over and over again and studied, essentially. But, you know, what she's trying to say is that there is something completely suffocating about being around the fame and the everything that is needed to sustain him - I think that is very, very draining - but that she has essentially committed to do this. But she's not going to do it in a typical meek-woman-by-the-great-man manner. She's not going to do it and begrudge him. She's going to do it wholly because she refuses to be the kind of whingeing wife. And I think you see that in the film. And the moment that she actually can't handle his narcissism or the focus on him or the way that he views the world, she jumps into a swimming pool.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Hello. Everyone, I have an announcement to make. I have finished "Mass."

MULLIGAN: That seems to be something that triggers something in her where she goes, nope, I'm out.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MAESTRO")

COOPER: (As Leonard Bernstein) Where's Mummy going?

MULLIGAN: It goes with her absolute refusal to be a martyr at the altar of L.B., which is what she writes in the letter when she first proposes that they get married.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SELYUKH: You know, this marriage is an extreme example, but there's sort of a universality to Felicia's anguish, in that anyone who has fallen in love with the wrong person, I feel like, could perhaps relate to that. But I wonder, do you think that is kind of fundamentally the tension there, is just falling in love with the wrong person?

MULLIGAN: I mean, I would argue he wasn't the wrong person, that it was just who she fell in love with. I think, you know - I don't think I would suggest that she would regret it because I don't think she would for - in a moment. I think they had an incredible life. They've got, you know, three wonderful children, and they've left behind this incredible legacy of love. But I think there is a universality to the film in that it is a depiction of a marriage, you know, and every marriage, regardless of any of the details, is deeply complicated and very challenging at times. So I think that's - you know, there's a connection for people who are in relationships there that they see parts of themselves and in family life, in the wider family life and what it is to have children and to age and all of those things. So I think there's so many points of connection for people.

SELYUKH: I want to ask about the music in the film, and actually, I want to ask, was there a piece of Bernstein's music that you listened to a lot in preparation to the film, while making the film or just that speaks to you the most?

MULLIGAN: Yeah, I think the overture from "Candide." That piece of music in the morning, it would be like a giant cup of coffee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "CANDIDE: OVERTURE")

MULLIGAN: It was probably the one I listened to the most. If you looked at my kind of Spotify playlist over the last five years, that's been pretty heavy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "CANDIDE: OVERTURE")

MULLIGAN: Bradley offered me the part in 2018 and then 2019, we went to Philadelphia, and we narrated "Candide" together with the Philadelphia Philharmonic. I remember just so vividly standing on stage in rehearsals the first time that they all did "Make Our Garden Grow." And then every night, you know, when they were playing the overture, as we were about to come on, Bradley and I would stand in the wings, and just the power of the music was just unbelievable. And it was so exciting. And we would sort of giddy dance backstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "CANDIDE: OVERTURE")

SELYUKH: You've also said in a few interviews that this was the first role that you allowed yourself to fully commit and sort of immerse into the character. What does that entail?

MULLIGAN: It's interesting because another one of Felicia's kind of bugbears was method acting, or - she talks in her - one of her interviews about the Actor's Studio. You know, she found it kind of ridiculous, and she said, they're all hysterical, and they're all crying, and they're all kind of writhing around on the floor. And, you know, she thought the whole thing was kind of nonsense, and that - and I think there was a part of me - I didn't get into drama school. You know, I tried and failed. And so I never did any of that stuff where you kind of, you know, bare your soul to 30 other class members, you know, sobbing, or you pretend to be a fried egg - like, none of that stuff. But there was a part of me that always whenever there was a sense of someone sort of really doing the full kind of staying in the dialect all day or any of that kind of stuff, I'd always think, like, oh, I'm not that kind of actor, you know? I'm just a sort of jobbing actor. I'm not really a kind of artist actor. And then with this, I just think Bradley was already doing it. You know, he was like fully, fully, unbelievably committed to playing Lenny and doing it, everything he could to make it as truthful as possible. And it became immediately clear that he expected the same of me. And so it was just a lot more - I mean, a lot more research, but also a lot more kind of, you know, the two of us working together, many, many, many more hours on dialect than I've ever spent on anything - stuff that would have struck me as, like, insanely kind of either pretentious or ridiculous, like writing her a letter before we started shooting.

SELYUKH: What did you write to her in a letter?

MULLIGAN: I just said, you know, we were up at Tanglewood, and we were about to start shooting the whole thing. I just felt, you know, it's just such a huge responsibility to play someone, tell the story of their life, you know? I just said, I hope this is all right. I hope you don't mind. I hope, you know, you're OK with it and that, you know, feel free to give me a nudge, you know, if it feels like I'm getting it wrong. I don't know. I wrote it in a book. I didn't send it anywhere, but I just wrote it down and sort of put it out there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "A QUIET PLACE: POSTLUDE")

SELYUKH: That's Carey Mulligan. She stars in "Maestro," currently streaming on Netflix. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

MULLIGAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S "A QUIET PLACE: POSTLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.