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Emerald Fennell's 'Promising Young Woman' Doesn't Let Anyone Off The Hook

Promising Young Woman marks the directing debut of Emerald Fennell. The movie has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including best director and best original screenplay. Fennell describes the film as "a kind of fantasy — with wish fulfillment" but also as something "much darker and, I hope, more honest than that."

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Other segments from the episode on April 12, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 12, 2021: Interview with Leslie Odom, Jr.; Interview with Emerald Fennell.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The darkly comic feminist revenge film "Promising Young Woman" has five Oscar nominations - best picture, director, screenplay, actress and film editing. That's pretty remarkable considering it's the first feature film made by Emerald Fennell. She spoke with our producer Sam Briger, who can fill us in about the movie.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: Emerald Fennell wrote and directed "Promising Young Woman," which stars Carey Mulligan as Cassie. Cassie's in grief over the loss of her best friend, who the movie implies died by suicide after her rape at medical school, a rape witnessed by other students and ignored by the school. Since then, Cassie's life has been put on hold. She dropped out of the same med school, works at a coffee shop and hasn't moved out of her parents' home, who are very concerned about her.

However, at night, Cassie hunts sexual predators. She goes to bars and clubs and pretends to be falling-down drunk. Invariably, a man will offer to help her when, in fact, they take her home and try to take advantage of her inebriated state. When it's clear what's happening, Cassie snaps out of her drunken act and confronts them. Here's a scene where she's rebuking one of those men, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")

CHRISTOPHER MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I just thought that you were...

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Drunk?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) Yeah.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Really drunk?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) Yeah.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Well, I'm not. But that's good, isn't it?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I think you should leave.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Oh, now you want me to leave?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) No, I just - I'm really high. Like, I'm really high right now. I don't know what I'm doing. I think you should go.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) But a second ago, you were determined for me to stay. You were pretty insistent, actually.

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I'm a nice guy.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) Are you?

MINTZ-PLASSE: (As Neil) I thought we had a connection, I guess.

MULLIGAN: (As Cassandra) A connection? OK. What do I do for a living? Sorry. Maybe that one's too hard. How old am I? How long have I lived in the city? What are my hobbies? What's my name?

BRIGER: "Promising Young Woman" is a dark comedy that plays with genre and one's expectations. Emerald Fennell was also the showrunner for the second season of "Killing Eve," a position she took over from her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She got her start in television as an actor, getting a lot of notice for her role as Patsy in "Call The Midwife." More recently, you may have seen her playing the real-life Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix show about the British royal family, "The Crown."

Emerald Fennell, welcome to FRESH AIR.

EMERALD FENNELL: Thank you.

BRIGER: So you said that the idea for your movie came to you when you thought of a scene like the one we just heard. So had you been thinking about writing a movie that dealt with the subject? Or did the scene kind of lead you to the subject of the movie?

FENNELL: I think with these things, it's often so hard to really know what comes first. But absolutely, I'd been thinking about all of this stuff for a long time. And I think it had just been this idea that when I was growing up - and I think still probably it's the case now - you know, in movies, getting women drunk to sleep with them, filling up their drink more than you'd fill your own, waiting at the end of a night to see who's drunk at the club, girls waking up not knowing who's in bed next to them - it was just comedy fodder in, like, very mainstream comedies and on - you know, and really on kind of family comedy shows on networks. So I think for a while, I'd just been thinking about that stuff and the issues of consent, particularly around alcohol and kind of party culture.

BRIGER: Can you talk a little bit about writing that scene? Like, I think particularly interesting is the way that the men just react with such terror at the idea that Cassie isn't drunk.

FENNELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that - I suppose that was what interested me about the idea to begin with. And there's necessarily an empathy gap when it comes to seducing people. You know, how much do we lie? How much do we conceal of ourselves in order to sort of make them fall in love with us or sleep with us or whatever that is? But this stuff is much, much more in the very, very sinister side of things. And I suppose the thing is, is that the question that is thrown up by this, by the first scene, is if there's nothing wrong with it, if it's a loophole, let's say, if it's a cultural loophole that people use very often and very freely and it's kind of OK, why would you feel so, you know, at best mortified and at worst frightened if you found out the person you'd taken home was sober?

And I think the fear comes from shame. But it also comes from, you know, what this film also plays with, which is - in genre movies, people pull stunts like this before they tear your face off. So it inverts the power in the room so quickly that I think it is frightening. But certainly for me, the fear always was about the shame of being caught and of realizing what you've done.

BRIGER: And this character, played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, like, keeps repeating that he's a nice guy, and I think that's repeated by other characters who are confronted in the movie. It feels like all of these men do think of them as good guys, despite their behavior.

FENNELL: Totally. I mean, I think that's the thing that interests me about all of this stuff, is that these are things that good people and people who identify as being good have participated in because if it's - you know, if you grow up with movies where this stuff is just a joke and where your friends talking about this sort of thing is banter and where women are forced to sort of, you know, throw it under the rug or, you know, laugh it off or pretend it didn't happen to deal with it, then it means we live in a culture where this sort of stuff is normalized. And there's nothing in this film that isn't regrettably, incredibly normal and certainly was when I was growing up. And anyone who thinks that these things weren't horribly common, I think, probably never went to a party or a nightclub or is kidding themselves.

BRIGER: Now, the movie's dealing with some very serious issues, but it's also a dark comedy, and actually, there's a romance element in it, too. And so as a viewer, I kind of felt like I was getting whipsawed about by the various emotions I was feeling, and I think that was intentional. Why did you want your audience to feel that way?

FENNELL: Well, I think there are a few reasons. I mean, you know, this is a film about a woman who is trying to find a way forward in a very grief-stricken and angry way. And part of her journey, part of her means of coping, is to present herself as incredibly functioning. You know, like a lot of addicts, I think she is somewhat addicted to these nighttime excursions which make her feel kind of fleetingly better. During the day, she wears a lot of pink. Her hair is always immaculate. Her nails are perfect, kind of whimsical pastels. She's weaponized her femininity, not just in a kind of aggressive way, but as a defense. Like, she knows that people won't ask too many questions of her if she's - hides in plain sight like this. And so much of the film for me was similar of saying, you know, if this film itself presents itself as innocuous and fun and kickass and whip smart and all those words we use when it comes to sort of, you know, female characters - and it's a genre that we're very familiar with that tends to be very violent and, I suppose, kind of fantasy wish fulfillment. I think it was important that the real film that it is is much darker and, I hope, more honest than that. But by the time we know that, it's too late (laughter).

BRIGER: You talked a little bit about how you had Cassie dress during the day in these sort of candy colors. Her fingernails are painted different colors. And there's a distinction between how she dresses in the day and in the night. And one of the things I thought was interesting is at night, she pretty much dresses in all sorts of different ways. Like, she's in a business suit. She's kind of dressed like a hippie. She's wearing sort of more traditional nightclub clothes at one point. But it doesn't really matter how she's dressed. There's going to be a man at some point that tries to take her home.

FENNELL: Yes. I think that's the thing. Cassie's an equal opportunities avenging angel. So she has quite strict rules for how things go. And I think those rules are, again, like many addicts, it's those I-don't-drink-until-6-o'clock rules that are the things that gives them the illusion of power and control. And so for Cassie, she goes to different places partly, you know, so that she's not tracked, but also because it's not the case that certain types of bars or nightclubs or parties will reveal predators. The truth of it is is that in any nightclub, if there is a woman who is too drunk to stand, there is somebody in there, most likely, who will see that as an opportunity.

BRIGER: It seems like you're playing with people's expectations in genre as well. Like, I think people, I've read, were surprised that Cassie is not more violent when she's dealing with these men. And in one scene, you're clearly playing with that. Like, she's walking home in the morning. And you're not sure if that's just ketchup on her arm or blood, right?

FENNELL: I think part of the film for me was taking the genre that I really love, which is the revenge thriller, and seeing if I could kind of have every piece of that kind of movie, use that structure, which we're all so familiar with, but do something unexpected with it and, most importantly, do something that felt feasible to me and female - because, I think, so often in these kinds of films, and particularly when it pertains to violence, it is not feasible that a woman commits acts of violence against men in the night. It is not fair (laughter). It's not a fair thing to expect. And I think this film is very clear about, you know, what happens if you were to try. And so, you know, I really started it by thinking, if I was going to go on a journey like this, what could I do? And if I couldn't shoot a gun and I'm too unfit to kind of wrestle someone, you know, what could I do to effect some kind of change or to punish people or frighten them? And I could do what she does, which is scare them.

BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. We're speaking with Emerald Fennell. She wrote and directed the movie "Promising Young Woman," starring Carey Mulligan. The movie's up for five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're talking with Emerald Fennell, who wrote and directed the movie "Promising Young Woman." It's been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Movie.

You started, actually, as an actor. And I was wondering, you know, in the U.S., there's a lot of shows where actors get their first roles. They're, like, soap operas or, like, one of the many "Law & Order" spinoffs. Is there an equivalent in Britain? Is it, like, costume dramas? Or how do you get your start?

FENNELL: It depends. I mean, if you are a sort of posh white girl - I mean, things are changing a bit. Thank goodness. And things are becoming more diverse. But, yes, it will be the kind of - a period drama, I would say. There are some police procedural shows. So the first couple of jobs I did were - yeah, were kind of playing - well, in fact, the first ever job I did Carey Mulligan was also on. But we didn't remember it. And she played murdered girl. And I played bitchy friend, which was really - I mean, she then, quite quickly (laughter), went on to be nominated for an Oscar. But I definitely stayed in the bitchy-friend world...

(LAUGHTER)

FENNELL: ...Both in real life and professionally for quite a while. But then I did - I got to work on a show called "Call The Midwife," which is a BBC show which is now very long-running. But I started in Season 2. And it's just an amazing - it's an amazing - it's a very unusual thing in that it's about women at work who are friends. And, you know, you have the advantage of being on a long-running show like that, you can just see what works and what doesn't because you have different directors coming in working with the same crew and the same actors. So it's such a good kind of learning place to be.

BRIGER: Well, recently, you've been acting - you've been seen in the show "The Crown" playing Camilla Parker Bowles. I'd like to play a scene from "The Crown" where your character, Camilla, is having lunch with Diana, who's played by Emma Corrin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE CROWN")

EMMA CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Now that you mention it, we've hardly been with one another at lunchtime, so I haven't really noticed. Fact is, we've hardly been with one another at all.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) That's not true.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) It is.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) You met at Badminton Horse Trials.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Then Verdi's Requiem at the Albert Hall with a chaperone.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Granny, yes.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) ...Who didn't let you out of her sight for a second.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not a second.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Then the weekend at Balmoral, where you were a complete triumph. It'll go down in history as one of the great Balmoral debuts, the perfect 10. And then Highgrove?

(SOUNDBITE OF UTENSIL CLANGING)

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Golly. He obviously tells you everything.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Well, we talk most days. What do you think of it, his new house?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Highgrove?

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Mm.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) It's - it's lovely.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Isn't it?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Mm.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Mm.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) He asked me what I would do with it if I was decorating.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Did he?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes. I'm rather good at all that.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And what did you say?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) I said I'd like to zhuzh it up a bit, make it a bit less stuffy, give it a bit of color, some yellows and peaches.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And don't forget green, his favorite.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) And green.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Do you garden?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) He's obsessed by gardening.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Yes, I know. He's already talking about either a wild garden or a wall garden.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Both.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Both.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) And a kitchen garden and a sundial garden. Do you fish?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) No, not really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) What about hunting?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Not if I can help it - more of a townie, really.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) So you see yourself living more in London than in the country?

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Why do you ask?

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Just curious. Now, I'm sorry. I can't stay for coffee.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Oh, well, then let me get this.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Absolutely not. I'm the senior party here.

CORRIN: (As Diana Spencer) Oh, please. Oh, let's go Dutch.

FENNELL: (As Camilla Parker Bowles) Good idea. I'm all for sharing.

BRIGER: So that's a scene from "The Crown." That was my guest, Emerald Fennell, playing Camilla Parker Bowles, and Diana was played by Emma Corrin. Many people consider your character, Camilla, as the villain in the Charles-Diana story. So how did you see her, and how did you decide to play her?

FENNELL: I mean, I definitely don't think of her as a villain. I think that, increasingly, what we're realizing - and certainly on the show - is that anything that touches the royal family, anything that is part of that, is so profoundly strange. It's not like any other world. It's not like any other family. The circumstances are just completely (laughter) extraordinary. And so that's kind of - the thing that was always interesting to me about Camilla was that she - you know, she's actually very, very private. The Camilla that I was playing was before there's - there's almost no footage, no photographs of her.

And I was just really interested in what happens when somebody like that, somebody who's really happy - you know, she was head girl of her school. She was incredibly popular. Everyone who's met her, you know, from the research, says she's incredibly funny and kind and, you know, good fun. And I was just so interested in what happens to that kind of person when they get sucked into this world. And then their biography is written for them by other people. I mean, I'm not saying that having affairs is a good thing, but a lot of people do it. And it takes more than one person to do it, too.

So yeah, I kind of - I mean, really, I went at it, to be honest, very much as a fiction. It's just an amazingly genius, you know, drama going with the knowledge that this was a kind of dramatized version and one I think - I hope - that was fair and certainly didn't seem unduly - she certainly wasn't, in my mind, in the writing, a villain.

BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Emerald Fennell, whose movie "Promising Young Woman" is up for five Oscars this season. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTHONY B. WILLIS' "TOXIC")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Briger, in for Terry Gross. I'm speaking with writer, filmmaker and actor Emerald Fennell. Her first feature film, "Promising Young Woman," has been nominated for five Oscars, including best picture. Emerald Fennell was also the showrunner for the second season of "Killing Eve," a position she took over from her friend Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and recently played Camilla Parker Bowles in the Netflix show "The Crown."

So I wanted to talk to you a little bit about "Killing Eve." As I said, you were the showrunner for the second season of the show. And for anyone who hasn't watched it, it's a great show. It stars Sandra Oh as an American who works for the British intelligence service as a profiler. And then Jodie Comer plays Villanelle, who's a psychopathic assassin. And, you know, it's interesting. "Killing Eve" takes, like, the traditional cat-and-mouse romance thriller and puts it on its head by casting women in both of those roles. And you don't really know if they're going to kill each other or fall in love during the season.

I wanted to play just part of a scene from the last episode of Season 2, and this is between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KILLING EVE")

JODIE COMER: (As Villanelle) You're ruining the moment.

SANDRA OH: (As Eve) What do you think is happening here?

COMER: (As Villanelle) What? I think we'd...

OH: (As Eve) You think we'd be what? Bonnie and Clyde? Just go on a killing spree, cut a few throats.

COMER: (As Villanelle) Stop it.

OH: (As Eve) You want me to be a mess. You want me to be scared. But I'm like you now. I'm not afraid of anything. This is what you wanted.

COMER: (As Villanelle) This is what you wanted. This is what you wanted. No, Eve. Eve, wait. Why are you being like this? You love me.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I love you.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I do.

OH: (As Eve) You don't understand what that is.

COMER: (As Villanelle) I do. You're mine.

OH: (As Eve) No.

COMER: (As Villanelle) You are. You're mine. Eve?

BRIGER: So that's a scene from "Killing Eve," and my guest Emerald Fennell was a showrunner for that season. Both actors are really terrific in that show, as we just heard. When you took it over, were there specific aspects of those characters that you wanted to explore?

FENNELL: Oh, God, definitely. I mean, it was just so thrilling. It was amazing to get to work on something like that. And I think the thing I was most interested in is - and the kind of question for that season was who or what is killing Eve? Because that, I suppose, is the sort of - the kind of fundamental root of all of this, which is, is it Villanelle? Is it the kind of job? Is it Eve, who's always kind of had this inclination towards the dark side? Is it her domestic life with her lovely husband, Niko, who's - which is becoming kind of increasingly stultifying? And it's such an interesting thing.

Villanelle is so tempting. She's so tempting to all of us. And I think, you know, when you look at the Eve-Villanelle dynamic, so much of it is - and you touched on it in that little clip you just played. But, like, part of you is thinking, there's no way; of course, you couldn't fall in love with this - you know, this assassin.

BRIGER: (Laughter) This killer.

FENNELL: But then you see her, and you're like, well, OK, I'm in love now, and I'll leave my life behind to marry her.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: There's a lot of sharp writing in "Killing Eve." Like, for example, I really liked, from one of the episodes that you wrote, Eve asked a colleague, like, do you know anything about psychopaths? And he says, well, I went to boarding school.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: So can you share a line that you wrote that you were particularly proud of?

FENNELL: Oh, God. Oh, no, that's awful because I'm so - I'm such an amnesiac that I can barely think of anything. But let me think. Oh, I tell you what, one of my favorite lines - and it seems incredibly embarrassing and artsy and pompous to choose your lines for anything - but I think what I loved was - Fiona Shaw, who's in "Killing Eve," who's just so wonderful. And she - I remember she called me, and we had a chat, and she was like, oh, can you just make this scene a bit funnier? And I was like, yes, of course, you're Fiona Shaw; I'll do anything you want.

And it was a scene - it was sort of one of those scenes you often get in a kind of - I suppose, I think it's, like, Episode 5 or 6, when there's quite a lot of procedural stuff that you want to make gripping, but it's sort of, you know, for want of a better word, boring but important. And so it was set in a kind of breakfast place. And the line was something like, breakfast - what's the point? It's just constant eggs. Why? Who decided?

(LAUGHTER)

FENNELL: And it just - it's just one of those things that I think is - it's those lovely things that I - and I think that Phoebe as well is just so brilliant at - is those character moments that feel - I mean, it just so happens that I love breakfast, and I love eggs, but it is also odd that we've just decided that that is what we have for breakfast (laughter) - or certainly in kind of, you know, England and Western culture, whatever it is. But so that kind of stuff is always so fun. And it's also really fun when you're working with actors, like you have on "Killing Eve," who do sort of - you know, they're so familiar with their characters, and they can ask for things like that, and it's a pleasure to kind of collaborate and provide it for them.

BRIGER: Well, I want to congratulate you for all the nominations and for the film. Emerald Fennell, thank you so much for being here today.

FENNELL: Of course. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Emerald Fennell wrote and directed the film "Promising Young Woman," which is nominated for five Oscars, including best picture, director and screenplay. She spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Henry Louis Gates. His new book "The Black Church" is a companion to his PBS series of the same name. He describes Black churches as the first institutions built by Black people and run independent of white society in the U.S. We'll talk about how the role of the church in his own life has changed over the years. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON AND DAVE HOLLAND'S "SEASCAPE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with engineering today from Adam Staniszewski and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF KENNY BARRON AND DAVE HOLLAND'S "SEASCAPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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