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Susan Griffin: I like dark characters, they're fun to do because I'm very happy and live a lovely, charmed life

Carey Mulligan talks to Susan Griffin about her new role as Bathsheba Everdene, writing letters to Kenneth Branagh, her desire to have children, and a landmark birthday

Carey Mulligan's latest role is one of Thomas Hardy's great heroines, Bathsheba Everdene, the fiercely independent young woman who inherits her uncle's farm, and the actress reveals she couldn't wait to get stuck in and get her hands dirty.

"Lots of my mother's side of the family lived on farmland, so I milked things when I was younger," the 29-year-old - who's seen gamely wading into a sheep bath in the new adaptation of Far From The Madding Crowd - points out with a laugh.

The London-born actress, who shot to fame after being Oscar-nominated for 2009's An Education, hadn't read the book before seeing the script, nor watched the 1967 movie starring Julie Christie.

"It's never a great idea if you're retelling a story," she explains. "But I will, now we're done."

Hardy's not known for happy-ever-afters, but this story is relatively upbeat for the Victorian author, and explores Bathsheba's relationships with three very different suitors: the rugged and steadfast shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the mature and prosperous William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), and the dashing but arrogant soldier Frank Troy, played by her good friend Tom Sturridge.

"Bathsheba's an incredibly modern woman. The decisions she makes are spontaneous. It's her great quality but also her biggest downfall."

You could argue she's manipulative, too, but the actress was keen to portray her naivety and vulnerability, "and how she doesn't really know herself, like none of us really do when we're 18", she notes.

Mulligan turns 30 in late May, but there will be little time to celebrate as she's currently treading the boards in Skylight. "I'm working (on my birthday)," she reveals. "I think it's even a two-show day, so I don't think it'll be a big party."

The production recently opened on Broadway, following a successful London run.

"In New York, it feels like it's not as intimidating as doing it in London, where I know family members or friends could be out there every night," remarks the actress, who's ploughing on through a cold, admitting: "I'm falling apart here!"

She's looking forward to this new chapter and, laughing, admits she's embracing ageing.

"I spent a lot of my early 20s playing teenagers because of my baby face. My agent in the last couple of years has started saying, 'You've been offered this part, she's 19, you're too old', and I'm like, 'I'm too old? Brilliant! I've never been too old'. All the great parts come now, I think, so I'm excited."

Mulligan, who lived briefly in Germany as a child, excelled at school.

But despite her parents' protestations, she decided against university.

"You can't stop someone doing something they want to do. I don't think my parents could've stopped me trying to be an actor."

Instead, she sent letters to Belfast actor Kenneth Branagh, and Julian Fellowes, asking for advice on the acting industry.

It was at a dinner hosted by Fellowes that she met a casting agent, which led to the role of Kitty in 2005's Pride & Prejudice, but she doesn't recommend this approach. "When people write to me, I say, 'Go to university and get a back-up', because it's so difficult."

By her own admission, she worked "manically" in those early years.

"I think that's normal in acting. You just work and work, terrified of where the next job's going to come from."

But then, disappointed by her experience on 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, she heeded her agent's advice not to go for a role unless she couldn't bear the idea of someone else doing it.

She's subsequently starred in Steve McQueen's critically-acclaimed Shame with Michael Fassbender, Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive alongside Ryan Gosling, and Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby opposite Leonardo DiCaprio.

"I like dark characters, and it's fun to do things that are difficult, because I'm very happy and have had a very lovely, charmed life, lovely parents, lovely family and lovely education. That sounds like Schadenfreude, but it's not that. It's very easy to play things that you know, it's when you have to play things that you don't really understand that it gets fun," she reasons.

Mulligan is notoriously protective of her private life and rarely speaks of her husband Marcus, of the folk band Mumford & Sons, whom she married in 2012. She does, however, reveal that she'd like children ("Yeah, definitely"), and admits she's in the "privileged position" of being able to stop work for a period of time.

"But I don't think you can ever be worried about your career when it comes to stuff like that (having a family). You've got to have some perspective."

She's gained a new outlook on promotional tours too, having once described chat shows and carpets as cripplingly nerve-racking.

"I think I took everything a bit too seriously. "Ultimately, if you fall over on a talk show, it doesn't matter, nobody cares. If there's a bad photo, if you look a bit fat, you look a bit whatever, no one cares.

"There are much bigger things in the world."

She'll be on the campaign trail next year, no doubt, for her new movie Suffragette, which isn't released until October, but is already garnering awards buzz.

"It's a story about the militant suffragettes in London and based on real life women, although the character I play is fictional."

The cast includes Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter, and Mulligan confesses to being "talent struck" on set. The movie also marks the project she's most proud of in her career thus far.

"I feel lucky to be telling the story of what these women did," she explains.

"It hasn't been told, and is long overdue."

Far From The Madding Crowd is released in cinemas today

Enduring screen appeal of Hardy’s heroines

  • One of the best known adaptations of a Hardy novel was the 1967 big screen version of Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terrance Stamp and Peter Finch. The story was retold in 1998 for television, starring Nathanial Parker, Nigel Terry, Jonathan Firth and Paloma Baeza.
  •  Tess of the D'Urbervilles has been adapted many times, including the 1980 Roman Polanski film, starring Nastassja Kinski, Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson. Later TV versions include a 1998 BBC production starring Justine Waddell, Jason Flemyng and some 10 years later, another BBC adaptation, starring Gemma Arterton and Eddie Redmayne.
  •  Kate Winslett and Christopher Eccleston starred in a 1996 film version of Jude the Obscure.
  •  In 1978 Alan Bates played Michael Henchard in a TV mini-series, The Mayor of Casterbridge. In 2003, Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds played the eponymous role for TV.
  •  Catherine Zeta-Jones and Clive Owen starred in the only film or TV adaptation of Return of the Native in 1994.

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