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An Education - Carey Mulligan
An Education - Jenny (Carey Mulligan) © BBC Films

An Education is the story of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age and is set in Britain in the early 1960s. It has launched its young lead, Carey Mulligan, to stardom. Carey plays Jenny, the school girl who is infatuated with an older man David (Peter Sarsgaard).

Carey has many plays and TV appearances, including Doctor Who: Blink in her CV and is currently filming Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf.

What was it like traveling back to the sixties, a decade I’m sure you’re not familiar with?

I did like traveling back to the sixties. I tried to speak to a lot of people about what it was like to be a teenager then, I didn’t have a lot of people to speak to but my driver, when we were in pre-production, was 16 in 1962 and he just talked for hours, even when I didn’t ask him to. So it was great, aside from the costumes.

You weren’t too fond of the costumes?

I worked my way into liking them. I was less keen on the school uniform. The costume designer was really clever, I look young anyway, or I did, but to have no make up on and the parting on my hair to make that much of a difference was amazing, and the high neck so that you don’t expose my collarbone.

I learned what makes me look sixteen and what makes me look older, and they were all tricks that I didn’t really know.

Can you talk about the physicality of Jenny, who wants to be more sophisticated and more graceful than she’s capable of?

An Education - Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard
Jack (Alfred Molina), Majorie (Cara Seymour), Jenny (Carey Mulligan) and David (Peter Sarsgaard) © BBC Films

So much came from the script and how the interacting with the people around her was written, and I think that’s what informed her age more than anything, the way she treated people in her life. She begins the movie by idolizing her teacher and then tearing her to shreds; and the way she is with her friends, she starts off on equal ground with them, and then halfway through the film she’s the queen bee at school.

All of her relationships seem to reverse in some way. That wasn’t her maturing necessarily; that was her changing and becoming a different person. But I didn’t give an awful lot of thought to her age and I don’t know if I should have done or not, but I did try to make my voice a little higher because I have naturally quite a low voice. .

Can you talk about working with Peter – there’s a fine line where the story could have become offensive – did you talk about the first scene where you get in his car?

An Education - Peter Sarsgaard
David (Peter Sarsgaard) in his car… © BBC Films

We decided I wouldn’t get in the car unless he convinced me to, so in rehearsal we talked about it a bit. On the day we shot it, it was a gloriously sunny day just because every time we wanted bad weather on this it did the opposite, and so we had to make it look like an awful rainy day, and they set up this thing where he would stop for this mother and kid so they could cross the street, and my character thought that was sweet, he’s a nice guy because he slowed down his car.

I would never get into a car now, but back then it was different and maybe still not a particularly clever thing to do, but it was raining a lot and he was charming and talked about classical music and liked cellos and that was sort of enough.

But the reason I think it worked and didn’t come off offensively or in a predatory way is the way that Jenny drives the romantic side of their relationship and Lone (Scherfig, the director) made a specific point on that before we started shooting, that it was important that it didn’t look like she was being snared or manipulated, Jenny really pushed that side of things so she leans in for the first kiss, she gets in the car, she tells him that she’ll lose her virginity when she’s seventeen, knowing that she’ll be with him when she’s seventeen.

So she’s driving that more than he is. So I don’t think it feels like she’s being taken advantage of, because she knows what she’s doing. She never felt unsafe with him as a character. I didn’t think he was the villain, and I don’t think he comes off as one.

Do you realize how this movie has changed your life?

An Education - Carey Mulligan
Jenny (Carey Mulligan) in Paris © BBC Films

Yeah, I’m doing Wall Street 2, I’ve met people this year that I wouldn’t have been able to meet last year, because you always come up against the thing of not being enough of a name to get into a room, and definitely this movie has helped me there.

So I don’t know if I would have met Oliver (Stone) if I hadn’t gotten this film. It’s always heartbreaking to read a script and know that you’ve no chance, not because you can’t play the part competently but because you just can’t finance their film, or they have no interest.

How are you finding the experience of working with Oliver Stone?

I love him, he’s brilliant. He’s infamous and I was terrified, but that’s why I did it, because I thought it would be a trip and it’s been brilliant. We had about three weeks rehearsal, which is unheard of and it’s an amazing cast and we’ve had a great time.

He’s given us so much freedom with the script and with the way we want to play our characters. It’s been a real challenge because I’m playing an American and I’m playing an adult, which is rare, so I get to play a 24 year old upper Eastside girl and it’s a really interesting part for me. I play Gordon Gekko’s (Michael Douglas) daughter.