We talk to the star of the ultra-cool, awesomely violent, yet oddly sweet action drama DRIVE

Chances are that those of us who know Carey Mulligan from classy dramas like Never Let Me Go and her Oscar nominated turn in An Education probably never thought we’d see her take part in a seemingly tender love scene where a man suddenly gets his face spectacularly smashed in. But that’s what fans of the British actress can look forward to in the ultra-cool, awesomely violent, yet oddly sweet action drama DRIVE, in which the 26-year-old plays the love interest of Ryan Gosling’s anonymous, taciturn stunt driver.

Drive was a sensation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, bagging the Best Director prize for its rising Danish helmer, Nicolas Winding Refn, and the movie looks set to be a hit with the non-Croisette-attending crowd too: it went down a storm with audiences here when it was unveiled as a surprise screening at Ireland’s new cinema event MOVIE FEST last month.

We caught up with Mulligan to discuss cars, handbrake turns, Gosling, gore, Gatsby, carrot cake, and, erm, Rubik’s Cubes.

Q: How did you get involved in Drive? It seems such an unlikely vehicle – pun intended – for you?
CM: I had met [the director] Nicolas very briefly at a dinner a few years ago in Melbourne when he was promoting Bronson and I was promoting An Education. I don’t think either of us made much of an impression on each other. I hadn’t worked in almost a year at that point, and I’d just watched Nicolas’ other film Valhalla Rising. I emailed my agent, and said I want to work with this guy.
My agent told me they were casting for this script called Drive, but that the character was an older Latina woman. I got a meeting with Nicolas anyway. I went to his house in LA, and I remember he was sitting on a sofa. He turned around, glanced at me, turned back around and said, ‘Ah, you were much fatter last time!’

Q: Charming! He seems like quite the character?
CM: Yes, I was like, ‘Oh right, thanks. So this is how it’s going to be’. He’s just awesome. Nic is brutally honest, and will communicate with you directly, avoiding all that sycophantic nonsense that goes on. But he’s also incredibly tender, and understands emotion very well, in addition to action, and pace, and drama. He directs with such a light touch, and he loves actors. I actually lived with him and his family for a couple of weeks while making the film.

Q: It’s an incredibly violent movie in places. Were you squeamish about that while filming?
CM: Not really. The one part that I’m involved with that’s very gory was broken down for me in such a practical way that when I see it, I just see the prosthetics. I don’t think I’m that squeamish in general. But some of the stuff that Ryan and Albert Brooks get up to is pretty brutal.

Q: You and Ryan have a great chemistry on screen. What was it like working together?
CM: Ryan and I had actually never met before. I first met him at the second or third meeting with Nic. We just had fun. We hung out with Nic a lot: we were always at the house, looking at the edit, looking at scenes coming together. Nic let us in on everything. It was the first time I’d watch things as I was doing them – not a lot of directors allow that. We had a Rubik’s Cube thing – Ryan became obsessed with solving that.
As I said, I hadn’t worked in such a long time, so I just wanted to be on set every day. I was like the enthusiastic kid at school who turns up early. On the days I wasn’t filming I was making carrot cake, and bringing it to the set. It was ridiculous: I had way too much fun on this film.

Q: Are you big into cars in real life?
CM: I drive, but I only have a license in LA. We were filming this and I was driving myself to work everyday in a Prius. I just had the piss ripped out of me relentlessly by everyone. Come to think of it Ryan drove a Prius too, probably to compensate for all the fast cars we use in the film. But I’m not that into cars. Actually Nic can’t drive. Imagine: the director of a film about cars called Drive has no license.

Q: You must have had fun on set with all those cars though?
CM: When we were filming the scene where Ryan drives my screen son and I home, Ryan thought it’d be hilarious to have the kid in his lap while driving the car. We did that for one take, but then realised how impossibly illegal it looked, so we were like, ‘Put the kid back!’ He loved it.
Another day we were going to shoot in a car-park so we borrowed a producer’s Mini-Cooper to get there. Ryan was like, ‘Let me show you something, strap in!’ Then he did this twisty-spinning handbrake turn, and I said from that point on that I was never getting in a car with him again.

Q: This month you’re travelling to Australia to start rehearsals for your role as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby. That will be a big deal for you career-wise.
CM: It’s definitely very scary. It’s on a different scale to what I’ve done before. For one thing people will definitely see that film whereas I haven’t been able to say that about a lot of the stuff I’ve done! When you play an adaptation of a literary character that’s so well-known, a pressure goes with that. I’m trying not to base it on anyone else’s perception but Baz’s and my own.
But if I know what I’m going to do with a character beforehand then I won’t be excited about it. I like being terrified. That’s the only way I want to work now.

Q: Do you always like to challenge yourself?
CM: No, I’m really lazy! It’s literally just with acting. Why is that so? I guess because filming can be quite monotonous, so it can be really boring if you don’t have a challenge. I’m lazy, but I don’t like to be bored. I get really easily bored. But I don’t look for challenges in life. I’m not like, ‘Oh, I have a week off, let’s go climb a mountain’. I’m more, ‘I’ll just drink tea, and see some mates’.

Words – Declan Cashin

DRIVE is now showing in cinemas