Meryl Streep hit her late-career stride when she transformed into a counterprogramming weapon in the summer box-office wars in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada.” While the mighty Meryl’s offerings provide regular respite for adult moviegoers during the annual blitzkrieg of blockbusters, Carey Mulligan has stepped up to provide alternative fare for a somewhat younger female demographic.
The English actress first demonstrated her drawing power in 2013 after winning the much-coveted role of Daisy opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrmann’s razzle-dazzled, 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby,” which cashed in with $350 million in worldwide ticket sales. Now, she has graduated to the next level. Mulligan will help kick off the opening weekend of the summer film season as the top-billed star of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” a lush period romance that will face off against the fan-boy juggernaut known as “Avengers: Age of Ultron” on May 1.
Nominated for an Oscar for her breakout role in 2009’s “An Education,” Mulligan is also entertaining Broadway audiences through June 21 alongside Bill Nighy in “Skylight,” a much-praised production of David Hare’s drama that originated in London last year.
She spoke to Women and Hollywood during a rare week off about her strongly feminist and strikingly headstrong take on Thomas Hardy’s Victorian-era literary heroine Bathsheba Everdene, who oversees the large estate she inherited from an uncle while being courted by three distinctly different men in “Madding Crowd.” Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust & Bone,” “The Drop”) plays earthy sheepherder Gabriel Oaks, London-born Tom Sturridge (“On the Road,” “Effie Gray”) is the seductive Sergeant Troy and Welshman Michael Sheen (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) is lonely landowner William Boldwood.
As for the man in Mulligan’s own life — musician Marcus Mumford, frontman for the band Mumford & Sons — they recently celebrated their third wedding anniversary on April 21. When asked if he is like any of the male characters in the film, the very private Mulligan only said, “I don’t think he belongs in any signature group.” But considering they once were childhood pen pals who fell in love after reuniting years later, it sounds very much like a possible Bathsheba-Gabriel slow-boil situation.
W&H: You are enjoying some much-deserved time off from cooking spaghetti Bolognese during every performance of “Skylight.”
Mulligan: I’ve never had a break while doing a play before, and now that I have a week off, I’ve gotten ill. It happened two days ago. I’ve been lying down, but I can talk and lie down at the same time.
W&H: Do you actually eat the food you make?
Mulligan: I did during rehearsals. I tend not to eat during the show since we only have an hour to make it and it might not be cooked all the way.
W&H: You show off a whole different set of skills beyond the kitchen in “Far From the Madding Crowd”: Sheep washing, shooting firearms, horseback riding.
Mulligan: It was great. I’ve ridden a little bit in the past. I enjoyed learning to ride again. The farming stuff was great. My mom is from Wales, and her family had farms. I grew up with that. We spent the first month shooting outside every day in Dorset.
W&H: Just as you did in “Shame” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” you sing again — a lovely English folk ballad titled “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme.”
Mulligan: I fought to get that cut. I just sort of felt, I don’t know, it was like a bizarre coincidence. I was pleased that it was a duet with Michael. I do find singing nerve-wracking.
W&H: There have been a handful of adaptations of “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the best known being the 1967 version starring Julie Christie. I think you and Matthias do a much better job at saving the stacks of hay during the violent rainstorm than she did with Alan Bates as Gabriel. You two literally roll in the hay in order to put a tarp atop the pile.
Mulligan: [Laughing] I have never see it, so I have no comparison, which is a great thing. I never saw the Mia Farrow version of “The Great Gatsby,” either.
W&H: Fox Searchlight must have a lot of faith in you and this film to have it open against “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Mulligan (surprised): “Oh, God. No. I don’t know about this stuff. I just show up where I am told to. It is coming out on Mother’s Day, so finger crossed.”
W&H: Fox Searchlight did well with opening “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” opposite “The Avengers” in 2012, so you should be OK. Have you ever been offered a role in a superhero film?
Mulligan: Not my own brand, no. But, yeah, I have kind of had conversations about those things before. But not about anything that was right for me.
W&H: To me, Bathsheba is my idea of a summer superhero. Especially when there are usually so few movies at this time of year, when the majority of the film industry’s money is made, that center around female characters. Although this summer has a few more than usua besides “Madding Crowd,” including “Hot Pursuit,” “Pitch Perfect 2,” “Inside Out” and “Trainwreck.” Does that frustrate you as an actress, considering the amount of box office that women-led film series such as “The Hunger Games” pull in?
Mulligan: It’s kind of pleasing that there are more this summer. I hope it’s a trend. When will they catch up with the fact that these films do well? It’s just like what Cate Blanchett said at the Oscars. The hunger for female-driven stories is there. You just have to make the films. This shock over how these films do so well is a bit tired now. Jennifer Lawrence can open movies like any male star.
W&H: There is actually a connection between her Katniss and your Bathsheba, who apparently inspired the character in part.
Mulligan: We share a surname.
W&H: I had a bit of trepidation before seeing your “Far From the Madding Crowd,” since I am fond of the 1967 version. But pretty much from the start, when you laid down atop the galloping horse in that buttery brown leather jacket and farmer Oak checked you out, I was pretty much hooked.
Mulligan: Yes, that jacket. After seeing the film, my film agent said to me, “Well, darling, it makes you want a large man to put your arms around you [referring to a scene between her and Schoenaerts] — and where do you get that jacket?”
W&H: I recently re-watched the 1967 film for the first time in ages, and I was taken aback by how much Christie’s interpretation varied from yours. Her Bathsheba is more fickle, far less sure of herself, more self-absorbed and sometimes downright cruel. It was hard to root for her very much. But your Bathsheba is more secure in herself, won’t let a patriarchal society shut her out as female landowner and doesn’t necessarily need a man to feel complete.
Mulligan: Basically, she doesn’t have that pre-ordained in her. She doesn’t know if she wants a husband. She isn’t looking for that when she turns down Gabriel’s proposal early on. And when she does reject him, he doesn’t really fight for her. It takes the whole story for them to reconnect after he loses his land and ends up working for her. They need to get to know each other better.
W&H: There hasn’t been a run on movies based on Hardy’s novels lately as there has been with Jane Austen’s works. You have appeared in two projects based on her books, the 2005 “Pride & Prejudice” with Keira Knightley and the 2007 TV version of “Northanger Abbey” with Felicity Jones. How would you compare their portraits of heroines?
Mulligan: I never played the protagonist, just the nasty friend or silly sister. I guess what is amazing about Hardy is that so many of his stories have this dark madness to them, a complexity.
W&H: You have another film that is due in October that I am excited about: “Suffragette.” That looks to be an “Avengers” for women’s rights, what with you, Meryl Streep, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai in the cast.
Mulligan: It totally is.
W&H: You play a novice suffragette named Maud?
Mulligan: She’s not involved in the movement at all at first. But through work, she gets embroiled in a group of women who are militant suffragettes. Meryl has a brief cameo [as real-life right-to-vote crusader Emmeline Pankhurst]. Helena is one of the most fun people to be with. And what is really great is that we have women as director [Sarah Gavron], writer [Abi Morgan] and producers [Alison Owen, Faye Ward].
W&H: You are having a run on period pieces.
Mulligan: They are such great characters. I’ve been lucky and love the roles I have done. But I do look forward to doing something modern.
W&H: If you were to play a superhero, what power would you like to have?
Mulligan: In life or in a film?
W&H: Wouldn’t that be kind of lonely?
Mulligan: Not if someone would be invisible with you.