Emerald Fennell's directorial debut Promising Young Woman is not only 2020's best film, but it's the most important film of the year. Fennell, who received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for her work on Season 2 of Killing Eve, wrote and directed this pitch-black comedy/revenge thriller about a woman named Cassie (Carey Mulligan) who is looking to right the wrongs of her past. It's a current tale, taking on many of the topics that the #MeToo movement speaks to, especially when it comes to "nice guys" who may not realize how their actions perpetuate these long-standing societal issues. Mulligan's commanding performance is the crux of this film, but she does have a stellar supporting cast, including actor-director-comedian Bo Burnham, who plays Cassie's love interest, Ryan, in a role that Burnham says made him examine himself and his own actions.
During a recent conversation with Complex ahead of Promising Young Woman's Christmas Day theatrical release, Burnham touched on how much Carey owned this film. "It was kind of very easy for me to try to play this guy who's trying to figure her out, trying to impress her," he admits, "because that's probably what was happening on set, too." Burnham also speaks on how he's dealt with being quarantined this year, the importance of telling this story right now, and the idea of making plans for a future that doesn't currently exist.
Quarantine's affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. What's 2020 been like for you?
Man, I don't know. I mean, I'm just trying to stay relatively sane. It's been difficult. It's like I've definitely gotten over a lot of this. I talk on the phone a lot now. I'd kind of gotten out of practice of that. I have a close friend who would force me to talk on the phone that really helped me do that. But it's funny that in kind of losing contact with so much of the outside world, I've actually gotten in contact back with a bunch of people I haven't talked to.
I definitely have not been running the prototype for what you should do. I've just been kind of hanging onto the Earth. I have to work hard to not be resentful of people that seem to be not spiraling out of control during this time.
It's tough. I've been dealing with that myself, especially just becoming a certain age and all the talk about numbers increasing in anything. It's hard to wake up and feel great about yourself a lot of the time.
Exactly. I turned 30 in August and it's just enough of a stupid milestone where it's like I have to really say, "Okay, I'm 30." The true youth is gone. Actually, to have to do that locked in a house, I don't know, it's just a little too much. But the good thing is maybe, I can take some strength past this moment to feel like, "Well, if I can get through this without completely losing my mind maybe I'm [okay]."
I've had such a complicated relationship with technology these last like five years. But if I didn't have FaceTime during this time, it would have been really, really rough. That really had saved me, being able to just sit with my friend for two hours and actually feel like I'm hanging out with people or seeing my family.
At the very least, it's good that Promising Young Woman is going to be able to come out, after being pushed from April of this year until Christmas Day. How are you feeling about the film's release?
I'm excited for people to see it, however they see it. I was so bummed for Emerald, because I thought like, "Man, you've made such a really special thing and the world deserves to see this." I mean, I was looking forward to it in April, bombing around with Emerald and Carey, because they're just both so great. We got to have a little bit of a run at Sundance.
This film means a lot to me because it was the last really enjoyable thing I did in the world before this all went crazy. It's sort of my snorkel to when things were a little more normal. But yeah, I'm excited. It's an interesting, engaging, fun, challenging movie. It's a movie that really demands engagement from an audience. Even in the [smaller] screenings, [it] sparked different reactions, maybe a fight between a couple. It's like that. It's pretty rare that you get those type of movies, in times that are just so contentious. Sometimes, the reaction of art can be to try to totally find a common ground or appease stuff. It's kind of nice to feel some art that feels as angry and as messy as the times.
I think that was key. When I saw it, my initial thought was just like, "This is a FILM." There have been a couple of stories that have dived into the conversation around #MeToo, and they're good, but for a film that in its tagline is letting you know what the film is without really spoiling it, you're still able to be really shocked by where the journey takes you. I saw in an interview that that aspect was one of the first things that drew you to the project. Can you expound on that a bit? When you first read that script, what was your immediate response? Was it shock?
Well, it was really shocking and challenging. It's really shocking because I really went into a script like, "This is a revenge story, a female-driven revenge story" around a subject, thinking I knew how it was going to end, thinking I would know what kind of... "Okay, they're going to build to this and we're going to have this big cathartic ending." It's shocking, but it's kind of personally shocking because you're not just shocked by the movie, you're shocked by your own assumptions. "Oh, I can't believe that I thought this is how it was going to go," or "I can't believe I assume that."
What's really fun and productive about the film is it really takes the conversation around #MeToo beyond just like the Harvey Weinsteins and the Bill Cosbys. Which is like, as straight dudes, we tend to get very defensive when the conversation gets past something criminal. Once that conversation extended beyond monstrous criminals, guys didn't want to have that conversation. If it was just the case of these cancerous, monstrous demon men among us, it would be much easier to solve than the fact that like, no, it's cultural. It's systemic. And it's encouraged by the guy who thinks he's a nice guy, who's just maybe laughing politely or whatever. It really felt like it was dangerous because it was interrogating everybody, and it felt messy and engaging and exciting in that way. And it engaged me. It interrogated me. I felt like that was important in my character, just that I identify with this guy, and I don't think I'm better than him. It's just that if you think you're a good guy that's not part of the problem, that's the first part of the problem.
A project like this is one of the better ways to make people examine themselves and examine where they may have been the problem or where they may have helped egg something on or keep a systemic problem going on just by not engaging, not being that person to say, "Hey, that's wrong." So I appreciate you saying that you looked inward and examined yourself while you were going through this project.
That's how I felt. It's just that I think it's time. It's happening in our country with a lot of things, with relationships and gender, with race [and] just extending the conversation beyond the most blatant forms of what is wrong, to kind of have normal well-intentioned people look at your behavior and go like, "No, you know what?"
What I think is really interesting with the movie is that it interrogates people; these guys, even behind closed doors, they think they're nice. It's not like they're manipulating women and then they get behind closed doors and they twiddle their mustache. That's why it feels like such a current story, because it's really happening in our culture. It feels like, across every sociopolitical lens, we're really going, "Okay, let's kind of get past the most explicit forms of what's wrong and talk about the more subtle ways that things are embedded in our culture and in our behavior and how even good well-intentioned people can kind of encourage these toxic systems."
I'm glad that it's you. It reminds me of when I saw Eighth Grade, the idea of this film tackling these issues that are not widely discussed, but is so vital to what's going on today. When you got approached for this role, was it a situation where you were approached with this role and you kind of had to go back and forth? I ask because it seems like you're in a situation where you're trying to tackle these projects that are speaking to larger issues that aren't actually being talked about in this way.
Well, it's funny. That's nice. I mean, I think that's giving me too much credit. There are not a lot of offers rolling down on my desk.I'm also in a position where I'm not an actor trying to act all the time. My agent was like, "Do you want a chemistry read with Carey Mulligan?" And I was like, "Yeah." I literally thought like, "I'll do this. I'll humiliate myself. It'll be a funny story I'll tell."
I do think, though, that this happened because Emerald and I are kind of similar-minded. Even though I wasn't consciously choosing it, I think our movies kind of talk to each other just because we're similar-minded people. And that's why we're attracted to each other to work together. I wasn't really even going into this going like, "I want to speak to this thematic stuff." It was really like, "This is a story I could never tell. This is a perspective I don't have." After doing my own things, it's like I really like the idea of, "I just want to serve someone else's vision." This is totally her vision. This is her story. This is her. And I'm just happy to be a function in whatever way I need to, to help her tell her story.
Right. With Carey's performance, it's almost kind of like... I don't want to say, "Just say your lines and get out of the way," but she's so all over the screen, it's almost like you don't want to stand in the way of a great time or a great moment in time.
Oh yeah. And my character, for the most part, is kind of squinting and trying to see what is her deal here. Obviously, very attracted to her. But it's also just trying to figure her out. So it was kind of fun that like ... Because Carey in those early scenes for me, she is a little impenetrable. It was kind of very easy for me to try to play this guy who's trying to figure her out, trying to impress her, because that's probably what was happening on set, too. I'm intimidated by Carey as an actor, so it was all kind of easy for me. I knew that Emerald just kind of wanted me to be myself and bring whatever I am to it, so I'm not going to show up with a limp, with an accent or a top hat or something. I trust Emerald so infinitely. So I'm like, "I'll just kind of deliver what I think she wants from this," which is the version of the vibe you do when you're trying to impress someone, which is, "Oh, I'm so nice. I'm so sweet. I'm so thoughtful," or whatever your strategy is.
That "perfect" version of yourself.
You've mentioned the idea earlier that you hadn't really gotten into anything, which I've found was surprising because I know people know you as a comedian, but I feel like I connected with you more as a director, even before Eighth Grade, with Jerrod Carmichael's HBO special 8. I really loved 8.
That means a lot. Jerrod, he's truly my best friend in the world. I'm very, very proud of that one. That is the one that I want more people to see. I'm so glad you like that special, because I think it's really special. He's the best.
I remember talking to him about 8, which makes me think about the "representative" or the best version of yourself. It was almost like... "Was it him?" He would start a sentence and then he would kind of take that deliberate pause and then really hit you with a dynamic thought, but with the angle shooting up at him so close. I don't know, it was art.
Thanks, man. The thing we talked about with that is like what I always say with Jerrod is it's like early Clinton in his town halls. Because there's such a politician in Jerrod. There's this resting intimacy to him, and I think that's exactly what you're talking about. There's this artifice that he's presenting, but there's also this shocking, intimate thing about him. That was this idea of shooting in this round with all of these people in suits. We asked everyone to dress up in suits.
I wondered why they were in their Sunday Best.
But then Jerrod fucking shows up, he's got Timberlands and a denim jacket. It's a such a "fuck you" and so confident. But yeah, I'm glad you liked that one. That one's really, really special. I got to direct Chris Rock's last special [2018's Tamborine] because Rock saw Jerrod.
That's really dope, and it all makes me wonder. With this time in quarantine, do you have plans for a project you're going to get into, whether it's another acting gig or either maybe doing another stand-up special or directing your next piece?
I'm always thinking about it and always trying to work, and it's a little hard. What's really difficult is trying to plan for a world that doesn't exist yet. It's similar to what I hear kids in high school or college do. You're preparing for jobs that don't exist yet. That's what's hard. I'm someone that really likes to engage with what's currently going on. I want to write. I want to engage. I don't want to look away from what's happening. So I'm trying to engage with that.
I've been talking to Jerrod, too, about that sort of stuff. It really helps during this time, to just have some friends that are in sort of similar worlds so you can kind of just like... You hear the common struggles everyone's having, which kind of gives you permission to... When you have permission to fail and not be productive, then you can actually be productive. [I'm] just trying to find my way around it.
Promising Young Woman hits theaters on Dec. 25, 2020.