The star of the Coen brothers' latest on why she has no interest in being a conventional English rose
Taken from the January issue of Dazed:
It’s been 18 months since Carey Mulligan stepped on to a film set, but today she’s back in front of the camera at last, rising at dawn and shooting all over the misty Dorset countryside. At nine on a Sunday morning, we unearth her in the lounge of a small stone-fronted inn buried in a tangle of country lanes. Aside from a few sheep, there’s no one else around. Dressed in black jeans ripped at the knee, her previously sleek blond bob grown out into long waves, the 28-year-old holds a scrapbook bulging with pasted-in photographs, scribbles and snippets of poems. She’s using it to immerse herself in her latest role, rebellious heroine Bathsheba Everdene (The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen was named in homage, incidentally), for a new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd. While Mulligan has for years been avoiding the corsets foisted on so many English actresses, she was convinced to appear in this period tale by the presence of revolutionary Danish director Thomas Vinterberg, who stripped cinema back to its essentials when he co-founded Dogme 95 with Lars von Trier. His previous films include Festen, a nightmarish drama of family abuse, and The Hunt, a sinister unravelling of mob mentality, suggesting he'll bring a raw, visceral, very Scandinavian edge to proceedings. “He’s not conventional at all,” says Mulligan, sinking into a sofa beside a wood-burning stove and pouring herself a mug of black coffee. “He’s so cool! He doesn’t do chocolate-boxy costume drama. I’ve been thrown off horses, burnt my hand, my back’s completely done in, my knees and ankles are twisted... I love it! I go home, don’t really sleep and get up and do it again.”
“I think getting used to a certain amount of rejection probably sets you up quite well for this job”
The last time we met, in the summer of 2012, underneath some Jubilee bunting at her local in west London, Mulligan was putting the brakes on after a breathless few years that culminated in beating out the likes of Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman to win the lead in Baz Luhrmann’s £100m extravaganza The Great Gatsby with Leonardo DiCaprio, and tying the knot with Marcus Mumford, her former childhood pen pal. At the time, she described an anxiety dream she’d been having about Gatsby’s then-forthcoming release. “In the dream, I watch it and in every scene I’m drunk, with a cockney accent,” she said covering her eyes. “I’m tottering around, shitfaced, doing this Eastenders impression...” Today, with some perspective on her fairytale trajectory through Hollywood, she laughs. “I don’t know why I was so freaked out! I guess I felt I’d been pretty under the radar up to that point, so Gatsby was scary. But nothing terrible happened. I didn’t fall over and break my nose on the red carpet. No one booed me out of the cinema... I feel less weight on the result these days.”
“Everyone thinks Carey’s an English rose but she’s a tiger with teeth and claws” - Steve McQueen
Born to a hotel-manager father and university-lecturer mother, Mulligan spent her childhood installed in the top floors of various hotels in London and Germany, strange playgrounds she’d explore with her older brother like some benevolent version of The Shining. “We’d run around the corridors and the maids would look after us. It set me up to be quite nomadic,” she says. She was at an international school in Düsseldorf when a musical production of The King and I convinced her she belonged onstage, although the rest of the world was less convinced. “At school I never got the lead role in anything,” she remembers. “I always played the Wicked Witch or Miss Hannigan, or the bitchy friend. Or the boys. I never got to play the sweet girl, I was always the other one. But I think getting used to a certain amount of rejection probably sets you up quite well for this job.”
After being sent to a leafy Surrey boarding school at 13, her first stab at auditioning saw her attempting to channel a mouthy Margate teenager in front of Tracey Emin, who was casting her autobiographical film Topspot (2004). “She was trying to get me to do her accent and I was this little posh kid from boarding school,” Mulligan smiles. “I don’t think I was very convincing.” Emin turned her down, as did all three drama schools on Mulligan’s Ucas form. “I was 18 and pretty sheltered, so I could understand why I didn’t get in. But...” she pauses and shrugs. “I just felt, I could be better at this.” She was pulling pints in her local pub when she got a toe in the door with a role in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. But it was the small, out-of-focus audition tape she dispatched to director Lone Scherfig – a pitch to play the bright sixth-former desperate to escape the suburbs in An Education (2009) – that changed everything. Mulligan’s bewitching mix of schoolgirl ingénue and precocious wisdom beguiled Hollywood, and she found herself nominated for a best actress Oscar against the likes of Meryl Streep. “I turned up feeling like I’d won tickets in a competition,” she remembers. Harvey Weinstein labelled her the “belle” of Sundance and Warren Beatty invited her for a stroll along a Malibu beach, gallantly lending her his chauffeur after discovering she was hopping buses to LA auditions. Comparisons were made to Audrey Hepburn, and she became first choice for scripts revolving around cute, confused teenagers. It would have been hard to blame the actress for coasting along a little on the tide of admiration.
Instead, Mulligan made a very smart move: she began chipping away at that sweet English image of hers remorselessly. Offers of playing “16-year-olds in Ramones t-shirts” were politely declined as she opted instead for theatre roles (the tiny seagull tattoo on her wrist references a Chekhov play she appeared in and fell in love with) and a part as a lonely Los Angeles mother swept up by Ryan Gosling in Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-soaked noir Drive (2011). But the real deathblow to her innocent gamine image came in her first scene in Steve McQueen’s Shame, as she stood nonchalantly naked shouting “fuck!”, with messy bleached hair with growing-out roots and a figure deliberately untouched by the gym. She gave an electric performance as Sissy, the needy, damaged sister of Michael Fassbender’s sex-addicted New Yorker Brandon, matching him scene for scene – McQueen dubbed them “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers”. When Shame hit the screens in 2011, it suddenly became clear that this well-brought-up girl – who won the class prize for “endeavour”, pinned anti-smoking pamphlets on her school’s noticeboard and admits to wearing a Les Misérables t-shirt well into her teens – had one very wild streak. (She auditioned three times for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, hard as it is to imagine her as a fierce punk avenger bombing down icy highways in leather and studs.) “Everyone thinks Carey’s an English rose but she’s a tiger with teeth and claws,’ McQueen told assembled press at Venice. “She’s a wonderful piece of work.”
“I pulled back with the rage at first, but the Coens just kept prodding me. They thought it was really hilarious to make me say ‘fuck’ a lot. It tickled them to have me be really awful”
The Coen brothers decided to have some mischievous fun with that duality of hers – the cherubic face, the inner steel – in their pitch-perfect ode to the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis. Set during a freezing, leaden-grey winter as troubadours prowl MacDougal and Bleecker, it’s the melancholic tale of struggling musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he hauls a battered guitar and a ginger cat around Manhattan in search of better luck. Surrounding him are comically earnest trad-folk devotees, warbling fisherman shanties in matching chunky-knit sweaters to thin audiences at the Gaslight Cafe or plucking at dulcimers in Washington Square. Mulligan was cast as Jean, the scene’s crush (“I’d like to fuck her,” muses a club owner as she loftily croons an olde lament). She flew straight from the set of Gatsby to the Coens’ shoot. After six months draped on Long Island lawns in chandelier dresses and Tiffany jewels, she arrived armed only with a lesson in New York accents from YouTube and faced the prospect of having to sing with Justin Timberlake as her beardy acoustic-guitar-strumming husband. With just a week of rehearsals, they modelled themselves on a slightly pretentious Peter, Paul and Mary-style group and plunged in.
Onstage, Jean is all long, wistful locks, demure orange polo-necks and angelic voice; offstage, she glowers and spits out deadpan, expletive-heavy asides at Davis after their fling gets her pregnant. Maybe it was all those bitchy friends she played at school, but Mulligan’s character turns out to be one of the most memorable misanthropes committed to celluloid. “I slightly pulled back with the rage at first, but they just kept on prodding me,” she says. “I think they thought it was really hilarious to make me say ‘fuck’ a lot. It tickled them to have me be really awful. I had made the Coens an audition tape in my hotel room, and I did one version after a couple of drinks. I’m raging and eating this chocolate bar, and I thought it was totally brilliant, and then the next day my friend was like, ‘Er, don’t send that to the Coen brothers.’ But on-set they were so horizontally relaxed. I’d just hear the occasional chuckle from behind the camera. No one was afraid of doing anything weird with them.”
When Inside Llewyn Davis wrapped, Mulligan made the decision to step back. “I’d done Drive, Shame, then a play, then Gatsby and straight into the Coens’ film, and I remember being halfway through a take and my mind went blank. I thought, ‘Shit, I’m really tired. I don’t want to be really tired when I’m working for the Coen brothers!’ I slightly winged it on the day, and I thought I should stop. But it’s so good to be working again – by the end of this gap, I was tearing at the walls.” Asked what she did with her time off, she offers a vague, “Just hung around.” Resolutely private about her personal life (a lesson learned perhaps from a previous relationship with Shia LeBoeuf that was played out in the goldfish bowl of LA), she’s more likely to be spotted walking her parents-in-law’s dogs than frequenting the kind of restaurants and clubs guaranteed to have paparazzi waiting outside.
Next week, however, she’s due in Leicester Square for the Coens’ London premiere as the publicity machine cranks into gear once more. “I’m better at it then I used to be,” she muses. “It used to make me so, so uncomfortable. All through the An Education stuff I’d get horrendously nervous and by the end of the line of photographers I’d be crying a bit. It’s ridiculous how sad and weird it made me feel. And then I got over myself. You just can’t take yourself so seriously.” After love scenes with DiCaprio and duets with Timberlake, there can’t be much that can faze Mulligan now. Still, every so often that little kid in the Les Misérables t-shirt pops up with a reality check. “I was walking down the street to meet my friend, to go running by the river in Hammersmith,” she says. “And suddenly, I just stopped dead. Like, ‘I was in a film with Leonardo DiCaprio. And I had a big part.’ Do you ever have that feeling where suddenly you realise you’re ten years older than you were five minutes ago? None of it felt real. I was standing there in Hammersmith in this weird jogging outfit, going, ‘What the fuck happened?’”
The actress has just two mementos from her career to date: the powdery blue dress she wore on the poster for An Education (“I’ll keep it for my daughter,” she decides) and a tiny bronze daisy that fell off one of her Gatsby gowns, saved and stuck into her growing library of scrapbooks. The two souvenirs neatly bookend the first phase of her onscreen career. After a spell in hibernation she’s ready to embark on the next, if her future directors follow the Coens’ lead and give her the kind of unexpected roles that allow Mulligan to play against type and jump without a safety net. The week after we meet, she emerges from the mud and mist of the English countryside and hits the Inside Llewyn Davis premiere in neon-bright yellow Dior, looking something like an elegant lightbulb switched back on.
Inside Llewyn Davis is out on January 24
Hair Ben Cooke at Frank Agency for Lockonego Salon; Make-up Ayami Nishimura using MAC pro; Nails Zarra Celik at CLM Hair & Make-up using Chanel AW13; Photographic assistants Trisha Ward, Nicolo Terraneo, Cornelius Kaess, Eva Pentel; Styling assistant ADONIS KENTROS; Producer Harriet Lyle; Retouching Larry Gorman at Rankin