There’s something about reliving the ’60s that seems to appeal to everyone, from those who were actually alive during that defining era to those whose parents weren’t even old enough to conceive them.
“An Education’s” Carey Mulligan falls into the latter category. The 24-year-old actress best known to American audiences for her breakout role in “Pride & Prejudice,” abandoned her pixie haircut for school girl extensions to play Jenny, an impressionable teen keen on rebelling against the status quo in this coming-of-age tale set in 1960s London. The film, based on Lynn Barber’s memoir of her first boyfriend, also stars Peter Sarsgaard as David, the lively bloke that opened up more than car doors for his considerably younger girlfriend.
“I did like traveling back to the ’60s,” Mulligan said. “Yeah, it was great. I tried to speak to a lot of people on what it was like to be a teen-ager then. I didn’t have a lot of people to speak to but my driver when we were in pre-production was 16 in ’62 and he just talked for hours — even when I didn’t ask him, too!”
It was a cool and tumultuous time. You had The Beatles, the Kennedy-King-Kennedy assassinations, civil rights, hippies, flower power, black became beautiful and the Motown sound. It was also an interesting era for the fashion industry. Many of the patterns and textures of the day were as loud as the Grateful Dead. Mulligan, dressed smartly in a midnight blue blouse and pants to match, loved learning about the people and events, but had some issues with the clothes she had to wear.
“I had to work my way into liking the costumes,” Mulligan said. “I was less keen on the school uniforms. But if was helpful, it was great. Some of the stuff that I fought when she put it on me — the costume designer was really clever — made me look really good as the character.”
The London native also learned a few lessons on how things were done back in the day. Mulligan recalled the scene in which Jenny and David meet on a rainy day as Jenny is walking home from orchestra practice with her cumbersome cello. David pulls up in his sporty two-seater and offers her a ride home. Since no smart girl would hop in a stranger’s car no matter how harmless he looked, Jenny rejects the ride but does eventually surrender her instrument to David when he convinces her that the rain could damage it. But even smart girls don’t like getting soaked and when it starts pouring, she joins her cello.
“It was a different time,” she said wistfully. “I spoke to my dad and he grew up in Liverpool and they played football in the streets. When they got thirsty they’d knock on someone’s door and ask for a glass of water. You could do that then. I would never get in a car now. Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I didn’t even realize there was a time when you could take the kind of chance Jenny did.”
Regardless of how it starts, a relationship between a teen girl and an older man can come off as being morally creepy. Mulligan and Sarsgaard, however, somehow made it all look rather endearing.
“The reason I think it worked and didn’t come off offensively or in a kind of predatory way is the way Jenny drives the romantic side of the relationship,” Mulligan said. “(Director) Lone (Scherfig) made a specific point on that before we started shooting that it wouldn’t look like she was being snared or manipulated. She leans in for the first kiss. She gets in the car, and she tells him that she’ll lose her virginity when she’s 17 knowing that she’ll be with him when she’s 17.”
Sarsgaard, who appeared with Mulligan on Broadway last year in “The Seagull,” said making it work was easy with an actor like Mulligan. “She’s just so on it all the time,” he said. “So focused, so ambitious and creative. Because we had worked together before there was an honesty there, a comfort level. We had a blast.”
Even though her real life romantic involvement with her “Wall Street 2” costar Shia LaBeouf has gone viral on the Internet, Mulligan won’t discuss their relationship. Thankfully, her personal life might become less interesting in the coming months because she’s been generating a different kind of buzz on the net since “An Education” won the audience award at Sundance this year. We’re talking Oscar.
The normally unflappable actress stuttered a bit when asked if she had taken notice.
“I am aware of how well received it has been and I think that’s brilliant,” she said humbly. “I think if people are talking about it, that’s really good. At this point it’s only been seen by select audiences, not by the masses, so at this point it doesn’t feel very real yet.”
That said, the attention has been somewhat validating for Mulligan.
“I’ll be validated when my mom and dad have watched it,” she said with a nervous giggle. “I seek approval from the director. I was happy when Lone was happy. That’s what was brilliant about this film. I felt really calm because she wouldn’t accept it unless she was happy. I knew when I went home at the end of the day it was because she got it.”
Miki Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.