Class of 2009: Carey Mulligan in 'An Education'

When British actress Carey Mulligan made her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival in January, she kept her hopes for her film "An Education" in check and looked at the journey as an adventure. But after the film was picked up -- in part because of Mulligan's much lauded performance -- everything changed for the 24-year-old.

"You don't expect to go to Sundance and have your film bought, let alone any of the stuff that's come with it," she says of the award attention that has since surrounded her. "It was daunting, but it was exciting. I'm meeting people I never would have met."

In "An Education," Mulligan plays Jenny, a smart 16-year-old whose life receives a dose of excitement when an enigmatic older man, played by Peter Sarsgaard, offers her a ride on a rainy day. It's directed by Lone Scherfig from a script by novelist Nick Hornby based on journalist Lynn Barber's memoir about growing up in 1960s London. A formidable supporting cast includes Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour as Jenny's parents, and Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike as Jenny's fashionable new friends.

Mulligan's performance strikes a careful balance between wisdom and an exuberance that makes Jenny relatable. Her Jenny is well educated -- casually tossing French into a conversation -- but is less savvy about the motives of people. In less capable hands, the audience wouldn't believe that a girl as clever as Jenny would get into the fancy car of a stranger.

But there's nothing in the actress, or the character, that feels less than true.

"I was there for her audition. She's an incredible auditioner, by the way. I've never seen somebody so prepared in my life," Sarsgaard says. "From her audition, I knew she was a fantastic actress, but she has a quality that is so right for this role, which is right for so many roles in Hollywood, which is one reason why people are thinking we might see a lot more of her: There's an energy to her that is positive and not cynical and seems innocent without being stupid."

The actress says that two things attracted her to the part: "I knew where she was coming from in terms of frustration about education and life. You feel like you're passing tests to appease other people or ticking boxes to get on in life. And also she really wants to expand her mind, enrich herself, and actively does it."

But the French, she says, was all Jenny. "People have been asking me if I can speak French, and I'm like, 'No, I learned four phrases,' " the actress says, pointing out that the film's French cinematographer, John de Borman, often corrected her accent.

Although Mulligan found common ground with Jenny, the actress says she never had a mysterious stranger approach her in her teens. "I didn't have all the men hitting on me. I did look about 12 when I was 16, so I suppose that would have been really wrong. Who are these people having these exotic, interesting lives?" she says with a laugh.

In crafting the role, Mulligan says the character's sense of humor caused her the most anxiety. "I play the straight man in most of the stuff that's comedic, but that was nerve-racking. You kind of have to throw your inhibitions out the window. I lean toward tragic, dramatic figures in the stuff that I do, so playing someone not very complicated was more challenging than playing someone with great tragedy in their life."

Yet her instincts were on target, and the chatter about a lead actress Oscar nomination has been building since January. Mulligan, however, has her feet firmly planted on the ground. "It has afforded me amazing opportunities to get jobs that maybe would have been much harder for me to get last year. So that's all brilliant, but anything beyond that is in another stratosphere in my imagination and not something I can give much thought to. I can't tell you what a mad concept it is."

One of the opportunities to come out of "An Education" is Mulligan's role in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps," in which she stars as Winnie Gekko, opposite Michael Douglas as her father, Gordon Gekko. Though that film is currently in production and her breakout role in "An Education" has Hollywood insiders buzzing, Mulligan says it's been difficult to convince friends and family that things are going well in Los Angeles. "I used to be on BBC One a lot in these costume dramas, so occasionally my parents' friends would see me. Nothing I've done [recently] has come out, so, of course, they're like, 'Well, clearly she's struggling,' " Mulligan says with a laugh.


Envelope correspondent Michael Ordona contributed to this report.