Actress Carey Mulligan braves the countryside for Far From The Madding Crowd

Carey Mulligan adores the quiet life in the English countryside where she lives with her husband, musician Marcus Mumford.
Carey Mulligan adores the quiet life in the English countryside where she lives with her husband, musician Marcus Mumford.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Far From The Madding Crowd star Carey Mulligan has no qualms about wading in sheep dung for her role in the movie based on the 19th-century Thomas Hardy novel

If she is excited enough to tackle a role, English actress Carey Mulligan will go to extraordinary lengths to boost her performance. In the 2011 drama Shame, she stripped naked and also sang on screen.

In her latest film, Far From The Madding Crowd, she fully embraced her character's rural background, wading waist deep in water and sheep dung.

In contrast to Shame, however, she was far more comfortable with the circumstances.

The 30-year-old English actress spent portions of her youth on her grandmother's farm in Wales and became a dab hand at looking after livestock. She can even milk a cow.

"Milking a cow? I can do that," says Mulligan with a beam during this interview in London for the new movie, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

Carey Mulligan adores the quiet life in the English countryside where she lives with her husband, musician Marcus Mumford.But I don't think I could be a country girl every day, 365 days every year. I would miss putting on make-up and going to a restaurant.

CAREY MULLIGAN (above), who plays Bathsheba, a determined woman who takes great pleasure in the land she inherits from her father. PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

"I had done it as a kid. My grandmother lived in Wales and we had relatives who were farmers. I live in the country now and am around farmers a lot."

One of Britain's most sought-after actresses, she lives in the English countryside with her musician husband, singer-songwriter Marcus Mumford from the indie folk-rock band Mumford & Sons. They married in 2012.

She adores the quiet life, as long as she can head back to London on occasion.

"I am in the city for work," she says, "so when I am not working, I like to not be in cities. I quite like staying in. I like watching I'm A Celebrity and X Factor, having a salad and being in bed by 10.30.

"But I don't think I could be a country girl every day, 365 days every year. I would miss putting on make-up and going to a restaurant."

When she is at home in the countryside, Mulligan likes to get her hands dirty. Indeed, the week prior to starting work on Far From The Madding Crowd, she was helping a friend shear a sheep.

"I wasn't actually shearing because it is really difficult," she says, "but I was bagging up the wool. I know a lot of people who farm. It is not unfamiliar territory to me."

Sheep-shearing is certainly familiar territory for her character, Bathsheba Everdene, in Far From The Madding Crowd.

During the course of the film, audiences witness Bathsheba tending to livestock and overseeing the collection of the harvest. We even see her immersed in the dirty water of a sheep dip, where she and one of her three suitors, Gabriel Oak (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), are working frantically.

Mulligan, embracing the role wholeheartedly, made sure that she really did work the sheep for real.

"I really wanted to get involved with the sheep," she says. "While making the film, we had to contend with this insurance thing about the actors not being able to touch them. They were worried that the sheep might kick us and break our legs.

"And when it came to shooting the scene in the sheep dip, at one point, they were going to have this fake sheepskin thing that they chucked in there with us, but Matthias and I looked at it and were like, 'No, we have got to have the real thing'."

 

The central player in Thomas Hardy's classic 19th-century novel, Bathsheba is a strong-willed and determined young woman who takes great pleasure in the land she inherited.

At the time, women of sound social standing were expected to find husbands and raise a family, leaving business matters to the men. Not so Bathsheba. She has no immediate interest in securing a husband. She just wants to run her farm.

"She is a modern woman," Mulligan says of her character, "and I think it is an extraordinary feat by Thomas Hardy to write somebody like that at that time and to enjoy her 'otherness'.

"You can see in the writing that he took real joy in writing this different, obtuse, rebellious woman. She isn't like the people who surround her. She is different."

Director Thomas Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls tell viewers as much right at the start of the film when Gabriel gives her a baby lamb and asks in vain for her hand in marriage.

"The story starts with a woman turning down a proposal from a hunk," says Mulligan with a laugh.

"It is like, 'He gives you a baby lamb. Say yes, you idiot.' But that thought has not entered her world. She is not thinking about it. It isn't a story about a woman trying to find a husband. This is not a Jane Austen novel. She is so much more complex as a character and I like that."

It was the character's complexity that drew Mulligan to the role, even though she was not actively seeking another period project at that time, after having starred in The Great Gatsby (2013) for director Baz Luhrmann, and the TV mini-series The Spoils Of Babylon (2014).

"But regardless of the time her story is set, she is a brilliant character. And then the time in which she lives makes her even more extraordinary because she is bucking the trend," she adds.

The story revolves around Bathsheba's relationship with three different men - Gabriel, Sergeant Troy (played by Tom Sturridge) and the land-owning older gentleman William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) - and she often makes choices that are surprising for 19th-century England.

"She doesn't have a desire to be part of anything conventional or anything that she doesn't have passion towards," says Mulligan.

Like her character, the actress is driven by her passions, which have ensured that she has built up an impressive list of film and theatre credits.

She first came to the attention of cinemagoers with her Academy Award-nominated and Baftawinning performance in the 2009 drama An Education, which followed her big screen debut opposite her close friend Keira Knightley in director Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice in 2005.

Since those films, she has enjoyed a wide and varied screen career, taking in the likes of Never Let Me Go (2010), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), Drive (2011), Shame, The Great Gatsby and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), working with an impressive string of directors including Oliver Stone, Nicolas Winding Refn, Steve McQueen and the Coen brothers.

Her stage credits are equally impressive, kicking off with the 2004 play Forty Winks at the Royal Court Theatre in London, while she has also starred in New York with her celebrated version of The Seagull and also with the offBroadway production of Through A Glass Darkly.

"I have had great experiences doing plays there and I feel slightly less self-conscious in America, probably because I don't have family and friends coming to see the play all the time," she says.

Skylight, her most recent outing on Broadway which was staged in April this year, earned her a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play. In the drama, she plays a school teacher dealing with the consequences for having an affair with the patriarch of the family she lived with when she was growing up.

Her next film, Suffragette, sees her starring alongside Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter. Directed by Sarah Gavron and written by Abi Morgan, it charts the rise of the law-changing women's movement in Britain at the turn of the 20th century.

Mulligan plays a fictional character, though the story is populated with historical figures such as Emily Wilding Davison and Emmeline Pankhurst, both advocates of women's rights.

"You meet real-life characters like Emily and Emmeline through the story and it takes you through about a year of history in the women's movement," Mulligan explains. "It's a really interesting story and I'm so happy to be involved."

• Far From The Madding Crowd opens in Singapore tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2015, with the headline ''Milking a cow? I can do that''. Print Edition | Subscribe