CAREY MULLIGAN INTERVIEW – ‘THE GREAT GATSBY’
LOS ANGELES – It could well be one of the most defining roles of her career, and Carey Mulligan is well aware of it. She plays the part of Daisy in “The Great Gatsby,” the highly anticipated Baz Luhrman 3-D screen adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic. The $120 million production stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, the mysterious self-made millionaire carrying on a doomed romance with Mulligan’s Daisy Buchanan, a superficial socialite trapped in a marriage to her philandering blue-blood husband Tom (Joel Edgerteon). Tobey Maguire co-stars as Nick Carraway, the writer/narrator who rents a house on Gatsby’s lavish property at the height of the so-called Jazz Age with its flapper skirts and general sense of hedonistic excess.
“Daisy is light and fluffy, with no substance. She knows it and that’s her tragedy,” Mulligan observes. “She is struggling with not finding herself interesting, and trying to fill the air, basically. I don’t think she is hard-hearted either. I could defend her for hours. I haven’t played anything like that before so it is exciting, something different. It’s a great role.”
It’s also been a great year for the 27-year-old Mulligan, who married Marcus Mumford, frontman of the Mumford & Sons folk band, in a farm ceremony in England last April. She recently sat and wept and threw her arms around her husband at the recent Grammy Awards when his band won the prize for “Album of the Year.”
Mulligan beat out most of the world’s best young actresses to win the coveted part of Daisy, and playing in one of the year’s biggest films is likely to transform her into an A-list star following her acclaimed work in “Shame,” “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” and “An Education.”
Growing up in England and Germany as the daughter of a hotel manager (her father was formerly director of London’s Mayfair Hotel), Mulligan began acting in school plays at 6 and was so bitten by the acting bug that – unlike her character in “Education” – she bucked family tradition and chose not to apply to university although her brother would go on to attend Oxford.
Carey was dealt a blow, however, when her A-levels weren’t good enough to get her into drama school and she wound up working as a barmaid instead. Steadfast in her acting ambitions, she wrote a fateful letter to Julian Fellowes who then introduced her to a casting agent. This immediately led to her role as one of the sisters of Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) in 2005’s “Pride & Prejudice,” and set Mulligan’s career in motion.
Mulligan and her husband Mumford divide their time between Los Angeles and London.
Q: Carey, what has working on The Great Gatsby meant to you?
MULLIGAN: It’s been an exceptional experience. It was so exciting and different to play a character like Daisy and being part of such an immense and complication production. I loved working with Leonardo and the rest of the cast and we had such a good time making the film. Bax Luhrmann has a very unique and intricate style. The sets and costumes were so fabulous and beautiful that you really had a sense of that period. The design of the film was truly grand and it helped me create my performance. It informs every aspect of your work.
Q: How much research did you do for the film?
MULLIGAN: (Laughs) More than I ever have for any film. Baz gave us each several volumes of material to study so that we could understand the era and the politics and economics of the period. I even learnt about the gangsters and the role they played in American society at the time.
I spent a great deal of time reading Fitzgerald’s books and delving into his personal life, and his life with Zelda. I went to Princeton where I was able to look at all his original papers and see the first manuscript of The Great Gatsby.
I even had a chance to examine Zelda’s medical records and really inform myself as best I could about Fitzgerald and the time he was writing about. Baz made sure that we all had a clear picture of the era to help us with our performances. That dedication to detail is really remarkable.
Q: Are you excited about the 3-D element of the film?
MULLIGAN: That’s the technical side of things. I won’t really know how it looks until I see the first cut of the film which won’t be until just before the film is released probably. I expect that audiences will have the feeling of plunging right into the screen in some sense. I’m sure the film will look so beautiful and it’s very exciting. I’m very hopeful.
Q: Is it important for you to be part of such a big production?
MULLIGAN: It’s more pressure because you’re terrified of being bad! (Laughs) It’s another step for me and I enjoyed being part of this immense process where you see filmmaking on such a grand scale.
Q: What were your impressions of working with Leonardo DiCaprio?
MULLIGAN: Being able to work with Leonardo is a dream come true for me. He’s one of the greatest actors in the business and all my friends are so impressed that I’ve been able to work with him. They can’t believe it and in a way neither can I. But he’s so grounded and sure of himself and he makes it very easy for you.
Leonardo is the most incredible actor, on the planet, with a couple of people alongside him. Getting to act with him is just amazing. I remember walking away from my audition for Gatsby and I couldn’t believe that I’d been acting with him.
Q: The Great Gatsby is such an iconic work in 20th century literature. Were you a huge fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the book?
MULLIGAN: I’d tried to read ‘The Beautiful and The Damned’ at school, but I only read ‘The Great Gatsby’ before I auditioned. It’s a great role. With Daisy I think her biggest problem is that she feels very two dimensional, she feels in herself that she doesn’t have very much to offer to the world. But she is continuing this guise of being fascinating and interesting and it pains her that she doesn’t have anything to back that up.
People talk about whom Fitzgerald drew from to write Daisy and there are elements of Zelda and of another woman he met called Ginevra King so that’s fascinating. I loved reading about Zelda and her life.
Q: Did you enjoy wearing all the fabulous costumes that you wore as Daisy?
MULLIGAN: They’re quite stunning but I also made sure that I was doing Pilates and going to the gym regularly which most of us in the cast were doing so we could look our best.
Q: Your acting career has evolved in a nice progression since “An Education?”
MULLIGAN: I’ve tried not to put to much pressure on myself to work as often as possible or take every big offer. I’ve tried to go after films that I thought were very interesting and where I could do something special with the role.
Q: Did you always know you were going to become an actress?
MULLIGAN: When I was growing up, that was the dream. I remember seeing “The King And I, when I was six in Düsseldorf. My brother was in it and I wasn’t which didn’t go down very well with me. That was the first thing I did. But I don’t think there was one light bulb moment when I thought of it as a career. I just always thought that this was what I was going to do.
That is what I wanted. I came to see plays in New York with my mom at 14, and one of them was “Proof” at the Walter Kerr Theatre. And when I got to stand on that same stage on opening night (for “The Seagull”) was as big as anything. Every night I would climb up the fire escape and look at the tall buildings…It was so beautiful.
Q: You auditioned for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and didn’t get that. But you beat out many top actresses for The Great Gatsby. Is there a lot of very tough competition for the best roles?
MULLIGAN: It varies from film to film. Often the roles are offered out to certain actresses and then they have discussions and if that doesn’t work out then others will be asked to audition. Some directors prefer to audition because the chemistry is so important and it’s hard to just imagine how it will work out between two actors especially if it’s a huge film with a massive budget. A lot of the time the rumours about actresses fighting for the same job are exaggerated. Sometimes you’ll read that you’ve been pursuing a job and you’ve never even heard of the film or which you never would have considered working on.
Q: You’ve shown a willingness to do nudity in some of your films. Was that a challenge for you?
MULLIGAN: I’m often terrified about different aspects of characters I’m playing. With respect to nudity, it was vital to the character in Shame who wasn’t supposed to be a very attractive character and need to be emotionally naked and lost in different ways. But doing the nudity for Shame was actually very liberating for me and it helped me deal with my own issues with my body. Also, I think a lot of my nervous energy was more focused on having to sing in the film so that took my mind off thinking too much about the nudity.
In my own life, I’m very prudish about my body, or at least I have been that way in the past. I’m always covering myself up rather than wearing skimpy outfits. I don’t look good in very short skirts. At least I don’t think so.
The nudity is not at all gratuitous in that film and I was working with an artist (Steve McQueen) who admires the human form and he wasn’t sexualizing the role for no reason. This is who she is – a character who can stand fully naked in front of her brother and not feel anything.
Q: Do you have a fearless streak when it comes to acting?
MULLIGAN: I have to get past a certain point and then everything becomes much easier. You have to commit to your character and be willing to go to the limits of what the performance requires. I’ve learnt a great deal about my own personality through my work because there’s often a deep psychological process that enables you to truly inhabit your character and leave your own self behind. All that helps break down so many barriers and fears you might have in life and I think I’m moving in the right direction.
Q: What’s your oddest memory of working in the film business?
MULLIGAN: Oh, it’s working with Nic Refn (the director of “Drive” – ED). He’s very odd and very hilarious to be with. We appeared on a BBC breakfast show that my parents were going to be watching and I remember reminding him before while we were waiting to go on that this is a British morning show and he absolutely cannot swear on the programme. He assured me that he wouldn’t. So then we go on the show and the host asked him about the violence in the film and Nic said, “Violence is a lot like fucking!”