Adapted by Nick Hornby (Fever Pitch) from the memoir by Lynn Barber, An Education stars up and coming actress Carey Mulligan as a teen girl living in 1960s London whose life is changed with the arrival of a playboy nearly twice her age. We caught up with Mulligan and her co-star Peter Sarsgaard for the lowdown on their time-travelling drama.
Carey, you’re only 24 so you obviously hadn’t lived through the sixties first time round. What was it like to experience them?
CAREY MULLIGAN It was great! 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. It was great, aside from the costumes.
You didn’t like the costumes?
MULLIGAN I worked my way into liking the costumes! I was less keen on the school uniform. The costume designer was really clever, I had no idea what would make me look the way that I did, and the way they did my make up and hair, 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 difference was amazing, and the high neck so that you don’t expose my collarbone. I learned what makes me look 16 and what makes me look older, and they were all tricks that I didn’t really know.
What was it like to work with Peter and, given the age gap between your characters, how difficult was it to stop the story from becoming offensive, particularly in the first scene where Jenny gets into David’s car?
MULLIGAN We decided I wouldn’t get in the car unless he convinced me to, so in rehearsal we talked about it a bit and then on the day we shot it they set up this thing where he would stop for this mother and kid so they could cross the street, and I though, ‘That was sweet, he’s a nice guy because he slowed down his car.’ It was different then, I would never get into a car now, and it was more me just battling with my own modern sensibilities, 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 17, knowing that she’ll be with him when she’s 17. 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.
Peter, how did you balance a potenitally difficult character?
PETER SARSGAARD Well, I’m not up to negative things, it’s not like what I want is to plant a dirty bomb in a hotel. What I’m after is positive, I want happiness, I want fun, and I don’t want to live in this city where there are no good cafes and there’s food rationing that was happening [in England] not long before. [David] came of age in England, when he was 16 in England it was an incredibly difficult time to be young in that country, and I think his youth got taken away from him in some ways. I feel like he never got an education, he never got to be a kid, some of what his behavior is is more strange than seducer, and I think it just comes from trying to act 14 to her 16, or just wanting to try to be a kid with her. He’d rather sit on the bed with her and talk than have sex with her. It’s not like he’s trying to get into her pants for the whole movie.
Do you think that the current situation with Roman Polanski will be detrimental to the film?
SARSGAARD That’s a very different situation. The legal age at that time in England was 17, so we wait until [Jenny’s] 17, and we have a relationship that goes over a period of time. It is founded under a fundamental false note, but I don’t think it makes it less true. It’s not that they’re in love, but they are simpatico, they both are trying to live extraordinary lives. They find someone else who is not willing to settle for an ordinary life. I, to have an extraordinary life, sometimes steal things, she in order to have an extraordinary life is willing to break the mold and potentially drop out of school. That’s what really draws them together to me.
Any comparison to Roman Polanski, which I don’t know that much about, seems like it was one night many years ago with a 13-year-old, is a very different situation. But it’s good to have that answer out there because I did get asked that question before and I just think if anyone thinks about it for two seconds it’s like, it’s not the same.
So do you feel that this film has changed your life?
MULLIGAN Yeah, I’m doing Wall Street 2! I play Gordon Gekko’s [Michael Douglas] daughter. 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, because of Sundance. 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?
MULLIGAN 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! I get to play a 24 year old upper Eastside girl and it’s a really interesting part for me.