Having rocketed to fame in the romantic drama ‘An Education’, Carey Mulligan is about to star in the violent new thriller ‘Drive’. It was a role she couldn’t refuse.
‘Ah, Carey, you are much fatter than before.” So Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn greeted one of the world’s most coveted actresses on what was only their second meeting.
“I was all right,” says Carey Mulligan, the slender 26-year-old, Oscar-nominated star of An Education, laughing as she recalls the moment. “But I knew from that moment on that Nicolas was going to be brutally honest.”
Brutal is a word that sits easily with Refn. Violence throbs through all his films – from the Copenhagen-based Pusher crime trilogy with which he made his name, to his 2008 biopic of Charles Bronson – and it bubbles to the surface again in his most recent offering.
Drive is a fizzing, hyper-real adaptation of a 2005 pulp novel by American crime writer James Sallis. In it, Mulligan plays Irene, a vulnerable young mother. Her neighbour (Ryan Gosling) is the film’s enigmatic hero. Known simpler as Driver, he is a movie stunt-driver by day, a criminal getaway-driver by night, and a slightly screwy loner 24/7. The pair soon strike up a curiously understated friendship.
“They both have very lonely existences,” says Mulligan, “and they just find each other peaceful. There is something unreal about their relationship.”
Irene is married to a convict who returns from prison during the course of the film and, contrary to expectation, makes friends with Driver. When Driver agrees to help him pull off a heist, all three characters are drawn into a violent showdown with a group of hoods from the Los Angeles underworld.
The film’s grimy milieu is not the kind of setting in which we are used to seeing the fresh-faced Mulligan – and that was precisely one of the reasons she wanted to be in the film. She says that after appearing in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and last year’s Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation Never Let Me Go she had decided to take a year away from acting, until she saw Valhalla Rising [Refn’s typically bloody take on Norse myth] and found it “just astounding”.
“I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to do,” she says, “I couldn’t find anything that I felt justified in doing. There was just too much that was similar to parts I’d played before, a lot of period dramas.”
She’d already starred alongside her friend Keira Knightley in Pride & Prejudice (2005) and also put on a bonnet for roles in television dramas Bleak House (2005) and Northanger Abbey (2007). “I was just stumped,” she says, “until I knew that Nicolas was making Drive.”
The actress had met Refn before, in Australia, when promoting An Education. The minute the film-maker knew of Mulligan’s interest he recast the part of Irene, which he had originally imagined as an older, Latino woman. “Carey is a wonderful actress,” says Refn. “To me she has all the charm and intelligence of a young Molly Ringwald.”
In person, Mulligan’s charm is dazzling. She is bubbly and intelligent, and projects a maturity beyond her years. For all that her Oscar nomination catapaulted her into the Hollywood A-list, she has managed to retain a distinctly low-profile in her personal life, something she puts down in part to the fact that she is a bit of a homebody. “I have always hated nightclubs,” she says, bluntly, “and don’t like loud music.”
“I never get recognised here in London, which I like,” she says. “Once a year, someone comes up to me and asks if I am ‘so-and-so’s niece’ because they think they recognise me from somewhere. I like that.”
Her closest brush with the paparazzi came while shooting Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2 in New York during 2009. She was dating her American co-star Shia LaBeouf and found their every move subject to public scrutiny. The couple split up in 2010 and since Mulligan and I met US Weekly magazine has alleged that she is now engaged to Marcus Mumford, lead singer in English folk-rock band Mumford & Sons, following a six-month relationship.
After filming Drive she shot Steve McQueen’s hard-hitting drama Shame, alongside Michael Fassbender, who last week won the best actor award at the Venice film festival for his performance as a sex-addict. The film will be screened over here next month at the London Film Festival.
“My character in Shame is an outrageous person,” says Mulligan. “Loud and uncompromising and I begged Steve McQueen to give me the job. Then, afterwards I was like, ‘S—! I now have no idea what to do!’ She is so extreme.”
Next up, Mulligan, takes up the highly coveted role of Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s $120 million adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. “I read the book on the day of the audition, because I’d never read any Fitzgerald,” admits Mulligan. “I’d tried to read The Beautiful and the Damned at school, but I didn’t really get on with it.”
Buchanan, however, engaged her imagination immediately. “I haven’t played anyone like her before,” says Mulligan. “But I could defend her for hours.”