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Carey Mulligan admits that when the prospect of working with Coen brothers first came her way, she was nervous that the acclaimed filmmaker siblings might turn out to be “scary geniuses.
“I had no idea what to expect from them,” the British-born, 28-year-old actress chuckles as she recalls her first encounter with Joel and Ethan Coen during a speakerphone chat when they approached her for a role in their film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
“They were both kind of really enthusiastically saying things and laughing, and I didn't hear anything they said because I was so nervous,” says Mulligan, an admitted “Fargo” devotee who “worships” its star Frances MacDormand, who’s also Joel’s wife. “I got the job, and the next time I saw them was in rehearsals. I was so happy when I got to meet them and know them a little bit, to see how lovely they were, how relaxed they were – and not scary geniuses.”
An Academy Award nominee for “An Education” and a veteran of projects from both A-list and cutting-edge directors including Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” Steve McQueen’s “Shame” and Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” Mulligan says she wasn’t expecting the calmness that pervades a Coen brothers set.
“Everything was done with no stress,” she says. “They've already edited the film in their mind, which I've never had before on anything else. There is something about their confidence and calm – they're holding you so firmly that you can do all sorts of stuff, and you know they'll rein you in. They'll stop you from going too far. I let go a little bit, which was really fun. I didn't think about my accent. I can hear mistakes in my accent, but they never let me fix it.”
Her very angry character, who shares a complicated past with the title character (Oscar Isaacs), is a member of the early 60s Greenwich Village folk music scene the film explores. The role required Mulligan to perform coffee-house style – each of the movie’s musical performances were captured live. “Because I only had one song to sing, the cool thing was that we all got together in a studio and played music together for a week before we started filming,” she recalls. “I loved being around it, and I loved getting to watch that whole process a little bit.”
Despite her stint in “Llewyn Davis” and a heartbreaking song in “Shame,” Mulligan harbors no professional musical ambitions. “I just happened to have sung in a couple of films in a row, but no, I don't,” she says. “I sang at school, and I thought when I was much, much younger that I wanted to do musical theater. And then I realized I didn't have the talent for it, and I can't dance, so that kind of rules me out.”
She does find the world musicians inhabit intriguing, having gotten a window into it through her husband, Mumford and Sons musician Marcus Mumford. “There's something really enviable about the music world: a bunch of musicians can come into a room and having never met pick up an instrument and start playing, and they've got this community. You just don't have that in most professions – and not as an actor, certainly.”
Mumford collaborated on the film’s authentic collection of folk standards with the Coen’s recurring music guru T-Bone Burnett, whom Mulligan adored. “T-Bone's been so sweet and supportive for the music, and I've been kind of crippled by fear once or twice,” she says. “We did a concert for the film a couple of months ago in New York, and I was singing with Gillian Welch, then sang another song with Elvis Costello, and I was freaking out so much! And in the rehearsal, right before we did the concert, I sang my song with Gillian Welch and completely forgot the words and completely couldn't get the harmony and was like just the worst thing ever. And he came over and gave me a big hug and was like, 'Let's not rehearse it anymore – It'll be great.' He was in the wings when I did it and with his kind of energy somehow I survived and I didn't make any mistakes. I probably sounded terrible, but I didn't actively destroy the song.”
Even more nerve-wracking was prepping for her on-screen song with pop idol Justin Timberlake, who plays her husband and performing partner. “We started by recording me and Justin and Stark Sands at the same time. Then after two takes, they were like, 'We're going to do Justin on his own and then we'll focus on you guys,’” she says. “So I think we might have been slightly messing up his vibe. But it was great – when we were actually doing it I loved it. I had so much fun, because by that point I wasn't nervous to sing in front of him anymore.”
She fully embraced the surreality of sharing a scene with someone she admired in her youth. “I could have asked Justin a few more questions about like being in ‘N Sync, but they never quite came to me – maybe now,” she laughs. “It was the same with Leo [DiCaprio] on ‘Gatsby’: It's unreasonable to not have a moment when you are like ‘This is so weird!’ I was never one of those kids who had posters up on their wall. I never idolized people, but I had seen ‘Romeo + Juliet’ when I was 14 or 15 years old, and thought that he was the most extraordinary actor ever. And then suddenly I was making a film with him. I was like, 'This is so crazy.' So there has to be a moment when you acknowledge how ridiculous things are. Certainly I had that moment with Justin – like, I had his album, I knew the dance moves, and now we're standing here playing a singing duet called Jim & Jean. Bizarre, but quite fun!”