Carey Mulligan and Baz Luhrmann had a ritual during filming of The Great Gatsby. Every morning the director would knock at the door of his leading lady’s trailer, take her hand, walk her to the set and arrange her dress. The point, says Mulligan, was ‘to make me feel like a lady’.
Taller and prettier than you’d think, but today dressed in nothing fancier than a black silk blazer and comfy flats, she admits, ‘I’m not massively girly. But once you’re wearing the dress and the jewellery, suddenly you hold yourself differently. Every time I put on the engagement ring, this huge diamond, I’d feel different. Like Daisy.’
Unbelievably, the bling she wore as socialite flapper Daisy Buchanan was all genuine: ‘Dresses by Prada, diamonds by Tiffany’. Did she get to keep any of it? ‘No, nothing! I’d be accidentally dropping diamonds into my cleavage and being like’ – she pulls an innocent face – ‘“I don’t know where they went.”’
When we meet, Mulligan is as collected as you’d expect someone who always looks so fashionably poised on the red carpet to be. Yet she’s genuinely shocked when we tell her this. ‘I don’t like photos. I used to be much worse on the red carpet. I’d just sort of stand there... by the time I’d got to the end I’d be in tears. I’m slightly better now. But people looking at me... that freaks me out.’
Perhaps that’s why she has such a talent for disappearing into character. She came out of nowhere with An Education as the brainy sixth-former who gets a lesson in love from a dodgy older man. Since then, no two roles have been the same: wise beyond her years in Never Let Me Go, messy and self-destructive in Shame.
‘It helps that I’ve got a forgettable face,’ she laughs before adding, seriously, ‘I like doing something dramatically different every time. I don’t want the audience to think of me as myself. That’s why I ended up losing my hair. I dyed it peroxide blond for Public Enemies. It turned to straw. And I got stuck with the short hair thing.’ The trademark pixie crop wasn’t a cool-girl-in-Hollywood statement? ‘No! No statement. I loved having long hair.’ She runs a hand through her growing-out bob revealing chipped nails. ‘I know, skanky. I did bring nail varnish remover with me from home. I just didn’t do it.’ Home is her ‘grown-up’ house, shared with Marcus Mumford, whom she married in a posh barn wedding in Somerset last year.
They knew each other as kids before Hollywood and fame – they were pen pals. Jake Gyllenhaal reintroduced them at a Mumford & Sons gig in Tennessee in 2011. Now they’re the king and queen of Brit cool in America: the Mumfords’ last album topped the US charts and Mulligan is in one of the biggest film events of the year.
Gatsby is Romeo + Juliet director Luhrmann’s mega-million-dollar glitzy adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s roaring ‘20s tale of greed, social climbers and doomed love. Leonardo DiCaprio is Jay Gatsby, the mystery man who makes and loses a fortune – for love. Mulligan plays rich, beautiful Daisy Buchanan, the woman who commands his undying devotion. It was the most sought-after Hollywood leading lady role in years. When Mulligan got the call to audition, she hadn’t read Gatsby. She shrugs: ‘I didn’t study it at school.’
She flew to New York for a 90-minute ‘mad circus’ casting with Luhrmann, DiCaprio and a room full of cameras. The whole thing seemed ‘beyond the realms of possibility’, and yet she wasn’t even nervous: ‘At least I could say to myself, “Well, I did this crazy audition. I got to act with Leonardo DiCaprio for an hour-and-a-half.”’
As a kid, when her friends had posters of DiCaprio on their walls, Carey Mulligan had bigger plans. ‘I didn’t do posters. I decided at 12 years old that I wanted to act with Leonardo DiCaprio. I didn’t see him as a pin-up.’ Talk about aiming high. ‘I know!’ she laughs, quickly adding, ‘Pipe dreams! But seriously, I couldn’t imagine in what world I would end up acting in a film with him.’
A couple of weeks after the audition she bumped into Luhrmann at an LA restaurant – still not knowing if she’d got the part. ‘I’d had a martini. And you know, one martini is enough for me. He came over and we chatted. And I’m thinking: Is my face red? Am I being articulate enough?’
Luhrmann was still working his way through the audition tapes at the time. ‘He gave me this whole speech’ – she puts on a gruff voice – ‘“Well, you know, Carey, I’m a scientist...” And he’s talking in this really poetic, cryptic language. I was like, am I drunk or are you not making any sense?’ A week later, she burst into tears when he called with the words: ‘Hello Daisy’.
Daisy Buchanan is one of literature’s hardest-to-like heroines. Fitzgerald described her as ‘the golden girl’, a Southern belle, who chooses money over love. ‘She’s difficult to crack because she doesn’t really know herself,’ says Mulligan. ‘I always imagined her as someone who, with everything she says and does, it’s as if she’s watching a movie of her own life. Daisy always makes the smart girl choices and I just have to side with her but [as a character], she’s the biggest departure for me. I’ve never done a character where it mattered that much what I looked like... That was intimidating. But all Fitzgerald says about her appearance is that she has “a sad lovely face with bright things in it”.’
The blogosphere has disagreed, with some sniping that Mulligan isn’t beautiful enough to be Daisy; that Scarlett Johansson would have smouldered and Kirsten Dunst would have nailed Daisy’s manipulative streak. But it was the English girl who hadn’t even read the book who got the part, one that guarantees mega-celebrity for Mulligan, whatever critics make of Luhrmann’s extravagant take on Fitzgerald’s novel.
Isn’t she nervous? Mulligan’s face darkens. ‘Definitely: this is nerve-wracking.’ Her voice trails off. ‘I don’t really know the deal...’ She recovers, smiling a little too brightly, and says finally: ‘But you know, it’s funny, no one ever recognises me.’ Gatsby may well just change all that.
The Great Gatsby is in cinemas around town from Friday 30 August.