Some raised concerns and doubts when the 22 year-old, Carey Mulligan, was cast to play the 16 year-old, Jenny, in the new film “An Education.” Frankly, had I not known her age, I would’ve thought that she was truly 16 when I met her last week. She sprang into the room, beaming with youthful energy and giggling. She joined her co-stars, Peter Sarsgaard and Dominic Cooper, who were sitting at the table with us.
None of these young talented actors had much expectation from “An Education,” but the film went on to win the Audience and Cinematography awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it was purchased by Sony Classics. “We did it for the love of the script,” Peter said. Then he turns to Carey Mulligan. “I told Carey that you might have to get a publicist after this. But she dismissed the idea.” Carey Mulligan nods and smiles. “Now she has five,” he laughs.
Indeed, the film was a major leap for Carey Mulligan’s career. After seeing the film, Oliver Stone cast her for his new “Walt Street” movie, which has just completed shooting. There is also a buzz in Hollywood that she might get an Oscar nomination for playing Jenny.
“The reception to this film got me to meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise meet,” she said. “It was brilliant. But the public side of it is daunting and less interesting. As a young actor, you spend all your time not being a name to find a part that you could play competently that you have no access to because of lack of finance, so when that becomes less of a barrier then that’s brilliant and that’s thanks to the public side of it, but really work is my first priority.”
So what is this brilliant film about?
“An Education”, based on the memoir of the journalist Lynn Barber and set in early 1960’s Britain, is the story of the coming-of-age of a teenage girl, who is seduced by a 30 year-old guy.
Carey Mulligan plays the teenage girl, Jenny, and Peter Sarsgaard plays the older guy, David. Some might be repulsed by David’s behaviour, but Peter Sarsgaard doesn’t see it that way. “David is not doing anything bad. Ultimately, it’s bad, sad and reprehensible, but not that bad to warrant a jail sentence.”
Dominic Cooper, who plays David’s friend, concurs with Peter Sarsgaard “This is a film about love and feelings that we all experience and go through however painful they are. There is true love between these two, and Jenny goes through a huge journey. Yes, it becomes damaging, but she learns a great lesson from it.”
Carey Mulligan hadn’t gone through the experience of dating an old guy while she was in her teens. “I looked like 12-year-old when I was 16, so that won’t look appropriate,”) she jokes. But she admires Jenny for her passion to learn new things, educate herself and take interest in things other than school.
“I am a lazy person,” Carey Mulligan comments. “I just go from one job to another, but luckily I get to learn things surrounding the subject matters. That’s in a way forced on me, but someone who doesn’t have this sort of job, has to teach themselves, and I admire that in people.”
Young Carey Mulligan enjoyed the challenge of playing against heavyweights like Emma Thompson and Alfred Molina. “Every time, I had to do a piece with Emma Thompson or Alfred Molina, I had to raise my game,” she said. “With Peter and Dominic I had to be in my A game as well because I didn’t want to be the weak link with those incredibly experienced, talented people. So everyday, I had to push myself.”
The actors were directed by one of the Dogma directors from Denmark, Lone Scherfig, the director of award winning films “Italian for Beginners” and “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”.
“She is fantastic,” Peter Sarsgaard said. “I worked with many directors who are either screamers or ear-shoulder you, trying to make you feel better. She is neither. She is straightforward and caring but not paternal. She doesn’t couch anything; she just says, ‘That was very bad’,” Carey Mulligan and Dominic Cooper nod and laugh.
Later when I met Lone, I asked here about her experience directing British actors who don’t speak her native language?
“The great thing about actors is that you choose them yourself, so they accept the way your work,” Lone Scherfig said. “I asked for advice on certain things. Part of being a good director is to find where your weaknesses are and find someone to help you with those. In this case, I had a clear disadvantage when it comes to dialogue, but thanks God Nick (the screenwriter) came and the actors were faithful to the script and that is the English tradition. English actors are good actors without big egos. They are more technical than emotional. It’s so easy to direct actors as good as they are. They feel that and I try to defend them against bad choices they make. I don’t have a fixed method; I change direction method with each actor.”
Though the story has a universal theme, the film is very British, which begs the question, why was it offered to a Danish director to direct it?
“I still don’t know,” Lone Scherfig laughs. “Nick Hornby’s books and my early films have something in common in terms of tone and characterisation. Also we have the same agent.”
Scherfig Lone had to do more research than she would’ve done on a Danish film. She also listened to her English crew who knew more than her about England. She wanted to get the flavour of the period, because Jenny personifies her time. She also saw London as a character in the movie. “If you don’t get the innocence of the period and how it influences the characters then the characters fall flat,” she stresses.
Lone Scherfig’s research has paid off. She and her cast and crew have created an authentic and truly entertaining British movie.
“It’s nice to be in a film that you’re not ashamed off,” Peter Sarsgaard exclaimed.