We spoke to a pre-Great Gatsby, pre-Marcus Mumford Carey Mulligan about her failing her drama school adution, An Education and the moment it all changed for her.
Long after theater audiences discovered her luminous, soulful turn as Nina in Ian Rickson’s gorgeous production of The Seagull, holding her own opposite Kristin Scott Thomas’ ravishing Arkadina, first in London at the Royal Court and then on Broadway, Carey Mulligan burst onto the Hollywood scene in the lovely film An Education.
Mulligan had been in movies before — most notably in her debut as Keira Knightley’s sister in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice — but An Education, directed by Lone Scherfig, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, shot her out of a cannon, winning her a BAFTA for Best Actress and landing her an Oscar nomination. But how do you follow up a starmaking turn like that?
We’ll see what happens this year, when Mulligan appears in the big screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful and much loved semi-science fiction novel Never Let Me Go, as well as the long-awaited sequel to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, out later this year.
How has this crazy ride of An Education worked out for you?
It’s been 14 months since we premiered An Education at Sundance and it feels like forever. I miss work. I haven’t worked since the end of Wall Street and that’s the longest I’ve taken off since I started acting. But the award stuff is so frequent that if you tried to work at the same time, you’d be running in and out of your job and that’s not ideal. I mainly just miss working. I was really freaked out at the beginning—not to a crippling degree—by the red carpet stuff. It just felt scary, but slowly I’ve realised, this is just so mad. And the more tired I am, the more jetlagged I am, the less scared I am.
What part is scary?
The photos. That many people looking at you. The possibility of winning where you’re going to have to get up and say something. The times when you actually have to prepare a thing to say, and you wonder: “Should I try to be funny? I shouldn’t try to be funny.” But I’ve started taking my best friend, who’s an illustrator in London, to these events. I brought her to the SAG awards and she said, “This is so weird,” and you’re suddenly like, “Right! This is bizarre,” and you can step out of it and laugh. My mum, my brother and my dad are all coming to the Oscars and they’re going to be so freaked out and amazed that I can live vicariously through them.
Remind me how everything started for you.
Pride & Prejudice was my first job. I was at boarding school and I met Julian Fellowes. He came to give a talk. I told him I wanted to be an actress and he said, “Well, that’s silly. Marry a banker.” It was a really small exchange. And I left school and my parents wouldn’t let me go to drama school and I’d applied in secret and not gotten in. And then I was working as a barmaid and a runner at a film studio and I was headed to university and I thought, “If I end up going, I’m probably going to drop out and that’s going to be a waste of everyone’s time.” I got Julian Fellowes’ address, and I wrote him a letter telling him my situation and asking him how to get into the business without going to drama school. Because even if I could get into drama school, I knew I couldn’t go because I didn’t have any money.
Why didn’t you get in?
Because I had a really — touch wood — stable non-messed up life. And I went in there and did a monologue from Sara Kane’s Psychosis 4:48, and they were like, “Who are you?” I was so desperate to be deep and I had nothing to draw from. It was a disaster. So Julian introduced me to his wife Emma Fellowes; she introduced me to Maggie Lunn and her assistant, Camilla. Maggie casts everything in London, and Camilla introduced me to Robin Hudson, who was Jina Jay’s assistant, and Jina was casting Pride & Prejudice. And they were looking for young actresses to play the younger sisters. And the tapes got to Joe Wright and I did a series of auditions for him. And then it just started.
When you look back, was it easy getting into the business?
It was surreal, but Joe was looking for actresses who hadn’t acted professionally so he could make them do what he wanted. It was just perfect that it all fell together in that way but it was the biggest lucky break ever. I can’t say I really struggled but the struggle was before, when I tried to get into drama school. It’s a completely understandable fear to have your kid go into the most unstable industry on the planet. And so many people I know did train and came out of drama school and didn’t work. More than the financial instability and lack of security, what’s so heartbreaking is the idea that you might not get to do the thing that you want to do. Sometimes parents just want to protect you from the disappointment.
Not really, but I worked consistently, which is all I really ever wanted and you can’t hope for anything else. While I was doing Pride & Prejudice, I did my first play at the National, 40 Winks. I played a 14-year-old rape victim. It was Pride & Prejudice, with bonnets and ribbons and cake, and then this dark play. And then I did a big tv series of Bleak House on the BBC. But I worked steadily for a while so that was kind of perfect. I never saw a ladder to climb.
When you were making An Education, did it feel special?
I loved it, but I didn’t feel it would change anything. I thought it would come out in two arthouse cinemas. Peter Sarsgaard didn’t come to Sundance and he told me and Dominic Cooper, “Guys, don’t get your hopes up because it’s a really bad year for movies and the probability is that no one will buy it.” And we went and it sold and we went apeshit. The fact that someone was going to see it in America as well as England was crazy. When we were making it, we all loved it so much. Peter became like my brother. The crew was literally the coolest gang of people I’d ever met. Dominic and I became best friends. I was so sad to walk away, and I thought, I’m never going to be able to see them again. Now I’ve spent 14 months being like, “Hi Nick. Hi Dominic. Hi Alfred.” It’s been really nice because I’ve never gotten to do that before.
When did you have the sense that An Education would become a game changer?
Right after Sundance, I got Never Let Me Go. I’d read the book about two years before I’d read the script and I didn’t think I could get it because I wasn’t getting into the room for parts like that. Nick Hornby told the producer that he should hire me, and the weekend after the reviews for An Education came out in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, they offered me the film. It was sort of mad. But it made that difference. Suddenly I got this part that I was desperate to play, and when I was wrapping that, that’s when Oliver Stone called because he’d seen An Education. Which is so far from Wall Street. A different universe. And everything else has happened in the last few months. I love Never Let Me Go so much and I’m so protective of the book. If I saw someone fuck up Kathy [the character she plays] I’d hunt them down. And there’s only so much you can do — you can only do your best. I’ve not seen a single frame of it so I don’t know.
Wall Street is your first big Hollywood movie, right?
I was really nervous about doing it, actually. But it’s a supporting role — it’s not Shia LaBeouf or Michael Douglas’ part. It’s one of the only female characters. I knew if I did the movie, people were really going to know me and I met Oliver and he was like no one I’d ever met. And I was so excited. He’s so intelligent. I walked into his office and I waited for a second, and he marched towards me, and he went, “Oh, you don’t have long hair, you look so different,” and I thought, “Does that mean I don’t get the job?” And then I followed him into his office, and he just talked at me. He’s so clever but sometime his mind will just flip from place to place. Oliver was challenging and he wasn’t mollycoddling. It was intimidating to be the only girl, but in a great way. I’ve always been the youngest and now I’m starting to not be the youngest and it’s kind of weird. You just suddenly realise, “I’m 24 and I’m not a kid anymore, and I’m not the least experienced person here.” But I had to be one of the boys, and that was really cool. He’d push us to play things really truthfully. I loved him, but he’s testing.
Do you think the sequel will have a similar effect sociologically?
I haven’t seen it but I watched a lot of the dailies. It’s a real Hollywood film, you can see that from the trailer, which for me is a completely different genre. My side of it is really the emotional story. Can’t you tell? You see me crying so much in the trailer. But I think it’s timely and that’s the only reason he made it. He’s never made a sequel before.
Is your character fairly strong?
I didn’t want to be “the girlfriend.” But she runs a liberal website so it’s Anti [Michael Douglas’ character] Gordon Gecko, and of course is going out with Shia’s character, so there’s the whole thing there.
Did you enjoy working with Shia?
The first time we read together we were so nervous. It was just me and Michael and Shia, and neither Shia and I looked up. You never know how these things are going to work. I’d wanted to work with Shia since A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. He’s amazing. He was so incredible in that film, and we ended up working together well.
And so what comes next?
I actually don’t have a job. It’s been hard to make decisions whilst all this is going on because you don’t want to jump into something. I wake up in the morning and spend a half hour trying to figure out what I want for breakfast. I’ve been on so many airplanes! So I need to stop on Monday, take a week off, and then refocus. Two weeks ago I thought I never wanted to be in a movie again!
I did The View, then a photo shoot, and took two red eyes in two days, and went to a critics award show and at some point in the evening my agent came up to me and was asking for the only half hour I had in the next two weeks. And I was home, so I wanted to see my friends and I was like, “Don’t take the five seconds left that I have. I just don’t want to be in a movie! I don’t want to have the responsibility of being a big actress, I don’t want to be on a poster.”
I was at a press conference and Woody Harrelson was answering questions in front of me and they were asking him what his motivation was, and how he felt about his character. I got up there, and they said, “What are you wearing?” And I thought, “There was a time when I was an actress. Not just someone who wore dresses.”
I don’t really care that much about fashion, I just have a brilliant stylist who dresses me, and in my own life, I’m pretty simple. So that side of things has been wearing. But then I slept for 15 hours after the Baftas and felt slightly more normal again. I don’t want to become annoying. I don’t want people to think, “Oh, her again.” I want to play supporting characters more often than lead roles, and I think that’s where the most interesting parts lie.
I’ve been thinking you’d be amazing as Lisbeth Salandar in the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Have you thought about that?
No. I love them, though. But that would be incredible. They just made the Danish version of those. I read those three books in a fortnight. No one’s suggested that yet. I might campaign for it. A lot of the things I get are the quirky girl who wears a Ramones t-shirt and has black eye makeup.
You seem like a huge reader.
I read a fair bit. There’s nothing nicer than falling into a book but it’s really when I’m working, I’m pretty much reading. There’s nothing else to do on set. I’m trying to find a play to do in New York, but not very much is kicking around. It’s more of a case of trying to pitch myself, unless there’s a new play. With The Seagull, it’s hard because Nina is pretty much the role. So I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out. It’s really the first time I’m ok stopping for a minute. I’ve been able to chill out. But I don’t want to be everywhere, not assuming that I would. I don’t want to take the responsibility of films rising or falling whether I’m good in them or not. I need a good director. I can see the difference with a director I’ve worked well with and one I haven’t. I’m still learning so much and I still need a steady hand. I want to work with someone who’s going to do as good a job as Lone did. She sculpted an amazing performance.
And how do you know that’s going to happen?
You don’t. You can’t take someone for three weeks to directing camp and check her out. You have to take a leap of faith, and it’s scary. And this is apart from whether the script is great and the character is great. What if in post-production they let you down? That’s probably why I’m more comfortable in theater: you have more control. In film, there are so many factors where your work can get manipulated from what you thought you were doing.
I wish I had a genius idea for a play you could do. What about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan?
I’d love to do Saint Joan, I’ve been talking about doing it, but that’s a hard play to get off the ground. I just want to do something that really scares me. I don’t like the idea of rehashing parts I’ve already played, which is what people want to offer you.
You’re still based in London?
Yes. I probably would move to New York, but there’s no point in me fixing myself anywhere until I fix what the next thing is.
Maybe Sally Bowles in Cabaret would be a good part for you.
I would love that part. I can sing, you know?
They should remake the movie with you. Actually that’s a terrible idea.
Terrible idea! Terrible idea! Career suicide!
Images: Ben Weller
Stylist: Grace Cobb