November 19, 2015 7:48 AM EST

Ask Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara what it was like to work together so intimately on their new film and they exchange a meaningful glance. “It was awful,” Blanchett jokes. “I measured our trailers–hers was 5½ inches longer.” “We had to be separated,” Mara chimes in. This seems unlikely, given how their chemistry radiates from the screen in Todd Haynes’ film Carol, out Nov. 20. It’s a long-overdue adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which tells the story of a tryst between a charismatic housewife (Blanchett) and a meek shopgirl (Mara). At turns erotic and wrenching, their tender performances have earned rave reviews and–for Mara–the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival. In an unusually strong year for LGBT representation in cinema, both actors insist Carol is a love story without a social agenda–though Blanchett decries the “lazy, entrenched” sexism of big-budget moviemaking. As their characters fell in love onscreen, the stars developed a fond rapport. As Mara says with a smile, “Our relationship wasn’t really something that we had to work on.” Yes, we noticed.

This appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of TIME.

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