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Actress Carey Mulligan Stands Out Amid The 'Madding Crowd'

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Actress Carey Mulligan Stands Out Amid The 'Madding Crowd'

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Actress Carey Mulligan Stands Out Amid The 'Madding Crowd'

Actress Carey Mulligan Stands Out Amid The 'Madding Crowd'

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The English actress has been nominated for a Tony Award for her role in the Broadway revival of Skylight. She also stars in the film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Far From the Madding Crowd.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Carey Mulligan, is up for a Tony award this Sunday night for her performance in the Broadway revival of the David Hare play "Skylight." It's one of seven nominations "Skylight" has received, including ones for her co-stars, Bill Nighy and Matthew Beard and for best revival. She also stars in the new film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel "Far From The Madding Crowd." I became a fan of hers the first time I saw her in the 2009 film "An Education," in which she portrayed a studious high school girl led astray by an older man. She's since starred or co-starred in "Drive," "Shame," "The Great Gatsby," "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Never Let Me Go." Let's start with a scene from "Skylight." Mulligan plays a young woman around 30, who, a few years earlier, had a long affair with a much older man, played by Nighy. He is an affluent restaurateur. She's now living alone and teaching in an inner-city school. They haven't seen each other in several years when he shows up, unannounced, at her apartment. They review the past and consider the present, agreeing on very little. He's critical of the life she's chosen, including her low-rent apartment, which is freezing because the heater is so inefficient.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "SKYLIGHT")

CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) Tell me now, there's something which you have to deal with. There's this whole world I'm now in. It's a world with quite different values. The people, the thinking is different. It's not at all like the world which you know.

I mean, if we - what I'm saying - if we can work out a way of keeping in touch, then you would have to know that I have made certain decisions, and they are decisions that you would have to respect

BILL NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Why? I mean, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) Good.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Surely. I'm not a complete idiot.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) No.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) You're saying you've made an informed and serious choice. You've chosen to live in near-arctic conditions somewhere off the North circuit. No, really, why should I have any problem with that? I promise you I'm deeply impressed with it. I assure you it gives me no problem at all. Put a bucket in the corner to s*** in, you could take hostages and tell them this is Beirut.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) Tom, I have to tell you, this place is really quite reasonable.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Oh, really?

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) As it happens, I get it at a very cheap rent.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) I should hope.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) No.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) It's you, Tom. The fact is you've lost all sense of reality. This place isn't special. It's not. It's not especially horrible. For God's sake, this is how everyone lives.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Oh, please. Please, let's be serious.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) No, no, no, I mean it.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) No, really, honestly.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) No, no, no, this is interesting. This is at the heart of. It wasn't until I left your restaurants, those carpaccio and ricotta-stuffed restaurants of yours, it wasn't until I deserted that Chelsea milieu...

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Which in my memory, you liked pretty well.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) I do like it. Yes, that's not something I'd ever deny. But it wasn't until I got out of your limousines, 'till I left that warm bubble of money and good taste in which you exist.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) But I remember that most people live in a way which is altogether different.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Well, of course.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) And you have no right to look down on that life.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) You're right.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) Thank you.

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) Of course, that's right. However, in one thing, you're different. I do have to say it, Kyra. In one thing, you're different from everyone else in this part of town.

MULLIGAN: (As Kyra Hollis) How is that?

NIGHY: (As Tom Sergeant) You're the only person who's fought so hard to get into it when everyone else is desperate to get out.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's my guest Carey Mulligan with Bill Nighy in a scene from "Skylight."

Carey Mulligan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on your Tony nomination and all the other Tony nominations that the show has received. You know, watching you both perform, Bill Nighy is constantly moving. He's, like, spinning around and moving his hands, like gesturing constantly, and you're pretty still as you act. And I'm wondering, like, is that anything that's written in? Is that, like, a directorial choice?

MULLIGAN: No, it's not written in. I mean, it's the sort of - I mean, a lot of it is just the fact that my character in the first act of the play is cooking a meal. And so I'm sort of, in terms of the space that we're inhabiting, I'm generally in the kitchen in one part of it and preparing food, so I'm - that sort of keeps me in one place. Also Bill's character, Tom, comes in and is trying to sort of - I mean, he's telling stories, and he's in a sort of big, anecdotal kind of, you know, flurry of information. And he's kind of, you know, introducing her back into his life again. And I think he sort of - you know, the way that he moves around the stage is all part of his storytelling, is the way that he is. It's his charisma. And so me being in the one place - and I'm sort of his audience for the first act of the play, really.

GROSS: Have you known a lot of people for which you felt like they were your - that you were their audience? I know people like that (laughter).

MULLIGAN: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, you just, you know, you smile and you nod. I think, you know, there's a line at the end of Act 1 where I say, I'm standing here smiling, nodding, agreeing, you know, and all the while she's thinking, you know, why is this guy - you know, how many lies is he going to tell me in this sort of first meeting?

GROSS: What did Broadway mean to you when you were growing up in England?

MULLIGAN: Broadway was sort of the dream. I mean, Broadway was - you know, when I was little, I wanted to be musical theater actress. It wasn't sort of ever - I didn't watch films growing up really more than, you know, normal. I wanted to do musicals. I went to the theater a lot in London in the West End with my mom. We saw shows. And then when I was 11, I came out to New York with my family, and I think we saw a show, maybe. But when I was 14, we came out - just my mom and I - on a weekend, and we saw a couple of shows. And one of them actually was "Cabaret," with Alan Cumming and Molly Ringwald, then at Studio 54, the same production that's just been revived, and that was sort of it for me. I just sort of - that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to live in New York and be a musical theater actress, and, you know, and that's sort of where I decided I wanted my whole life to be. So it was very, very surreal coming here for the first time and doing a Broadway show - and I did "The Seagull" when I was younger - and sort of living out that dream which just felt completely bizarre because I had seen a show in that very theater. I did "The Seagull" at the Walter Kerr, and I'd seen Kevin Bacon do a one-man show there when I was 14, and I was on the same stage. It was a sort of real pinch-me moment.

GROSS: It's interesting, you know, you wanted to do music theater. I don't know if you've actually done any music theater, but you've managed to sing in several of your films. In "Far From The Madding Crowd," you sing one of those come-all-you-fair-and-tender-girls kind of songs. In "Shame" you sing "New York, New York." In "An Education," you sing along with a record. So are all of those singing parts written in for you because you have such a lovely voice?

MULLIGAN: No, they're so completely, you know, accidental really. I mean, I sang in, yeah, "Shame" was the first - well, I think I might have sung in other things; but, yes, "Shame" was the first time I sang in something, and then I sang in "Inside Llewyn Davis," the Coen brother's film...

GROSS: Oh, right. I'm leaving that out. Yes.

MULLIGAN: ...Which was all about folk.

Yeah, yeah, but, yeah, no, they just happen to be, you know, I mean, I loved the challenge of the singing in "Shame" because it was a very kind of exposing scene and, you know, and Steve McQueen obviously directing it wanted the whole thing in one take, and he wanted to record it live, and he didn't want to cut out of it and, you know, so it was sort of - it felt like a very kind of big challenge and exciting and that scene is so much more about the relationship with her and her brother than actually the song. So - but then yeah, in "Madding Crowd" it just sort seems to happen in these things, and it's great. I like it. I get very nervous. I mean, I never had a strong enough voice really to do musical theater proper. So that's why sort of as I got slightly older in my teen years, I decided to focus more on straight sort of theater acting but...

GROSS: Wait, wait, let me stop you. When you say you didn't have a strong enough voice, do you mean like a big enough voice, or...

MULLIGAN: Yeah. I think it was, you know, I can sort of sing in tune and - but I'm not - so I can't really belt out a song in the way that, you know, you need to to be a musical theater actress, you know, a proper. You know, the actresses that I've seen on stage and been completely blown away by, that's not something I can do. So, and I can't dance, which is also a bit of a requirement.

(LAUGHTER)

MULLIGAN: I've got absolutely no rhythm. So yeah, so after a while, I've sort of figured that out and - but it was something I just loved doing when I was growing up.

GROSS: OK. So we have to hear you sing in "Shame." And, you know, "New York, New York" is usually sung as this kind of anthem, you know, the implication is if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere and somebody like determined to succeed and so on. Your version is the opposite. You're singing here as somebody who's, like, struggling with depression, whose lost a lot in your life, and if you don't make it here, like, this might be the end of the road for you (laughter).

MULLIGAN: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: So I've never heard it sung like this. It's really an amazing version, so let's hear it. This is Carey Mulligan in the film "Shame."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHAME")

MULLIGAN: (Singing) Start spreading the news. I'm leaving today. I want to be a part of it, New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep and find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap. These vagabond shoes...

GROSS: That's Carey Mulligan singing in the film "Shame," and what's going on in this - you're singing in a club. You're wearing a - you know, you look very sexy in it. Your brother, played by Michael Fassbender, is in the audience staring at you, and his boss is sitting there, too, looking at you longingly. So it is such, like, a loaded scene, and it's such a depressive version.

MULLIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you decide to approach the song that way?

MULLIGAN: Well, that was a lot, I mean, that was Steve, really.

GROSS: Steve McQueen, the director?

MULLIGAN: Steve McQueen the director had that vision for the song from the beginning, and it's described in that way in the script of this sort of - it's like you said, it's her last-ditch attempt at life really and coming to New York to be with her brother is her sort of last attempt to try and have a connection and stay alive, really. And she's struggling so much, and she's reaching out for love pretty much anywhere where she can get it. So, you know, I think the song begins to break her brother's heart, and then, of course, his leery boss is sitting there, and she ends up, you know, bringing him home. And so, yeah, it was an incredibly dark, an incredibly dark film, but that scene particularly was sort of a turning point in the film where it all sort of starts to break down.

GROSS: There's a scene in "Shame" I want to ask you about. It's a nude scene, and this is a scene like - you've just moved into your brother's house without asking or anything. You had a key. You surprise him. He comes home. He thinks a burglar's been in his house. He takes his baseball bat, ready to, like, whack someone, and he finds you. And you're in the shower, and you do not cover your body. And he has - it seems like he's seen your body before, which is why - one of the reasons why there is this hint that something perhaps incestuous went on between you way in the past that's going to remain unspoken, but that's going to affect everything about your relationship.

And so, like, you're on-screen full-body naked for a few seconds. And your character's attitude is like, here I am, and he's saying like, cover yourself. He throws a towel at you. And it's a powerful scene because it has so much meaning beneath the surface. It's not just like, oh, it's a sexy shot. It's like you're communicating (laughter) by being naked like that with your brother. What kind of thinking, for you, went into whether you wanted to do that or not? I think it's a really big deal for an actress to do that.

MULLIGAN: Yeah. I mean, it was sort of never really considered. I mean, I'd never done anything like it before. You know, I wouldn't go to a public swimming pool and put on a swimming costume. I hate wearing - you know, I never wear a dress that's above the knee. I'm completely kind of - I'm a complete prude. And I'd avoided it in other jobs, and I'd said no to jobs where there was gratuitous nudity and - you know.

But it never felt like that to me. That felt like the perfect introduction to the character. That is exactly who she is. She has absolutely no qualms about being naked in front of her brother for whatever reason. She's not ashamed of her body, or at least, in that moment, she's not. And I - it never sort of felt like a big thing.

I wasn't meant - she's an alcoholic. She's not meant to look good. I spent the weeks before filming that, you know, just eating whatever I wanted to and drinking beer and, you know, and I never - I think it was because there was nothing about having to look good. It wasn't about looking great. It wasn't about going to the gym. It was about just a woman who's just not ashamed of what she looked like and not embarrassed of her nude form in front of her brother. And it felt like - that felt who she was, and it felt like the only way to introduce her into the story that Steve had written.

And so it didn't really bother me ever. And in fact, it didn't really bother me when we were filming it. I remember a couple of days later he said, you know, do you want to watch the rushes of that just to sort of approve it or whatever and say that you're happy. I think it was part of some clause in my contract that I could have approval or whatever, and I just said no, like, that's fine. I approve it. I don't need to see it, you know, because I think that's just how you feel when you really trust a director. You don't need to watch anything. You just go, well, if he thinks it's the right thing, then it's the right thing. And I definitely felt that way with Steve.

GROSS: Now, I have to say, I loved hearing you speak (laughter). You have a beautiful speaking voice, as well as a beautiful singing voice. And I'm just going to play one more clip here. You are currently starring in "Far From The Madding Crowd," which is a film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, which is set in the late 1800s. And you play a woman who is an orphan who's living - it's a relative that you're living with, right?

MULLIGAN: Yeah, an aunt. Yeah.

GROSS: An aunt.

MULLIGAN: In that story.

GROSS: Then you find out, you know, you don't have - you yourself don't have anything. And then you find out that another relative has died and bequeathed you their farm, so suddenly you're a land owner. You are now the boss of all the workers on the farm. You're a young woman in an era in which women really usually are not property holders or bosses. And you're taking on - you're taking on this responsibility and doing it with considerable confidence and authority. So here you are introducing yourself, basically, to the farm workers and telling them what to expect.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD")

MULLIGAN: (As Bathsheba Everdene) From now on, you have a mistress, not a master. I don't yet know my talents in farming, but I shall do my best. Don't suppose because I'm a woman, I don't know the difference between bad goings-on and good. I shall be up before you are awake. I shall be afield before you are up. It is my intention to astonish you all. Back to work, please.

GROSS: So did you have to speak any differently for this period movie?

MULLIGAN: No, actually. Well, I mean, you know, a little bit here and there. On the whole, Thomas Vinterberg directed us in that adaptation, who directed "Festen" and "The Hunt," and as a Danish director coming in, having an outsider's perspective on Victorian and British literature and that kind of film, wasn't overly concerned with being proper. And, you know, I think sometimes I find it - and I don't know - I find it limiting and sort of alienating when characters in a film - in a period film speak in a way that's sort of, you know, very much - probably very period accurate at that time, but that feels sort of forced because it sort of feels like you're sort separating yourself.

And I think I was only ever interested in doing a costume drama if it felt that these characters were relatable to a modern audience. That you could look at them now and think, oh, I know that person, or I understand that feeling. And I think when people are wearing costumes and putting on accents, sometimes you sort of separate, and it's sort of - it's certainly more that you look at than you feel. And so we, accent-wise, on that film - and if we were being really authentic, we would've done Dorset accents because they're all from Dorset, but we didn't. And we did sort of a Received Pronunciation British accent, but it was definitely - the whole feel of the film felt a sort of relaxed version of a costume drama. It was never going to feel sort of buttoned up and proper.

GROSS: My guest is Carey Mulligan. She's up for a Tony Award Sunday for her performance in the Broadway revival of the play "Skylight." And she stars in the new film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel "Far From The Madding crowd." After a short break, we'll talk about her breakout role in the film "An Education" and the rebellious decision she made about her own education. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Carey Mulligan. She's up for a Tony Award Sunday for her performance in the Broadway revival of the David Hare play "Skylight," which has received six other nominations. She also stars in the new film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel "Far From The Madding Crowd." Her other films include "An Education," "Never Let Me Go," "Drive," "Shame," "The Great Gatsby" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Like a lot people, I was introduced to your work in the film "An Education," which came out in 2009, but is set in - is it 1961?

MULLIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: And you play a girl who is finishing high school. You have to wear, like, a school uniform every day and you're a very good student. You're really smart. You're the kind of student every English teacher wants to have. But you also want adventure and you want to be sophisticated, and like a lot of girls, you make the mistake of thinking that that's going to come to you through a man. Your idea of an adventure is to go along with this older man, who's played by Peter Sarsgaard, who is obviously trying to seduce you. But you're kind of naive and he's playing on that. And the first time you meet him, you're standing in the rain with your cello - 'cause you're also in the school orchestra - and you're waiting for the bus in the pouring rain. And he drives by in his car and says, look, you should never get into a car with a strange man, so - but your cello's going to be ruined so put your cello in the car and you could just walk along beside the car.

And then you do, and then you - eventually you're so wet you decide to, like, get in with him. He seems like a nice guy. He's been talking to you. And this is the conversation that you both have.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN EDUCATION")

PETER SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) I suppose cellists must go to a lot of concerts?

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) Oh, we don't go to any concerts. We don't believe in them.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Oh, they're real.

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) So people say.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Smoke?

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) I'd better not. I live just up there.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Why don't we believe in them?

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) He'd say there's no point to them.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Your father, this is?

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) Oh, yes. They're just for fun - apart from school concerts, which are no fun at all, so we go to those (laughter). They don't help you get on.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Which of course is what's so wonderful about them. Anyway, you'll go one day.

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) I know, I will. If I go to university, I'm going to read what I want and listen to what I want, and I'm going to look at paintings and watch French films and I'm going to talk to people who know lots about lots.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Good for you.

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) Yes.

SARSGAARD: (As David Goldman) Which university?

MULLIGAN: (As Jenny Mellor) Oxford - if I'm lucky.

GROSS: That's my guest, Carey Mulligan, with Peter Sarsgaard, in a scene from early in the 2009 film, "An Education."

So I read Nick Hornby saying that - and he wrote the screenplay for "An Education," which was adapted from a memoir, right? So he said that you told him that the first time you saw "An Education," you cried and cried. Why were you crying?

MULLIGAN: It was a bizarre thing. I saw it in LA on my own in a room and it was the first time I'd seen it. And it was the first time I'd seen myself on screen for that amount of time. And I just thought it was so - I just found myself so unbelievably boring. And I thought, I don't do anything with my face, I don't - you know, my voice sounds monotone the whole way through. I just had this complete meltdown that, like, it was just incredibly dull and no one would want to watch me for 90 minutes, you know, playing this character. And yeah, it was just a bizarre - it was, you know - and actually, I don't enjoy watching myself on screen, and I now only will ever watch the film I'm in once, unless it's sort of on a festival circuit where we have to sit through those screenings. But, you know, I just watch it once and then that's it and it's great. And it's not really about watching it for me, it's about the whole experience of making it. But it was just the first time I'd seen myself on screen that much, and I just was kind of horrified (laughter). But I could definitely, you know, I definitely recognized what a beautiful film Lone had made and the - you know it was all...

GROSS: In spite of your shabby performance. (Laughter).

MULLIGAN: In spite of that, yeah - disaster. But yeah, you know, it's just, it's like listening to yourself on - well, you must - you know, listening to yourself, listening to your own voice, it's a sort of...

GROSS: I know. (Laughter).

MULLIGAN: ...Bizarre experience.

GROSS: Yeah. Do you feel like if you watch too much of yourself, it will make you self-conscious and interfere with your ability to perform?

MULLIGAN: Yeah, definitely. I mean I never, ever watch rushes on set. I don't watch playback. I watch the film once and that's sort of enough. And there's so many things to pick apart about your performance or your - you know, what you look like and all of these things. And I think it ultimately makes you self-aware and makes you second-guess your instincts. And I think the more you can rely on your instincts, the better.

GROSS: You always knew you wanted to act. And you were pretty bold and persuasive in trying to reach out to people. You wrote a letter to Kenneth Branagh, the actor and director, telling him you wanted to act, felt you were - that it was, like, your vocation and what was his advice? You wrote to Julian Fellowes, who directed "Gosford Park," and now is more famous still for writing "Downton Abbey."

What made you think you could, like, write to them, actually get through to them, and that they'd even consider writing you back?

MULLIGAN: Well, I mean, I didn't know anyone who was an actor. We didn't have anyone in our family who'd ever acted or didn't have any family friends. You know, I just literally had no access to anybody at all in the industry. Kenneth Branagh was an actor that I'd just always looked up to and admired and had seen on stage several times. And for some reason, I don't know, I just sort of - he was just the person that I wanted to reach out to. I don't know what I thought was going to come of it. Julian Fellowes I actually had met. I met him. He came to my school. He was friends with my headmistress and he'd given a talk to the whole school about winning the Oscar for "Gosford Park." And I'd met him after that and had a brief conversation with him. So when I wrote the letter to him that was with having already spent a little bit of time with him.

GROSS: What'd Kenneth Branagh have to say to your letter?

MULLIGAN: He said - well, the letter was written back - his assistant wrote back on his behalf, he was in the middle of a run in the West End, and said, I think I'd said something along the lines of, I just can't bear the idea of doing anything else with my life. You know, I can't think of anything else I want to do. What should I do? Who can I talk to, or whatever. And I think he - he had passed on along something along lines of, well, you know, if you feel there's nothing else you can do then it's something that you should pursue, but nobody can really tell you whether you should be an actor or not. And then Julian was a sort of different story. That became the beginning of a sort of mentorship, in a way.

GROSS: So even though you probably did not really communicate with Kenneth Branagh, did that letter encouraging you serve to actually encourage you?

MULLIGAN: Yeah, it did definitely. I mean, you know, but after that, I applied to drama school. I used three places - in England, you've got a UCAS form, that's how you apply to universities and colleges. You have six universities that you're allowed to apply to. And three of those, I secretly, without my parents' knowledge, used three of those places to apply to drama schools in London and was unsuccessful at all of them. (Laughter). And so after getting that letter then I did the drama school process, I didn't get into any of the drama schools. And then I had to come clean with my parents and tell them, look, I've used up half of my opportunities here to apply to drama schools that have flat-out rejected me. So, you know, it was a sort of - it was an interesting year in a lot of ways. And then after that, that's when I - and then I wrote to Julian.

GROSS: And it's through that you got an audition for "Pride And Prejudice," got a part on that and...

MULLIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That helped launch your career.

MULLIGAN: Yeah.

GROSS: But it must've hurt to get rejected from acting schools. It was like, this is your big ambition and they're all saying, really, you're not good enough.

MULLIGAN: Yeah, it was. It was rough as well because I had this really romantic idea in my head that, you know, my parents were sort of anti-me being an actor, understandably. I was outraged that they weren't, you know, behind the idea. And then I applied to drama school in secret, and in my mind I thought, this is great. I'll get into RADA and then I'll just come home and be like, Mom, Dad - listen, I got into RADA.

GROSS: That's the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

MULLIGAN: Yeah, exactly. And you know, this was my sort of - well, I imagined that that would be the perfect story. You know, then I'd be able to say, well, I'm in and it's great and now I'm going to be an actor. And of course that didn't happen.

GROSS: So you kept this big secret from your parents. This is a big deal. You applied to colleges, you gave away three of your spots to acting schools. You didn't tell them. What was it like for you to keep a secret like that?

MULLIGAN: I mean, it was the only rebellious thing I ever did. My - I was a very kind of - I never did anything. I never got in trouble at school. I was very kind of well-behaved and pretty decent with my parents. I never did anything kind of drastically bad. So it was a big deal. It was awful. And I mean, the day that my parents found out, I remember so clearly and it was just awful. And I've never felt so guilty and, you know, obviously anything was fine, eventually, you know, all was forgiven. But it did feel really, really just - yeah, you know, we had such a close relationship and it was - everything was so great, and, you know, they'd been such wonderful parents, and I completely betrayed their trust and I've never felt so guilty.

GROSS: So since you didn't end up going to acting school, how did you learn? I mean, you learn by doing, but a lot of people also learn by studying.

MULLIGAN: Yeah, I learned - well, I was incredibly lucky to get a job. My first part was in "Pride And Prejudice" with Keira Knightley playing Elizabeth Bennett. And the cast around me on that job were just incredible. I mean, we were sort of - and all the most amazing actors assembled, Judi Dench and Brenda Blethyn, Donald Sutherland, Rosamund Pike, you know - and so - and I had a very small - I mean, I had a part where I was actually was on set a lot and I was in a lot of scenes, but I didn't really have anything to say. And so that summer was sort of 12 weeks of just looking around me and watching and learning, and so - and a lot of the jobs that I did after that were similar. I did an adaptation of "Bleak House" for the BBC, which was eight hours long, I think, or something - I mean, it was half-hour episodes, but it was this six-month filming. And it was all the great British actors and - assembled. It was a huge cast and again I was playing a character that didn't have an awful lot to say but was sort of there a lot. So that happened a couple of times and I think it just sort of - I felt like my training in a way was watching these people and sort of learning from them, and I went to the theater a lot and watched, and I started watching more films but really theater. And so it did feel - I never particularly - I never studied or read any sort of acting books, but it was sort of more about just watching people, really, and learning from them.

GROSS: Well, Carey Mulligan, thank you so much for talking with us.

MULLIGAN: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Carey Mulligan is nominated for a Tony for her performance in the play "Skylight." The award ceremony is Sunday. She also stars in the new film adaptation of "Far From The Madding Crowd."

If you want to catch up on interviews you missed with Tom Brokaw, Louis C.K., David Oyelowo and Marc Maron interviewing me, check out our podcast. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by Gary Peacock, who's played in pianist Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio for 30 years. This is FRESH AIR.

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