Hollywood's Latest Darling: How Carey Mulligan Rose to Fame
Born: 1985, Westminster, England, UK
Best Known For: Her starring roles in An Education and The Great Gatsby
Starring as Daisy Buchanan may be throwing Carey Mulligan in the spotlight but the British actress has been deserving of the attention for years, playing one standout role after another. Whether you've been a fan of hers since you first saw her in 2005's Pride & Prejudice (where she played Kitty Bennet to Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet) or since you saw her in 2009's An Education, it doesn't really matter because once The Great Gatsby is released, everyone is going to be claiming love dating years back.
Prior to being cast in Pride & Prejudice, Mulligan had never professionally acted and had only done some school plays, but her love for acting ran deep. When she was studying for her A-levels (a precursor to university) at Woldingham School she applied to several drama schools, keeping it from her parents who had wanted her to attend university first. "There was a 'movie story in my head'," she told the Guardian. "Against all the odds I'd get in, and I'd be like, 'Ha, Mum and Dad — look! My talent has been recognized! You must recognize it too!'" Even though all three schools rejected her, she didn't give up on her dream and lucky for her, her next shot was the big one.
When Mulligan was a teenager, screenwriter Julian Fellowes gave a talk at her school, spurning her to write to him about her desire to act. The letter led to a dinner with Fellowes and his wife, which led to a meeting with a casting director working on Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice adaptation. The casting director wanted young girls who had never acted professionally before to be cast as the younger Bennet sisters, ultimately awarding the role of Kitty to Mulligan. It wasn't long before she was picked to play 16-year-old Jenny in An Education, the film which won her massive critical acclaim and changed her life.
When Nick Hornby was writing the screenplay adaptation for An Education he knew that the character of Jenny wouldn't be entirely credible until they found the right actress to give her a voice.
"[...] when I saw the DVD of Carey's audition, it was clear that the kind of animation she would bring to the role went above and beyond anything I had any right to expect," Hornby wrote in his feature for Elle magazine. "The lines merely gave her an excuse, a way in, and the ferocious intelligence that illuminates the screen is almost all hers, I'm sorry to say." Mulligan's effortless portrayal of a young girl struggling to escape her stagnant suburban life through a relationship with a mysterious older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard) made her a favorite among indie film festivals, and even earned her an Oscar nomination.
Though playing precocious young girls initially got everyone's attention, she quickly broke character by appearing as Sissy in Steve McQueen's Shame, the sister of sex-addict Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender). Mulligan was apparently desperate to win the role, having to basically beg McQueen for a chance, telling the Guardian that ten minutes into their first interview he tried to leave.
"I convinced him to sit down again, and he started asking why I wanted the part, and I basically said I just hadn't found a film role comparable to how I felt when I was playing Nina in The Seagull," she says — in 2007 Mulligan played the troubled character of Nina in the theater production of The Seagull at the Royal Court. "And when I read this script I thought, it's not the same person, but I hadn't found that sort of fear in anything for a while…So I said: 'This is exactly the kind of film I want to be making. I don't want to be making big, silly films.' And then – Oh God, I was really trying to get the job – I started reciting Chekhov." Mulligan even told McQueen that if he hired her she would get a seagull tattoo to remind herself of her goals in life. He agreed to her terms and the next day, she got the tattoo on the inside of her right wrist, getting the job that afternoon.
Playing the needy and damaged Sissy, a girl with a borderline incestuous love for her brother, pushed Mulligan to expose herself in ways she'd never done before. "I've never been comfortable with the idea of nudity. I’ve done only seminude, very innocent things in the past, and I’ve always been of the quite British mind-set that I won’t do gratuitous nudity," she told W Magazine. "[Sissy's] an extrovert and wants to be seen. More than anything, she wants someone to acknowledge and help her. […] The nudity helped me dive into who she was. Once she’d been naked in front of her brother, I could go from there."
With both characters desperate to fill an emptiness within, Mulligan's Sissy was exposed even while fully clothed, giving a vulnerability rarely seen on screen. Even though she knew the role required extreme exhibition, that didn't mean it came easily, telling the Guardian, "I tend to clamp up on camera, but this meant working with no inhibitions. I mean, I don't wear a bikini on the beach. I walk around my house in pajamas. I haven't seen myself naked in the mirror for probably a decade. I'm very prudish." She also had to show off her singing voice, which she had never done in a film prior to Shame, and the resulting stripped-down live performance of "New York, New York" was certainly memorable. "The point wasn't really that Sissy was a great singer — it was more that she attracted people," Mulligan told W Magazine.
While Mulligan has already won over critics and serious film buffs, her latest role as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is sure to make her a household name (if she's not already) and launch her into the realm of megastar. When once she was able to walk the streets without being bothered much, that's sure to change once Gatsby is released on May 10, 2013. Daisy, though vacuous, knows her role in life and how to play it, making the dual nature of her character a tough one to nail — especially when one considers F. Scott Fitzgerald's iconic piece of literature she hails from. To prepare, Mulligan dove into a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald (F. Scott's wife and inspiration for Daisy), helping her to look past Daisy's selfish behavior to unearth the conflicted girl doomed to an eternal performance of her own making. In the book, Daisy famously says of her young daughter, "I hope she'll be a fool — that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool," and it's Mulligan's grasp of the character that makes her line delivery in the film so multifaceted and heartbreaking to watch.
Even though her face has graced the covers of countless magazines and DVD covers, Carey Mulligan seems to successfully balance her work life with her personal one. While very open about what happens on set, she closes off when asked about her private life offset, especially when it comes to her marriage. Her life seems to parallel Daisy's in the most basic sense of knowing what's real and what isn't, telling Vogue, "The Gatsby thing is a wonderful escapade, but it is an escapade. It's not real life. [Daisy's] smart enough to know when to come home."