Carey Mulligan is having a busy week; Tuesday morning she was nominated for a Tony Award for best actress in a play for the current Broadway production of “Skylight.” And Friday sees the release of her latest film, an adaption of Thomas Hardy’s novel “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Directed by Thomas Vinterberg, the film tells the story of the proud and independent Bathsheba Everdene, and the three men who vie for her affections.
After bursting onto the scene with her Oscar-nominated turn in 2009’s “An Education,” Mulligan was quickly crowned the hot new It Girl by Hollywood. Mulligan admits it was an uncomfortable fit at the time, revealing she often cried after walking red carpets.
So instead of signing onto franchises and blockbusters, she preferred to seek out smaller films that paired her with some of her favorite directors – such as the Coen Brothers with “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Steve McQueen with “Shame.” She even did the unthinkable for a young actress on the rise, taking a year and a half off before shooting “Far From the Madding Crowd.” In her own words, she notes, “I’ve never felt that I needed to dominate the world; I just want to carry on acting.”
Congratulations on the Tony nomination; how did you find out about it?
I started getting loads of text messages from everyone, basically. I went into the kitchen to make breakfast and came back and there were nine messages on my phone. It’s amazing; I’m so happy for everyone.
“Far From the Madding Crowd” was required reading in many high schools; when did you first read it?
I didn’t read it at my school, but a lot of people I know did. We did “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre.” I actually never read it until I got offered this job. I knew a vague outline of the story, but didn’t know it properly. I actually read the book before I read the script because I was away somewhere and I didn’t want to read the script off the computer. So I went to a bookstore to read the book and just loved it so much.
Did you worry about making Bathsheba sympathetic?
It’s funny because some people say she’s such an unlikable character, and I can see those aspects of her personality that turn people off. She’s definitely flawed. But when I read it for the first time, I really liked her. I found her funny and stubborn and willful and modern. It was entertaining and accurate for a young girl growing up and making mistakes. But the audience has to root for her for this story to work. And something I think David (Nicholls) did really well in adapting the novel is giving her a certain amount of empathy.
In some ways, this film reminds me of your breakout character from “An Education.”
It is a coming of age story, in another kind of way. It’s a very different time. But there’s still society’s conventions weighing on both those characters. The stakes are much higher in Victorian Britain because the difference between having money and land is truly life and death. That precariousness is what makes it so exciting.
You were really thrown into spotlight with “An Education.” What was that experience like as a young actress, new to Hollywood?
It was so unexpected. I was doing “The Seagull” on Broadway and found out “An Education” was going to Sundance – I didn’t even know what that was. The first time I saw the film, I felt terrible, because it was me onscreen for two hours. I was so insecure — I was like, Who wants to watch that? Then there was this whole reaction at Sundance and people were talking about awards campaigns, and I didn’t know what that was, either. And then I fell in love with the film and we had the best year with the cast all together – I could remove myself from my own critical eye and insecurities. It was a great time, but I had no idea what was going on and I was completely fazed by every part of it. Every time I had to walk a red carpet, I would end up crying at the other end. I was constantly terrified. I felt completely unqualified. So it was this weird mixture of being a great year and complete terror. I think the biggest problem was, I took it all way too seriously.
After that film, Hollywood came calling. Yet you seemed to gravitate more toward indie films and doing theater; were you consciously avoiding big blockbusters?
I remember having a lunch with my agent, who I’ve been with since I was 18, and she said, “You’re in this extraordinary position where people are going to offer you things and it’s amazing and you’re very lucky and you get lots of things and it’s great. And it doesn’t last. So whilst you’re in it, you should take advantage of it. And you should only take the role if you can’t bear the idea of anybody else doing it. If you can, don’t do it.” And that became the way that I worked.
It’s not like you avoided big-budget films completely; you appeared in “The Great Gatsby” with Leonardo DiCaprio.
And I loved it. She was just fascinating, and I grew up watching “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet” and watching Leo in films. To act opposite him was extraordinary. I could never have dreamt I would be able to get involved in a project like that. But it was definitely different from most of the films I’ve done.
Was there ever pressure to do bigger movies for bigger paychecks?
The great thing is, I have such great agents. They’re proper film buffs and understand that the Coen Brothers and Steve McQueen are my idea of perfection. When they send me something, I always feel they’ve really read it and really get my sensibilities. They’re not driven by the money or anything like that. And they’re also really great about time off. In waiting for projects I can’t bear not doing to come along, there’s often a lot of time where I’m not working. I took a year and a half off before I did “Far From the Madding Crowd.”
Did you get restless on that time off?
It’s funny; I used to hate not working, and now I kind of feel like its OK to go on holiday and spend time with your family. Because when I do work, it’s so completely consuming.
You’re starring with Meryl Streep in the upcoming “Suffragette.” What’s it like to share scenes with her?
It’s just … my God. I remember, I was in the bath when I got an email saying Meryl was in the film and I practically dropped my phone in the bath. It’s a dream project to be involved in. We’re in an age where something happens and the day afterwards people in Hollywood are writing scripts about it. We’re looking for these great stories, and this is one of the greatest stories of our time and it’s never been put onscreen. it’s a real look at what women went through pre-war in Britain to get the right to vote. And it’s not women walking through the streets holding banners and smiling and waving; it’s the women who chained themselves to buildings and blew up churches and were put in prison. I’m so excited for it to be out there.
Do you know what’s up next?
I’d like to do something contemporary. I saw “Suffragette” with a friend recently and she said, “I think a blue jeans drama for you next … you’ve done a lot of costume pieces.”