It’s only supposed to happen in movies. A totally unknown British actress lands coveted leading role in a film and becomes the toast of Hollywood, drawing constant comparisons to Audrey Hepburn and stirring an Oscar buzz to boot.
In the case of Carey Mulligan, this scenario is happening in real life. She’s the star of An Education, in which she plays Jenny, a precociously bright London schoolgirl in 1962 whose wish for an escape from her bourgeois boredom comes true when an older man sweeps her off her feet. But the audience is swept away by Mulligan’s performance, which is one for the history books.
I recently got a chance to sit down with her to discuss the film. I quickly found out that not only is she talented, she’s one of the most charming people I’ve ever met.
Ten minutes into An Education, and I don’t remember having been more seduced with an actor or a performance than with yours. Thank you!
You’re 24 years old, yet you play a 16-year-old. Ever since I started my first job, when I played a younger sister in Pride & Prejudice, I was 19 and the character was 16. Then I did a play when I was turning 20 where I was supposed to be 14. So I’ve always played kind of younger than myself, and it’s rare now when I play an adult. I think the screenwriter Nick Hornby was worried about the age gap, because he initially thought someone in their 20s couldn’t play the part.
So you were not at all concerned about playing young in such a big role? I loved the way [Jenny’s character was conveyed by] the way she treated the people around her, the way she sort of idolizes her teacher, or the way her relationship changes with her friends when she starts going out with an older man-she becomes the most popular girl in the school-the way she treats her parents, and the way she throws out French lines. That’s what made her 16, so I really didn’t have to think about it. I kind of look 16. When I saw it, I was kind of disappointed with how young I look, because I always think I look a little bit cooler than that, but I don’t. So that obviously worked, and everything else came from the way it was written.
Was it important for you to not portray her like a victim, given that she was underage having an affair with a 30-year-old? We talked about that a lot, especially the sexual relationship between them. Jenny was always driving that more than really he was. She leans in for the first kiss. She says that she will wait till she’s 17, implying that she will sleep with him. There was a bit in Paris on the island with the sunset in the background where I sort of stroke his back, and I wanted that to show that she was not being thrown into bed or manipulated. She has enough warning signs. She finds out pretty early on after the visit to Oxford that he’s got some secrets, and she compromises in her values because she understands that that life is more exciting than what she has. So she is not being manipulated-she knows what is going on; she just accepts it because it’s better than what she’s got.
Up until this movie, we’ve seen you in supporting roles-Public Enemies, Pride & Prejudice. Were those roles harder to do than being the leading lady? Yeah, I think they are. Well, in Public Enemies, you see three frames of blonde hair, and that was me.
Well, you got to sit on the lap of Johnny Depp : (Laughing.) It’s not a bad day’s work. My first job I did in America was a really small part in a Jim Sheridan film called Brothers, with Tobey Maguire, coming out in December. I had one scene. I came in to the set, and everyone’s been there for two to six weeks. Everyone in the crew are friends, all the actors know each other, are all comfortable around each other, and they set the tone. I come in, a random Brit who’s been in nothing, and I have to make my mark, or at least try and understand what everyone else is doing. And you only have one go. So you have to make your impression often in one day, when you usually have longer. With An Education, where I was the lead, I was nervous, but once you get into it, you get to the point where you are playing the same person all the time, and you stop making choices and you just start playing. So that’s easier.
In your short career, you’ve already worked with Jim Sheridan and Michael Mann, and you’re currently working with Oliver Stone in Wall Street 2. You’ve worked with the best directors in such a short period. I’ve been very fortunate. Pun intended: It’s been quite an education.
An Education opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend.