HOLLYWOOD — Earning an Oscar nomination for her star-making performance as a 16-year-old schoolgirl who falls for a mysterious older man in “An Education” has opened doors for British actress Carey Mulligan.
Even before she was nominated this year, Mulligan reaped rewards from her performance when the ’60s-set drama, co-starring Peter Sarsgaard, premiered at Sundance, with much acclaim.
It got her an audition with director Mark Romanek ( “One Hour Photo” ) for the big-screen adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel “Never Let Me Go,” about a group of boarding school students growing up in an alternate universe England.
“I was, at first, intimidated by how unique her talent is,” says Romanek, who cast her in the role of Kathy H, a young woman who discovers she is a clone, bred for eventual organ harvesting.
Director Oliver Stone was so taken with Mulligan’s “An Education” performance that he invited her to play Winnie, the rebellious daughter of Michael Douglas’ disgraced financier Gordon Gekko, in the “Wall Street” sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” It was one of the first times she was offered a movie role outright without having to audition.
“I’ve never had a strategy of what parts I want to do,” Mulligan says, dressed in a lacy Marc Jacobs cocktail dress and Ferragamo heels and sporting a blond bob, which she superstitiously has maintained since she earned her Oscar nomination earlier this year.
“It’s always a case of just trying to find something that has no similarity to what I’ve done previously,” the 25-year-old adds.
She has stuck to her guns, turning down offers to play ingenues in other films.
“The reason I haven’t worked this year is because people see you do one thing and they think they want you to do it again,” she laments. “So I get scripts where the character is a teenage girl who’s slightly pretentious and likes smoking and I think, that’s familiar.”
The roles in “Never Let Me Go” and “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” appealed to her because each was different from anything she’d previously played.
With “Never Let Me Go,” a drama with a sci-fi backdrop, she plays a young woman of few words but a lot of thoughts and unspoken emotions.
“What I love about Kathy is how little she says,” Mulligan relates. “I like how much she holds back and defers to everybody. The challenge for me was to make the character interesting when she’s kind of restrained for most of the film.”
Mulligan co-stars alongside fellow Oscar nominee Keira Knightley, with whom she previously co-starred in “Pride & Prejudice,” and Andrew Garfield, who is set to star in the upcoming “Spider-Man” reboot.
“I’m excited for Andrew,” she says, admiringly. “He’s such a brilliant actor.”
Mulligan had attended four years of British boarding school in her teens, so she related to some aspects of the character.
“Some of the English sensibilities — the singing in the morning and all that stuff — I definitely had that,” she says. “But the boarding school in this movie isn’t really a boarding school. It’s a sort of battery farm.”
In contrast to the doomed, wide-eyed innocent she plays in “Never Let Me Go,” Mulligan plays a worldlier young woman in the “Wall Street” sequel.
She relished the opportunity to play with “the big boys,” as she calls Stone & Co., and the opportunity to make the so-called “girlfriend role” in a big-budget Hollywood movie interesting and relevant.
“I felt that Winnie could be a real character in her own right and take an equal place in the film,” alongside Douglas’ says Mulligan, who got to work alongside Oscar winner Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, who plays her hot shot stock trader fiance.
Mulligan also wanted to work with the enigmatic Stone, who helmed 1987’s “Wall Street,” as well as a number of other seminal Hollywood movies, including “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “JFK.”
“I’d heard some insane stories about him,” she admits with a giggle.
But she deferred to the advice of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who had worked with Stone on the 2006 disaster drama “World Trade Center.”
“She just loved him and told me ’you can’t not work with him,’” she recalls.
Mulligan wasn’t disappointed. She says Stone was top-shelf.
“He treated me like one of the boys,” she says. “He listened to my ideas and was open to them. On the set, he was very supportive.”
As Winnie, Mulligan is Gekko’s only surviving child, who grew up while her father was serving time in prison for securities fraud. Over time, she has grown to resent him and his “greed is good” philosophy, and taken a completely different track in her own life as a progressive journalist. Since Winnie is an all new character in the “Wall Street” world, Mulligan was able to invent her back story — with Stone and Douglas’ input — and make the part her own.
She shadowed Laura Dawn, a political writer for MoveOn.org, on whom Stone based the character. (Dawn has a non-speaking cameo in the movie.)
“Laura and I hung out a fair bit over the first couple of weeks of pre-production and shooting,” recalls the actress. “It had less to do with her politics and more to do with the passion she has and this real fire and ambition. Her essence is effectively what Oliver wanted.”
The “Wall Street” sequel also offered Mulligan an opportunity to get out of the past and into the modern world with a film reflecting current events.
“I’ve done lots of costume dramas and period pieces and plays, and this was the first thing and the only thing that was current and relevant,” she says. “It was saying something about where we are right now. You’re watching a human drama, but the backdrop is kind of educational.”
As Winnie, she inherits a sizable trust fund established years earlier by her father, who may be down but not out after serving his sentence. The drama picks up with Gekko attempting to re-launch his once lucrative career on Wall Street in a very different world. He attempts to reconnect with his estranged daughter at the encouragement of Jake, her fiance, who also happens to be an up and comer in the financial world, but with more altruistic motivations. Winnie reluctantly agrees to meet with her father but remains wary of him.
Mulligan says she and Douglas kept a distance from each other during production, though it was not something they overtly planned. She says co-star Frank Langella, who has a small but memorable role as Jake’s mentor, was more paternal toward her on set, even though they had no scenes together.
“I saw him at rehearsals and I’d come in on days when I wasn’t called in (to shoot) because I like to befriend people on set,” she says, smiling. “I feel more comfortable when I know everybody.”
As for LaBeouf, who Mulligan reportedly is dating, the actress will only comment on their professional relationship.
“He’s really work-driven,” she says of the 24-year-old “Transformers” star. “He’s always ready to work, and he’s probably the most prepared actor I’ve ever worked with. He knew the finance world better than anybody by the time we started shooting.”
After a full day of interviews promoting her two movies, Mulligan is off to begin rehearsals on her next film, “Drive,” a thriller co-starring Ryan Gosling, and directed by Danish director Nicholas Refn ( “Bronson” ).
“It’s another life to look at,” she says with a smile.