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Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Phyllis Nagy & Todd Haynes

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

(L-R) CATE BLANCHETT and ROONEY MARA star in CAROL

(L-R) CATE BLANCHETT and ROONEY MARA star in CAROL


Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, Phyllis Nagy & Todd Haynes

Look Back at the Lost World of 60 Years Ago with Carol

by Jay S. Jacobs


“There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol.”


That is a pretty arresting and passionate description of the power and obsession of love. It is made all the more intriguing because novelist Patricia Highsmith wrote it in her novel The Price of Salt in 1952 – using the alias Claire Morgan due to societal taboos – one of the early serious literary looks at a lesbian relationship.


Highsmith was a well-regarded mystery novelist even at the time. Her first novel Strangers on a Train had just been made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock. Her body of work kept intriguing readers and filmmakers alike, spawning such classic books as The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cry of the Owl, The Two Faces of January and Ripley’s Game. However it has been speculated that The Price of Salt was Highsmith’s most autobiographical novel.


The novel is also the latest film adaptation of Highsmith’s work, having been turned into the Oscar-buzz worthy Carol starring Cate Blanchett (who had also been in the movie of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley) and Rooney Mara as the central couple in the relationship which was forbidden by their society. Kyle Chandler and Jake Lacy play the perplexed men in their lives, and Sarah Paulson is Carol’s best friend and confidant. The screenplay was written by Phyllis Nagy, who had known Highsmith before her death in 1995. Director Todd Haynes had previously worked on similarly nostalgic titles like Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce.


Blanchett plays the title character, a married mother whose marriage has withered since she has realized that she is attracted to other women. She meets younger shop girl Therese (Mara) while buying a toy, and this leads to a slow-burning friendship-turned-courtship where the women try to repress their growing passion, until they can no longer. Carol’s angry husband Harge (Chandler) uses their relationship as leverage to get custody of their daughter Rindy, while Therese’s confused boyfriend Richard (Lacy) can’t seem to figure out why she is resisting his marriage offers. On the periphery is Abby (Paulson), Carol’s ex-lover and best friend who is placed in an awkward position where she has to help the new love of a woman for whom she still has feelings.


A few days before the film was about to be released, we participated at a press conference at the famous Marriott Essex House on Central Park South in which the stars, writer and director discussed their feelings about Carol.

ROONEY MARA and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL

ROONEY MARA and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL


Todd, I wanted to ask you about the emotion of the film. From the opening shot of a street grate to a final smile, how did you approach the film and bring it visually to the screen?


Todd Haynes: I really was taking it on as if for the first time looking at the love story, something that I felt I hadn’t really ever accomplished directly in my other films. That really began in reading The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith’s beautiful novel and the gorgeous adaptation of Phyllis’ script that first came to me with Cate attached. So, it was quite a bundle of incentives when it first landed with me in 2013. But love stories are unlike war, which is about conquering the object. Love stories are about conquering the subject. It’s always the subject who’s in a state of vulnerability and peril at some level.


Through much of Carol, that is the character of Therese, who occupies a much less powerful position in the world than Carol, is younger, is more open. Experiencing this woman with the freshness that is different from Carol’s life and experience. What I loved about the story was how what happened to the two women really moves them through a series of events which change them both. Ultimately by the end of the film, they’ve shifted sides. Carol is the one who comes to Therese with her heart on her sleeve at the end of the film, so all of that made a lot of smaller elements – of looking, and who is being looked at, and who is doing the looking, and all of those questions – something that was very conducive to the cinematic language.


Cate, a lot of the character of Carol revolves around her vulnerability. What were some of the keys for you as you approached the character?


Cate Blanchett: I think it was questions that she hadn’t been asked and she hadn’t asked herself. Carol’s a deeply private person, whose sexuality in relationship to herself is not unsettled or ambiguous, but she lives in a quiet hell because she’s not able to fully express herself. I guess it was the way she was brought up. She has not been in a loveless marriage. People keep describing it as a loveless marriage. I guess that the complicated thing for Carol – and being confronted by Therese at the time in her life that it is – is that she’s got an enormous amount to lose.


She’s found an unhappy balance… if you can find an unhappy balance with Kyle Chandler; that would be very difficult (laughs)… with Harge because of her love for her daughter. She’s risking a lot. There was a beautiful line that Phyllis wrote describing Therese as being flung out of space. I also think Carol’s describing that situation of being in uncharted territory, free-floating, as you do when you fall in love with anyone for the first time. You feel like you’ve never been here before. You’re being confronted with questions, confronted with sides of yourself. It suggests a territory you’ve never been to before.

ROONEY MARA stars in CAROL

ROONEY MARA stars in CAROL


Rooney, Therese is often shown in frames; boxes, windows, even her camera lens. Like she has to break out. Was there anything you did to map out her journey?


Rooney Mara: Todd and I talked a lot about that. We had a few weeks of rehearsal in Cincinnati with everyone. That was pretty much what we were doing in rehearsal – not just mapping out Therese’s journey, but mapping out the entire script. Films obviously don’t film in order, so you have to do that with every element of the script.


Phyllis, you knew Patricia Highsmith at the end of her life. What was it like to translate the story’s 1952 world without looking at it through a modern sensibility?


Phyllis Nagy: That was one of the things that I was intent on doing – to not overlay a contemporary psychology onto any of the characters. When you overlay any kind of a psychology and overview, an ethos, you’re judging those characters immediately. It seemed very important for all the nuances of the relationships among the central quartet that you don’t do that. It’s very easy for me to forget about.


The first draft was many years ago, but when I started working with Todd on this it was a pleasure to forget that we were living right now. (laughs) We didn’t have to deal with any of the methods of communication that people might’ve had, or the attitudes or judgments of now. We all have to be very, very aware of what we’re doing. This is about instinct, not calculation, although the circumstances of their lives required some calculation.


Kyle, Harge is complicated, feeling he has been cheated of the life he expected. How did you humanize him with the anger that he shows?


Kyle Chandler: Good direction. (laughs) No, just listening to what you just said, one of the really interesting aspects about playing this character is he is what he is on the screen. But, the way you just spoke about how he has put it together, you (referring to Haynes) left everything open for Harge to actually do as he will and to find those spaces. That was interesting. As I was playing it, at some point, I realized that it could be a stereotypical character very easily. Portray what you would imagine of a guy from the 50’s under these circumstances. What happened was, at some point, the worst possible moment in a man’s life, or a woman: They’re in love is when they realize they’re not in love anymore.


This character never realized he wasn’t in love anymore. He was always in love, and he was intensely in love. He also had this little child – not just his wife, not just his child, but his family unit was so important to him and so important, to say nothing of his social status and what he was. He refused to give that up. What you said about the character allowed me as a character to stay in that and never lose love or respect, but still be very confused. What’s going on? Which goes back to that one direction [Haynes] gave me: When I’m walking in the room and I look across and I go “Who are you?!” basically. Todd gave me a specific direction there. It really turned me. I was like: Oh, yeah! Okay. Anyway, for me this whole thing was so much fun. It was really refreshing, because of what the material is and just the way it was presented. Then seeing it is wonderful.

SARAH PAULSON stars in CAROL

SARAH PAULSON stars in CAROL


Sarah, Abby’s friendship with Carol is so moving, because they were exes, but Abby was helping with the new girlfriend. What were you looking at as their relationship?


Sarah Paulson: I really just tried to think about friendship. And selflessness. And unwavering loyalty. I think Abby still has feelings for Carol. It’s a challenging thing. I wonder what I personally would do if somebody I loved and still had feelings for, if I was called upon to come in and rescue the person that she currently loves. I don’t know. It was, to me, a testament to her friendship and her love, and I think the desire to be around Carol and Carol’s orbit no matter what. Abby’s sense of society – I don’t mean literal society, but her community, her friendships – they were probably quite narrow at that time. So, to lose something like that, the consequences of that would be too enormous. I just thought about things like that.


Jake, if Harge is one type of guy, Richard is another. As you were working on the character, were you finding the levels of subtlety? It feels like Richard understands something about Therese, but he can’t seem to figure out why she is dragging her feet to marry him.


Jake Lacy: It was definitely in the script. That subtlety was not thanks to me, for sure. Todd spoke with me when we first met about the idea that for Richard the world is there to take. He’s young. He’s in New York. He’s first generation American. He’s smart. He’s handsome. He has a job. He’s got a girl. The world is his for the taking, and yet, it slips away from him, without knowing it. Thank God that it does, because otherwise he’s 15 years or ten years earlier than Carol and Harge and that world, if he and Therese created a life that then wasn’t a life anymore.


I don’t know if I can speak to the subtlety, I think that maybe that you were experiencing that more than my attempt to create something. I do think, to me, for Richard it’s the idea of a dream that then falls apart, where someone is not willing to be a part of that dream. Trying to wrangle them in when they are not meant to be there.

CATE BLANCHETT stars in CAROL

CATE BLANCHETT stars in CAROL


Even though this is some 50 years ago, it is a period film. With regard to the physicality, I loved specifically how you moved. The body language of that time versus today is quite different, even the way a cigarette is held or you place a coffee cup. How did you achieve that?


Cate Blanchett: For me personally, it felt less about the period and more about what Todd was referring to before as about “the gaze.” If the cigarette was held in a certain way and perceived by the camera in a certain way, it was because it was viewed through the prism of someone’s desire, rather than the prism of the period. One of the most revelatory things that Todd showed all of us, that I found really useful was a film called Lovers and Lollipops. In fact, it completely subverted everything I’d seen of the 50s represented before. It was so fresh and immediate. I felt like everything was happening right then and there in front of me. It was people in clothes, not in costumes, existing and behaving with one another as we do now.


When you experience a love story, whether it is back in the 1400s in China, or it’s in 1952 in New York, it feels as if it is this timeless connection. So the period is an important impediment in all the dramas, details to be drawn with, but it became secondary. Although the girdles… (laughs)  Those things were hard. There was a scene where Rooney was playing the piano. I’d found this position on the floor. I thought I have to be graceful, so I had to rehearse a lot so I would be able to get up in one movement, which was difficult.


You also looked at a lot of 50s photography, right, like Ruth Orkin?


Todd Haynes: We did. Ruth Orkin is one of the color photographers we looked at, who was photographing New York City in color at the time. Ruth Orkin was the partner of Morris Engel. These are all New York-based artists and photojournalists. They did psycho-dramas, not documentaries. The Little Fugitive is the best known of their films, their collaborations. They would use unknown actors, put them in real locations and use real light. The Little Fugitive is the story of a little kid who runs away to Coney Island during the day.


Lovers and Lollipops they made a few years later. It was set in locations more relevant to our film, but it had a woman at the center of the story. It was the story of a single mother trying to ingratiate her daughter to a new boyfriend. She was just a woman. She was not a wealthy woman like Carol. But she was a woman with this tremendous poise and this gait and this manner of speech. It was an example of this femininity that we just do not see anymore. You might glimpse it in your grandmother, but it is something that is not produced anymore culturally. Yet it’s not something you would see by actresses from Hollywood films from the period. It gave an insight to something quite specific and sort of lost. That was very useful to Cate and Rooney.

(L-R) ROONEY MARA and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL.

(L-R) ROONEY MARA and CATE BLANCHETT star in CAROL.


The love story did not necessarily feel homosexual, it just felt like any relationship.