Awards season has been a roller-coaster of sorts for 24-year-old Carey Mulligan, who rode in on a wave of acclaim for her remarkable performance as a smart, ambitious London schoolgirl seduced by a charming older man in “An Education.” She’s been a favorite, a Best Actress winner at the National Board of Review and, last weekend, at the BAFTA awards; she’s also seen her Oscar chances eclipsed by the sudden rise of Sandra Bullock.
Mulligan now finds herself in the Oscar acting category that may hold the best chance of an upset: Quentin Tarantino recently said he was torn between voting for her and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”), the two remarkable young actresses who are competing against Bullock, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren. She certainly belongs in the thick of the race.
The actress has yet to pick her first post-Oscars project (she’d love to return to the theater), but she has three movies coming out this year: Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street”; “Never Let Me Go,” with Kiera Knightley and Sally Hawkins; and “The Greatest,” which recently showed at Sundance. But first, there’s the remainder of awards season to navigate.
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
It certainly looked as if the BAFTA award took you by surprise. A huge surprise. Massive. I went offstage and burst into tears because I’d forgotten to thank the director [Lone Scherfig], which was pretty horrendous. So I spent the next two hours trying to find her and apologize. It was awful. If I’d had any idea I was going to win, I would have written something, so it wasn’t such a rambling mess.
And yet a fair number of people were predicting that you’d win. I guess you don't pay attention? No. I stopped reading stuff back in October, when I was in New York. And I’ve managed to stick to it, which is really good. I was on the red carpet, and someone said, “The bookies have tipped you to win,” and I was like, “WHAT?” That was the first I’d heard of it.
When we spoke at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, you said that you were finally learning to relax and enjoy awards season. Did that take some doing? Yeah. It’s a completely different environment from anything I’d ever experienced before, so it was a little bit nerve-wracking when I first started getting into it. And mainly, it’s the stuff that happens outside that scares me. The press, and the photos, that side of things. Once I’m inside, I’m kind of okay. But I’ve been able to laugh at it more than I could at the beginning, when I was scared. And now it’s just like, the spectacle of it is so funny.
But at, say, the Golden Globes, you weren’t able to laugh at the spectacle. That was the first gown I ever wore, and I was terrified. And it was raining, and my dress was falling down. It was the first show I’d been to that I’d seen on television my whole life, and when it got on the red carpet it looked like it just went on forever. So yeah, that was just terrifying, and I frowned my way through it. (Photo, left, by Jason Merrit/Getty Images)
After the National Board of Review ceremony, you were criticized by some people for not being emotional enough in your speech – as if you need to give a certain kind of speech to improve your chances at the next awards show. Maybe it’s just that I’m very uptight and British, but I didn’t want to be emotional. At the National Board of Review, you’re told in advance that you’re going to receive the award – and for me, I’d feel silly being emotional in front of people.
These awards mean a huge, huge, huge amount to me. I was almost in tears at the BAFTAs, and that’s why I forgot the director and ran off the stage. When you’re actually up there, fear does all sorts of crazy things to you. I was just so blinded by it, looking out at all these people that you’ve respected and admired for your whole life, and suddenly you’ve got to try and be articulate, and describe what it means to you. And when it means this much, I become very inarticulate.
You know, actors really aren’t public speakers. It’s a common misconception that we’re all very comfortable in front of huge crowds. And of course it’s usually the opposite. You’re very, very happy being somebody else, but when you’re asked to be yourself, there’s nothing worse. I’d rather have stood up and read a poem than gone up and given an awards acceptance speech.
Do you have a strategy for coping with the Oscars? No. I’m excited. It’s so mad to think that it’s in less tan two weeks. The BAFTA was huge enough to process already. But I can’t wait. I’m bringing the family, and it’s going to be brilliant. That’s really a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so I want to just enjoy it. I don’t want to spoil it for myself by getting so nervous that I have my hands over my eyes and don’t have fun.
How dramatically has your work life changed since “An Education” came out? It changed after Sundance. That was when I first noticed a sort of difference. It was just that old thing of not being enough of a name to get into a room, and that’s changed now. But it doesn’t suddenly turn into flooding offers and huge paychecks. And I really haven’t signed on to anything, I haven’t found a job to do next.
But yeah, the opportunities have opened up. I always thought that I’d get a part in some big blockbuster film that wasn’t particularly good but got my name out, and that would be my route into getting better work. And it’s been amazing that it has come from this small independent film that I never thought anyone would see. I didn’t have to go and do the big crap film, thank goodness, because it came from a film and a character that I never expected it to come from.
Did you know that character could be special when you first read the script? I cried when I read the script, and I had an idea of who she was. But the character is so heavily informed by the choices that other actors are making, and I was just given a crazy array of actors to work with. I always felt like I had to live up to them – I didn’t want to be the weak link in a cast like that.
Nick Hornby has said that if he were asked to lecture about how much actors can bring to something he’d written, he’d start by showing the scene late in the film when you and Alfred Molina are talking through the bedroom door. That’s sweet of him, but we owe a lot to the writing there. I thought it was perfect. It’s that horrible thing of, if your parents aren’t angry, they’re disappointed. And I always thought that was worse. I’d rather my parents shouted at me than be disappointed. That stony silence because they’re really sad about something you did is awful, and so hard to fix. That’s what got me about the scene.
It’s a crucial scene, but, you know, every scene felt crucial. It was a busy, busy job. But I never felt the weight of the story, because I felt that Lone was guiding us so brilliantly. And when we did that particular scene, Alfred was always outside the door saying those words. He wasn’t on camera, but he was there for every single take. He never left.
Are you feeling pressure to live up to being an "Oscar-nominated actress"? The thing is, I made three movies before all of this stuff happened. I did “Wall Street,” and I did “Never Let Me Go,” and I did “The Greatest.” And I’m sure people won’t feel like they were done by an Oscar-nominated actress. I’m really happy with those choices, but there’s every chance that I won’t be as well-received as I was in “An Education.”
I do feel incredibly lucky, but I don’t think now I’m just going to start playing big lead roles and trying to take over the universe. At this moment, I’m really thinking about that sort of thing, and trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
(laughs) I’m trying to make choices to make sure I don’t become really irritating.
The Odds is an informed, bemused, skeptical and authoritative look at all aspects of the Academy Awards race. Steve Pond, author of the L.A. Times bestseller The Big Show, has been covering this particular circus for more than two decades, much of that time as the only reporter with full backstage and rehearsal access to the Oscar show.