British actress Carey Mulligan is this year’s festival sensation. She’s a poised, fearless and inventive 23-year-old performer that lights up Danish director Lone Scherfig’s An Education.
In the movie, set in 1961 London, Mulligan plays Jenny, a sophisticated, poised if somewhat dreamy sixteen-year-old schoolgirl who finds herself irrevocably succumbing to the mysterious charms and breathlessly alluring charms of a Jewish aesthete (sharply played by Peter Sarsgaard).
It’s a bravura performance that manages to be both emotionally detailed and sharply unsentimental. Mulligan’s quickness, emotional alertness and sexual precocity is staggering. Novelist Nick Hornby adapted the memoir of journalist Lynn Barber. Mulligan’s schoolgirl is a Francophile, and the movie has the free, spontaneous momentum of early French New Wave films.
She has also done significant work in the theater, most prominently her work as Nina in the Royal Court Theatre production of Chekhov’s The Seagull with Kristin Scott Thomas. After a small part in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Mulligan is currently cast as the female lead in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel.
Mulligan has a tremendous presence in front of the camera — sexy and transfixing at the beginning before moving to something more emotionally difficult and knotty. During a conversation, she spoke of her art and style.
Light sensitive: Are you this enthralling in your own life. Do you have the power to really shake people up like Jenny in the film?
Carey Mulligan: No, I’m really boring in my daily life. I’ve actually discovered how uncool I am by being at Sundance. The whole time there was crazy, a bit surreal, like out of body. Even the photographers and how they react to you before the screening. They cajole you into “performing,” and being yourself is the trickiest thing to do.
Light sensitive: In the movie, Jenny’s a real Francophile. Because the movie’s set in 1961 and French New Wave movies are a dominant reference point, did you look at a lot of French films from the period?
Carey Mulligan: We looked at a couple of things together, Lone and I. She gave me some DVDs, of Breathless and things like that. It was really more about Jenny getting into the age of things and being sixteen at that time and [determining] who she would have been aware of politically or who would have been the people that she would have been listening to. I listened to French music pretty much all the way throughout the shoot. Even when I wasn’t in a scene, I had my earphones in.
I tried to stay in that world. Andrew McAlpine, the set designer, built a really interesting bedroom set that you didn’t really see in the film. But I walked into it before we started shooting and he just captured her world so brilliantly. The room was exactly how I would have made it if I’d designed it myself. It was really accurate and detailed. It had that weird mixture of having a couple of cigarettes on the desk but also having the teddy bear on the bed. There was so much of that in the film, the dichotomy between the tiny girl and the woman.
Light sensitive: Young women, even somebody like Jenny who comes from a restricted or parochial background, often have a very finely tuned sense of their own power, especially over men. Was that your take on her?
Carey Mulligan: When they do the Audrey Hepburn hair, I think she’s aware that has an effect on the men. She’s not naïve to that. But when she’s in her school uniform, she only feels like a fish out of water. She goes to the concert wearing that kind of tight green dress up to her neck and Helen [Rosamund Pike] is wearing this gorgeous pink [outfit], she also knows the effect [the way Helen’s dressed] is having on men. Jenny is aware of her own power but it’s not honest until Helen transforms her.
When [David and Jenny] first meet and they sit in the car and have that conversation, I think she sees the twinkle in his eyes and knows but she’s sort of innocent. She initiates a lot of what goes on in the film; she didn’t need to go in the car, she could have walked beside the car. She didn’t need to thank him for the flowers. That’s what takes away from it the element of this sordid [predatory piece]. It doesn’t feel perverted because she’s driving it more than he is in most cases.
Light sensitive: I don’t know what you were like at sixteen, but there’s something very believable, particular and distinctive about her behavior.
Carey Mulligan: I think one of the main things I focused on about playing sixteen was that inability to control your emotions, to stop your mouth when you don’t think before you speak. She has that enthusiasm, intelligence and a real thirst for knowledge and culture that bubbles over and brims out and I think sometimes she says stuff that is very heartfelt. I don’t think she thinks.
The scene in the car where she says, “I never did anything before I met you.” I think that’s a massive thing to say and she really means it. In her world she doesn’t think there’s anybody she has ever met who is as interesting as this man. It just comes out, and I think a lot of it is she just gets caught in a whirlpool. She doesn’t know where it’s going.
Light sensitive: Nick Hornby’s adaptation is very interesting in the use of language. In films of that period, language is a demarcation point for class or status. There’s a kind of poetry to the language.
Carey Mulligan: I think the distinction is between her school life and her life with David. In the school life, the scenes with Emma Thompson [the school headmistress], the way the script is written, everything she says is controlled. She knows exactly the power and control she has over me, and the only time she loses that control is when I confront her and tell her you have to tell us why we’re doing it. That’s the only time she loses her cool.
The difference in dialogue in Jenny’s other life is so different; that fits in with that rigid, learning by rote of why are wearing learning, just to be able to pass tests and if we are just passing tests then what are learning about life. The dialogue at school, and with Miss Stubbs [Olivia Williams] as well, is more formal and less natural because it’s showing that is the life that she is trapped into. She doesn’t feel she has the freedom to learn anything real of being around these people who are not inspiring until she realizes her mistake that Miss Stubbs is exactly who she wants to be.
Light sensitive: Did you meet Lynn Barber, whose memoir the film is the basis for the script.
Carey Mulligan: She came on set once, but we never talked. She just said hello. I’ve not really met her. I guess I should meet her.
Light sensitive: You read the book.
Carey Mulligan: Yes, I read the memoir several times. I never thought it was sort of an option to really speak to her. Somebody asked me whether I wanted to call her and I thought, I don’t know, I never really thought about it. The script came and that was my sole focus. I don’t think I wanted to complicate it by over thinking or taking on any of her mannerisms or trying to discover what happened afterwards. I certainly didn’t want to have an idea of what happened to the rest of her life. I know that she’s a very successful Guardian journalist but I didn’t want to think about loves that she had or the next person that she had sex with afterwards. I didn’t want to think about any of that because I didn’t want any of that going around in my head. I don’t want to know where David is now or what he’s doing.
Light sensitive: An Education and The Greatest, a film that played at Sundance, mark your first significant film parts. You’ve done a lot of theater, most important perhaps your performance as Nina in The Seagull.
Carey Mulligan: It originated at Royal Court and then we did sixteen weeks on Broadway. It was a long run, double what we did in London. For me that was the longest I’ve ever done a play. It was epic long, but it was great. I loved it. A lot of people say when you transfer it from London to Broadway, it’s not as fun as you expect it to be because you built it up so much. I had Peter Sarsgaard who took over Trigorin [on Broadway]. We spent most of 2008 doing this older man and younger woman weird dynamic. We sort of perfected it by the end.
He was amazing to work with because he never does the same thing twice, both in the film and the play. Doing a play with him, every night, if you’re getting bored he rejuvenates it or just throws something in there. One night he came over and shoved a macaroon in my face because he knew I was tired and need something to spark me.
Light sensitive: Your movie career has really taken off. Is that going to limit your ability to work in the theater?
Carey Mulligan: No, I’ve already got my next theater [piece] lined up. I’m doing Uncle Vanya with Ralph Fiennes at the beginning of 2010. Whatever happens this year I’ve still got a play to do. It’s great because I never wanted to go longer than a year without doing a play. I love it and I miss it when I’m doing film.
LS: The movie’s made a big impression at Sundance, Berlin and Toronto, and you’ve been designated the It girl. Do you fear you’re going to be in danger of losing something about yourself in the media-industrial apparatus?
Carey Mulligan: No, I think you make choices and if you become more interested in the lifestyle of being an actor than the work than you’ve made the wrong choice. I am surrounded people in my work life, my agents at CAA and my London agent, who are not interested in that, the red carpets, the fashion shoots. I’m not a model and I don’t want to be. I kind of want to stick to the work.
Light sensitive: Whether the stage or a movie set, is your manner of working instinctive or more intellectual.
Carey Mulligan: I never trained. It’s certainly instinctive. Since doing The Seagull, I used to use a lot of my own life experiences or used to sort of conjure up terrible things happening to my family in order to cry. Then I did The Seagull and I started building an imaginary world for the characters I played. I built pictures, images and memories for somebody else so that I could put that hat on and then take it off again.
The way I work, yeah it’s instinctive but it’s sort of also a lot about building another person. If I tried to play Jenny basing it on how I would have reacted, it would not have worked. I had to remove myself quite a lot from a lot of the scenes because I’d play them very measured and controlled and she’s not like that. The way I work is more about building a person I can leave at the stage door and go home and not feel bad.
(Emma Thompson and Mulligan)