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After her breakout year, Carey Mulligan still garnering praise for acting

At age 25, English actress Carey Mulligan has won a BAFTA award and earned nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. She stars in two new films opening Friday: "Never Let Me Go" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010

TORONTO -- Carey Mulligan, you've snagged nominations for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. You've won the British equivalent of the Oscar. You star in "Never Let Me Go" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," both big-deal movies, both earning Oscar buzz, both opening Friday.

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Can we talk about hair?

Somehow, that's exactly what happened when Mulligan arrived at a spartan hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival this month. Her cropped, highlighted blond locks swept rakishly over her pore-less forehead, Mulligan, at 25, presents a more assured, less waiflike persona than last year, when her astonishing star turn in the British coming-of-age drama "An Education" earned her the designation of film-festival It Girl. "The next Audrey Hepburn," observers whispered, a pigeonhole made all the cozier, in the British actress's case, by a "Sabrina"-esque pixie haircut.

That was just the midpoint of a breakout year that began at Sundance, where critics, moguls and filmmakers first took note of the young actress's performance, and ended with the swirl and spectacle of awards season.

"The day I got nominated for the Oscar, I went and dyed my hair blond," Mulligan says matter-of-factly over a cup of tea. "I started feeling like I'd been to so many things where I looked this way, with the dark hair and the short cut, and I thought, 'I don't want people to remember me [only] like that, so I must do something now, before the Oscars, so that when I'm at the Oscars I'll look different.'

"So I got the worst hair dye job I've ever had in my life," she continues. "It was, like, banana yellow. And I had to go to the [nominees luncheon] with this really, really bad hair."

The subject might seem trivial, but hair is a powerful signifier for actresses -- think Mia Farrow defiantly cutting hers off during the "Rosemary's Baby," an act of tonsorial rebellion that reportedly infuriated her then-lover Frank Sinatra. When a younger actress cuts her hair -- or even dyes it an ill-advised shade of yellow -- she's declaring her autonomy, signaling that she won't be swayed by a still overwhelmingly male industry's traditional notions of feminine beauty. She's announcing that she won't be pliant.

Case in point: When Mulligan met director Oliver Stone to discuss starring in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," she says, "I walked in, terrified to meet him, and he came out of his little room, came towards me and went, 'Your hair's short.' And turned around and walked away."

She got the part -- she plays Gordon Gekko's long-estranged daughter Winnie in the "Wall Street" sequel -- and she sports her signature short cut in the movie.

"We had talked originally about a wig," Stone says recently. "But she said, 'When I wear a wig, I feel false.' So I trusted her. I don't know why. I don't think I'd do that for most actors."

Steely resolve

Stories like this tend to come up about Mulligan, who first burst into America's public consciousness in "An Education," playing a naive 16-year-old girl seduced by a charming older man. With her creamy complexion, dimples and soft-spoken demeanor, the then-22-year-old slipped easily into the role, making the narrative of doe-eyed ingenue nearly irresistible.

But what many failed to realize was that the Mulligan was no accidental star. The London-born actress, who grew up mostly in Germany, where her parents owned hotels, has always approached her career with proactive zeal, even after being rejected from drama schools in England. After the screenwriter Julian Fellowes ("Gosford Park") happened to speak at her high school, she took it upon herself later to write him a letter asking for advice.


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