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Carey Mulligan gets 'An Education'

The 24-year-old British actress is learning the ropes in Hollywood -- and without a car.

October 08, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz

It's hard not to think that Carey Mulligan is having a "Queen for a Day" moment. Done up in purple satin, with gold kick-me stilettos, the fresh-faced 24-year-old is dolled up for pictures and perched on an antique table in the presidential suite of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a $4,200-a-night, multi-room perch atop the storied hotel. The room isn't hers, even for the night, and neither are the clothes. Practically everything touching her skin is borrowed -- except for the air of giddy excitement.

"Photo shoots used to make me weep," the actress says when she emerges afterward, lean and casual in a pair of baggy black jodhpurs she's borrowed from the set of her upcoming movie "Wall Street 2," in which she plays Gordon Gekko's daughter, and an oversize cream-colored T-shirt with a stencil of Andy Warhol. Mulligan prefers theatrical shoots. "It's easier if I wear something that's not my stuff," she says." It's more of a performance, less about me."

Much of Hollywood is betting on the fact that Mulligan, the star of "An Education," is going to have to get accustomed to a life in pictures. The film premiered to glowing hosannas and an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned bidding war at Sundance, and a few days after this sojourn at the Beverly Wilshire, Mulligan attended both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, all in the run-up to the nationwide release Friday. Set in the 1960s and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, "An Education" tells the tale of a middle-class suburban London schoolgirl who gets seduced by a much older, jet-setting man (Peter Sarsgaard). It's about cool French songs, slender women in tight-fitting shifts, a teenager's first foray into illicit adult romance and the inevitable shattering of romantic illusions.

It's a career-making turn for the British actress. In the army of young starlets that descends on Hollywood every year, Mulligan stands out, not just for her talent but also for her slightly mischievous, retro air. She's a throwback in a sense to Jean Seberg or Mia Farrow, not just because of her hair, which is now cropped, but because of the air of innocent sexiness, the intelligent glint in her eye and the dimples in her cheeks. In person, she's high energy, unpretentious and excitable, with a penchant for using the word "mad" to mean a kind of delightful nuttiness that applies to phenomena as disparate as her current director, Oliver Stone, the Sundance frenzy, mastering an American accent and fittings at Barneys New York.

The daughter of a hotel manager who bounced between living in Germany and England, Mulligan says she started acting at 6 in plays at her international school in Germany. "I never played the lead part in anything. I always played the character parts and the men," she says. The Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz," John Proctor in "The Crucible." "I tried to re-create Daniel Day-Lewis," she says, laughing, and explains that until the age of about 14, "I was a musical theater geek. That's all I wanted to do." Can she sing? "I can carry a tune but I'm not bound for the West End stage."

After graduating from boarding school, she tried out for drama school but failed to get in. "You have to be spectacular to get in. I wasn't. I did some pretentious piece of a suicide monologue, which, of course, I had nowhere to get that from," she says. Fortunately, while still in high school, Julian Fellowes, the "Gosford Park" screenwriter and author, came to give a talk.

She sat next to him afterward. "I grilled him. He told me to marry a lawyer or an accountant," she recalls. She later wrote to Fellowes, who with his wife invited her to dinner with other aspiring theater folk and introduced her to a casting director and her assistant, who eventually helped Mulligan land the role as flighty Kitty Bennet in the 2005 Keira Knightley version of "Pride and Prejudice." "I ate everything in sight [on that set]. I had these big cheeks," she says of the experience.

Her 2007 performance as the aspiring actress Nina in a celebrated English production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" garnered her even more attention and confidence; it later moved to Broadway. For Mulligan, the stint in New York was the culmination of a childhood fantasy. "The first month, every night I'd go, 'I can't believe I'm here.' I have that a lot, the 'I can't believe I'm here thing' -- once a week."

"The Seagull" also prompted a change in how she works. She's been using her imagination more, she explains. "Before, I was trying to react how I would react, imagining how the event would affect me. Now, I create a different set of images for the person." She now makes scrapbooks of images, thoughts, poems for each role, creating an entirely imagined inner life. "It's all a security thing. It's making [me] believe that [I'm] qualified to take on this part, because I didn't go to university or drama school."

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