When I talked to Carey Mulligan a year ago doing roundtable interviews for An Education, she could still reasonably pass as the wide-eyed neophyte. The relationship with Shia LaBeouf had just started, the Oscar nomination was yet to come, and though she had filmed Never Let Me Go, at the time it was just a Keira Knightley vehicle with two unknowns cast as leads alongside her.
Now, though, there’s a lot that’s different, and Mulligan herself acknowledges it. Not only is she an Oscar nominee with job offers pouring in, not only is her co-star Andrew Garfield better known as The New Spider-Man, but Never Let Me Go is one of the most major debuts at the Toronto Film Festival, with hard-bitten critics crying their eyes out at the saga of three childhood friends faced with living tragically truncated lives (read my review here for slightly more spoilery details). Mulligan, an avowed fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s original novel, talked to me and some other journalists about tackling the pivotal role of Kathy, how her life has changed since bringing An Education to the festival circuit last year, and a little about her role in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2.
Had you read the book before you got involved with the film?
Yes, I had. My mum is a big Ishiguro fan, and I read it pretty much as soon as it came out. In the book she’s 31 at the end, so I thought [a film version I could star in] was a couple of years away. Then they brought the ages down and made it so we could play them from ages 18 to 28. But I was always in love with the book. I read it six times between getting the job and now.
What did you love about the book?
I loved his writing. I loved how unsentimental it was, and how much he said in these little tiny phrases. And I love how his writing isn’t overly intellectual and doesn’t exclude the audience. It invites the audience in. Ishiguro is an incredibly intelligent person, and his writing could be really cerebral, and it’s not.
What’s the trick to balancing between the character in the book you loved and the character in the script?
The script really captured the book perfectly. There’s always scene that you miss, and the whole way through the shoot I was asking if we could put in scenes from the book that we just didn’t have time for. I think you have enough time with the characters and it’s not a long, laborious film. I think the voiceover was the biggest indicator of who [Kathy] was. It was so faithful to how unreliable she is as a narrator in the book. She’s always skirting around the subject, always diminishing her feelings. She’s saying, “I felt a tiny stab of pain,” these tiny statements that mean a huge amount. Most of the characters I’ve played have been really emotionally articulate and expressive and said everything on their mind. With Kathy, she really never does.
Has the Oscar nomination changed you at all?
No, not really. I was really ignorant to the whole process of this festival wards, buzz, all that stuff [when promoting An Education]. I was just dancing around Telluride with Lone [Scherfig, director of An Education], having a really nice time. i wasn’t aware of all the people on their Blackberries checking reviews and going all crazy. It’s different this year. I feel like I know what’s going on. It makes me a bit uncomfortable. I don’t like that its heading towards that the only merit a film can have, the only value it can have is if it gets nominated for an award. That seems like such a shame, because all we wanted in this film was to make the best film possible, and most faithful film, and try not to mess up what Ishiguro wrote.
How do you maintain the heavy emotions in this film take after take
The emotion stuff is easier, really– I think it’s easier to get yourself in a state where you’re emotional and crying than it is to laugh for half and hour or two hours or five hours. It’s harder to conjure up joy truthfully than it is to conjure up fear or tears or anything. That’s easier to maintain.
Then does something like a comedy intimidate you?
I was the straight man in An Education, but I don’t think any of us thought– it’s only when you’re in front of an audience that you realize when things work and when things don’t. I don’t think I’m interested in like a straight-out comedy, with no real heart or anything. I definitely lean toward drama. But I wouldn’t want to do something, just a vacuous comedy about nothing. I like Four Weddings and a Funeral, things that have a heart and then there’s funny surrounding it.
Is it true your parents didn’t want you to become an actress?
Well, it’s a silly job. Not a silly job, but it’s difficult to be able to get a break to work at all, and then work consistently. They wanted me to have something else that I could do if the whole acting thing didn’t work out. I was very angry at the time, but then I get it.
How did they finally change their mind?
When I got my first job, when I got Pride and Prejudice, they were behind it. I didn’t even expect to get another job after that. But they were supportive from then.
Can you talk about working with the likes of Michael Douglas and Oliver Stone on Wall Street 2?
I kind of wanted to be in a big boy’s film and be intimidated. The challenge was to try and make the girlfriend role in a Hollywood film effective and not just redundant. I think a lot of the time, through no fault of the actress, the girlfriend can be marginalized and just an accessory to the plot. I thought there was something to play there, and more than just the girlfriend. I did want to be one of the few women in a big, masculine film. And it was fun. Oliver didn’t treat me like a girl. I don’t think he saw me as a girl, because I had short hair or something. I do think I got equal treatment. I loved working with all of them, including Michael. We sort of kept a distance from each other. We didn’t get all cuddly off set, we were quite removed, so when we played those scenes, I didn’t really know him, and that was appropriate because I didn’t know him in the film.
Did you go back and watch the original Wall Street, not just to get a sense for the story but see how Daryl Hannah’s character existed in that masculine world?
Yeah, I did. Oliver wanted me to watch it to try and glean Gecko-isms. There wasn’t much I could do, because the character was so different. Not really Daryl Hannah’s character so much. She was in that world and attracted by those things in a way that Winnie’s not. There wasn’t any need to study her so much. The reason I looked at it really was to glean what Gecko’s doing, to look at my mum in the film to gain some sense memory of her. But she’s not in the second film, she’s disappeared by that point.