Along with 3-D effects and a soundtrack produced by Jay-Z, Baz Luhrmann’s spectacular, all-star production of The Great Gatsby casts the inimitable Carey Mulligan as Gatsby’s bewitching obsession, Daisy Buchanan.
“Here,” says Carey Mulligan, alighting excitedly on a page in a well-thumbed paperback biography of Zelda Fitzgerald. “ ‘She had no more worries than a puppy would have, or a kitten. . . .’ That’s Zelda. That’s Daisy.”
We are in a café in Covent Garden, and the 27-year-old actress is taking me through her research for the role of Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Her blonde hair newly grown out, Mulligan is wearing some battered cowboy boots she bought in Montana (“I was thrown from an actual horse in them”), leggings, and a much-loved brown sweater with holes in the elbows, shrunk with too many washes. Last night, she stayed with her parents in order to take her mother to a cooking class as a belated Christmas present; she has just emerged from a five-hour marathon of pasta-making: “one big table and everyone mucking in, all tasting from the same pot.” Hence the jumbly, just-pulled-on clothes.
“I still haven’t moved everything into my grown-up house,” she explains, that being the house she has just bought in London with new husband Marcus Mumford, of the Grammy-winning British folk band Mumford & Sons. While she was home, she also looked for her Gatsby workbook. “My mum and I were in my bedroom last night because that’s where all my stuff went when I got back from Sydney. We were tearing through, trying to find it. I had Marcus check at home. I think I’ve lost it.”
She doesn’t seem too concerned, having brought with her instead a collection of battered paperbacks and a large sheaf of photocopied letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald from Ginevra King, the sixteen-year-old Chicago debutante with whom Fitzgerald first fell in love and who gave him the outline for so many of the women in his fiction. Princeton University Library copied the entire unpublished set for Mulligan, who devoured them as bedside reading, “soaking up her view of the world, the way she spoke,” she says, turning to one of the letters. “ ‘Yours ’til the little devils in hell go skating.’ I love that. ‘There’s so little to me that I’m not hard to forget quickly….’ That dichotomy between Daisy having that attitude but meaning the exact opposite….”
She dives again into her biography of Zelda, who, along with King, went into what Mulligan calls “my Daisy cocktail”: “ ‘I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me. . . .’ That’s a direct Zelda quote. It’s that kind of feeling: I’m-so-little-and-there’s-nothing-to-me, watch-me-have-nothing-to-me. She feels like she’s living in a movie of her own life. She’s constantly on show, performing all the time. Nothing bad can happen in a dream. You can’t die in a dream. She’s in her own TV show. She’s like a Kardashian.”
Mulligan, most decidedly, is not. Ever since her Oscar nomination for 2009’s An Education, her approach toward the fishbowl of Hollywood fame has resembled the frowning puzzlement of a child prodigy staring down her first concert-hall audience, wondering what all these people could possibly want. “I once put my hand on my hip on the red carpet and regretted it instantly,” she says. As Jake Gyllenhaal, who acted opposite her in Brothers and has since become a close friend, says, “If it doesn’t feel true to her, she doesn’t do it.” Right after her career had “gone from zero to 60,” he recalls, “they were telling her she should get a publicist, and she was going, ‘I don’t understand why I would need a publicist.’ Her focus has always been the work.”
Those two worlds, of acting craft and nascent celebrity, are about to collide spectacularly with the release of Luhrmann’s Gatsby, which also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, and Jason Clarke. “It was crazy and exhausting and quite overwhelming,” says Mulligan, “the biggest, craziest production I’ve ever been involved in.” In other words, a Baz Luhrmann production.
From the moment the silver-haired Australian announced his intention to shoot Fitzgerald’s classic in 3-D, on five soundstages and in various locations around Sydney—where he ended up re-creating the 40-acre lawn and marble swimming pool of Gatsby’s Long Island party palace—the production has provoked almost as much scandalized gossip as Gatsby himself. Rain delays! Reshoots! Outraged literary purists! “Making a classic novel and doing it in 3-D and with all those actors, in this way, it’s hard to get that to happen, almost impossible,” says the director from his editing room in Sydney, toiling over last-minute tweaks to the editing and sound in time for the film’s international premiere at the opening of Cannes on May 15. “But remember I am someone who made a musical when everyone told me the musical was dead. I was also told, ‘Ballroom dancing will never be popular in the United States.’ ” With the network-TV schedules still playing catch-up with Luhrmann’s previous films Strictly Ballroom and Moulin Rouge!—Dancing with the Stars and Glee, anyone?—the time would seem to be right for another Gatsby, one that retilts Fitzgerald’s jazz-age lovers to catch the light of the contemporary celebritysphere. “I liken Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship to one of those chemically dangerous relationships you see between celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton,” says Luhrmann. “Gatsby is hounded by his own celebrity. Remember that celebrity gossip and newspapers are a new invention. Celebrity was just being born in the twenties, and Fitzgerald was fascinated with it.”
Luhrmann’s wife and costume designer, Catherine Martin, who won an Oscar for her work on Moulin Rouge!, collaborated with Miuccia Prada to create more than 40 looks for the movie, including Mulligan’s showstopping party dress: a shimmering chandelier frock made of crystal drops connected by a net of metal rings, inspired by a look from Prada’s spring 2010 collection. Produced by Jay-Z, the sound track features a mash-up of jazz, rap, and pop from Florence + the Machine, Lana Del Rey, and the XX, among others. “Baz really felt very strongly that the book’s nature was quintessentially modern, that the twenties was the time when everybody came to grips with the twentieth century,” says Martin. “It was out of the late-Edwardian summer; you have this incredibly dynamic shift where you have people earning a few dollars a week before the war suddenly getting $100 a week; you have women in the workforce in America for the first time. If you think about it in terms of the neckline on dresses—strapless, one-shouldered, V-neck—whatever necklines you want to talk about they had in the 1920s. They had every silhouette of dress, from Erté, long and languid; the beginning of the bias cut; the robe de style, which was much more like the Dior New Look, with a slim bodice and a big skirt; the shift dress; the jersey dress; the shirt-maker dress—all those styles were invented in that period, or else they were synthesized and made modern.”
For the role of Gatsby himself, Luhrmann reunited with his Romeo + Juliet star DiCaprio, who, from the 25 minutes of unfinished footage Luhrmann showed me, burrows deep into the role, loosing the obsession at the heart of Fitzgerald’s tale; beneath Gatsby’s smooth exterior roil the same tightly wound furies that hounded DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Compared with the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, a more sedate affair of tennis whites and lawn-fed languor, which dissolved as tastelessly as a wafer, Luhrmann’s version promises to be a rhapsodic pop opera, bent on wholesale audience ravishment, its roots in the Technicolor spectacle of Selznick’s Gone With the Wind but also the theatrical productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and La Bohème that Luhrmann has staged at the Sydney Opera House.
“I remember seeing the Redford film and it was gorgeous, but I remember not understanding it all, not understanding who Gatsby was,” says Luhrmann, who decided to shoot in 3-D after James Cameron showed him advance footage from Avatar. Then he saw a screening of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder on the original 3-D projectors. What struck him “wasn’t that things come out of the screen, it was watching Grace Kelly move in space where the camera wasn’t moving. It was much like the theater. It brought power to the performance. The actor was more in control of the drama. The camera didn’t have to generate energy. It blew my mind . . . the real special effect in Gatsby could be watching some of the finest actors in the world doing a ten-page scene in a room in the Plaza Hotel. That could be a visual effect.”
The Great Gatsby has been filmed five times, and the fact that that may come as news should tell you something. His own production gave Luhrmann many occasions to wonder if Fitzgerald’s novel might be as unfilmable as people say. After La Niña rain ripped the Australian coast, destroying roads to the property at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains that was doubling as Long Island, filming had to shut down. “We simply got washed out,” says Luhrmann. When they returned later for reshoots, those, too, were rained out. Then began the almost yearlong period of postproduction. Mulligan is convinced that the only reason Luhrmann isn’t still shooting the film is an injury sustained when one of the cranes for the 3-D cameras tipped and gashed his head “really badly,” she recalls. “He was bleeding, but he continued to direct until someone told him, ‘You need to go to the hospital.’ Then we shut down. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have stopped. He’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever met. He carries the entire set.”
For the part of Daisy, Luhrmann auditioned just about every A-list actress in Hollywood. “Because of Leonardo, Daisy became a hugely desired role,” says the director, who reportedly saw Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Blake Lively, Keira Knightley, and Natalie Portman. “In everybody’s mind they have a Daisy Buchanan. It’s like Scarlett O’Hara, how touchy a subject that is. I think of Scarlett as being this precious child star who’s been a star all her life, and that’s true about Daisy. She’s a kind of social supernova; she’s so attractive and dazzling, and she makes you feel as if you’re the only person in the world.” Mulligan’s audition came relatively late in the day. “We did the piece just before the dining-room scene where Daisy and Gatsby kiss. ‘Am I supposed to kiss him?’ she asked me. ‘Yes, go for it.’ She leaned over and she kisses Leonardo.”
After the scene, Luhrmann barely said goodbye to her, trying to get her out of the room so he could find out what DiCaprio thought. “Leonardo turned to me and he goes, ‘Well . . . I guess that’s the Next Big Thing in acting.’ He said—and I thought this was very astute—‘We’ve seen a lot of great actors, but Daisy has got to be a kind of hothouse flower, something that Gatsby never encountered before, such that he feels an obsession to protect her.’ It was a very quick decision after that. It really was one of those classic backstage stories where you went, ‘Hmm, hmm, hmm—boom.’ ”
Mulligan was attending the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards in New York, where she had joined Karl Lagerfeld onstage to announce the winners, when Luhrmann called to tell her she had the part. As luck would have it, Catherine Martin was at the actress’s table. “I was trying to be cool, but oh, it was horrible,” remembers Mulligan, who had been on tenterhooks for weeks. “It was terrifying, the suspense. I was winding down on shooting Drive, so I wasn’t working that much, just waiting around for the phone to ring and for me to be disappointed.” After Mulligan left the stage, Martin handed her a cell phone, saying, “Somebody wants to speak to you.” The next thing she heard was Luhrmann’s warm Australian drawl: “Hullo, Daisy. . . .”
Before he could even get to “Buchanan,” Mulligan was sobbing into her napkin. “Sobbing,” she recalls. “Everybody was like, What is wrong with her?”
“It was just a magical moment, like a champagne bubble bursting,” recalls Martin, who ushered Mulligan into a car to go celebrate with the actress’s friends Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen; they partied until the early hours. “I won’t go into details, but let’s just say she went from being a bit Daisy to being more Zelda Fitzgerald,” says Luhrmann. “The thing about little Mulligan is she’s physically very gamine, she’s got this beautiful innocence in her face, but there is a bit of a wild streak in her—a bit of Zelda, a bit of the zany.”
Mulligan’s workbook for the 2008 Broadway production of The Seagull, in which she drew raves for her performance as Nina, contains a Chagall landscape, some drawings by her costar Mackenzie Crook, and a copy of the Yeats poem “Ephemera,” about waning love. She is much moved by expressions of transitoriness, for reasons she doesn’t like to go into but that have something to do, one suspects, with her upbringing in various hotels in Düsseldorf and London where her father worked as manager; she used to observe guests from under the dining trolley. She compiles these scrapbooks for every role. This one is entirely different from the scrapbook she prepared for the 2007 production of the play in London, which contains a letter to Chekhov from actress Irina Arkadina, press clippings about the working life of Russian women, an Anna Akhmatova poem, and a note from Mulligan’s director when she got appendicitis (“Recuperate, return”). Why didn’t she use the old scrapbook? “No,” she says. “I would have tried to copy it. I was a few years older, and I didn’t want to do the same thing over and over.”
Mulligan is a creature of the present tense. “It’s the reason for the unpredictability with which she exists in the world, and which she exudes when you’re watching her on-screen,” notes Gyllenhaal. In a film career notably short on the kinds of costume dramas with which English actresses usually pad out their résumés, she has instead sought out transatlantic headwinds, appearing in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2, Steve McQueen’s Shame, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, bringing her talent for fresh apprehension—or emotions netted on the wing—to roles that feel flush with the present, or else haunted by its passing. She was affecting as one of the doomed youth in Never Let Me Go, while her Daisy is a living, breathing rebuke to Gatsby’s obsessive exhumation of the past. We hear her before we see her in the film, through a diaphanous scrim of white curtains at the Buchanan house, laughter rising up from behind an enormous sofa, as if the very decor were in on some irresistible joke. During filming, she and DiCaprio exchanged in-character notes after DiCaprio made Mulligan a gift of a protein bar she’d been coveting. “So he got one for me and wrote me this little note: ‘Darling Daisy . . .’ and signed it ‘Jay.’ He’d drawn a little daisy on the front of it. . . .” she recalls.
“You feel like you’re in on some sort of secret with her constantly,” says Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway, the story’s amenable Midwestern narrator. “You’re the one that she’s chosen to be part of a secret club or language. She pulls you in. I remember hearing her voice and I just went: That’s Daisy. It was like the cartoons with the snake charmer, and the eyes start swirling around. She said four words and I was there; I was snake-charmed.”
Daisy is, of course, largely characterized in Fitzgerald’s novel by her voice, alternately described as “low, thrilling,” possessed of an “exhilarating ripple,” full of “fluctuating, feverish warmth,” and—most famously—“full of money.” Mulligan’s own register is naturally low. Even though her round, dimpled face plays young, her voice—one of those dulcet cut-glass British voices you used to be able to hear on the BBC—brings unexpected notes of sanguinity. “She’s got an almost childlike quality about her physically,” says Luhrmann, “but she has the voice of Rita Hayworth.” It was this paradox that tugged her performance in An Education closer to the zesty self-possession of a young Shirley MacLaine than to the winsomeness of Audrey Hepburn, to whom she was continually compared in that first spring of Hollywood’s infatuation with her, when Harvey Weinstein called her the “belle” of Sundance and Warren Beatty, finding out she was taking a bus to meetings in L.A., offered his services as a chauffeur.
“She’s like this petite Bambi, but she is very good at seeing through the illusion of what Hollywood can offer,” says director Nicolas Winding Refn, who put the actress up in his home when he and his wife found she had nowhere to live during the filming of Drive. “She baked a cracking carrot cake,” he recalls. “She’s very pragmatic when she needs to be. I remember one time we were pulled over by the cops driving home from the set because she drank too many Red Bulls. I thought, Oh, boy: Here we go. But Carey was very charming and apologetic in that English manner, and he let us go. What else can you do but fall in love with her?”
In An Education, audiences felt free to fall in love with Mulligan, whereas in Gatsby they must—a fact not lost on the actress, who visited the gym and went running every day during shooting. “I wanted to feel really, really, really, really good,” she says. Even so, there were times when she looked around the enormous production—five soundstages, several hundred extras all doing the Charleston, “and the script is talking about how she’s the king’s daughter, she’s this beautiful angel—and you’re like, Phew. You just wanna get through the scene.” She adds, “I’m fully prepared to be completely ripped apart. Well, I’m not prepared; that’s the thing. I don’t want to be torn apart. We’ve all just tried something; we had fun, and we tried to do something interesting and exciting, something that people could connect with.”
To call Mulligan a ferocious critic of her own work is to understate the almost allergic reaction she has to watching herself on-screen. She avoids monitors during filming and has exited many a screening with her head on her chest; after seeing An Education, she phoned her mother and told her, “Well, it’s the end of the line.” The other day she walked out of the Coen brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, in which she plays a fiery-tempered folksinger, and burst into tears, so unhappy with her performance was she. “She’s incredible in it,” says Gyllenhaal. “Unbelievably good, playing the exact opposite of any part you’ve ever seen her in. A really good actor has fifteen choices in their pocket. A great actor has 150. She tricks you into thinking she has fifteen. But by the time you’ve figured that out, she’s 150 paces ahead of you.”
Mulligan is sometimes struck by her good fortune. Whenever she puts on the sound track from Drive, or hears a song from that period when she was living in L.A. or New York, she feels overwhelmed, even spooked, by how things have turned out. “It’s unsettling that you get exactly what you wanted,” she tells me. “Not like some version of it, not a slightly lesser version of it, but exactly. You’re like: This is weird. It is weird.”
Since filming the Coen brothers’ movie, she’s taken almost a year off, something that would have sent her into a spiral a few years ago—“I feel like I should have gone off and built a well or something,” she says—but acting is no longer “the focus of my life. It’s what I love doing but it’s not everything.” She’s spent the time decorating and furnishing her home with Mumford, actually a childhood friend with whom she reunited after Gyllenhaal took her to a private Mumford & Sons concert in Nashville two years ago. They got engaged just before she set off for the Gatsby shoot in Australia and were married upon her return in a converted barn in Somerset, in a wedding tent adorned with hay bales. “Marcus is a lovely man,” says Refn. “Carey’s the real thing. To me they’re like the perfect couple.”
When they’re not in London, they spend a lot of the time in the countryside, where she reads, always on the lookout for “the right thing, the thing I want to read and fly 5,000 miles to beg someone to let me play.” She tells me her next role is likely going to be Bathsheba in Thomas Vinterberg’s new adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. “I’ve stopped fighting costume dramas,” she says. “He’s such an interesting director, I think he’ll do something really cool with it. It’s a crazy story.”
It’s one of her most overused words: crazy, along with weird. You fancy you can catch in it something of the Through the Looking-Glass quality of Mulligan’s American adventure, and her fierce determination to stay true to herself. But she uses it with a kind of double-edged fascination for what attracts her, too: her equally strong desire to leave herself behind, a restlessness that propels her into the deep end, again and again. “This girl is wide-open,” says Maguire. “There’s a real fragility to that, but at the same time an enormous strength, real power.”
As I hug her goodbye on the corner of Oxford Circus, and she heads off into the headlights and horns of London traffic, I am reminded of something she told me of Daisy: “The Gatsby thing is a wonderful escapade, but it is an escapade. It’s not real life. She’s smart enough to know when to come home.”