It's hard not to think that Carey Mulligan is having a "Queen for a Day" moment. Done up in purple satin, with gold kick-me stilettos, the fresh-faced 24-year-old is dolled up for pictures and perched on an antique table in the presidential suite of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, a $4,200-a-night, multi-room perch atop the storied hotel. The room isn't hers, even for the night, and neither are the clothes. Practically everything touching her skin is borrowed -- except for the air of giddy excitement.
"Photo shoots used to make me weep," the actress says when she emerges afterward, lean and casual in a pair of baggy black jodhpurs she's borrowed from the set of her upcoming movie "Wall Street 2," in which she plays Gordon Gekko's daughter, and an oversize cream-colored T-shirt with a stencil of Andy Warhol. Mulligan prefers theatrical shoots. "It's easier if I wear something that's not my stuff," she says." It's more of a performance, less about me."
Much of Hollywood is betting on the fact that Mulligan, the star of "An Education," is going to have to get accustomed to a life in pictures. The film premiered to glowing hosannas and an honest-to-goodness old-fashioned bidding war at Sundance, and a few days after this sojourn at the Beverly Wilshire, Mulligan attended both the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, all in the run-up to the nationwide release Friday. Set in the 1960s and based on a memoir by Lynn Barber, "An Education" tells the tale of a middle-class suburban London schoolgirl who gets seduced by a much older, jet-setting man (Peter Sarsgaard). It's about cool French songs, slender women in tight-fitting shifts, a teenager's first foray into illicit adult romance and the inevitable shattering of romantic illusions.
It's a career-making turn for the British actress. In the army of young starlets that descends on Hollywood every year, Mulligan stands out, not just for her talent but also for her slightly mischievous, retro air. She's a throwback in a sense to Jean Seberg or Mia Farrow, not just because of her hair, which is now cropped, but because of the air of innocent sexiness, the intelligent glint in her eye and the dimples in her cheeks. In person, she's high energy, unpretentious and excitable, with a penchant for using the word "mad" to mean a kind of delightful nuttiness that applies to phenomena as disparate as her current director, Oliver Stone, the Sundance frenzy, mastering an American accent and fittings at Barneys New York.
The daughter of a hotel manager who bounced between living in Germany and England, Mulligan says she started acting at 6 in plays at her international school in Germany. "I never played the lead part in anything. I always played the character parts and the men," she says. The Wicked Witch in "The Wizard of Oz," John Proctor in "The Crucible." "I tried to re-create Daniel Day-Lewis," she says, laughing, and explains that until the age of about 14, "I was a musical theater geek. That's all I wanted to do." Can she sing? "I can carry a tune but I'm not bound for the West End stage."
After graduating from boarding school, she tried out for drama school but failed to get in. "You have to be spectacular to get in. I wasn't. I did some pretentious piece of a suicide monologue, which, of course, I had nowhere to get that from," she says. Fortunately, while still in high school, Julian Fellowes, the "Gosford Park" screenwriter and author, came to give a talk.
She sat next to him afterward. "I grilled him. He told me to marry a lawyer or an accountant," she recalls. She later wrote to Fellowes, who with his wife invited her to dinner with other aspiring theater folk and introduced her to a casting director and her assistant, who eventually helped Mulligan land the role as flighty Kitty Bennet in the 2005 Keira Knightley version of "Pride and Prejudice." "I ate everything in sight [on that set]. I had these big cheeks," she says of the experience.
Her 2007 performance as the aspiring actress Nina in a celebrated English production of Chekhov's "The Seagull" garnered her even more attention and confidence; it later moved to Broadway. For Mulligan, the stint in New York was the culmination of a childhood fantasy. "The first month, every night I'd go, 'I can't believe I'm here.' I have that a lot, the 'I can't believe I'm here thing' -- once a week."
"The Seagull" also prompted a change in how she works. She's been using her imagination more, she explains. "Before, I was trying to react how I would react, imagining how the event would affect me. Now, I create a different set of images for the person." She now makes scrapbooks of images, thoughts, poems for each role, creating an entirely imagined inner life. "It's all a security thing. It's making [me] believe that [I'm] qualified to take on this part, because I didn't go to university or drama school."
It was after "The Seagull" that Hollywood really took notice, and Mulligan flew to Los Angeles to do the rounds of agents and casting directors, taking the bus all around the city because she doesn't drive. "I didn't mind it. Just sitting on the bus, you can watch the most amazing people. Really, from all sides of the spectrum -- from really kind of smart people to some people wearing no clothes and carrying bird cages. I talk to people a lot more out here than in London. I'm more introverted in London." This said, after a meeting with Warren Beatty, the veteran actor took pity on her and drove her to her next appointment himself.
After several auditions, Mulligan landed "An Education" -- her first lead. Director Lone Scherfig says that she saw pretty much every girl Mulligan's age in England. "There's not much mystery. I thought she was the best from the beginning," the director says. "She's so intelligent and there's a sweetness to her. And she added to the part. If you read the script and then compare the script with her version of it, she's got a fragility -- in a positive way. But she's not just someone who can easily be hurt. You can understand that she loves French food and music as much as she does. That comes from Carey."
Mulligan says she didn't bring it all on her own. "I learned more than anything from Lone and Peter. The ability to be a bit sillier," she says. She used to be "inhibited" in front of the crew. "I was quite nervous of being judged or disliked or having my work criticized," says the actress, who plays a 16-year-old in the film. "Peter is the hardest person in the world to embarrass," she says. "He will do anything and he makes you do anything."
Mulligan also appeared for a nanosecond as a blond hooker in "Public Enemies," and has a slightly larger role in the upcoming Jim Sheridan family drama "Brothers." After that come meatier roles: the lead opposite Keira Knightley in Mark Romanek's rendition of the Kazuo Ishiguro sci-fi novel "Never Let Me Go," about three adults plumbing the mysteries of their onetime boarding school. In "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps," she plays a rabid anti-capitalist in love with a young trader played by Shia LaBeouf. "It's a real male environment. I'm one of the only girls in the whole film," says Mulligan, who started rehearsals two weeks earlier. "I wanted to do something that I'd be scared of. This is terrifying."
Eventually, Mulligan's publicist drags the young starlet away. Hangers of borrowed designer clothes -- outfits for Toronto and Telluride -- have arrived in the suite and she needs to try them on. Later, a car will come to chauffeur her back to her own more modest hotel.
That ride remains an aberration for the young woman who might be Hollywood's next big thing. In Los Angeles, Mulligan still takes the bus or hoofs it, a habit that occasionally wreaks havoc on her new finery.
On her feet are a pair of exquisite pink flats given to her by Prada. "They're like ballet slippers," she enthuses. "Then I walked to Paramount in them . . . from the Beverly Center." She couldn't resist, she says, flashing a slightly guilty, slightly insouciant grin, but "I kind of destroyed them."