In ‘Maestro,’ Mulligan Shares A Lot with Her Character (But Not Her Latinidad)

“You know, she was utterly fearless,” says Carey Mulligan when speaking of Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. Mulligan knows this better than most, having spent much of the last five years with Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, the woman married to American composer, Leonard Bernstein. The world knows of Leonard Bernstein and his broad and considerable contributions to composing, conducting, and creating music. But, there is far more to Bernstein than that. Sure, his work is known (as is the fact that Bernstein was gay). And it is the ‘more’ that filmmaker Bradley Cooper sets out to explore in Maestro.

The Land of Love may well be as worn as your favorite record, but few have a love story that sings as beautifully as that of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein. And for that to translate, you need an actress so superb and dedicated that she would have the power to make or break the project. Not at all unlike the marriage it set to reflect.

It was 2018 when Mulligan first set eyes on the script for Maestro – Cooper slid it to her personally. He’d already signed on as writer, director, and lead actor at this point. But rather than focus on the accomplishments of Leonard, Cooper’s script strikes a different chord with Maestro. Mulligan committed to the role of Felicia, the Costa Rican-born actress and the two spent much of the next few years composing one of the best films of 2023.

On the surface, it may not appear a logical casting: an English actress playing a Costa Rican-born, Chilean-raised actress. In fact, there have been some minor negative reactions to the casting. Most notably by Emmy-winning Latino actor John Leguizamo who posted a question to his followers:

What do you think of Leonard Bernstein’s REAL wife was a Latina born in Costa Rica 🇨🇷 raised in Chile played by a white actress IN MAESTRO? Is it white washing us? Is it erasure? I want your feed back!

John Leguizamo

Later, after feedback poured in, Leguizamo followed up with, “Great comments! 🔥🔥🔥love the conversation. Thank you 🙏🏽 for trading it out! I’m very conflicted by it mostly because it’s not the first time Latino characters have been white washed and brown faced. Scarface, Carlitos way, argo, lonely hearts, cocaine godmother, a mighty heart, drive, house of spirits, Alive, evita, before night falls, west side story (the original) , touch of evil, and many more.”

But, scratch just a little beneath the surface, and the two women have more in common than you might think. Felicia Montealegre was a formidable force in entertainment on screens big and small well before she married Bernstein. Well, so too is Carey Mulligan. She has two Oscar nominations to her credit and a BAFTA on her mantle. And like Montealegre, Mulligan has been celebrated for her time in the theater as well.

Both women married musicians. Mulligan married Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons. Ironically, Mulligan and Mumford went to camp together as children before losing touch. The pair would later get reacquainted as adults, marry, and have three children.  Felicia first met Leonard in 1946, went on to have another relationship, and would later reunite with her future husband. They married in 1951 and they too have three children.

After accepting the role of Mrs. Bernstein, Mulligan dove into some comprehensive prep work, including a trip to Santiago, Chile where Felicia was educated and spent much of her youth.

Carey Mulligan attends Maestro special screening at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures on December 12, 2023 in Los Angeles (Photo by Emilio Madrid/Getty Images for Netflix)

“I think it was fascinating learning about her schooling because she went to a very strict school,” says Mulligan in her sit down with LatinaMedia.Co. “The way that they talked about her is that she was kind of a bohemian, kind of an artist from the beginning,” she says. Mulligan goes on to explain that even though Felicia was surrounded by fellow creatives, she “set her sights on leaving – not rebellious, you know, she was a wonderful daughter, but she had big ambition.”

Mulligan actually got a sense of Felicia’s childhood during her time in Chile. “I was there for three days spending time with the family and got to see [her] paintings. She was a beautiful painter, an amazing artist, and what a big part of her life that was,” Mulligan tells LatinaMedia.Co.

It was one thing to hear about Felicia and her feelings of confinement. But, as fate would have it, the universe wanted Mulligan to feel it too. Somewhere between visiting Felicia’s school and meeting with Felicia’s family in Santiago, Mulligan tested positive for Covid, forcing her to isolate in a hotel room in the heart of the city.

“A couple of months before [the trip to Chile], I started taking painting lessons ’cause Felicia was a painter,” says Mulligan who immediately called up Maestro’s producers to tell them of her positive result. Her needs were quite simple she says, “‘I just need paints and an easel and a canvas.’ And I started just copying Felicia’s paintings. I was in this hotel room where I could see the whole of Santiago and the mountains, and I sat and looked out the window and painted for 10 days.”

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (Photo by Cr. Jason McDonald/Netflix)

Though at the time, it was frustrating and isolating, today, Mulligan sees that time as a blessing. “It felt like such a kind of gift in a way because I sat there looking at the mountains and looking at the city and thinking,” she says. “I felt like New York was on the other side of the world, you know? And it was so interesting to think about how far away that would feel to her, particularly then. And the ambition that she had to have had to go that far away from everyone and everything she knew to get to New York to start her life there. She must’ve just been unbelievably brave.”

(As for the artistic painting talent that the two women might also have in common? Well, Mulligan says the comparisons stop there. “I took all my paintings on the plane with me to go home, and they’re all crap,” she laughs.)

What Mulligan and company should be proud of is the final product. Felicia Montealegre in Maestro isn’t whitewashed. But she isn’t ‘Latino-fied’ either. There are a handful of references to her upbringing, including a popular Chilean saying that includes birds that we won’t ruin for you.

When you watch Maestro (and you should absolutely watch it), you will come to see what Cooper and company set out to do – tell a beautiful, complex, and one-of-a-kind love story, full stop. A love story with notes higher than that of the Sopranic range of Mariah Carey and lower than the bass-filled voice of Barry White. Maestro is magnificent and along with Mulligan, it strikes all the right notes.

Maestro also stars Matt Bomer, Maya Hawke, and Sarah Silverman. It is in select theaters now and is streaming on Netflix.

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