Carey Mulligan and Baz Luhrmann had a ritual during filming of The Great Gatsby. Every morning the director would knock at the door of his leading lady’s trailer, take her hand, walk her to the set and arrange her dress. The point, says Mulligan, was ‘to make me feel like a lady’.
Taller and prettier than you’d think, but today dressed in nothing fancier than a black silk blazer and comfy flats, she admits, ‘I’m not massively girly. But once you’re wearing the dress and the jewellery, suddenly you hold yourself differently. Every time I put on the engagement ring, this huge diamond, I’d feel different. Like Daisy.’
Unbelievably, the bling she wore as socialite flapper Daisy Buchanan was all genuine: ‘dresses by Prada, diamonds by Tiffany’. Did she get to keep any of it? ‘No, nothing! I’d be accidentally dropping diamonds into my cleavage and being like’ – she pulls an innocent face – ‘“I don’t know where they went.”’
It’s first thing on an overcast Wednesday. Over a cup of tea at Claridges, Mulligan is as collected and possessed as you’d expect, but also a bit of a giggle. I’m surprised: she always looks so fashionably poised when she stops for the snappers on the red carpet. ‘God, no!’ Mulligan looks genuinely shocked. ‘I don’t like photos. I used to be much worse on the red carpet. I’d just sort of stand there…’ She tenses her face, putting on a comedy stiff smile. ‘By the time I’d got to the end I’d be in tears. My publicist would have to clean me up, smooth me down and push me into whatever event I was going to. I’m slightly better now. But people looking at me, that freaks me out…’
Perhaps that’s why she has such a talent for disappearing into character. She came out of nowhere with An Education as the brainy sixth-former who gets a lesson in love from a dodgy older man.
Since then, no two roles have been the same: wise beyond her years in Never Let Me Go, messy and self-destructive in Shame.
‘It helps that I’ve got a forgettable face,’ she laughs before adding seriously, ‘I like doing something dramatically different every time. I don’t want the audience to think of me as myself. That’s why I ended up losing my hair. I dyed it peroxide blond for Public Enemies. It turned to straw. And I got stuck with the short hair thing.’ The trademark pixie crop wasn’t a cool-girl-in-Hollywood statement? ‘No! No statement. I loved having long hair.’
She runs a hand through her growing-out bob revealing chipped nails. ‘I know, skanky. I did bring nail varnish remover with me from home. I just didn’t do it.’ Home is her ‘grown-up’ house, shared with Marcus Mumford, whom she married in a posh barn wedding in Somerset last year.
They knew each other as kids before Hollywood and fame – they were pen pals. Jake Gyllenhaal reintroduced them at a Mumford & Sons gig in Tennessee in 2011. Now they’re the king and queen of Brit cool in America: the Mumfords’ last album topped the US charts and Mulligan is in one of the biggest film events of the year.
‘Gatsby’ (or ‘Gaaatsby’ as I can’t help calling it in Mulligan’s Southern drawl after watching the trailer) is Romeo + Juliet director Luhrmann’s mega-million-dollar glitzy adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Roaring Twenties tale of greed, social climbers and doomed love. Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, the mystery man who makes and loses a fortune – for love. Mulligan plays rich, beautiful Daisy Buchanan, the woman who commands his undying devotion.
It was the most sought-after Hollywood leading lady role in years and Luhrmann considered every actress you could think of: Scarlett Johansson, Michelle Williams, Blake Lively, Keira Knightley and Natalie Portman. When Mulligan got the call three days before her audition she hadn’t read ‘Gatsby’. She shrugs: ‘I didn’t study it at school.’
She flew to New York for a 90-minute ‘mad circus’ casting with Luhrmann, Leonardo DiCaprio and a room full of cameras. The whole thing seemed so ‘beyond the realms of possibility’ she wasn’t even nervous: ‘But at least I could say to myself, “Well, I did this crazy audition. I got to act with Leonardo DiCaprio for an hour-and-a-half.”’
Mulligan is clearly not freakishly ambitious. Giggling, she admits that she lives in fear of her failed Mamma Mia! audition tape leaking on to YouTube like American Pie actor Chris Klein’s toecurling turn. ‘Mine would be a thousand times worse. I’m no singer.’ But she is steely.
As a kid, when her friends had posters of DiCaprio on their walls, Carey Mulligan had bigger plans. ‘I didn’t do posters. I think I decided at 12 years old that I wanted to act with Leonardo DiCaprio. I didn’t see him as a pin-up.’ Talk about aiming high… ‘I know!’ she laughs, quickly adding, ‘Pipe dreams! But seriously, I couldn’t imagine in what world I would end up acting in a film with Leonardo DiCaprio.’
Mulligan grew up on the move; her dad managed high-class hotels, and the family lived first in Mayfair and then Germany. She came back to the UK for boarding school, Woldingham in Surrey. After her A-levels, when three London drama schools rejected her, she wrote to Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who got her an audition for Pride and Prejudice. Mulligan leans in, touching her hands to her ankles and says slowly, ‘When I find something that I want to do I get an instinct and I don’t care: I may as well ask. Does that sound a bit shameless?’
Yet she takes masochistic delight in telling me the story of how she bumped into Luhrmann at a LA restaurant a couple of weeks after her audition – still not knowing if she’d got the part. ‘I’d had a martini. And you know, one martini is enough for me. He came over.’ She stands up awkwardly. ‘And we chatted. And I’m thinking: Is my face red? Am I being articulate?’
Luhrmann was still working his way through the audition tapes at the time. ‘He gave me this whole speech’ – she puts on a gruff voice – ‘“Well, you know, Carey, I’m a scientist…” And he’s talking in this really poetic, cryptic language. I was like, am I drunk or are you not making any sense?’ A week later, she burst into tears when he called with the words ‘Hello Daisy’.
Daisy Buchanan is one of literature’s hardest-to-like heroines. Fitzgerald describes her as ‘the golden girl’, a Southern belle, who chooses money over love. ‘She’s difficult to crack because she doesn’t really know herself,’ reckons Mulligan. ‘I always imagined her as someone who, with everything she says and does, it’s as if she’s watching a movie of her own life.’ She compares Daisy to the Kardashians: ‘She is always giving this performance and that’s all she gives. So you can’t ever really tell’.
Mulligan read everything she could about the two women who inspired Daisy: Fitzgerald’s troubled wife Zelda and his first love Ginevra King. Beautiful and damned, Zelda and Scott were a celebrity couple before celebrity couples existed – and their marriage was as twisted as anything in his novels.
Fitzgerald, one of the brightest talents of his generation, died of alcoholism aged just 44. Zelda, a feminist icon and writer in her own right, was killed when her psychiatric hospital burned down eight years later. But long before that, Fitzgerald lost his heart to Ginevra King, a beautiful 16-year-old debutante he met in 1915. Madly in love, they wrote to each other for two years before her wealthy family persuaded her to break it off and marry a rich suitor. Her dad’s line – ‘Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls’ – went straight into The Great Gatsby.
Mulligan thinks Daisy is a product of that era: ‘Daisy always makes the smart girl choices and I just have to side with her but (as a character), she’s the biggest departure for me. I’ve never done a character where it mattered that much what I looked like.’ What, sex appeal? ‘Yes!’ She creases up. ‘That was intimidating. But all Fitzgerald says about her appearance is that she has “a sad lovely face with bright things in it”. She’s the person who makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world… until she doesn’t. But you know Daisy is not a sexual force.’
The blogosphere has disagreed, with some sniping that Mulligan isn’t beautiful enough to be Daisy; that Scarlett Johansson would have smouldered; Kirsten Dunst would have nailed Daisy’s manipulative streak. But it was the English girl who hadn’t even read the book who got the part, a part that guarantees mega-celebrity for Mulligan, whatever the critics make of Luhrmann’s extravagant take on Fitzgerald.
Isn’t she a teensy bit freaked out? Mulligan’s face darkens. ‘Definitely: this is nerve-wracking.’ Her voice trails off. ‘I don’t really know the deal…’ She recovers, smiling too brightly, and says finally: ‘But you know, it’s funny, no one ever recognises me.’ This time next week, I wouldn’t be so sure.