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Carey Mulligan is a cheating housewife in 'Wildlife,' but don't call her a 'terrible' mom

Patrick Ryan

NEW YORK – Following the premiere of Carey Mulligan's new drama "Wildlife" at New York Film Festival earlier this month, a churlish audience member raised his hand to denounce her "completely reprehensible" and "unsympathetic" character. 

Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, left) and Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) are a couple in crisis in Oscar hopeful "Wildlife."

Mulligan, who was participating in a post-screening Q&A, proceeded to defend Jeanette, a 1960s housewife who has a brief affair with an older man (Bill Camp) after her unemployed husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves home to fight fires in Montana. 

But it wasn't the first polarized reaction she's encountered with "Wildlife" (in theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles, expands to additional cities throughout November), particularly from men. 

At France's Cannes Film Festival in May, "a couple of male journalists took against her," the British actress recalls. "They said as fact, 'She's a terrible mother, no?' And I was like, 'No.' But that was understood: 'Jeanette, 34, terrible mother,' like that was part of her character description." 

Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, left) gets a part-time job to help support her son, Joe (Ex Oxenbould), when husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is out of work.

That's not to say Jeanette would win any "Mother of the Year" awards. After her husband, Jerry (Gyllenhaal), is fired from his job at a golf course, he despondently joins a firefighting crew in the mountains for almost no pay. Angered by his decision yet worried for his safety, Jeanette puts on a defensive front for their 14-year-old son, Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould), knocking Jerry for his apparent lack of ambition and not caring about his family, while bemoaning the other potential suitors she turned down as a younger woman. 

She begins seeing Warren (Camp), a successful car salesman, in his absence – dragging a confused Joe to his house for an uncomfortable, drunken dinner one night, and sneaking around after he goes to bed to have sex. 

In Warren, she sees "someone who is completely set in their life and knows what they want. He makes her feel like the prettiest girl in the room," Mulligan says. Even before Jerry left, "there was definitely a staleness in their relationship. ... (She's) exploring all these different versions of herself that she could have been, had her life taken a different path." 

When actor-turned-filmmaker Paul Dano wrote "Wildlife," which he adapted with his partner, actress Zoe Kazan, from Richard Ford's 1990 novel, he wanted to keep Jeanette's reasons for leaving Jerry semi-ambiguous, to mirror the perspective of Joe as he starts to learn who his parents are and were. 

"There's that transition into consciousness and adulthood, where suddenly you see your parents as real people and not these mythic figures," Dano says. "It's a profound moment in a lot of people's lives," and yet "Joe is still compassionate toward his parents, even though the situation isn't great. He's trying to make sure things don't tip too far, rather than acting out." 

Carey Mulligan has earned career-best reviews for her quietly devastating work as a woman on the edge in "Wildlife."

Dano, 34, read the book in 2011 and was interested in making it his directorial debut. After deciding against hiring a screenwriter, he took a stab at a very rough first draft and gave it to Kazan, 35, who previously wrote 2012 dramedy "Ruby Sparks." 

"Wildlife" co-writers Zoe Kazan, left, and Paul Dano.

"It was like you had never read a script before," Kazan teases. "I was like, 'I don't even know how to begin to give you notes on this.' ... I actually took scissors and cut up what he had written, and put it all over our then-guest room" to rearrange scenes and dialogue. 

After tweaking and perfecting the script over a few years, Dano sent "Wildlife" to their longtime friend Mulligan, 33, who read it in one sitting at home in England on a Friday night and signed on immediately after. 

"I cried and had a glass of champagne on my fire escape," says Mulligan, who is a dark-horse contender to earn her second Oscar best actress nomination for the role, following her breakout turn in 2009's "An Education." 

"Jeanette really resonated with me in a mum kind of way," she says, as a parent of two (Evelyn, 3, and Wilfred, 1) with husband Marcus Mumford (of folk-rock band Mumford & Sons). But she also recognized "that point in your life where you realize your 20s are gone and you get that whiplash feeling that you'll never be back there again. It was so honest, and Jeanette was such a mess in places, and glorious and mad in others. You just don't get scripts like that very often."