It’s the day of the premiere and confusion reigns inside the London hotel. TV cables are snaking down the corridors, photographers stand in huddles and the doors keep opening and shutting like a Feydeau farce. The press minders, meantime, have turned harried and irritable. “What time are we leaving, Jane?” barks one to the other. “It’s Kate,” Kate snaps back.
In all the hubbub it takes me a moment to register Carey Mulligan, hiding out on a window-seat with her back to the light. Her blond bob is scrunched, her make-up applied. At first glance, she might be a 14-year-old trying to pass for 18 at the local nightclub. Then she gets to her feet and is instantly transformed, looming 5ft 10in in her tottering heels. Her voice is in her boots; rich and deep, at least three octaves lower than it ought to be. Everything about her is quietly confounding.
In the course of a hectic six-year career, Mulligan has conspired to look both young and old, plain and beautiful. She was flyweight and mousy as Kitty Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, grave and soulful as Ada Clare in the BBC production of Bleak House; impishly vulnerable in her Oscar-nominated breakthrough in An Education, a broken bird when she played The Seagull on Broadway. I can’t tell whether she’s a wizened, watchful Miss Marple in the guise of a limpid ingénue, or the other way around. “I have a very forgettable face,” she explains ruefully. “I don’t look specific.”
Her latest film, Never Let Me Go, makes great play of this mutability. Cast as Kathy, Mulligan is, variously, romantic heroine, sacrificial victim and quiet, stoic witness. Mark Romanek’s drama – based on the marvellously blank, affectless novel by Kazuo Ishiguro – is a sci-fi tale of sorts. Kathy, Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) are pupils at a cloistered English boarding school that doubles as a farm for human organs. Their only hope is an audience with the mysterious Madame, who is rumoured to offer deferrals that allow these clones to live for a time as normal people. “It’s a metaphor for our lives,” Mulligan says. “It could end tomorrow, or 70 years from now. But we know it’s going to end.”
She last worked with Knightley on 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, when Knightley was a star and she was not. Since then, she has played stealthy catch-up. In fact, Ishiguro tells me, there was early indecision over the casting; some debate over which woman would play vivid Ruth and which one retiring Kathy. “But I think they’re better suited this way around,” he says. “It has something to do with the respective beauty and sexuality they have. Carey’s charm is a more passive one. She’s not as conventionally attractive as Keira, but she’s a terrifically subtle actress. There’s always this dual-layer effect with Carey, what she gives you is never black and white. It’s her voice that’s the key. She can look so vulnerable that you expect her to sound quite girly. But the voice is surprisingly low and mature. It gives her this strange authority.”
As a child, Mulligan lived in transit. Her dad was an executive for InterContinental and shuttled the family from one hotel to the next. I tell her this sounds impossibly glamorous. “Oh God, it’s totally not,” she says. “I probably painted it as that when I was about 12, wanting to be cool, but it really isn’t. My dad was a hotel manager, so I was born at the Grosvenor House and then lived at the Mayfair. Then it was Hanover and Düsseldorf. Most hotels have a set of rooms on the top floor for the manager’s family. It kind of sucked because you couldn’t have a garden and you couldn’t have pets. Lose a guinea pig behind the radiator and you’ve got a big problem.”
That said, it prepared her well. “I like being a gypsy and I’m obviously comfortable in hotels. I mean, I don’t bring flowers or hang art, but it feels like home. It means you don’t have to think about real life. You just focus on the work. The only life you live is the life of the film.”
She is now 25 and wanted to be an actor from the age of six. In her teens, she wrote a letter to Kenneth Branagh, begging him to be her mentor. Branagh respectfully declined, as did the drama schools she applied to in secret. “I got turned down by Rada, and Central, and Drama Centre London. But fair enough – I wasn’t very good. I went in and performed a monologue from 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, who subsequently killed herself. I was 17 years old, this incredibly well-adjusted, happy person. Nothing bad had happened to me. And I was trying to conjure all this pain and drama. So they were like, ‘Who’s this pretentious public-school kid trying to trick us?’ I got a recall at Central, but that’s as close as it came.”
So she wrote another letter. This one went to Julian Fellowes, who had recently visited her school to give a talk. Incredibly, Fellowes went on to arrange an audition for Pride & Prejudice. Still more incredibly, she got the gig, which meant jacking in her part-time job pulling pints at the Three Pigeons. “I was just this random, giggly fool,” she recalls. “I was 19 and had about four lines and no idea what was going on. Then I got a play at the Royal Court, so I thought, ‘Oh, at least I’ve got work until the end of the year.’ Then I got Bleak House.” She waves a hand, a shade embarrassed by her own good fortune.
Variety magazine has christened her “the new Audrey Hepburn”, although she is more coiled and anxious than your average gamine. Ishiguro reckons she has more in common with Shirley MacLaine or Isabelle Huppert, while Fellowes suggests she’s an amalgam of them all, a classic screen heroine whose “bird-like fragility [contains] a core of steel”. Just lately she’s cracked America. In recent months the tabloids have fixated on her hair, her contribution to a track on the last Belle and Sebastian album and her brief relationship with Shia LaBeouf, her co-star on Oliver Stone’s Wall Street sequel. But that’s OK, she shrugs, because it’s as if these reports play out on a parallel planet. Off screen, she is able to vanish into the woodwork. “We were in Telluride recently, sitting in a gondola, and the other passengers were talking about Never Let Me Go, having just that minute seen it. And I was just sitting there, unnoticed.”
The way Mulligan puts it, all she ever wanted was to be a jobbing actor. What she was after was the thrill of the work; the roar of the greasepaint. So she wished and wrote letters, and then her dreams came true and caught her unawares. Even now, six years in, her lack of training still niggles. “Some people are at peace with their work,” she reflects. “I always think, ‘Oh fuck, they’re going to find me out.’ I mean, I still have days when I genuinely cannot act. There’s a scene in every film which I look back on and think, ‘That was the day I couldn’t act.’ It’s there in Never Let Me Go – that scene where we’re on the beach and Keira gives me Madame’s address.”
I remember it: she turns her head and looks away. “That’s because I couldn’t act!” Mulligan says triumphantly. “I’d love to say it was a creative choice, but it wasn’t. So I’m going to look away and hide, so the audience won’t see that I’m bad at acting, that I’m really shit.”
Next up is a role opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. She’ll play Daisy Buchanan, the siren of East Egg who lures the hero to his doom; a woman possessed of “a low, thrilling voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech were an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.” Her voice, says Gatsby, “sounds like money”. It’s a role that might have been written with the actor in mind.
There is a telling scene near the start of Never Let Me Go in which a kindly teacher blows the whistle. “You will become adults, but only briefly,” she tells her students. “You will start to donate your vital organs. That’s what you are created to do.” I wonder if this chimes with Mulligan’s charmed, veal-calf existence. Does she occasionally fear there might be some dark and terrible price to pay?
“Yeah, maybe I’m going to find out that I have to give my blood in order to stay in this world,” she says. “But no: there’s no club. There’s nothing going on that I don’t know about. It’s funny, because it’s all illusion. It’s basically about people getting up and driving to work and pretending to be someone else, and then driving back to sit in their hotel and watch To Catch A Predator.”
To catch a what? “Oh, you have to watch it! It’s on in America, it’s a reality show. They snare paedophiles. They go online and pretend to be little boys and girls, and they get these paedophiles to come to this fake suburban house. And then this guy walks in called Chris Hansen and collars them. And then, when they try to walk out, these police officers jump on them! Aw, it’s the best thing,” she says, her eyes alight. “I mean, these poor guys, it’s not like they’re armed. I mean, they’re horrible, but they’re basically just sad, pathetic men.”
The press minder arrives to wrap up the interview, but Mulligan will not be stopped; she’s on a roll. “And they’ve got this guy who’s dressed in army camouflage, with leaves on his outfit, who hides in the bushes, leaps out and throws them to the ground. The Leaf Man! Oh, it’s so good. That’s what I want to do. I want to play the fake child on To Catch A Predator. No, wait!” she says. “I want to play the Leaf Man!”
Basically, I think, she wants it all.