It has been said that casting is everything, and there’s no question that the critically acclaimed drama An Education owes much of its success to director Lone Scherfig’s choice of Carey Mulligan for the lead role.
The 24-year-old actress had only appeared in a handful of small film roles when Scherfig tapped her for the demanding part of Jenny, a 16-year-old schoolgirl drawn into a relationship with an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) against the drab backdrop of early ’60s England.
“There’s a slight resemblance between her and Lynn Barber, the woman whose memoir was the basis for the film,” explains Scherfig during an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “But it wasn’t about how she looked. Carey has strength and fragility at the same time.
“She’s not over-schooled in any way. She doesn’t have an acting education, but she makes good choices and has good taste. It was a big part and a long shoot, but I thought that she could handle it.”
Mulligan concurs that she was up for the challenge of carrying the film — partially because she refused to really see it in those terms.
“I know Jenny is in every scene,” says the London native, “but I never thought of her as the lead of the film. It’s only in retrospect that I can see how much I’m in it. Lone made it feel like such an ensemble piece. So I always thought that Peter or Alfred (Molina) would carry the film. I just never felt that pressure, or like I was on my own. But a couple of days before Sundance, I started to think ‘Crikey, if this is bad, then it’s my fault.’”
Given that Mulligan is being discussed as an Oscar darkhorse, it’s clear that she held up her end of the bargain: Her performance is deeply felt even if the film’s plot machinery is a bit creaky.
“I was really able to relate to Jenny around the frustration of education for its own sake,” says Mulligan. “Even when I went abroad to boarding school, I never felt like I was learning anything for myself.
“We went to really cool places with school, but we were always thinking about how we could get out, and get a drink.”