Vanessa Keys, The Daily Telegraph, reports
It’s mid-November in 2010 and winter is knocking at the door of New York City.
Over at Center548, a 110-year-old warehouse smack-bang in the heart of Chelsea, the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards are in full swing.
Carey Mulligan waits her turn on the reception line, watching Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld (who she is to introduce at the dinner later that evening) tolerate a frenzy of photographers.
Moments before the cameras swing in Mulligan’s direction, she’s surprised by the vision of Baz Luhrmann’s wife, Catherine Martin, walking towards her brandishing a mobile phone.
"Catherine handed me the phone and it… it was Baz,” Mulligan tells me, her voice still solemn with incredulity.
"And he told me I had the part. He said, ‘Hello Daisy.’ And I burst into tears. It was quite a dramatic moment.”
Mulligan’s impersonation of Luhrmann’s lazy drawl is eerie. “Heeeello Daisy,” she repeats, obliging me with an impersonation that has me marvelling at her mimicry.
It’s been 18 months since The Great Gatsby had its last day of filming in Sydney, and just over a year since the shoot wrapped officially, but it’s clear the memories loom large.
Not only because she’s about to dive into a sea of Gatsby-centred magazine shoots, promotional tours and talk show appearances, but because Mulligan tells me she won’t forget. "It was a very intense project,” she says, and her voice indicates I should leave it at that.
Mulligan’s is the classic girl-next-door done good story. Born in 1985 in Westminster, London, Mulligan grew up living in hotels with her brother, mother and father, who moved the family across Germany and Britain while he managed boutique hotels.
She discovered acting at 16 when she saw Henry V starring Kenneth Branagh; at 17 she applied to three London drama schools (three rejection letters duly arrived).
A chance encounter with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes led to Mulligan meeting a casting assistant and, not long after, a try-out to play Kitty Bennet, the younger sister of Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Bennet in Pride & Prejudice (2005).
After three auditions, the part was hers. But her real breakout role came in 2009, when she was cast as the impressionable Jenny Mellor in Nick Hornby’s An Education, which earned her an Oscar nomination.
Choice roles followed: the impenetrable Kathy H in Never Let Me Go, erratic extrovert Sissy Sullivan in Shame and Irene in Drive opposite Ryan Gosling.
And then there’s Daisy. Vacuous, shallow Daisy; the unlikely heroine of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby and the catalyst that spurs the five central characters’ hopeless spiral into self-destruction. She’s one of literature’s most contradictory, conflicted enigmas; no wonder Mulligan felt daunted.
“I was terrified,” says Mulligan. “I had two auditions in two days and the first day they asked me to read with Leo (DiCaprio, who had already been cast as Gatsby). They called me again and I had to go in for a screen test with hair and make-up. Honestly, just getting to act with Leo for an hour and a half was pretty amazing. If it had all ended there, I would have been happy.”
Months before the cameras started rolling in Sydney in September 2011, Luhrmann gathered his key players (Mulligan, DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, who plays protagonist Nick, and Joel Edgerton, Daisy’s husband Tom) in New York for a week of workshops.
"Baz organised people to come in and speak with us,” says Mulligan.
"We had lectures on the 1920s and rehearsed scenes and talked a lot.” The cast received folders bulging with character-specific research material, plus iPods loaded with songs and videos. “I’ve never worked with anyone with so much breadth of knowledge,” she says.
Conversations between Mulligan and Luhrmann about how best to play Daisy started early. Mulligan had read the book but didn’t want to watch previous film adaptations. She relied solely on Fitzgerald’s text and research material she’d gathered about the Fitzgeralds, particularly his flamboyant wife Zelda, on whom the character is partly based.
“Daisy was a big departure for me,” says Mulligan. “I’ve never had to play a character who had such a defining ‘look’. She’s definitely been my biggest visual project. I kept remembering something Zelda said, where she referred to Daisy as the ‘cream on top of the bottle’.”
In the book’s first few chapters, Daisy makes a comment about her daughter – “I hope she’ll be a fool; that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” – that’s always struck me as poignant. When I mention this to Mulligan, she adds a new idea: that even in her most selfish moments, Daisy protects her child.
"She’s obviously shallow, she’s obviously fickle, but there’s a social context to why she behaves that way,” Mulligan says. “She was a product of her society.”
Her castmates’ time in Australia may have been painted as a series of sun-drenched parties on yachts (we’re talking about you, Leo), but Mulligan squashes speculation she was involved in the scene.
“I certainly didn’t have a good social life,” she says.
“We had a couple of cast dinners together and Baz and Catherine really looked out for us and wanted us to feel happy and comfortable. But we were filming six days a week and on Sundays everyone was exhausted. Everything was done with a spirit of adventure and fun – that’s how it is when you work with Baz – so there are scenes where you’re encouraged to play, and then there are scenes where everyone just knuckles down. We all felt the weight of responsibility to get this right.”
After months of delay, The Great Gatsby has been selected to open next month’s Cannes Film Festival. A trailer on YouTube has amassed more than nine million hits and critics seem to get more panicky by the day – can Luhrmann pull this off?
Will Gatsby be another Australia? And is Ms Mulligan, an actress who has flown relatively under the radar for eight years, ready to have her face plastered on billboards across the world? Will she be hounded?
“I don’t think so,” she says, as if she actually does think so but doesn’t want to go into it.
“I don’t really look like Daisy. Daisy was this thing that we made up and I wore a wig and had period make-up on and I wore beautiful clothes. I won’t be wearing any of that when I’m walking around London so, you know, I think it will be OK.”
One gets the feeling Mulligan would rather invite the paparazzi round to her house for tea than talk about her private life.
Her musician husband Marcus Mumford, of Mumford & Sons fame, is off-limits – “I’m not comfortable talking about that, sorry” – and when I compliment the clean, traditional silhouettes she chooses for the red carpet, she responds with deathly silence.
She shies away from talking about her nude scenes in Shame, and when asked about previous statements about being too “prudish” to look at her naked body, she chooses her response carefully.
“I just don’t like wearing anything where I feel sort of… insecure,” she says slowly. As for being the centre of attention, she’s finding it easier – just. “I think I’m getting used to it,” she says.
“I’m definitely finding it less nerve-racking. It’s not particularly enjoyable, but it’s not a terrible thing. No more uncomfortable than singing – or dancing in The Great Gatsby.” She laughs. “That was an experience.”