Here’s why there’s Oscar Buzz surrounding Dee Rees’ Mudbound

Last week the Gothams’ nominating committee lauded Dee Rees’ epic drama Mudbound with a special award for the ensemble cast. On November 5 Mudbound, starring Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Mary J. Blige, Jason Mitchell, Jason Clarke, Rob Morgan and Jonathan Banks, will receive the Hollywood Breakout Ensemble Award at the 21st Annual Hollywood Film Awards

Based on the novel by Hillary Jordan and written for the screen by Virgil Williams and Rees, Mudbound originally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January where it was acquired by Netflix for $12.5 million. Since then, the meaty 134 minute drama, which focuses on the struggles of two families, one black and one white, to work the inhospitable land of the Mississippi Delta, has received accolades and Oscar buzz. The movie looks at many things, what happens to people when they come back from War, how family drowns you and the horrific effects of racism in the Deep South immediately after World War II.

Mudbound
Dee Rees/Paula Schwartz photo

Mulligan plays Laura McAllan, a woman on her way to becoming a spinster at the late age of 31 when she finds a suitable matein the rough hewed Henry (Jason Clarke). He takes her from the comforts of the city and her parents to a rural area of the Deep South without electricity or running water. A once-a-week bath is a great luxury. (Mary J. Blige, in a terrific understated performance, plays the strong and smart matriarch of the other family, sharecroppers on Henry’s land.)

On the red carpet  at the New York Film Festival, where Mudbound had its New York premiere recently, I asked Mulligan what it was like filming in New Orleans, which stands in for Mississippi.

“It was hot, really hot,” she told me. “I’m British so I suffered. It was really hot but it was great… I’ve done films where it’s meant to be really hot and I’m really cold and I had 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 mosquitos and we had a snake wrangler on set. I’ve never been on a film where you needed a snake wrangler before.”

What kind of snakes?

“Like deadly ones from what I’m told. His job was to protect the actors and crew from being bitten by snakes. I mean it was crazy. But all of that stuff was great because it sort of plays into … dripping with sweat, you’re feeling kind of claustrophobic, all of that stuff just adds to the film.”

Mudbound
Carey Mulligan/Paula Schwartz photo

As for what was key to getting into her character, the actress said it began with her unflattering bob. “I loved the idea she was destined to be a spinster and that she didn’t really fit in anywhere. And I found this image of this woman in the 40’s and she had this really terrible fringe and it really was too short, but I thought that’s Laura. Like Laura would probably cut her hair like that in an effort to look sophisticated and it worked for her so I had my hairdresser cut this really, really awful full fringe. And it sort of helped,” she said.

Also key she told me was working with Jason Clarke and Mary J. Blige. “It was really about the relationships in Mudbound. It was about their marriage,” she said. “And particularly the relationship with Florence (Blige) even though we didn’t have a lot of scenes together I felt there was a sort of parallel running through Mudbound, a bound that was kind of integral to the story.”

Jason Clarke, who is Australian, told me he’s getting a crash course in American history. He found inspiration for his character he told me by listening to Shelby Foote.

Mudbound
Jason Clarke/Paula Schwartz photo

“He’s in the Ken Burns documentary about the American Civil War but he wrote an incredible tome on the Civil War and that was really key actually. Understanding the Civil War and that whole period Henry, my character, was a child of the Civil War and out of that came the mess that was sharecropping after emancipation… Usually we go straight from Civil War, Emancipation, Lincoln, jump that to Martin Luther King, and then Civil Rights, and I think sharecropping is a forgotten part, or not a taught part of what happened to several million people who had no education, no jobs, no money, no help in a part of the country that had been destroyed by Civil War and had no economy or finances. It was a big mess.”

As for shooting in New Orleans, Clarke told me it was rough. “It was brutal on the crew, seriously hot, like really hot. We bonded together. It’s part of the film and it helped us find our character. I’m glad we weren’t there for six months but the 28 days, or the 25 days, we shot there it was rough going but it helped us bond and find our movie and find our character.” (Next up for Clarke is “Chappaquiddick,” in which he plays Ted Kennedy opposite Kate Mara.)

The young actor Jason Mitchell — whose break out role was in “Straight Outta Compton” — told me his first reaction when he read the script was that he couldn’t believe that this subject matter had not been mined on film before.  It’s honing in on that sharecropping time in the 40’s, the time that really we’re supposed to be our new America, you know? My grandfather fought this whole fight. He fought in the Korean War, came home and is now a business owner for 68 years, so I can finally be that voice he never was.”

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Jason Mitchell/Paula Schwartz photo

 

I asked if he was awed to be playing opposite Mary J. Blige, who plays his character’s mother. “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, so she was like, ‘I’m following your lead. I’m here to humble myself’ and that’s great, but me and her actually ended up getting some scenes written in because we had such good chemistry, so working with her was a blessing.”

The veteran actor Rob Morgan has his best role to date in Mudbound as Hap, who with his wife Florence (Blige) play sharecroppers whose family has worked the land for generations.

To prepare for his role he told me he focused on the book first. Then he read and reread the script. “I also pulled from my own personal experience of having family from the South. When I was five years old to 13 years old every summer I was sent from Washington D.C. to North Carolina to work in the tobacco field as a young kid, so I know that experience to work in the mud, in the oppressive heat, so I drew from that also. And then just the fortunate thing about this movie is that we that we weren’t shooting in a studio. We didn’t remake the field inside some air conditioned facility. You know we were out there on plantations for real, you know what I mean? We were really out there in the mud getting rained on for real, so that helped draw me back into that world.”

The wonderful film Mudbound opens in theaters November 17.

Mudbound
Mary J. Blige at the press conference for Mudbound/Paula Schwartz photo

 

About Paula Schwartz

Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who worked at the New York Times for three decades. For five years she was the Baguette for the New York Times movie awards blog Carpetbaggers. Before that she worked on the New York Times night life column, Boldface, where she covered the celebrity beat. She endured a poke in the ribs by Elijah Wood's publicist, was ejected from a party by Michael Douglas's flak after he didn't appreciate what she wrote, and endured numerous other indignities to get a story. More happily she interviewed major actors and directors - all of whom were good company and extremely kind- including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Christopher Plummer, Dustin Hoffman and the hammy pooch "Uggie" from "The Artist." Her idea of heaven is watching at least three movies in a row with an appreciative audience that's not texting. Her work has appeared in Moviemaker, more.com, showbiz411 and reelifewithjane.com.