RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The great Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy was still alive in 1915, when one of his 500-page novels was made into a silent movie. Even then, "Far From The Madding Crowd" was a tempting tale, a headstrong young woman pursued by a trio of suitors. There's a sheep farmer, a wealthy landowner and a rakish officer in a scarlet uniform, each one in turn falling for Bathsheba, who's played in the new movie, opening today, by Carey Mulligan. You first meet Bathsheba galloping her horse across a golden countryside, as in the title, "Far From The Madding Crowd."
CAREY MULLIGAN: I suppose that you're going to go into a world that's away from what you normally associate with being in a great city or a hub and all the hustle and bustle of that and actually going out into the wild, in a way, into the landscape. And that's where this story is set, but the irony of that being that everything that happens out there is just as chaotic and ridiculous as what's going on in the hub.
MONTAGNE: Right. And this is, of course, decades after Jane Austen. But in this case, there's something of an edge to it.
MULLIGAN: Yeah. I think that's the case with a lot of Hardy. There's a darkness to it that you don't really get in Austen. And certainly, there's a lot of dark, tragic corners in this story.
MONTAGNE: Well, let us start where the movie begins, the novel begins, and that is out in the countryside, little lambs and sheep frolicking around. And there's Bathsheba. What drew you to the role of Bathsheba? Who is she to you?
MULLIGAN: Well, I mean, I think what I was so struck by really was what a modern woman she was, that Hardy had managed to write this incredibly modern, forward-thinking woman in Victorian Britain. And I think, you know, I'd largely sort of avoided period dramas since my early 20s because of the way that you can sort of get pigeonholed as a British actress as only doing that sort of thing. So I'd kind of reacted against that. And then this story came along, and she turns down a proposal of marriage within the first 20 minutes of the story. And that's what I loved. I just loved how honest that was and how unconventional.
MONTAGNE: Well, we have a clip of that moment. And it might help to know that it's farmer Gabriel Oak...
MONTAGNE: From the neighboring farm. She's basically just met him. And he has walked across the fields to present her with a little lamb that he has in his arms and then pop the question.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD")
MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: (As Gabriel Oaks) Well, Ms. Everdene, I wanted to ask. Would you like to marry me? I've never asked anyone before.
MULLIGAN: (As Bathsheba Everdene) No, I should hope not.
SCHOENAERTS: (As Gabriel Oaks) Perhaps I should leave.
MULLIGAN: (As Bathsheba Everdene) Mr. Oaks, there are things to consider.
SCHOENAERTS: (As Gabriel Oaks) Is someone waiting for you?
MULLIGAN: (As Bathsheba Everdene) No. But that doesn't mean I'll marry you.
SCHOENAERTS: (As Gabriel Oaks) Good day to you then.
MONTAGNE: So, you know, in a way, it does seem startling to us that he would so quickly ask her to marry him. But on the other hand, why does she, Bathsheba, turn him down at that moment? Because she is from the late 19th century, it would seem like - he has a nice farm. He seems like a good offer.
MULLIGAN: Yeah. Oh, it's a good - I mean, that is the thing. In that time, that's a good offer. He's definitely above her in social status and can offer her a certain level of security that she doesn't have. I think it's that she's not actively against marriage. She's not against men. She's just - it's never crossed her mind that marriage should be something that she should do.
MONTAGNE: Although, she does say - and this is out of the novel - I don't want to be any man's property.
MULLIGAN: She also says she wouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding if it didn't mean having to be a wife or having to have a husband.
MONTAGNE: (Laughter) Which is pretty good stuff, coming from him at that time.
MULLIGAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I mean, the novel is full of that.
MONTAGNE: Let me move on a bit here. Initially, Bathsheba's circumstances are limited. She, right at the beginning, has no money. Rather quickly, as 19th century novels tend to do, circumstances change.
MONTAGNE: And an uncle dies. He leaves her a farm and a country house. But when she introduces herself to the staff, she gives a speech. And let's take a quick listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD")
MULLIGAN: (As Bathsheba Everdene) From now on, you have a mistress - not a master. 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're awake. I shall be afield before you are up. It is my intention to astonish you all. Back to work, please.
MONTAGNE: I read that you have put together scrapbooks for the characters that you play, made up of things that help you prepare for the role. Did you make one for Bathsheba?
MULLIGAN: Yeah. I essentially wanted to transplant every line of the book and put it on the screen and had to be persuaded by everyone that that might not be the most entertaining film for somebody to watch. But the book - my scrapbook - I suppose, yeah, was the novel and was lots of Victorian poetry and images from that time. And then, you know, also, there's a great deal of this book that deals with mourning. And I found that mourning in Victorian Britain was so fascinating.
MONTAGNE: When did you start doing the scrapbook? How did that originate?
MULLIGAN: The first one I did was when I played Nina in "The Seagull," in London at the Royal Court Theatre when I was 21.
MONTAGNE: Anton Chekhov's great play, of course, "The Seagull."
MULLIGAN: Yeah. I was working with a director called Ian Rickson. And up until that point, I didn't have a sort of method for working. I just sort of was making it up as I went along. And I'd sort of always tried to sort of - you know, if I had to be very sad in a scene, I would think about something terrible happening to my family. You know, I'd make myself cry or something like that. And Ian Rickson, the director, said, you know, you can't possibly muster up all of this stuff night after night. You need to start making up another person. You need to start imagining this person's life. And to do that, you'll need things to help you. You'll need music. And you'll need some words. And you'll need some - you know, you'll need to start imagining these things in minute detail. And so that's what I did. I started collecting poems and pictures and songs that I associated with that one character. And so it became that - I put on a hat of that character. And then when I got off stage, I would take it off, and it had sort of nothing to do with me, which was also a kind of liberating way to work because I didn't sort of carry anything home. I didn't feel sad after the show. I didn't feel anything. I just - you know, it was just done. And that's how I've worked ever since.
MONTAGNE: Well, even when you look at yourself, you didn't come from an acting family. There was no particular connection...
MONTAGNE: Do you see anything in common with Bathsheba? I mean, do you cast your mind back ever and think, I could've been her?
MULLIGAN: In terms of her drive, I suppose, yeah. I think the thing about Bathsheba is that she doesn't really know any other way. And I think I didn't really know any other way when I was growing up. It wasn't that I thought I was being particularly dogged about anything. I just wanted to be an actor. I didn't want to do anything else. And I had to sort of - I knew that if I didn't at least try, I would regret it. So I suppose, in that respect, that's what I think I relate to in her, is that she doesn't realize really that she's sort of bucking the trend so much. I think she learns that. And she sees it from the way that people react to her and the way that society reacts to her and men react to her. But it's just who she is. And that's what she's doing 'cause that's what she wants from her life. She wants to make a life for herself. And I suppose in the same way, I just wanted to be an actor. And I just - that's all I wanted to do. I didn't want to do anything else. So I had to kind of do it. So it was sort of - yeah, there was no choice, really.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
MULLIGAN: Thanks for having me.
MONTAGNE: Carey Mulligan stars in the new movie adaptation of Thomas Hardy's "Far From The Madding Crowd." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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