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Carey Mulligan – An English Actress Gets An Education and Award Noms

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Carey Mulligan and Alfred Molina at the NY press day for “An Education.”

Carey Mulligan

An English Actress Gets An Education and Award Noms

by Brad Balfour

With An Education, the 24-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan has come out of nowhere to garner the kind of critical acclaim and award notice that few receive so quickly – she’s up for a Golden Globe tomorrow for example. But her performance as 16-year-old Jenny in Danish director Lone Scherfig’s version of Lynne Barber’s story (adapted by writer Nick Hornby), not only glistened but showed an understanding of her character and the era beyond her years.

Feeling stifled by the social conventions of life in England in 1961, Jenny’s life changes when she meets a handsome older man. David (Peter Sarsgaard) both opens her eyes to world at large and the sexual life within her. Though he tenderly draws her in, he has an insidious, deceptive side, which unfortunately reveals itself, destroying her and her father’s (Alfred Molina) hopes for a life with him.

The London-born Mulligan had been in a few films such as 2005’s Pride and Prejudice (playing Kitty Bennet alongside Keira Knightley, Judi Dench and Donald Sutherland) and in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (as the orphan Ada Clare). However, the Covent Garden resident first established herself in the new version of Doctor Who as a guest actress.

According to IMDB, Mulligan has said that her passion for acting was first kindled at Woldingham School, where she performed in Sweet Charity in her final school year. Once she began her professional acting career, and found an audience she also started a relationship with Shia LaBeouf as of last August, who she met while they filmed Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Carey Mulligan in “An Education.”

Did you identify with your character?

I think mainly in the way she feels about school. I got quite bored with school towards the end. When I was 14, I was really academic, and then I slowly lost interest in it towards the more important parts. It was just that I felt like I was doing things to tick boxes and to get on another level, and to just pass that exam so that I could get onto that exam. I thought, “This isn’t interesting and I’m not learning anything that I’m interested in.” I just felt like I was doing it for other people, and I was doing it to please other people. But then I didn’t take advantage of my education, and that’s quite sad. I admire Jenny, in that she really does want to learn and feel passionately about things. If some of the things that I was taken to do when I was in school… It was a really nice school in Surrey, and we went on really amazing school trips to really amazing places, even just museums in London or concerts and things. But it was just an opportunity for us to run out and find a Pizza Hut that serves alcohol, like where can we get drunk in 45 minutes before we have to be at this thing. So, I related to her in the fact that she wanted to escape all of that, because I thought it must be better somewhere else.

You and the other actors have a lot of theater experience. With this movie that would contribute to making some of the set pieces in the house and some of the other interactions work because you’re really familiar with that kind of interplay of dialogue, that talk back and forth. Did the film have a theatrical, on the stage quality to you?

When you do a play you come away from it feeling like you’ve really acted for a bit. But it pretty much would have come out of lots of people who are brilliant and have done a lot of film. It’s the cast [that matters] – when you get a group of people together who genuinely like each other a lot, and make each other feel comfortable. Those things work when everyone feels at ease with each other, and so you don’t feel nervous about making mistakes or embarrassed. Because I was probably the least experienced person, [that was] certainly the case for me. I never felt embarrassed. That was because I was around a lot of people who don’t worry about perceptions of themselves like that. So, it had more to do with that; I’ve not done that much theater [actually]. We didn’t have a huge amount of time [for rehearsal]; we had six-and-a-half weeks and then two days in Paris.

Carey Mulligan in “An Education.”

Did you enjoy having a chance to live through the experience of the ’60s –  especially with the clothes and hair?

It was great. I loved all that. It’s always helpful to put on the shoes of the character you’re playing, and it certainly helps wearing a school uniform. Then being surrounded by girls who really were sixteen or seventeen years old; all the extras that age were really helpful. When you wear no makeup, or film no makeup – which is lots of makeup to make it look like you’re not wearing anything – and a school uniform, and then someone puts on a nice dress and does your makeup, you do feel like you’ve been done up and transformed. You walk around and don’t feel so horrible in front of the crew; all those things make you feel generally better about yourself. It was great and it was fun, with girls’ false eyelashes are always fun.

Was the ’60s music a revelation?

Lone [Scherfig, the director] made me lots of CDs before we started shooting. Also, they’d written this sort of soundtrack, or the piano piece that goes over the whole film. I had a minute of that, it was put on one of the CDs. Then it was on my iTunes and I didn’t know what it was, and six months later I was going through it and played it. I had no memory of where it had come from, so I labeled it because I was going through a labeling phase. I labeled it as “Pretty Song.” It wasn’t until I, Dominic Cooper and Peter Sarsgaard went to Sundance and heard the song that I realized it was from this. I love the music in the film; the Duffy track at the end is cracking.

Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard in “An Education.”

What was Lone’s direction like?

She doesn’t see the task of making a film as stressful. I’m sure she has enormous stress, but you never feel that stress from her. She sees it as a really joyful thing that we’ve all be given this gift of a script. So, it does feel very measured really.

Do you think that sixteen-year-old girls nowadays could fall in love as easily as a girl in the ’60s?

Yeah, definitely. Probably the only difference is that I wouldn’t advocate getting in the car in 2009. Don’t get in the car. But then, my dad would tell me that when he played on the streets – he’d played football in Liverpool when he was growing up – if you got thirsty you just knocked on the door and asked someone for a glass of water. You just wouldn’t do that now. So, I think the only difference is she wouldn’t have got in the car. God, girls at my school would just go crazy, instantly, and I don’t even think Jenny ever falls in love with him; I think she loves him and finds him endearing and he introduces her to a different world, but I don’t think she’s in love. I don’t think the sex would be so calculated. But I think she does love him.

Is she more in love with her projection of herself in that world?

Absolutely. She’s becoming who she thinks she wants to be, and then realizes of course she’s not. There’s one good thing that someone said the other day. There are a few shots in the film where the lighting changes, or moments when she’s realizing stuff about herself that she doesn’t particularly like. Every time there’s a shot like that, in the car when she reads and she finds out that he’s married, and there’s another moment as well, the makeup suddenly doesn’t sit on her face anymore. It looks like she’s put on her mum’s shoes and done her makeup. The lips look wrong and the eyes look wrong. I like that. I think the lighting suddenly becomes harsh and you see a really young face with too much makeup on it, and you suddenly see her, and those are the moments when she realizes that she’s just gone way too far.

Carey Mulligan in “An Education.”

It wasn’t a problem for a girl that young to get involved with a guy that old? Not a problem conceptually, but did it seem realistic?

Oh absolutely; definitely. You get a chance to live sixteen again, so were there things you’ve thought about or learned or reflected on so that you say, “At least I didn’t do that,” or “Oh yeah, I didn’t think about that?” She’s more rebellious than I was. I wasn’t that interesting. I wasn’t that bold either. I would never have got in the car, not even in the ’60s. I would have just walked away and waited for the bus. I think I wish I’d taken more advantage of the stuff I got to at school. I wasted quite a lot of time. I had fun, but I didn’t do very much. We went on a choir trip once to Washington and we spent the whole time being like, “Oh it’s so hot.” Like, come on; we had amazing opportunities and threw them away, and I feel a bit guilty about that. Every time I do a job I’m always amazed by how knowledgeable people are. On Wall Street, the amount that Oliver, Shia, Frank and Michael have all learned about – they already knew so much, but the amount they know about finance and the economy. I kind of come in and go, “God, give me a copy of The Economist. I need to figure out what the hell you’re all talking about.” I’m trying to learn more for myself than I was before. I was kind of coasting along before, quite happily ignorant.

Have you ever tried singing?

I sang a lot at school but I’ve never done it professionally.

Who are your role models as actresses?

I think people who’ve had interesting, varied [careers], gone back and done plays and lots of different things. Like Samantha Morton, Emma Thompson obviously, Kate Winslet, Toni Collette, Claudie Blakley… but lots of American actresses as well. Penelope Cruz; I met her in Toronto and almost cried.

Rosamund Pike and Carey Mulligan in “An Education.”

Dominic Cooper said you went to lots of readings and auditions together but never got the role. What do you remember from that time?

I love how he’s telling that story. The reason Dominic and I know each other is that, when [the production company] Working Title has a new film they have a big roundtable read and they just ring up actors to come play the parts, not necessarily the people who will play the parts, and in our case, definitely not. So, we’ve been in, a fair few times where we’ve been called in to play very small parts in big films, and we sit around and we get really horribly nervous because we’ve got like three lines and then we just make a complete mess of it and then they never call us. Then you find out when you watch the film that everybody else around the table ended up playing those parts, apart from me and Dominic. So that’s how Dominic and I met basically, by being rejected together.

Dominic made it sound much more glamorous when he was telling it.

He does [like to milk it].

After all that rejection how do you feel about everybody saying this movie is a big vehicle for you?

I’m amazed by the reviews. I’m not amazed, I think it’s a lovely film, but I think it’s been wonderful to be part of something that people seem to genuinely like. But it hasn’t come out yet, so… It hasn’t been years and years of rejection; I’ve a had a really lucky, nice career so far, Dominic’s just made it sound like we lived in hovels and occasionally sang songs for people.

Well he did.

He did; yeah that’s true. But I can’t say enough about what this has all meant to me. But really the best thing that’s come out of this has been spending time with the people we made it with. Nick [Hornby] just gave me this, and when we were about to do a Q&A and showed me the dedication at the beginning and I just burst into tears. I’ve got so much love for all the people that we did this with, and the fact that I get to spend all this time around them again is just great. But if these nice things mean that more people will see the film, that’s nice, because it won’t just be your aunt and my Welsh granny.

How are things on Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps?

Good, they’re good, yeah.

How did you land the role in Wall Street 2? How is it working for the first time here?

This is not the first time I worked here; I did a film here last summer, The Greatest — which was also at Sundance — and then I did the play here. But someone slipped Oliver a copy of An Education and my agent rang me when I was still shooting Never Let Me Go and said, “Oliver Stone’s going to give you a call.” What a strange phone call to have. I was sitting with Andrew Garfield, who was in Never Let Me Go with me, and he just went mental. I went and got a hands-free so we could both lean over the table and listen, because we just wanted to hear Oliver Stone speaking, which I’ve never told Oliver and now he’ll know. Then he offered me the job and I went over to L.A. a couple of weeks later and read it and loved it. I had versions of the script since July and we started rehearsal; we had about three weeks of rehearsals about two months ago, and then we’ve done about four weeks of shooting. I haven’t had to do very much yet, they’ve been kind to me and [scheduled] all of my big stuff for after I’ve released this. But it’s great; it’s an amazing cast.

Emma Thompson, Ellie Kendrick, Amanda Fairbank Hynes and Carey Mulligan in “An Education.”

You’ve seen the original movie?

Yeah. It was weird actually, because the day before I was going to meet Oliver to read it, and I still didn’t know if it was something that I… I didn’t know what to do really. I didn’t know what the part would be like and I didn’t know if I should just dive in regardless of the part because it’s Oliver. I was staying at this hotel and I was doing this thing with the New York Times and I went to rent a DVD the night before I left. I opened the DVD player to put in the one I’d got – I got Risky Business – and Wall Street was in there. Then when I was flying to LA I was reading this magazine and my horoscope said, “blah blah blah blah blah, rubbish rubbish rubbish, like Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, ‘Greed is good.’” And I thought, “Why is the universe telling me to do this film?”

Who do you play in the movie?

I play Gordon Gekko’s daughter. Working with Oliver Stone, and all the good reviews and award notices for this movie, it is a big break in a sense of global domination. How you feel about that, because everyone wants a piece of you; there’s also the bad side of fame and the paparazzi and of course once everyone recognizes you on the street… I mean, I’ve been recognized twice [laughs].

That could change.

Well, I don’t really look like I do in this film. My years so far, and my life so far, and even to do with Wall Street, and there are paparazzi and it is distracting because you’re trying to film a scene on the street and you’re trying to think about your character or the other person you’re acting with, and you have twenty people taking other images of you. When you think, there should be just one image of you there are all these images of you, and so you have to try and not think about any of that, so it’s distracting for your work. But ultimately, you can get upset about it, but it’s not a bad position to be in. I’m doing the job that I love with people that I really respect, so it’s like a 98% good situation with a 2% downside. I’m so absurdly lucky to be working, let alone working with the people I’m working with. I don’t even know if it will enter my world, but if it does it’s not bad in the grand scheme of things.

Are you irritated that when you’re out with Shia [LeBeouf, star of Transformers] that everybody’s is clicking cameras and, everybody surrounds you? He’s probably stalked by people.

At work there are always paparazzi there, but there are always paparazzi on the set of Sex and the City and everything else that shoots in New York or any major city, so it comes with the territory. It’s irritating at work really because you don’t want to think about it, but then they’re doing their job and they’re earning their living for their families. You just have to block it out.

Copyright ©2010  All rights reserved. Posted: March 1, 2010. 

Photo Credits:#1 © 2009 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.#3 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.#4 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.#5 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.#6 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.#7 © 2009. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. All rights reserved.


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