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 fix her dress. The point, says Mulligan, was ‘to make me feel like a lady’.
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 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 characters. 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.
Gatsby 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.
|Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Great Gatsby'|
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’ that 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.”’
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.
Isn’t she a teensy bit freaked out at the thought of the mega-celebrity this film may bring? 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.