Life lessons captured on film
ARTS:HOLLYWOOD LORE is full of stories of stars who were discovered in unusual places. Lana Turner was supposedly spotted in a soda shop; Harrison Ford got his break making cabinets for George Lucas. English actress Carey Mulligan, however, owes her professional career to a school talk by the actor and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, writes ANNA CAREY
“Julian gave a talk at my school when I was 17 about Gosford Parkand winning an Oscar,” says Mulligan, who is now 24. “I met him after that very briefly and said I wanted to be an actor and he said, ‘go and marry a lawyer’. So that,” she adds dryly, “was brilliant. Very helpful.”
Later, however, Fellowes offered Mulligan some more practical help. “I hadn’t got into drama school and I’d lost my place at university,” she recalls. “I was taking my gap year, working in two pubs in the evening and as a runner at Ealing Studios during the day. I wrote Julian a letter and asked how do I get into acting without training or going to university, because I think I’ll drop out if I do that.”
Fellowes introduced Mulligan to his wife, who knew several well-known casting directors, and as a result she ended up getting an audition for Joe Wright’s big-screen adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.She got the job – playing the flighty Kitty Bennett – and hasn’t looked back since.
Roles in the BBC’s hugely successful Bleak Houseand a memorable episode of Doctor Whofollowed. She’s also played small parts in Public Enemiesand Jim Sheridan’s Brothers(“Jim is awesome,” she says, “I loved working with him”). But it’s her impressive performance in An Education, beautifully directed by Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig and written by Nick Hornby, that has made her cinema’s new It Girl.
Based on Lynn Barber’s brilliant memoir and set in the early 1960s, An Educationis a fantastic film that perfectly captures post-war Britain’s transition from austerity to swinging glamour. Mulligan, who is just as pretty but taller and more physically imposing in real life than she appears on screen, is superb as 16-year-old schoolgirl Jenny (a fictionalised version of Barber), who falls into a relationship with David (Peter Sarsgaard), a much older man who introduces her to a dazzlingly sophisticated world. With her parents’ permission, and to the dismay of her teachers, Jenny abandons her formal education for lessons in life of a very different kind.
An Educationis a rare thing, a female-centred coming-of-age film. And this is part of what appealed to Mulligan. “A film about a girl who experiences that much of a journey is rare, rather than a film where the girl is the accessory to the main story,” she says. “With An Education, it’s all about Jenny.”
Jenny may be centre-stage, but the film also features a truly stellar cast. Mulligan more than holds her own among actors such as Sarsgaard, Emma Thompson, Dominic Cooper, Rosamund Pike and Olivia Williams. Luckily, she wasn’t too intimidated by her talented co-stars. In fact, she seems enormously fond of them.
“More than anything else I’ve ever worked on, we pulled together a group of people who get on ridiculously well,” she says.
Now the publicity circus is coming to an end, she’s getting a bit wistful about saying goodbye to her colleagues. “Nick [Hornby] and I just had lunch together and we realised this was the last one. We can’t run around fancy hotels wracking up ridiculous bills and sitting in the bar together any more. That’s a shame.”
Fancy hotels, however, are all too familiar to Mulligan. Her father, who came from a Liverpool-Irish family (Carey’s great-grandfather was from Ireland), was a manager for the luxury hotel group InterContinental, and Carey lived in various hotels until she was eight. “The Mayfair was my first home. Most hotels have an apartment on the top floor, and that’s where we lived. I didn’t have my own mini-suite or anything.”
Growing up, Mulligan always wanted to be an actress. “I did everything I could get my hands on at school, and outside school I did lots of local amateur theatre,” she says.
Some of these productions were captured by amateur cameras. “There are some really, really embarrassing tapes out there. Seriously, I’m terrified of the thought of them resurfacing. It’s what I wake up thinking about in the middle of the night. I want them all burnt!”
Having started her professional career at the age of 19, Mulligan could identify with Jenny’s sudden immersion in a very grown-up world. “I think you grow up a bit faster when you have to be around lots of adults,” she says. “You don’t go to university and spend three years with people your own age, you spend your time with people in their mid-50s or 60s. It is different. And then, when you work for yourself, you’re an artist or actor or whatever but you have to be responsible for your own money and business. You enter a different stage of your life much faster than most of your friends.”
She likes the nomadic life of an actress and has no problem travelling for work. “I’m not very good at being in the same place for very long,” she says. “I’ve had my flat in London for about three years, but I haven’t really lived there. My best friend, who lives with me in London, came to visit me in New York recently and she brought all my bills – but I like being able to detach myself from all that and focus on the job. you don’t have to be reminded that you have a mortgage or a water bill.”
Mulligan is now in New York shooting the long-awaited sequel to Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. The new film is set in 2008 as the current financial crisis got into gear, and Michael Douglas is reprising his most iconic role as amoral trader Gordon Gekko. Mulligan plays his daughter. “I don’t play a ruthless trader, unfortunately. I wish!” she says. “I want my own ‘greed is good’ speech.”
She’s enjoying working with Stone. “He lives up to his reputation in the best ways. None of that scary crap is real. You have to earn his respect. If he puts you on the spot, you have to know how to answer. You have to stand up for yourself, and I love that, I think it’s exciting. He pushes you – he knows what level you can go to and he gets you there,” she says.
Surprisingly for one who seems so comfortable in front of the camera, Mulligan prefers working in the theatre. “I’m terribly camera-phobic,” she says. “I find it difficult to be viewed through a lens. I pay too much attention to the presence of the camera and the crew, which makes me feel false. In theatre, you get on stage and for three hours no one can tell you to stop. It’s easier to believe in the world you’re creating than it is when someone is yelling ‘cut!’ or a light goes out.”
She’s not hugely keen on one aspect of her glittering career, however: the red carpet. When we meet, she’s preparing for the London premiere of An Education. And although she’s glad her parents are getting to go, she’s not looking forward to the whole thing.
“That part is not fun at all,” she says. “I like my mum getting glammed up, and it’s nice to hear an audience enjoying the film. But the stuff walking in with the paprazzi is difficult.” She brightens up. “But at the end of the day it’s not too bad. Just a bit scary.” And while she seems slightly uncomfortable with this attention, at least her increased celebrity might mean she won’t have to constantly spell her first name. “People always want to make me Carrie and Kerry. No one ever spells it right first time.” Does she ever have to say “as in Mariah?”, as I am regularly forced to do? She laughs. “All the time. If it was someone a bit cooler . . .”
Mulligan is reportedly going out with her young Wall Streetco-star Shia LaBeouf, although her former mentor, Julian Fellowes, doesn’t really approve of her carrying on with actors. “Julian still maintains that I should marry a lawyer. He says: ‘You’re going out with another actor? Come on! Stop that nonsense. You can’t go out with a struggling actor!’”
But these days, Mulligan herself doesn’t seem to be struggling at all.
An Educationopens in cinemas on Friday