Under the direction of Todd Haynes, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara give a master class in the power of restrained, under-the-surface acting in Carol, an achingly romantic film about forbidden love, in which a glance or a simple gesture says more than words.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, the film adaptation written by Phyllis Nagy depicts a developing relationship between Blanchett’s Carol Aird, a sophisticated and confident married woman, and Mara’s Therese Belivet, a young Manhattan department store sales clerk who aspires to be a photographer. An unlikely pairing, the two women meet and share an immediate attraction that leads to love. But it’s the early 1950s, and society isn’t anywhere near accepting a lesbian relationship. The era demanded subtlety, and so did Haynes.
The characters Carol and Therese, who are clearly attracted to each other from the moment they first meet, tentatively move forward with a romance that neither one of them is comfortable actually discussing but neither can resist pursuing–despite the obstacles, which include Carol’s manipulative soon-to-be ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s devoted boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy), who wants to marry her.
Here, Haynes talks to Co.Create about how he got high-caliber performances out of Blanchett and Mara by trusting in their abilities, giving them a carefully crafted script, and maximizing the use of non-verbal communication.
Haynes loved the tension between Carol and Therese in Highsmith’s book, and we see it in the film: There is a constant, unspoken strain between the women that comes from the fact that they can’t openly pursue a relationship. But it is more complicated than that: Carol, who is a mercurial and somewhat searing presence, doesn’t always try to put the more timid Therese at ease. Meanwhile, Therese is confused by her attraction to Carol, and both seem overwhelmed by the intensity of it.
But all of that discomfort wasn’t in the script for the film that Haynes first read. In his initial conversations with screenwriter Nagy, “I sensed right away from what she said that the script had undergone a little bit of softening in an attempt to appeal to financiers. Some of that meant there was a congeniality between the women that I felt much less of in the book,” Haynes says. “When I said, ‘Oh, Phyllis, let’s put some of that tension back in,’ she was like, ‘Yes!’ She was very excited because I think that’s where she wanted it to reside, remain and not shift.”
That awkwardness and tension gave Blanchett and Mara plenty of good material to work with.
Some directors are known to keep actors apart to ensure there isn’t any familiarity displayed onscreen. But Haynes didn’t do that with Blanchett and Mara. “I didn’t feel I had to play any games with them in real life to get something out of them. They’re professionals,” says Haynes, who last worked with Blanchett on 2007’s I’m Not There. He had never worked with Mara before, though she did audition for a role in Mildred Pierce, the 2011 HBO miniseries he directed.
Haynes rehearsed with Blanchett and Mara in between clothes fittings and wig trimmings in the office space the production had rented in Cincinnati where much of the film was shot. “Some actors don’t like to rehearse, and they really do want to save it for the camera, for the moment. But I always learn something if we have time together before we’re shooting, sitting around a table with the script,” says Haynes, pointing out that he got additional ideas on how to further tweak the script out of working with Blanchett and Mara. “Often it would be Rooney who would say, ‘Did she just say that?’ We’d look at each other and go, ‘No, let’s cut that.’ “
Because Carol and Therese are so restrained in their courtship, “Words were never going to be the most reliable conveyors of information or emotion or expression. Other things would have to be used to communicate information in the movie,” Haynes says.
And that’s where telling looks and gestures seen throughout the film come in. While the film is full of dialogue, so much of the true emotion is shared in subtle, non-verbal ways—the act of lighting a cigarette becomes powerful and seductive when Carol does it. “Carol takes a cigarette out of a cigarette case, lights it and offers it to Therese. That all seems fairly straightforward, but in this climate and with these actors, simple non-verbal actions take on all kinds of meaning,” Haynes says, adding, “Some of that was extremely well planned. It came from the book, and there were events described in the script that were non-verbalized. Then other things just came out of the performances and the situations.”
While the women don’t come out and express their attraction to each other when they first meet for lunch early in the film (treating Therese to lunch is Carol’s way of thanking her for returning gloves she leaves behind at the department store when they first meet), you can feel the attraction between them by reading their facial expressions and movements as they try to figure each other out. Credit goes to Blanchett and Rooney for their performances, of course, but Affonso Gonçalves, the editor, also had a hand in making the most of those moments. “I haven’t said this enough in interviews, and it’s so true for that scene: I think the editing has a great deal to do with it,” Haynes says.
In this particular scene, Gonçalves, who also cut Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, resisted the temptation to simply cut back and forth to focus on each woman as said her lines. “If you start that rhythmic relay, you can’t break it. Once it’s established, you can’t go back,” Haynes says. Instead, Gonçalves, lingers on Therese, for example, after she finishes speaking, so we can see her reaction as Carol responds and vice versa.
Gonçalves also uses silence to the film’s advantage. Those silences—an awkward pause in a conversation in which the audience is dying for words to be said—give viewers the chance to project their feelings onto situations. “The whole thing about love stories is what you don’t give the audience. The satisfactions you don’t provide them with. All that stuff stokes desire on the part of the viewer,” Haynes says. “It’s the viewer who is really the active party in the silence.”