“You’ve no idea how boring everything was before I met you.” As written by Nick Hornby and spoken by Carey Mulligan in An Education, these words of gratitude come after a moment of stillness in which Jenny, Mulligan’s character, reflects on her experience as a 16-year-old schoolgirl taken on a social joyride by a 35-ish hustler, David (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s Twickenham in the early '60s, the age of austerity's not yet over, and they’re sitting in his Bristol outside her house at night. She tells him she sometimes thinks he’s the only person who’s done anything in “this whole stupid country”, he soaks up the praise, and eventually their heads incline for a tender kiss.
It seems they’re falling in love, but the viewer should be wary. Though not fully aware of it herself, Jenny is dazzled by the glamorous fun David brings her, not by himself. Even her narrow-minded father (Alfred Molina) and passive mother (Cara Seymour) collude in Jenny’s liberation from responsibility. A brilliant student, she so neglects her school work that she veers off the path to Oxford, brazenly embracing hedonism with a dab of high culture.
She gets to bid on a Burne-Jones, go to nightclubs, attend dog races. Thinking herself worldly, she faces down her headmistress (Emma Thompson) and betrays the trust of her caring English teacher (Olivia Williams). The fairytale extends to a trip to Paris in which she dolls herself up like Audrey Hepburn and moons with David by the Seine (picture right)
. That’s where, offscreen, she willingly loses her virginity to him; onscreen, she indicates without irony that he’s ineffectual in bed.
The 24-year-old Mulligan, who’s been acclaimed as a star in America following the film’s success at Sundance and some rave reviews, is sublime in such moments. As a result, she's the first actress to enter the 2009 Oscar frame. “I think it’s very strange coming from the beginning of the year. You don’t sign up for this,” she said, taking a break from filming Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps in Manhattan to promote An Education. As for doing publicity, “it’s brilliant if it means more people will see the film, but what’s great is that I’ve got a script by my bed that I can go back to every night and go, ‘Oh, I have this scene tomorrow? How am I going to do that?' Then you’ve always got the focus of your character and the story you’re trying to tell."
She can’t say much about her role as Gordon Gekko’s daughter Winnie, but allows that “she’s estranged from her father, she’s not gone into the finance world, and she’s engaged to Shia LaBeouf’s character.” Does she get into trouble? “No.” She laughs. “Maybe. She’s gone the other way, but she’s a Gekko, so…”
Adapted by Hornby from Lynn Barber’s brief memoir and directed by Dogme member Lone Scherfig, An Education is a rite of passage drama that takes time to question how and why knowledge is gained and to what purpose, with the frustrated Jenny vociferously demanding answers of her teachers. At one point, the headmistress scoffs at Jenny’s claim that she’s a woman. Mulligan makes Jenny knowing, yet vulnerable.
“I think at the beginning, when David pulls up in the car, she’s fully aware that he could be there for the wrong reasons,” Mulligan said. “But she’s charmed into getting into the car. And throughout she has these warning signs. She finds out pretty early on that he’s got a few dodgy things going on in his life, but she compromises on her values to carry on this journey with him because it’s more interesting than what she’s got.
“Lynn Barber refers to the fact that she was going through this existential period in her life so she didn’t study her experiences - she just allowed them to happen. I don’t think Jenny’s being manipulated. There’s only one thing David holds back about himself - everything else he does is truthful. Her parents are more seduced by David than she is. All she’s waiting for in the whole story is for her Dad to say, 'Stop it – what are you doing?' And then she would stop. And if her parents had said, 'You have to go to Oxford,' then the whole thing would have been called off, but that's never given to her.”
The daughter of a hotel manager, Mulligan appeared in the chorus of The King and I at the age of six when the family was living in Germany. As a teenager, she was a force in the drama department at Woldingham School in Surrey, playing John Proctor in The Crucible and other parts. After seeing Kenneth Branagh on stage in Henry V, she wrote to him asking for advice, mentioning that her parents didn’t want her to act; he got word to her that she should follow her vocation. I asked Mulligan if she identified with Jenny.
“I think I felt the same way she felt about school,” she said. “When I was 14 I was an A-star student, really hardworking. From 14 to 18, I just got less and less interested. All I wanted to do was go off and do acting. I enjoyed English and history and German, but I felt like I was doing things for other people. I’d sit there thinking, ‘Why am I learning this? It’s not going to help me in any way. It’s not going to make me a more interesting person.’ You always think that at school, but I thought the grass was definitely greener somewhere else. I went to a really nice school and we were taken on some great trips, but when we were 16, we just wanted to find the local Pizza Express and see who would serve us alcohol. What I admired about Jenny is that she’s got a hunger for knowledge and she genuinely wants to experience things. I wasn’t like that."
After A-levels, she applied to three drama schools and was rejected by all of them. However, she had met the actor-writer Julian Fellowes when he’d given a talk at Woldingham and the contact led her to an audition for the part of Kitty, youngest of the Bennet sisters, in Pride and Prejudice (2005). She got the part, and made Kitty a flurry of hormonal excitability. In the BBC’s Bleak House (2005) she was angelic as Ada Clare, the demure, long-suffering orphan whose lover destroys himself over the years-long court case: each furrow that flickers on her brow seems like a wound.
More TV followed. She was troubling as the daughter who goes off the rails when her supermarket manager mother (Jane Horrocks) is swept to power as prime minister in The Amazing Mrs Pritchard
(2006); her rancorous scenes with her father (Steven Mackintosh) were particularly good. She then did another Austen, playing the sexy, flighty Isabelle Thorpe in Northanger Abbey
(2007, pictured left
). It wasn’t, she said, a conscious attempt to go against any perceived notion of her as a pliant costume drama “miss”:
“Ada and Isabella are completely polar opposites, but I never gave it that much thought. I wanted to play Isabella because I’d never played a character like that before. People tell me I’ve done a lot of costume dramas, but I’ve never viewed them as that. I think it’s a mistake to let the costumes wear you. It’s just women in different times - they never seem like bonnet dramas to me. So I don’t think strategically, but I don’t want to play the same person twice. I don’t want to play another 16-year-old who’s seduced by an older man. It’s not challenging.”
She showed that she could carry a film when she starred as a plucky modern girl forced to become a sleuth amid the Gothic craziness of the Dr Who episode Blink (2007). In My Boy Jack (2007), she was on edge throughout as Rudyard Kipling’s daughter whose officer brother (Daniel Radcliffe) is sent to the front during World War I; around the same time, Mulligan’s brother served with the Territorials in Iraq. She was briefly in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007) as a resort hostess too easily impressed by Jim Broadbent’s gregariousness.
People tell me I’ve done a lot of costume dramas, but I’ve never viewed them as that. I think it’s a mistake to let the costumes wear you. It’s just women in different times.
Somehow she found time to play Nina in the Royal Court’s production of The Seagull, repeating the role when it transferred to New York last year and earning a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play. When I saw her on Broadway, she made Nina’s disintegration wrenching. I asked her if her copious tears were calculated or an outpouring of emotion.
“She cries in the script, but you can’t force yourself to cry,” she said. “I think the reason it worked is because I never felt pressure to feel anything. If you start putting yourself under pressure to feel a certain way, you put a block on yourself. I was really just playing it. The closer it got to the end of the run, the more intense it became. There were nights when it didn’t happen that way, but most of the time it was a really emotional thing to do. I’ve loved it more than I’ve loved any other job. Even when I read it now it makes me feel a lot.”
Now Hollywood is calling. She had a small part as a Depression-era prostitute in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, is part of the ensemble in Jim Sheridan’s contemporary wartime drama Brothers - and had a meeting with Warren Beatty after Sundance. Back in England, she has teamed up with her Pride and Prejudice sister Keira Knightley for the film of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go.
Mulligan isn’t certain why she wanted to act in the first place. “I think it’s to do with being somebody else,” she said. “I’ve always been more comfortable being in a play than reading a poem or making a speech. I’m happier - not 'happier', because I’m a very happy person - when I’m experiencing that escapism. But I don’t know why.”
An Education is released in the US on October 16. It plays in the London Film Festival on October 20, 21 and 22 and opens in the UK on October 30.