A special intensity: how Carey Mulligan quietly grabbed Hollywood's attention
Fans include the playwright David Hare and a studio boss but Mulligan is more interested in finding characters with real depth than leveraging her growing fame
Saturday 4 April 2015 07.00 BST
s Carey Mulligan about to become the face of 21st-century British feminism? It’s not too fanciful a notion: after something of a break from lead roles in the cinema, Mulligan is about to return with an attention-grabbing double header.
First, she is playing Bathsheba Everdene in a new adaptation of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, due for release in May; and in the autumn she will be seen in Suffragette, as part of an impressive ensemble cast telling the story of the votes-for-women campaign that rocked British society before and during the first world war.
The feminist credentials of Suffragette are not difficult to ascertain – Mulligan doesn’t play one of the Pankhursts, but rather a lowly footsoldier called Maud – but it is in Madding Crowd that Mulligan shows her cards. When Julie Christie played the same role in 1967, her interpretation of Hardy’s heroine – typically described as “headstrong” – was an impulsive free spirit, seemingly baffled as to the effect she had on the men around her.
Mulligan, in contrast, plays Bathsheba as a more poised, restrained figure, her resistance to marriage and determination to run her own farm born out of a refusal to kowtow to patriarchy. She delivers certain lines with relish – when she tells her would-be suitor Gabriel Oak: “I hate to be thought men’s property” and, when faced with another, William Boldwood, she murmurs pointedly: “It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”
Mulligan, 29, is not one to campaign explicitly for causes, and told the Guardian last year that she was “not particularly interested in politics”. Her charitable interventions have so far been devoted more to humanitarian and medical organisations, such as War Child and the Alzheimer’s Society – though she did come out as a feminist in the media last year, telling Elle magazine: “I believe in equality … Celebrity culture has made people afraid of expressing how they feel about things because no one ever wants to say the wrong thing, but I’d happily describe myself as a feminist.”
But perhaps Mulligan lets her work do her talking for her. She is currently on Broadway opposite Bill Nighy in David Hare’s Skylight, a transfer of the production that electrified London’s theatregoers last year. Mulligan plays a socially concerned teacher scrapping with her rich former lover (Nighy); though it does not overtly take sides, Hare’s play is about political and social polarisation, and Mulligan has to make a rousing speech defending social workers. The Observer’s drama critic Susannah Clapp described her acting as “both innocent and ironic, appealing and irritating. Her most extraordinary quality is that she seems constantly only to be receiving, while powerfully transmitting.”
Hare, who first staged the play in 1995, said that Mulligan is “very quiet, very purposeful, and steely in the way she goes about a part”. Calling her “the best”, he also confirms that Mulligan’s interest lies less in ideology than in character. “It isn’t what Skylight says which animates her, it’s what she can be. She loves the character of the dedicated teacher working in the East End, and it shows.”
Though it is cinema that has made Mulligan’s name, theatre is clearly her first love and inspiration. Landing the role of Nina in 2007 in a Royal Court production of Chekhov’s The Seagull (opposite Kristin Scott Thomas and Chiwetel Ejiofor) remains a career benchmark. Describing Nina as “the ultimate female role”, she said: “I think I was looking to play her again in various incarnations.”
Hare, who saw the show on Broadway in 2008, is outspoken in his admiration: “Carey was the greatest Nina of my lifetime … I’ve seen two dozen, often in very great productions, but Carey is the only one who has ever convinced me. She had an access to what she convinced you were her own feelings – as if she wasn’t acting, but simply existing on the stage.”
There is little in the way of traumatic childhood or difficult adolescence to rationalise this affinity for a character “desperate to be loved and always reaching for something she couldn’t get”, in Mulligan’s own words. She appears to have had a childhood so prosperous and conventional as to be anodyne: her father a hotel manager, she lived in Germany until she was eight, before returning to England and attending a private Catholic girls’ school in Surrey.
Although disapproving, her parents did not actively stand the way of her youthful desire to be an actor; she got early support and encouragement from Kenneth Branagh (after she sent him a fan letter) and Julian Fellowes (after he gave a talk at her school). The one thing marking her out is a deeply felt religious conviction during her teenage years; she no longer attends church devotedly, but in 2012 ended up married to the musician Marcus Mumford, whom she met at a Christian youth camp as a child, and whose parents run the UK branch of the Association of Vineyard Churches, an evangelical-Pentecostalist movement.
Mulligan’s conviction that she could succeed as a performer resulted in an introduction to a casting director through Fellowes and then – to her family’s surprise – a small but visible part in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, playing the “silly” fourth Bennet sister, Kitty. A series of increasingly eye-catching screen roles followed, including Ada in the BBC’s Bleak House, a guest shot on Doctor Who, the best friend in an ITV drama of another Austen, Northanger Abbey (playing second fiddle to Felicity Jones), and that stellar Seagull at the Royal Court, also in 2007.
But it was the 2009 release of An Education, the film adaptation of Lynn Barber’s memoir, that really put Mulligan, then 22, over the top. An instant critical success, Mulligan’s portrayal of a schoolgirl’s love affair with a conman in the 1960s ended up with a Bafta best actress award and nominations for the Oscars and the Golden Globe. It was a startling ascent up the acting tree, and cemented her place on the A-list of performing talent. The film’s Danish director, Lone Scherfig, points out that Mulligan was in every single scene of An Education and says: “She seemed to enjoy every day and not feel the pressure.”
The success of An Education opened numerous doors – not least, directly to her next major film role, in the movie of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian science-fiction tale Never Let Me Go, alongside Keira Knightley, Domhnall Gleeson and Andrew Garfield. While watching An Education, Fox Searchlight studio boss Peter Rice texted Never Let Me Godirector Mark Romanek, who was having trouble filling the role of Kathy H: “Hire the genius Mulligan.”
With an endorsement like that from a major Hollywood player, Mulligan’s path was assured. It meant that she was then able to try to align herself with major directors, and to some extent pick the roles she would go up for. That was certainly the case with Shame, the tough, uncompromising drama in which she played the troubled, self-harming sister to Michael Fassbender’s sex addict.
In a discussion with the film’s co-writer, Abi Morgan, she explained how she went about it. “My agent called me about an extraordinary role in this film Steve McQueen was directing. By the next day, she’d managed to get me a meeting with him. So I went in hard, campaigning for the part ... I sat down with him in a London hotel and the minute he started talking, I was like: ‘I’d follow you anywhere.’ That’s a great director.”
The reaction to Shame, with its copious nudity, untrammelled rawness and explicit subject matter helped to modify, if not entirely destroy, Mulligan’s wholesome image – she has described herself as “baby-faced”. Mulligan could also afford to take smaller roles for directors with clout: she lined up Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps for Oliver Stone and Drive for Nicolas Winding Refn and Inside Llewyn Davis for the Coen brothers.
But the biggie was yet to come: she beat all Hollywood’s young female acting talent to the headline role of Daisy Buchanan in the $105m (£70m)-budget adaptation of .
Baz Luhrmann’s giant-scale film was released in May 2013 and Mulligan then spent the autumn of that year filming Far From the Madding Crowd for the director Thomas Vinterberg – after previously holding out against returning to the British-set period movie. “I didn’t want to be labelled as that,” she told Harper’s Bazaar. “So I’d avoided it. But I’d seen Festen and I saw The Hunt and I desperately wanted to be in one of Thomas’s films. That made that decision.”
Then it was straight on to Suffragette, which began shooting in February 2014, and saw Mulligan line up with Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne-Marie Duff. Hare’s Skylight – in which she cooks a spaghetti meal live on stage – has occupied her since, first in its London run at the Wyndhams, and subsequently on Broadway.
Still under 30, Mulligan has reached a zone where she can take her time and pick her roles. It’s an enviable position, but one she has appeared to achieve on the strength of her feeling and talent for acting – rather than simply luck, looks and connections, but which of course have all played a part. She has powerful allies and admirers: Hare says she possesses a “special sort of intensity and of completion”; more to the point, Scherfig says, “Anything for Carey.” You suspect she will go far.
Born 28 May 1985
Career First: Role in the film Pride & Prejudice, but major breakthrough was lead role in An Education, for which she received an Oscar nomination.
High point: Lead role in The Great Gatsby, ahead of every other actor in Hollywood. The film only received middling reviews, though.
Low point: Her first Hollywood film, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. “It was a great experience … but it didn’t feel there was a depth to the character. It didn’t grip me in the way I wanted.”
She says: “I’m kind of happy, and – touch wood – nothing really awful has happened to me. But I don’t like the idea of having to mess yourself up to be a good actor.”
They say: “If you want to experience the shock of illumination that acting, at its best, can achieve – and only occasionally does – you need to see Ms Mulligan’s performance.” Ben Brantley, New York Times
Never Let Me Go – reviewSimon Hattenstone / The dark side of Carey Mulligan