LONDON • Carey Mulligan doesn't like to take the easy route. When, against her parents' wishes, she auditioned for drama schools, she chose a monologue from Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, a play about depression and suicide.
The schools turned her down, but she persevered, securing a role in the 2005 Pride And Prejudice film, then earning plaudits as Nina in Ian Rickson's stage production of The Seagull.
In 2009, she won an Oscar nomination for her nuanced portrayal of a teenager who becomes involved with an older man in An Education.
Ever since, film has taken precedence over theatre. But Mulligan, 33, is back onstage for a New York run in Dennis Kelly's Girls & Boys, which opened last Wednesday at the Minetta Lane Theatre.
The play, which originated at the Royal Court Theatre and is directed by Lyndsey Turner, is a 90-minute monologue in which Mulligan offers an autobiographical account of her relationship with the man who becomes her husband, and which ends with a bone-chilling revelation.
British critics were mixed on Kelly's writing, but Mulligan's performance provoked no ambivalence. She succeeds "in taking us to the darkest recesses of human behaviour without a jot of sensationalism", wrote Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph.
During an interview over coffee late last month, Mulligan seemed relaxed even though she was about to pack up her family for her New York stint. She has a three-year-old daughter and a one-year-old son with her pop singer husband Marcus Mumford.
"I love New York," she said, before going on to talk about why she does relatively little theatre work and how she struggled through the Girls & Boys rehearsals.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You grew up wanting to act in theatre. But you've been in relatively few plays - Girls & Boys is only the sixth since you made your debut at the Royal Court in 2004. Why is that?
I think I was spoilt really early on by getting to play Nina in The Seagull.
I had done two plays before that and the people were brilliant, but I didn't love the experience.
Then The Seagull - I just loved it so much. It was such a romantic time in my life. Playing that part felt like an expression of all the angst I had as a teenager - wanting to be an actress, my parents not wanting me to be an actress.
Afterwards, it was a matter of finding something with such a high standard of writing.
I did David Hare's Skylight, with (English actor) Bill Nighy, which was wonderful. Then Girls & Boys came along and it seemed completely impossible. It was daring me to do it.
Was it the subject matter that seemed impossible?
No, the subject matter didn't frighten me as much as doing a one-woman show. I spend my whole career trying to forget I am being watched. I look at the other person onstage in the eyes and try to tell the truth.
But with a one-woman show, the other person is the audience. They are my Bill Nighy. And I didn't know how to do that.
The material is nonetheless difficult, to say the least.
I got the script last July and I was really pregnant, about 10 days away from having my second child.
I was so excited at the thought of being back at the Royal Court that I read it on my phone, in the car, while we were driving back from the country.
When I got to the reveal, I dropped the phone on the floor. (Although the reveal) concerns children and I have a boy and a girl, I didn't connect them personally to the play.
My reaction was more about how to put an audience through this experience. It has to be about something other than the pain.
I umm-ed and ah-ed for a couple of weeks, only because it meant going back to work sooner than I would have liked.
But in the end, I felt if I didn't do it, I might spend the rest of my life regretting it.
Your character, who remains nameless, is funny and sharp, but dealing with an enormous emotional burden. How did you develop a sense of who she is?
I imagined what songs she might listen to, what outfit she might have worn when she met her husband.
I made up lots of stories about the children, trying to flesh them out for myself.
As the run went on, they became more and more real in my mind. When I'm really in the show, I can hear them onstage, really loud.
How did you approach being on your own onstage?
I worked through the script with everyone and it all felt very normal.
Then one day, I stood up on my own to perform it and it was really, really difficult.
I had never had so much trouble in rehearsal. I would get two pages in, my throat would get tight and I'd say, "I can't do it".
Even two weeks before the opening, we were doing a run and I did one page and my throat seized up.
I actually fell to my knees and had to leave the room. I was freaking out. All those lovely people, coming to rehearsals, I had bailed on them and it was humiliating.
But I felt either I will get onstage and have a panic attack or it will work. And, unbelievably, they trusted me and it worked. I think I couldn't be alone; I needed the audience.
How do you prepare for a performance?
I have an insane 21/2-hour routine. I get to the theatre at five, eat something, go to sleep at six for half an hour, shower and do make-up and then go down onstage to warm up.
In London, two previews in, I said to Lyndsey: "I'm so lonely, can someone come and warm up with me?"
So the whole crew would come and play (the board game) Articulate!, which was so great.
I'm hoping that in New York, there will be some willing participants.