DETROIT — When Daisy Buchanan attends a party at Jay Gatsby’s mansion in the new film version of The Great Gatsby, she’s wearing a crystal-coated chandelier dress by Prada and a drool-worthy pearl-and-diamond headpiece by Tiffany.
The look is the glamour of the Jazz Age personified.
Such costumes were a big help to Carey Mulligan, who plays Daisy in director Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, which many consider the defining novel of America’s 20th century.
“To be wearing literally millions of dollars worth of jewelry every day really lends a quality of elegance, in a way. You feel very kind of expensive when you’re walking about. I’ve never experienced anything like it,” says Mulligan, speaking by phone from London.
In many ways, the 27-year-old actress is an ideal symbol for this Gatsby, Luhrmann’s latest effort at bringing contemporary razzle-dazzle to a tale from a bygone era.
Like his Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, the movie is a young, vibrant, visual and musical ride. It’s shot in 3-D and features a soundtrack executive-produced by Jay-Z, who adds a jolt of energy with modern songs that fit neatly into the nervous energy of the Roaring ’20s.
And, of course, there are the gorgeously lavish clothes by Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin, who’s married to Luhrmann.
But this Gatsby is also interested in being a careful character study that extends beyond the surface sparkle. That goal is in keeping with the indie film work that Mulligan has done in An Education, Shame and Drive — small, intriguing movies that put her on the map.
Luhrmann, who’s been envisioning a Gatsby adaptation for nearly a decade, found a logical choice for the title role in Leonardo DiCaprio, who worked with him on 1996’s Romeo + Juliet. DiCaprio represents the star quality required for Gatsby, a self-made millionaire whose quest for money and power is driven by his love for the woman, Daisy, he lost to another man.
But who would play Daisy? Keira Knightley, Blake Lively and Michelle Williams were among the actresses reportedly considered. But it was Mulligan who won the part after wowing Luhrmann during her audition with DiCaprio, which involved a tense lunch scene from later in the movie and also a kiss between Gatsby and Daisy.
“I said to Baz, ‘Should I kiss him?’ Because it said it in the script. And he said yes, so I kissed him,” says Mulligan about Luhrmann’s comments that the moment helped seal the deal. “It seemed like a pretty easy way to get a job,” she adds playfully.
Mulligan purposely didn’t watch the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, which starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. “I tried to avoid it once I was cast in the film, because I’m such a big fan of Mia Farrow and I was really nervous that if I saw it, I would try to steal things from that performance,” she explains.
She needn’t worry. Since her breakthrough Oscar-nominated role in 2009’s An Education as a middle-class girl who has a romance with a businessman who isn’t what he seems, she’s been stealing scenes in subsequent films like Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, where she played Gordon Gekko’s daughter, and Shame, where she was the younger sister of Michael Fassbender’s sex addict.
Mulligan got her start in films as Elizabeth Bennet’s sister Kitty in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. The story goes that she told Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes that she wanted to be an actor when he spoke at her school and he responded with a very Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess-like quip.
“He said, ‘Oh dear, if you do, you should probably marry a banker or a lawyer,’ ” she recalls. She wrote to Fellowes afterward and was invited to a lunch with other aspiring young actors, which led to his wife, Emma, helping her get an audition for Pride and Prejudice.
The Great Gatsby represents her first attempt at playing such an iconic object of desire.
“I’ve never played someone who people feel the way that they do about Daisy in the novel, so that was daunting to a degree. Yeah, it was sort of a challenge, in the performance and also physically. To be described as the king’s daughter and the golden girl, it sets the bar pretty high.”
It was also her first film of such enormous scale. Shooting was done in Sydney, Australia, Luhrmann’s home country, mostly on sets that re-created a fantastical world of wealth and privilege.
The astoundingly vast and detailed party scenes took weeks to film, according to Mulligan, who remembers one scene where she and DiCaprio were in the middle of the celebratory mayhem. “The camera was far, far, far away and we were just surrounded by people having the greatest time dancing, and I felt like I was in the middle of a 1920s party. I couldn’t see the crew and I couldn’t see the cameras. It was surreal.”
Mulligan has had about a year off from filming since Gatsby and a subsequent project, Inside Llewyn Davis, the upcoming Coen brothers movie about the 1960s folk music scene in Greenwich Village. In it, she and Justin Timberlake play a married singing duo, “which was really, really good fun.”
Next, she’ll star in Far From the Madding Crowd, a Thomas Hardy novel adaptation by Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. She says she’ll avoid seeing Julie Christie’s performance in the 1967 version, too.
Married for a year to Marcus Mumford of pop-folk stars Mumford & Sons, Mulligan doesn’t talk about her personal life as a rule and says it’s been relatively easy to maintain her privacy so far.
“I’m really lucky. When I’m back in London living my normal life, that world doesn’t really affect me. I haven’t worked since the Coen brothers film, which is a year and a bit ago. I’ve sort of been off. I’m never recognized. I’m recognized maybe once a year. Now, because of Gatsby at the moment, because I’m on magazine covers, I get a few more people recognizing me. But generally, I just kind of walk around completely left alone.”
Mulligan says she deals with the paparazzi only when she’s in New York or Los Angeles. So far, her strategy of reticence is working. “I feel like I’ve got my work hat on at work and then I take it off and everything else belongs to me.”