A week before she began filming Far from the Madding Crowd, Carey Mulligan was on a farm “helping” with the shearing.
It would be fair to assume that the 29-year-old Londoner was researching her role as Bathsheba Everdene, particularly for a sequence in which she wades into a bath of sheep dip when challenged by farmer Gabriel Oak.
“I know a lot of people who farm. I live in the country now and am around farmers. I was doing it because I was at their house. It is not unfamiliar territory to me. I am not a complete country girl but I am not a city girl. It is fun and I like it. I really wanted to get involved with the sheep.”
And she did. She describes Thomas Hardy’s single-minded heroine as “different, obtuse, rebellious, a narcissist” adding “she isn’t like the people who surround her. She is a modern woman.”
And Mulligan has a very modern approach to this literary great, which involved getting her hands dirty in both interpretation and the physicality of her performance.
“While making the film we had to contend with this insurance thing about the actors not being able touch the sheep. They were worried that they might kick us and break our legs. And when it came to shooting the scene in the sheep dip, at one point they were going to have this fake sheepskin thing that they chucked in there with us.
“Matthias [Schoenaerts] and I looked at it and said, ‘No, we have got to have the real thing.’ So we started doing it and it was so much fun. I always wanted Bathsheba to get dirty. She is fearless, a tough country girl, and I really loved doing all that stuff.”
Schoenaerts joins Michael Sheen and Tom Sturridge as the triumvirate of very different men – farmer Gabriel Oak, landowner William Boldwood and soldier Frank Troy – who attempt to win Bathsheba’s hand.
But, argues Mulligan, “It isn’t a story about a woman trying to find a husband. I read one description of it that said it’s about a woman trying to choose between two suitors. It is not about that. This is not an Austen novel. She is so much more complex as a character and I like that.”
After what she describes as “a fair amount” of period work in recent years she was not seeking to make a costume drama. Instead she was hoping to do something more contemporary. “But regardless of the time her story is set, she is a brilliant character. And then the time in which she lives makes her even more extraordinary because she is bucking the trend. I loved her relationship with Oak. I loved their companionship and his steadfastness and her pride getting in the way all the time.
“That really well observed relationship between a man and woman was really well written and then really well translated into the script.”
She is fulsome in her praise – for director Thomas Vinterberg, for her co-stars and for cinematographer Charlotte Bruus, whose drifting camera gets deep inside Bathsheba’s head. She awards top marks to the “brilliant” Michael Sheen.
“Through the story Boldwood becomes a completely broken man. It’s such subtle, fine work that Michael does to go from the man he was at the beginning to the man he is at the end of the film. You have so much empathy towards Boldwood and you really need that. She really did ruin his life over such a frivolous thing. In a fleeting moment she made the wrong decision and that ruined his life. She learns a brutal lesson through that.”