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“I went to see ‘Paranormal Activity’ tonight at a theater near my apartment,” says Carey Mulligan, calling from New York on her cell phone. “I really wanted to be scared — I like to be scared. But I wasn’t.”
That should come as no surprise. The 24-year-old English actress was fearless in “An Education,” the little movie that has now made her a star, and she’s equally fearless when it comes to tackling the media firestorm that has ensued.
“Shia tells me to enjoy it,” she says, referring to her “Wall Street 2” co-star and the man she is reportedly dating, Shia LaBeouf — though she’s careful to dodge questions about him. “He says I can get upset about the photographers, but by the end of the day 98% of it should be positive.”
It certainly is positive compared to the vagabond life the actress knew growing up, as she, her mother and older brother Owain followed her father, a hotel executive, from London to Germany and back.
“My life was kind of weird,” she reflects. “My mother would cook, but we would get looked after by lots of maids. It felt like we lived in these big, enormous houses with lots of guests.”
When the family returned to London for good, her father became the manager of the Mayfair Hotel — where, ironically, Mulligan did many promotional interviews for “An Education.”
She started acting in school plays when she was 6 and appeared in everything from “The King and I” to “Sweet Charity.” But when it came time to apply to university, she went against family tradition. While her brother went to Oxford, Mulligan refused to go to college — the pivotal struggle of Jenny, the 16-year-old character she plays in “An Education.”
Says Mulligan: “My parents were completely against it. They wanted me to go to a university. They didn’t know any actors; no one in my family was an actor. They were scared.”
There’s that word again. It seems to be an emotion she doesn’t feel, or, if she does, she never lets on. In many ways, she is as defiant and rebellious as Jenny, but much smarter about choosing her path.
Mulligan took her first step toward a career in acting by writing to Julian Fellowes (the actor-screenwriter of “Gosford Park”) who had spoken at her school. “I was 17,” she recalls. “I wrote to him and said, ‘You are the only actor I have ever met. How do I get into drama school?’ He took me out to dinner with his wife and they gave me the phone number of a casting agent, Maggie Lunn. And she got me an audition for ‘Pride & Prejudice.’ ”
That 2005 film was her first big break, and she has since become good friends with the movie’s star, Keira Knightley. Remembering it still thrills her. “My generation tends to play it cool these days,” she says. “But there is no room for cool. You have got to be irritating and desperate, and if you are not it is terribly boring.”
She was anything but boring in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” in which she starred on Broadway. “It was just enormous for me,” she says. “When I was growing up, that was the dream: I had those cliches about lightbulbs around your mirror. That is what I wanted. I came to see plays here in New York with my mom at 14, and one of them was ‘Proof’ at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Standing on that same stage on opening night was as big as anything. Every night I would climb up the fire escape and look at the tall buildings, and as much as I have been wowed by this year, last year was the same.”
Life hasn’t always been this exciting, though. Mulligan has had to deal with a grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s, something that stamped her so much, she says, that if she ever does go to university, she’ll study psychology.
She also had to deal with an anguishing year-and-a-half wait between her first audition for “An Education” (when the movie was still titled “The Time of Her Life”) to the point when it was green lighted.
“I loved it, loved everything Nick Hornby has written,” she says. “I auditioned with Peter Sarsgaard and then it just went away. The director changed, it lost its financing.”
To pay her bills along the way, Mulligan worked in a pub. Was she ever tempted, like her character, to have an affair with an older man?
“There were older men who used to come in,” she remembers. “One guy had a red Ferrari, and one night, when I gave him his check, he signed it ‘Dinner?’ I freaked out!” She pauses. “I was definitely not Jenny; she was bolder than I was. She had more to escape from.”
She also took a job as a runner at a studio, though she admits she took it purely in the hope of being discovered. The closest she got was watching Al Pacino pull up in a car and walk into the building where he was rehearsing “The Merchant of Venice.”
She laughs at her own naivete and how far she has come from then. “I thought, ‘Wow! That’s why I am here! One day Al Pacino is going to ask me for a cup of tea and notice my potential. And then I am going to skyrocket!’ “
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