CAREY Mulligan’s latest role is one of novelist Thomas Hardy’s great heroines, Bathsheba Everdene, the fiercely independent young woman in Far From the Madding Crowd who inherits her uncle’s farm.
Mulligan wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty for the role.
“Lots of my mother’s side of the family lived on farmland, so I milked things when I was younger,” says the 29-year-old, who’s seen gamely wading into a sheep bath in the new film adaptation of the novel.
The Londoner, who shot to fame after being Oscar-nominated for 2009’s An Education, hadn’t read the book before seeing the script, nor watched the 1967 movie starring Julie Christie.
“It’s never a great idea if you’re retelling a story,” she says. “But I will now we’re done.”
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Hardy, a Victorian, was not known for happy-ever-afters, but this story is less bleak than his others, and explores Bathsheba’s relationships with three very different suitors: the rugged and steadfast shepherd, Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the mature and prosperous William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the dashing but arrogant soldier, Frank Troy, played by Mulligan’s good friend, Tom Sturridge.
“Bathsheba’s an incredibly modern woman. The decisions she makes are spontaneous. It’s her great quality, but also her biggest downfall,” Mulligan says.
Bathsheba is manipulative, too, but the actress was keen to portray her naivete and vulnerability, “and how she doesn’t really know herself, like none of us really do when we’re 18”.
Mulligan turns 30 in late May, but there will be little time to celebrate, as she’s treading the boards in Skylight.
“I’m working on my birthday,” she says. “I think it’s even a two-show day, so I don’t think it’ll be a big party.”
The production recently opened on Broadway, following a successful London run. “In New York, it feels like it’s not as intimidating as doing it in London, where I know family members or friends could be out there every night,” says the actress.
Despite playing the younger Bathsheba, Mulligan is embracing the prospect of turning 30.
“I spent a lot of my early 20s playing teenagers, because of my baby face. My agent in the last couple of years has started saying, ‘You’ve been offered this part. She’s 19, you’re too old’, and I’m like, ‘I’m too old? Brilliant! I’ve never been too old’. All the great parts come now, I think, so I’m excited.”
Mulligan, who lived briefly in Germany as a child, excelled at school. But despite her parents’ protestations, she decided against university.
“You can’t stop someone doing something they want to do. I don’t think my parents could’ve stopped me trying to be an actor.”
Instead, she sent letters to Kenneth Branagh, and Julian Fellowes, asking for advice on the acting industry.
It was at a dinner hosted by Downton Abbey creator Fellowes that she met a casting agent, which led to the role of Kitty in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice, but she doesn’t recommend this approach.
“When people write to me, I say, ’Go to university and get a back-up’, because it’s so difficult.”
By her own admission, she worked “manically” in those early years.
“I think that’s normal in acting. You just work and work, terrified of where the next job’s going to come from.”
But then, disappointed by her experience on 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, she heeded her agent’s advice to not go for a role unless she couldn’t bear the idea of someone else doing it.
She’s subsequently starred in Steve McQueen’s critically-acclaimed Shame with Michael Fassbender, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive alongside Ryan Gosling, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.
“I like dark characters, and it’s fun to do things that are difficult, because I’m very happy and have had a very lovely, charmed life, lovely parents, lovely family and lovely education. That sounds like schadenfreude, but it’s not that. It’s very easy to play things that you know, it’s when you have to play things that you don’t really understand that it gets fun,” she reasons.
Mulligan is notoriously protective of her private life and rarely speaks of her husband Marcus, of the folk band Mumford & Sons, whom she married in 2012. She does, however, reveal that she’d like children (“Yeah, definitely”), and admits she’s in the “privileged position” of being able to stop work for a period of time.
“But I don’t think you can ever be worried about your career when it comes to stuff like that having a family. You’ve got to have some perspective.”
She’s also gained a new outlook on promotional tours, having once described chat shows and carpets as cripplingly nerve-racking.
“I think I took everything a bit too seriously. Ultimately, if you fall over on a talk show, it doesn’t matter, nobody cares. If there’s a bad photo, if you look a bit fat, you look a bit whatever, no one cares. There are much bigger things in the world.”
Mulligan will be on the campaign trail next year, no doubt, for her new movie Suffragette, which isn’t released until October but is already garnering awards buzz.
“It’s a story about the militant suffragettes in London and based on real life women, although the character I play is fictional.”
The cast includes Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter, and Mulligan confesses to being “talent struck” on set.
The movie also marks the project she’s most proud of in her career thus far.
“I feel lucky to be telling the story of what these women did,” she explains. “It hasn’t been told, and is long overdue.”