Promising Young Woman is one of the hottest films to come out of 2020. Nominated for almost every major award in the business, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, SAG, and BAFTA, this film is one of the must-sees of the season.
Written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Chris Lowell, Max Greenfield, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, and Clancy Brown, with appearances by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Adam Brody, and Connie Britton Promising Young Woman takes us an uncomfortable but relevant journey through the struggles of a young woman in today’s age.
We had a chance to chat with one of the stars of the film — Chris Lowell, who plays Al Monroe — about the importance of the message of the film and what factors may have molded his character into both the man we see and the college student who set a dangerous quest in motion.
Nerds and Beyond: So Promising Young Woman … that was a doozy.
Chris Lowell: Yeah I think that is a great way to describe it. It is a doozy.
I remember I paused it and I went, “Wait a minute, there’s still 40 minutes left?” Twists and turns like I’ve never seen before.
[This response has spoilers for the film.]
I know. I’ve only seen it once because it’s so disturbing to see yourself doing things like that in a movie that I was like I don’t know if I can see this again. I remember watching the movie — and I’m in the movie, I know how it ends — and even watching it I was like, “God this is so fun! Bo [Burnham] and Carey [Mulligan] have such great chemistry! I love this music, it’s a sweet funny rom-com.” And then I’m like, “Oh my god I forgot where this is headed,” you know?
And reading the script, too, I remember getting to when I show up in the movie and then I kill her, and then the movie keeps going. You know what I mean? And now I’m suddenly like, me and my buddy are like, “How do we get rid of this body? Ha ha ha.” And now it’s my wedding!
I was so gobsmacked that the script goes to all the places that it goes to, but I think that’s the brilliance of the writing. Emerald [Fennell] takes all of our assumptions from what we’re used to seeing in these various genres and uses those assumptions to manipulate us and actually take us to a completely different place.
Oh absolutely. She utilized that and just ripped the rug right out from underneath us.
Over and over again.
I mean the pharmacy scene with Bo and Carey … and then you’re like wait a minute.
I know! I know! That scene is so funny and cute and they have such great chemistry, the two of them, they’re so adorable together and then … then it takes a real dark turn.
Nerds and Beyond: So the film’s already been nominated for so many awards. I know it’s on just about every shortlist, are you excited about the prospect of being an Academy Award nominee?
Chris: Well I won’t be a nominee, but certainly being associated with the film, I think so! The awards circuit, the way that a film gets seen, how popular it is, you have no control over that. As an actor you have to look at a much more micro level; you have to just be happy with the script and the performance you do on the day because you have no idea how it’s going to be received, or win, or what kind of audience it’s going to reach. And it feels so great that this small film has been able to reach so many people and has been as successful as it has been.
And absolutely I hope it that gets nominated for as many things as it deserves because the writing is brilliant, that script is so unique, and Carey worked her freaking ass off in this movie. Frankly, I think everybody in the cast does a stupendous job, and each one of those scenes is like an exhausting scene, and Carey is in every single one of them. So hell yeah, I hope she gets acknowledged for doing so much hard work and so much great work.
There’s a mental toll, that everybody might have taken home, by staying in this mindset for this film.
You know what helped from being consumed by the subject matter was how much levity Emerald brought to set. She was always making jokes, always having everybody laugh, there was a really jovial atmosphere on set. I think we were all really excited to be there, really excited to tell this story. That, I think, allowed us to kind of shake it off at the end of everyday, because there are certainly scenes and sequences in this film that are hard and heavy, with a capital H.
I was watching with my husband, and he’s sitting there with me, and he’s groaning and burying his face into the pillow just having secondhand shame from the way that the men were acting.
Absolutely. I had to watch so much of the film through my fingers, you know? But it’s so rare, just in terms of the feat of storytelling that Emerald accomplished here, it’s so rare that in that movie you’re having to watch through your fingers is also a movie that you are laughing out loud. The fact that the film runs such a gamut just seems impossible at times, and I think that’s a real testament to Emerald’s storytelling prowess. She’s a freaking master. And she knew what she was doing the entire time.
She was so dialed in, it was awesome. So often a director is really great at the dialogue, or really great with actors, or really great with the cinematography, or the edit. Emerald was an ace at all of it, and she thoroughly investigated and made a decision about every single thing. Every single prop, every single wig, every single costume, every single song, I mean she had this thing figured out and you can feel that when you watch it. You can feel the mastery of her talent at work.
Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. You can just see the care that she put in.
When we talked about making people uncomfy, was that one of the purposes of the story? Especially in this current social climate, with the MeToo movement and everything going on, did she want to make people uncomfy as they were watching?
Chris: Yeah, I think that’s definitely part of what she’s after, sort of forcing a conversation. This is not a movie that anyone will have an indifferent response to. It pushes buttons, it forces you to engage with it, and I think that is an artistic choice. She intended for people to walk out of the theater, or turn the movie off, and not be able to just go about their business, but have to talk about it. And as a result, have to talk about these subject matters, have to talk about the environment that we live in, the culture that we live in, how our entertainment, how our society has propagated these stories, these jokes, these ways that we accommodate predators and assault, and I think she really wanted to hold a mirror up. And that’s not always easy, but it is certainly very engaging. I love the way that she’s forced us to engage.
Nerds and Beyond: So you play … the worst of them all, I have to say it [laughs].
Chris: Yeah, between me and, I don’t know I feel like Max Greenfield’s also a scumbag. But yes, yes.
What was it like having to get into the mindset of this character, how did you have to see him as a person, to really get it right?
Great question. I think that you have to, for me, I have to believe that my character is correct, right? I have to believe that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m making the right decision. And with someone like Al Monroe that’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. And so I think my way in was I watched a lot of the footage from the Kavanaugh [Senate] hearing. I watched the way that, “I drank a lot of beer!” and “We were kids!” and “That was a long time ago!” and “Look at all the things that I’ve accomplished since then!” and “I’m a good guy!”, you know what I mean?
I remember seeing that, just in general, and being so, just, angry. I was just so angry watching that. And when I read the script and was seeing all of this dialogue about “We were kids” and “That was so long ago” it definitely invoked a similar response in me. And then what Emerald did, that was really helpful for me, is I think it would have been a lot harder if you’d been hearing about this character, Al Monroe Al Monroe Al Monroe, throughout this film and you just keep meeting terrible guy after terrible guy, so there’s this assumption that when we finally meet Al he is going to be the worst of the worst. Emerald was very clear with me that when we meet Al, she was like ,”I want him to be the nicest, most likeable guy we’ve met so far in the movie.” And I think that’s to, again, thwart our expectations as an audience.
When you meet him, he does seem like a nice guy! He doesn’t want to have a stripper there, he’s like, “Hey, I don’t want to do anything crazy, my fiancée …” it screws with our expectation. So, sort of approaching it as something that this person has essentially forgotten about having done in his life, like he’s justified it enough and doesn’t look at it enough that he can allow himself to go about his business and move on and think that everything’s fine. And I think that this film is all about forcing these men to really account for their behavior, and so I just tried to go into it being as optimistic and positive and good-natured as possible and then let Cassie’s revealing of who she is and what I’d done to me take over the character’s response. And to really play into that.
Every time we would do the scene I would just go into it being like, this really nice good guy, and then let her pull out the monster in me.
And it was masterful. You guys both did, I know we talked about [Carey’s] chemistry with Bo, but you guys were just as good, obviously in a different way.
Thank you. Being able to work with someone like her is such a gift. She is such a master at this job, to be able to like try and get in there and sort of spar with her and rise to her level, was like a real gift for me. So thank you for saying that.
Nerds and Beyond: I’ve got one more then I’ll let you go. So we talked about Al and his friend, Joe. Joe’s pretty enabling with Al and the issues. Do you think that Al’s issues, maybe with his own accountability, are kind of borne from these relationships and how they formed the way he sees himself and they way he sees himself in the world?
Chris: Absolutely. I think that there is this part of fraternity culture, of guys just being guys. It’s like the locker room talk excuse that Trump kept using after the Access Hollywood tapes, like this is just how guys are together. I’ve never had a conversation like that with a bunch of guy friends, that would be repulsive to me. But I think that there is this sense of men protecting men and justifying each other’s actions because they’ve all done it themselves and I think that masses character in a lot of ways, it’s like a symbol of that protective blanket that men will put over each other to help each other out without even considering, or taking into account, if they should be helping this person. Who else has suffered as a result of this coverup? It’s this psychotic justification that we’ll move mountains to help bury the worst side of someone simply because they’re another guy, and that’s what we do for each other. I think that’s something that we really need to change.
Promising Young Woman will be available on Digital, Blu-ray, and DVD on Tuesday, March 16.