An Education is a rare kind of film; a quiet coming-of-age story about a fiercely intelligent teenage girl living in barely pre-Beatles London. The world is stagnant for a brief moment before exploding, and in that time, 16-year-old Jenny is languishing and bored. She smokes Parisian cigarettes and spouts odd phrases in French; she totes around Camus and brags to her giggly girlfriends about how worldly and literary she will become when she enters university (Oxford is, of course, Jenny’s—and her father’s—chosen goal). She does what trapped teenage girls have done for generations; she plays foreign records and belts them aloud in her bedroom, she busies herself with meaningless flirtations with cherubic schoolboys, and she shoots her hand up for every question in the classroom.
And then, along comes the only force that could throw Jenny off track; a cultured older man, thirtysomething and handsomely pockmarked. David (Peter Sarsgaard) is a music-loving, Jewish art thief who goes to cabaret clubs and dog races, and from the minute she hops into his red sports car, Jenny is no longer bored but electrified. She ditches her plaid knee-highs for Audrey Hepburn-style shift dresses, fur stoles, red lipstick and a bouffant. She could almost pass for a woman—but as we all know, no 16-year-old girl can transform so quickly; trips to Paris, symphony concerts, and new jewels cannot substitute real maturity. As Jenny later confesses to a teacher after David is only a memory, “I feel old, but not so wise.”
It is hard not to fall a little bit in love at first sight with the 24-year-old British actress. When we meet in a Park Avenue hotel, her brown hair is snipped so boyishly short and she is drowning in one of those long black “grandfather” cardigans that fall below the knees. She is texting emphatically with her best girl friend, Moff, who is staying with her in New York for a bit and is “off getting a manicure.” Mulligan curtsies and swoons a bit as she says the last word, as if it’s all very fancy. She is a true coquette; she wears winged eyeliner and bats her eyes as she shifts between various curled-up positions on the couch—it’s charming behavior, given that the world is currently flirting back. Apart from promoting An Education, Mulligan is in town to shoot Wall Street 2 with her boyfriend Shia LeBoeuf, Michael Douglas, and director Oliver Stone, who called her on her cell phone to offer her the part. She’s having her first big wave of attention, and it’s only natural that she knows it.
“It’s obviously very strange, a little mad,” she says of the sudden media attention. “Especially the Hepburn comparisons. I mean, that’s such a lovely thing to say about the film, and I see it in the Paris montage. But you know, I didn’t think about the end product much when I was making it. I just thought, what fun! There’s Emma Thompson! I had to fight for this part; I auditioned three times and must have called my agent every day for two months afterwards. I knew it was a special gang going in, but I just thought…oh, I have to play Jenny. Her journey is enormous.”
Mulligan says that she knew that the only way to make Jenny’s arc believable was to be convinced herself to take the risks that the character does. “Jenny first meets David on the street and gets into his car,” she says. “Modern sensibility tells you that’s a really stupid idea, so we wanted to make it realistic. Peter had to really convince me to get in. I was standing in the rain, with gallons of water on me, and this soaking cello, and he drives up and says he is nervous about my instrument. He seems like this safe person. And in 1962, it was a safer world. So she gets in.”
Mulligan notes that this attitude would not have been her natural inclination: “I worked in a pub when I was 18, and this guy used to come in. He had a red Ferrari. I remember once he wrote, “dinner?” on a check. I thought, really? You’ve got a cool car, but come on. But Jenny is more bold than I am. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 19. She was so bored, and it was just this whole time in history. Her family doesn’t understand her at all, at school she feels like she is learning things to appease other people, and then a guy in a red car comes along, and bang! She wants to do that.”
Though the screenplay is by novelist Nick Hornby, the film is based on a short memoir by the British journalist Lynn Barber, who really did get in a strange man’s car back in the ‘60s. “She came on set,” says Mulligan. “And she was so nervous, and I was so nervous, which is funny because she’s such a strong woman. But she did end up at Oxford eventually, and she made it past this crazy year, and that was motivating. What Jenny didn’t know in 1962 was that the Beatles were in a studio somewhere making Love Me Do, and the whole world was about to change. The life she wants with David is about to be possible anywhere. In that way it’s a happy film, because you know all that’s around the corner for her.”
“You know, I didn’t think about the end product much when I was making it. I just thought, what fun! There’s Emma Thompson!”
While Jenny does choose a more traditional education despite threats to run off instead, Mulligan chose not to go to university. “I was only one of a few people who didn’t,” she says. “But I didn’t want to study anything for three years except acting, and I didn’t get accepted to drama school.” Looking back, however, she didn’t need it—raised in Surrey and Germany, she landed her first screen roles at 20, in Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House in 2005, and has worked steadily since, appearing on the West End and Broadway in Chekhov’s The Seagull. This year, she appeared in Public Enemies with Johnny Depp and will next be seen in Brothers (a military thriller starring Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal) and Never Let Me Go (an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel, co-starring Kiera Knightley). And of course, there was the magical Oliver Stone call to play Gordon Gekko’s daughter, Winnie.
“My agent called after Oliver saw An Education,” Mulligan says. “And he said, Oliver Stone is going to call you. And I absolutely flipped and put him on speaker phone when he called so my friend Andrew could also hear it. I mean, that doesn’t just happen! And it’s terrifying not to have to fight for a part. I’ve never played an American, and I thought, how are you so sure I can do this? I’m still terrified that I can’t.”
All signs point to Mulligan being able to do it, but it is her humility that makes her bright lights moment all the more charming. “Just this morning we drove past Juilliard,” she laughs. “And I thought, aw, gosh, I sort of want to go to acting school! I still desperately want to go.”
Handpicked by Oliver Stone and still dreaming of acting school—Mulligan’s girlish desires are almost reminiscent of a scene from An Education. “You must think I’m a ruined woman,” she tells her headmistress (Emma Thompson), after leaving school to pursue love. Thompson smiles slightly. “But you’re not a woman,” she says, knowing that no matter how many adventures or successes befall a person in their youth, there is still always room to grow.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.