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

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; C01

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.

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.

"I said, 'I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. I'm in my gap year, I'm a runner at a film studio, I'm working in a bar in the evening,' " Mulligan recalls. " 'I've got placed at a university, I don't want to go, I want to act. I can't go to drama school because I don't have any money, and my parents won't pay for it. . . . What's another way in?' "

Fellowes and his wife, Emma, invited Mulligan to dinner along with other young aspirants, and Emma recommended Mulligan to a casting agent she knew. That led to Mulligan acquiring an agent and being cast in "Pride and Prejudice," opposite Keira Knightley, as well as in the British TV series "Dr. Who" and a well-regarded production of "The Seagull," which traveled from London's Royal Court Theatre to Broadway in 2008.

Looking back, Mulligan says with a smile, "I probably played up the whole 'My parents won't let me act' thing, you know, to get some sympathy." But the episode conveys volumes about an actress whose sweetness belies an equally steely resolve.

Stone recalls that Mulligan and co-star Shia LaBeouf, who plays her boyfriend in the movie, urged him to cut a lot of dialogue in their breakup scene. At first, Stone resisted but then realized she was correct.

"She's a woman who seems to demand authenticity," he says. "I imagine she can become very tough, but in a good way. She's a Glenda Jackson tough. I can't imagine telling Glenda Jackson to do something in a way she felt wasn't true, and I can't imagine telling Carey that, either."

Those instincts had a similar influence on "Never Let Me Go," says Mark Romanek, who directed the movie, an adaptation of the Kazuo Ishiguro novel. Mulligan plays Kathy, one of a trio of young people who slowly discover that, because of their role in the Britain of the author's imagining, they're headed for certain doom. As the book's narrator and a special member of the tribe known as a "carer," Kathy projects both innocence and knowingness in the film, an interior balancing act that Mulligan pulls off with quiet aplomb.

"She has the ability to create what seems ostensibly, on the page, to be a passive character and imbue it with a strength," Romanek says. "She also has . . . a stillness that radiates and resonates with great depth of emotion, without seeming to do very much.

"When I saw what she was doing, this sort of mystical minimalism, it emboldened me to go even farther in my visual grammar for the film."

The director says that before he cast Mulligan, "we were having trouble finding the right Kathy" and a tight shooting deadline loomed. Peter Rice, the head of Fox Searchlight, which was financing the film, was watching "An Education" at Sundance and sent Romanek a four-word text: Hire the genius Mulligan.

"Later, I asked him why was it so terse and he said, 'Because I was still in the middle of the movie.' " Rice exhibited rare foresight in greenlighting a movie with a virtual unknown, Romanek says. "He just knew that she was it."

There's that word again. One year after being crowned 2009's It Girl, Mulligan confesses, "It feels like none of it ever happened now. It was so unexpected that there was no time to study what was going on. I remember people asking us, 'How does it feel, how does it feel?' And we'd say, 'I don't know, ask us in five years, we haven't had time to process any of it.'

"And it really doesn't change anything, you know. You don't get every job that you want, and you still fight for the things that you do want."

'Trust your casting'

One fight that Mulligan lost was for this year's arguably hottest role: Lisbeth Salander, the punk-hacker heroine of Stieg Larsson's novel, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Along with just about every young actress in Hollywood, Mulligan campaigned for the part, auditioning for director David Fincher in dyed black hair and a nose ring (but not writing to him or screenwriter Steven Zaillian, as some gossips would have it).

"It was a crazy, crazy challenge and an incredible character and I desperately wanted to play it, and I did my due diligence and did several auditions, and it just didn't work out," says Mulligan, who still winces wistfully when the subject comes up. (A few weeks before, it had been announced that Fincher had chosen Rooney Mara to play Lisbeth.)

"I did everything I could," Mulligan says. "And she'll be brilliant."

Some years ago, when she was fighting anxiety over a play that she was doing in London, Mulligan received advice from a friend. "She said, 'Trust your casting,' " Mulligan recalls. "And I think that works both ways. If you've got the job, you're there for a reason. And if you haven't got the job, it's for a reason. They're protecting you from something you're not meant to do, that you're not right for and that someone else can do better.

"And I have no doubt that people can do things better. But you just sort of ache for a part."

Mulligan hasn't worked since making "Money Never Sleeps" -- she's spent time at her parents' house in Austria, walking in the mountains and reading scripts. At least two enticing projects -- Sam Mendes's adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel "On Chesil Beach" and a remake of "My Fair Lady" -- have been indefinitely delayed. Next week, Mulligan begins filming "Drive," in which she plays an ex-con's girlfriend who goes on the run with a stunt driver played by Ryan Gosling.

Meanwhile, just a few days after this interview, Toronto tastemakers anointed a new It Girl: Andrea Riseborough, who happens to have a small role in "Never Let Me Go."

And Mulligan left the festival as something that she always intended to be: a working actress.

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