“Julian hasn’t asked!” Carey Mulligan laughs, when questioned about whether her sometime mentor, Downton creator and writer Julian Fellowes, has approached her for a role in his TV juggernaut.
“But if he did, I’d say yes! I love Julian and Downton is great.”
The 28-year-old actress credits Fellowes as the biggest influence on her glittering career, which has really gone stellar in the last year. Back when she was a schoolgirl and desperately trying to work out how to break into acting, she wrote to the Oscar-winning screenwriter asking for advice.
Fellowes invited her to lunch and recommended her to a casting agent who, in turn, put her forward for a part in the film version of Pride & Prejudice. Aged 20, she won the role of Kitty, younger sister of Elizabeth Bennet, played by Keira Knightley, and she was off and running.
Roles in TV followed (including Bleak House and an episode of Doctor Who), before she made her big breakthrough by winning a Bafta for An Education. RT’s own Barry Norman said what everyone was thinking: “It is no reflection on her co-stars to say that Mulligan towers over everyone else. Hers is truly a star-making performance.”
She’s since taken Hollywood by storm and has demonstrated a keen eye for working with top talent, with movies including Drive (with Ryan Gosling), The Great Gatsby (with Leonardo DiCaprio) and her latest, the Oscar-tipped Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis.
“If I hadn’t met Julian, I never would have got an audition for Pride & Prejudice, which was my first job and got me my agent. Meeting him was the luckiest moment for me. And it wasn’t just the luck of meeting him but his generosity because he really wanted to help me, which was so kind considering all of the people who must have been asking for his help.”
Fellowes also stepped in to help Mulligan recently, to raise money for a charity very close to her heart. “Julian very kindly came and did an ‘In conversation’ event with me for the Alzheimer’s Society last year. I’ve been an ambassador for them for a couple of years now. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s, but it’s an illness that is underfunded and needs a lot more awareness. It’s also something that people don’t really like talking about, they get nervous about it, and my role is to do exactly that – talk about it and hopefully raise awareness.”
Her grandmother “Nans”, who is in her late 80s, was diagnosed with dementia more than ten years ago. “She’s a former geography teacher and was always interested in our education, but she kept forgetting what A-levels I was taking and then getting confused about finding her way home. It progressed from there. She hasn’t recognised me for about five or six years now and it’s really hard, very sad. I think people need to be more aware of the early signs of Alzheimer’s.”
Being able to lend her celebrity to highlight the work of the Alzheimer’s Society is one of the positives of stardom. Last September, Mulligan ran a half marathon in the very respectable time of two hours and eight minutes, raising more than £2,000 for the cause.
“I’m delighted to do whatever I can. We’re so lucky with my grandmother because she’s in a great home where she is looked after by incredible carers, but so many people in the country unfortunately don’t have the right care and don’t have the right help – and we’re trying to do something about that.”
Mulligan was born in London but at the age of three moved to Germany, when her father, Stephen, took a job managing an international hotel. Her mother, Nano, worked as a lecturer and she has an older brother, Owain, who is a British Army captain.
Returning from Germany after five years, the family settled in Buckinghamshire, and Mulligan was sent to a fee-paying Catholic girls’ school, Woldingham in Surrey. “I was at home for Christmas. We went to mass at the church I’ve been going to since I was seven years old, where they have a nativity extravaganza. I was in it when I was a kid and you graduate from being a gold angel to a silver angel to a choir member, or you get cast as Mary or Joseph or one of the kings. I was in the choir but I never played one of the lead roles,” she giggles. “Now I go back with my best friend from childhood and we help wrangle the angels. It’s great fun. I’m always home.”
On the day we meet in a London hotel, she’s chicly dressed in black trousers and tailored jacket, is friendly, chatty and laughs easily, but above all seems glad to be inside in the warm.
I’ve been filming Far from the Madding Crowd [with Michael Sheen] and we’re outside all of the time, and it’s bloody cold.”
It’s been a head-spinning four years for the actress, going from one movie set to another. But, as she points out, she’s turned down a lot of films and has been sure to take plenty of time off.
“I had some great advice from my agent when I did Never Let Me Go [which featured two other young British stars, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield]. She said, ‘You are in an extraordinarily lucky position right now, but it won’t last. While it does, don’t take a part unless you can’t bear the thought of anyone else doing it.’
“And that’s the reason I’ve only done a couple of things since then. After Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, I didn’t act for a year until Drive. I’ve just done films I felt really passionate about and turned down everything else. I feel extraordinarily lucky.”
Last April, Mulligan married Marcus Mumford, lead singer with contemporary folk band Mumford & Sons. They’d just finished working together on Inside Llewyn Davis (in cinemas from Friday 24 January), on which Mumford was a music adviser. “It was just a happy coincidence that Marcus was involved, and they were totally separate elements – I was acting, obviously, and he was working on the music for the film.”
All the cast, which also includes rising star Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake, sang and played live on the production, which centres on the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, prior to Bob Dylan’s arrival. Last September, the Coens organized a concert at the Town Hall in New York to showcase the music that inspired and features in the film, with a line-up that included Joan Baez, Jack White, Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford and Mulligan herself.
“Oh my God, I was terrified,” she says. “When you are singing, you are so exposed. I was the only non-musician in the whole thing. I had to sing with Gillian Welch – who I love – and I’d come straight from filming and I didn’t know the words so I had to watch her and try and lip read. At the end I was out of breath and completely bright red. Believe me, I gained a whole new respect for all of them.”
They would, doubtless, repay the compliment. In the film she shows off a lovely singing voice, and once again proves that she’s one of the most versatile young actresses around. Mr Fellowes should make that call soon.