Oscar Week: Best Actress Nominee Carey Mulligan

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Kerry Brown / Sony Pictures

Carey Mulligan in An Education

Most actresses wait their whole career for a breakout role. And 24-year-old Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan knows it. Hers was Jenny, the lead character in the Lone Scherfig film An Education, which was adapted from the Lynn Barber memoir about a teenager who falls head over heels for a charming but flawed man. Mulligan's portrayal of a young woman who blooms with love only to wilt upon discovering its complexities has captured the hearts of critics and Oscar voters and has established her as one of the front runners going into the ceremony on March 7. TIME spoke to the actress about her magical year at the top of her profession.

This must be quite the roller coaster for you — I've spoken to a few critics who didn't know your name when they walked into An Education but walked out predicting that you'd be the front runner for Best Actress.
It's odd, actually, because going into the Golden Globes, it was a year to the day to the hour from when the film had premiered at Sundance. So it's been around for such a long time that it's hard to really process. I read for the film in late 2006, and it was the third time that I auditioned when I finally met the director. There would be these big, six-month gaps when I did nothing. So it was a lot like all these other British independent films, where you get the job and then it falls apart. For a long while I didn't put much into the idea of it all actually happening.

The movie asks you to grow up so quickly. Was it hard to wander between the extremes? I'm thinking of the scene in which you finally break up with Peter Sarsgaard's character. Rewind 30 minutes, and you are totally in love.
That scene looks so dramatic on the screen. I remember it as the day when my brother was on the set for the first time, and he was so excited. But what was funny was that it was 3 in the morning when they started shooting my side of the scene, and then a full two hours later they turned around and got Peter. So there was this big gap in time. It was so early to be doing anything, and it was freezing cold, and I remember that [Jenny] responds so maturely in her dialogue, and that's the bit I wanted to get in there — how much she felt disappointed. But by the time I say, "Please don't let me tell them on my own," she is completely furious.

With such emotional scenes, does it all flow exactly as it's written in the script, or were you open to some scenes taking unexpected directions?
Peter's the best actor, the most fun and interesting actor you could ever imagine. We did a play together afterward, The Seagull, and I just fell in love with him like he was my big older brother. And from the first audition, we had a vibe and we knew how to work as a team. And what some people might not know about him is how eager he is to just conjure something up. He's always messing about and uninhibited, trying crazy ideas. During The Seagull, he had this four-page scene, four pages of dialogue, where I had nothing to say, and one time he got down and laid flat on his back and did three pages of dialogue to the sky. And I had nothing to do but stand there and stare at him.

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