Carey Mulligan - Straight to the top of the class

At just 23, UK star Carey Mulligan is working with Johnny Depp and Michael Mann and was the toast of the Berlin Film Festival. Gaynor Flynn meets her

In the space of a few weeks, Carey Mulligan has gone from being a virtual unknown to the next big thing in the film industry. Some are even predicting an Oscar nomination next year for the 23-year-old British actress after her star turn in Lone Scherfig's An Education, a coming-of-age tale in which she plays a London schoolgirl in the Sixties who falls for a much older man (Peter Sarsgaard). Based on the journalist Lynn Barber's memoirs, and written by Nick Hornby, the film wowed audiences, first at the Sundance Film Festival last month and now in Berlin, and has turned Mulligan into the newcomer of the moment.

"They didn't want me for the role, initially," laughs the actress. "I auditioned ages ago with Beeban Kidron. Then Beeban pulled out and it collapsed. That was two years ago. Then Lone came on, but they didn't want to bring me in. She had a list of people, and the ones that they thought she should bring in had ticks next to their names. I didn't have a tick, but she saw my tape and said, 'She should come in.' If she hadn't had the time to watch all the tapes, I wouldn't be talking to you today."

Mulligan probably wouldn't be in Berlin this week either, where she was named one of the 10 Shooting Stars of 2009 (former winners include Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz). "This week has been freaky," she says, laughing.

It began on Sunday night when she had to present her very first award – at the Baftas. The previous Wednesday, An Education had had its European premiere in Berlin. She admits that she was concerned "that the Europeans might hate it", but she needn't have worried. The film generated more rave reviews for the young actress, and sparked even more comparisons with Audrey Hepburn (Mulligan has short, cropped hair, and a similar elfin beauty).

Mulligan has four films due for release in 2009, with some of the biggest names in the business. Besides An Education (which also stars Emma Thompson and Alfred Molina), there's The Greatest (with Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon), Michael Mann's Public Enemies (with Johnny Depp and Christian Bale) and Jim Sheridan's Brothers (with Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman).

"Presenting a Bafta was more nerve-wracking than anything else I've done," she laughs. "I was terrified. I've never worn a full-length gown, and I never wear strappy shoes. I couldn't walk in them."

Mulligan first came to the attention of audiences in 2005, when she made her feature-film debut as Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice. She then put in a confident turn in Anand Tucker's And When Did You Last See Your Father?, did some television (Doctor Who) and recently impressed audiences on stage in New York with her performance in The Seagull.

" It was one of the most important experiences of my life," she says. "I love making films, but doing theatre is like falling in love with life every night. It took me a while to believe they'd cast me, so I was determined to be the best Nina ever." She had surgery for appendicitis in the middle of the run, but was back on stage within a week.

The Belgian director Marion Hansel, who was on this year's Shooting Stars jury in Berlin, isn't surprised by Mulligan's success. "Carey started very young, so she's already a real professional. You can see that in the different material she's done. She has had a lot of experience in very different parts. She has a wide range of possibilities, which is very exciting."

"It doesn't feel like things are changing that much," says the actress about the hype surrounding her. "It's probably made it easier for me to get a job, but nobody's seen An Education apart from people at Sundance and Berlin. It's all very well this buzz, but it's not based on an awful lot. It's not like the world's going, 'This is a great film.' My parts in Brothers and Public Enemies are both small: I'm not running around with Johnny Depp for the whole movie,even though I wish that was the case! An Education was the one I was most excited about seeing. I was sobbing. You never ever imagine that you're going to get to play a lead."

Mulligan was born in England. Her father is a hotel manager, and when she was two and a half, the family moved to Germany for several years because of his work. That's where she first discovered her passion for acting.

"My brother and I were at the International School of Düsseldorf, and they did these amazing, lavish productions. Because they had boys and girls up to the age of 18, they could have people playing men and women. They did The King and I, and my brother was cast as one of the little kids. My mother and I went to watch the rehearsals, and I burst into tears because I wasn't in it, so the director let me in."

As for what's next, she's not allowed to say, she jokes. "It's annoying, but they want to make an announcement. When I knew I was coming to Berlin, I said, 'They're going to ask me what I'm doing next.' And they said, 'Yep, but you can't say.' And I was like, 'It'll make it sound like I don't have a job!' But I do have a job; I'm not going to be sitting around on my arse eating crisps waiting for the phone to ring."

Right now, however, Mulligan has far more important things on her mind.

"I don't like having my photo taken," she admits. "But I got much better at doing stills on set with An Education, because Lone said, 'Look, the stills promote the movie before it comes out. If they're dull, nobody will want to see it.'

But she's less happy when the focus is just on her. "It's hard," she says. "We did this Vanity Fair shoot for Shooting Stars, and we were all naked under a rug. I've never done anything like that. I always find looking down a lens difficult. All the brilliant people know their best angle, not because they're vain, but because they know how to present the most powerful shot. They say that about Ben Kingsley. He knows exactly where to be for the camera for a line to deliver an emotion. You probably get that after 30 years. Right now, I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't even know if I have a best angle!"

'An Education' is out in the autumn